As soon as we arrived at Prague's rather desolate and empty international airport, the dour nature of the place impressed itself upon us. Czechoslovakia has a quite high standard of living compared to its east European neighbors, but this manifests itself in the presence of most of the material goods familiar to Americans, only in tiny numbers. As Buck Walsworth observed when we arrived at the desolate airfield of the capital city, "Golly, BOTH their planes are here at the same time!"
As we travelled the 90 miles to the mountain country of Spindleruv, and checked in at our resort hotel, the impression grew of limited materials being used to at least have SOME of everything. There were cars on the roads, but not many. There seemed to be plenty of sturdy looking housing in the towns, but all of it a rather grimy beige plastered exterior, soiled by the ever present diesel fumes, and the thick smoke from burning soft coal for heat. The land and villages were not dirty in the litter sense, everything in the country seems to be welled [sic] picked up, but rather in that grimy soiled sense, even the air far up in the mountains had that grey pall. We have noticed in several trips to Europe that the air over there is far fuller of particulate pollution, that is bits of things, than we experience here in New England.
Our hotel turned out to be a rather old fashioned and rather seedy but elegant affair, the interior quite comfortable in a 1930's manner, the outside the now familiar griminess, with the weeds growing right to the door, the garbage cans piled in courtyards right beside the main entrance.
However, we learned that WE, the Americans at least, and some of the other ISDT entrants, were bunked into "barracks" owned by the hotel, used for military R & R. These barren halls had individual rooms, dormitory style, and big windows made them airy and light. This was fortunate, for our building, upon entering, stank of an antiseptic barn cleaner, which never went away. Each floor had a dozen rooms, one toilet for each sex, and two baths. For this elegance and luxury, we paid $19 a day for two of us, including ample if monotonous meals. It turned out these were double usual rates.
We soon learned what was going on. The government had commandeered all the accommodations in the town for the event. All foreigners had to obtain hotel accommodations in advance through the government travel agency. Rates were then jacked up, the government skimming off the overage, leaving the proprietors their usual rates. Our hotel was temporarily being run by a retired army colonel, drafted out of retirement by his government for the job of hosting about 200 foreigners, including us, the British, and the Russians.
The poor Colonel. He never was able to grasp the fact that we did not arrive, all 89 Americans, in a couple of buses, and send Ed Youngblood of the AMA in with a manifest for room assignments. We turned up in driblets over three days, three or four to a car, and chaos resulted in the group-think Czech arrangements. Once again the Americans had messed up the local plans.
During our stay we noted how the Czechs depend heavily on public transportation, buses are everywhere. The people live predominately in towns and small grimy cities, the countryside is pleasant and open, much of the forest land has been cleared for agriculture. You see no cattle in the fields, because the lack of land in this tiny country makes grazing an unaffordable luxury. Instead, the livestock stays in the barns, and the farmers cut the grass and bring it to them, thus rationing the supply.
And so it seems to be with the needs of people. There is enough food, and shelter, and transportation, and jobs, and clothing, and essentials of daily life. There are limited supplies of luxury goods for those fortunate enough to afford them, TV, cars, washing machines, etc. The socialist economy takes care of people, medical services are completely free, for instance. But there is a deadening sense of nowhere to go prevalent.
The government is felt in many ways, banners everywhere that proclaim the good life being enjoyed, military or quasi-military vehicles highly visible on the roads, uniformed men in many types of work, groups of people, including kids, rather than scattered singles. There is this semi-military organized feeling, people seem to do everything in groups, with appropriate slogans and banners. Ceremonies are big things, they obscure the individual inadequacies of the place.