Letter #1. Through the Curtain

European greetings!

I got out of the USSR by taking a train from Lvov in Ukraine to Pshemysl, a small town just across the Polish border. The train was packed; all passengers were so-called shuttles (people who make their living by transporting various goods across the border). Each of them had five-six huge bags. They have their own slang. The beautiful, holographic German visa is called The Big Bundes, and is almost worshipped. They are very superstitious: I saw them throwing seeds of "holy grass" (dwarf periwinkle) on the van floor in the shape of a cross to prevent customs officers from searching their compartments. If your bag is larger than yourself, you have to pay $10 bribe to the officers. For $30 you can transport anything, even a machine gun.

Pshemysl looks the same as any city in Ukraine. People are friendly, as long as you greet them in English, not in Russian. After the initial greeting you have to switch to Russian anyway, because nobody speaks English. I went to Krakov (a very beautiful city with lots of museums), and then to Katovice. Passenger trains are called osobovy, and express trains are pospeshny. I had a black pen and was able to save some time and money by changing os to pos on my tickets.

Unlike Poland, Czech Republic looks absolutely Western. A vending machine can sell 28 kinds of drinks: tea, coffee, cocoa, juice, or whatever. I heard about global warming, but had no idea it had gotten that far: three bananas cost less than one apple!

I spent a day in snow-covered Prague, a city right out of a fairy tale. I would never think our species was capable of creating something so beautiful. Then I took a train to Dresden. The crossing of the Iron Curtain was much easier than I expected. I looked so typically touristic that no one checked my documents. That was good, because my visa term was to start three days later. Train conductor asked me for a tip but refused to accept dollars: it would be impossible to pay tax. Mountain castles and villages all look like toys here. Dresden hasn't yet been fully rebuilt after 1944 bombardment, but it already looks very nice, and the famous gallery is splendid.

I arrived in Berlin and called Michael's friends. Michael (my very distant relative - V.D.) called them a week ago and told them his brother was coming, but when they asked what my name was he couldn't remember it. They were very happy to see me. Please don't tell Michael anything.

I spent a few days at their place. The main topic of conversations here is how difficult it is for East Germans to survive the hardships of merging into West Germany, and how different their lifestyle is. Personally, I didn't notice much difference between East and West Berlin. This country looks like a Hollywood movie to me. I wonder what West Germany is like. Architecture of Berlin is a bit depressing. The most popular business here is selling old bricks to American tourists as the Berlin Wall fragments. I found a steel rod at a garbage dump, and sold it to a Danish tourist as a fragment of barricades around Moscow's "White House", built during 1991 coup.

When we hear the word colonialism we usually think of the British Empire. In fact, the Germans often were much more shameless robbers. Pergamum Museum is full of treasures brought from all over the world. Some ancient cities - Pergamum, Ashur, Babylon - were transported to Berlin almost entirely, with walls, mosaic floors, columns, and splendid Ishtar Gates.

The zoos of Berlin impressed me more than anything. For decades, there was a silent competition between the Eastern and the Western ones, so now they are completely unbelievable, with "coral reefs", "seashores", and piece of "rainforest" full of tropical birds. It was very hard to get out of there at the end of the day. Of the suburbs, I liked Potsdam the most. Its architecture is as official and depressing as in Berlin itself, but it has a nice park, and even some Mandarin ducks breeding in old willows.

One of Michael's friends is going to Moscow tomorrow, and I'll give him this letter. By the time you get it, I'll be on Rugen Island. Don't worry, I'm fine here. Good bye.

Berlin, DFR

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