There is the very offensive attitude about money. In Czechoslovakia nobody is trusted, at least not foreigners. It is a place where you first pay for your meal, then get it, or for your rooms and then use them, or for the goods bought and then receive them. One particularly offensive rip-off used at the Trial, in addition to that doubling the hotel rates thing, was the matter of gas for the bikes. To obtain it, you had to buy tickets from the organizers. Lo, and behold, when you lined up in the ever present line, you found they would not accept their very own money. No, we had to buy gas with U.S. dollars, an interesting admission as to the relative value of their money.
On an individual level, the people were much as they are anywhere else. There were friendly ones, and there were hostile ones. As foreigners, we had as a companion much of the time a girl who worked at the hotel, and who spoke English, and helped us a lot as an interpreter. The Czech language is completely devoid of any recognizable words, unlike German, Spanish, etc. so she was very helpful. But, you began to realize that she was a two way line of information, the feeling of always being observed became inescapable.
A rather unimportant incident sort of summed up the up-tightness the Czechs seemed to have about material things.
In parking my luxurious Renault 1600, a limousine amongst those tiny Skodas and Wartburgs, I accidentally bumped bumpers with a parked car, the usual trifling bump. Passers-by on the sidewalk stopped, aghast, pointed, shouted obvious criticisms at us, and even shook fists. Apparently one doesn't bump the bumpers on a car that has cost some Czech dearly. This happened a couple of times, and frankly, it aggravated the hell out of me. We enjoyed a sort of revenge late one afternoon, however.
Following the conclusion of the opening ceremonies at a ski jump facility, traffic was jammed up heading back into town on the mountain road. People were walking everywhere also. As I rolled up to the car ahead of me, I perceived it was Marcia Macdonald and company, so I just sort of rolled right into her rear bumper with a thud. And, right behind me, Dave Welch of the AMA did likewise, a big thump into our rear bumper. Then we all leaned out our windows and hollered at each other, shaking fists, and behaving disgracefully. The Czechs looked on in bewilderment. I for one, felt a selfish satisfaction in this childishness, the goddam busybody types had no chance to fault us, we were too busy making a big scene of our own.
The Russians. Their presence is felt. In Vrclabi, the nearest city to the trial, the largest building in town, a big sort of town hall place, surrounded by a black iron fence, had a giant red star on the roof. Nobody was hanging around it. On the roads back to Prague, the military convoy we met had large red stars on the vehicles. All over the buildings in the cities flew red banners with the inscrutable, to us, slogans. Upon asking our interpreters for some explanation of these banners, we found a reluctance to discuss them, in fact a decided determination to not tell us what they said.
A visit to Czechoslovakia is an enlightening experience. The advantages of socialism are apparent in the full employment, free social and medical services, and orderliness and relative freedom from crime. But there is a very heavy atmosphere of nowhere to go, and it was with considerable rejoicing that we all disembarked from our Czech airliner when we stopped at Gander, Newfoundland for fuel on our way home, and stood out in the bright sun and clear air of a free land again. Whatever may be wrong with our way of life, we've sure got it good, believe me.