For Gerhard Gollner and many other Germans, the Iron Curtain vanishes in a colorful, celebrated five-century-old beer hall called U Flecko. Every other spring, the West German tour guide from Bayreuth meets his East German uncle and aunt from Leipzig at the beer hall on Kremencova street in Prague's Old Town. It's not beer that brings them together; it's politics.
``You see, it's easier for me to come to Czechoslovakia than [to] East Germany,'' says Mr. Gollner, ``and its easier for them to come here than anywhere else.''
Although it is possible for a West German to visit relatives in East Germany, Gollner says it can take several months of paper shuffling to get permission. Once in East Germany, West Germans must exchange a high, fixed sum of money. Worse of all, says Gollner, ``the police watch you all the time.''
Czechoslovakia offers a welcome contrast. Geographically, it lies between Bayreuth in West Germany, and Leipzig in East Germany. For West Germans, Czechoslovak visas are delivered overnight. Currency exchange requirements are relatively minor, and according to Gollner, so is police surveillance.
East Germans enjoy similar advantages. Czechoslovakia is the only country they need no visa to visit. For them, travel to the West is almost always forbidden. Even visits to Poland, Hungary, or Yugoslavia - communist countries ideologically looser than their homeland - can be difficult to arrange. From this claustrophic perspective, Prague becomes paradise.
``For us, Prague is an opening to the world,'' says 17-year-old Andreas from Potsdam, East Germany. ``We try to come every weekend during the spring.''
Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Andreas and five of his long-haired teen-aged friends look like budding hippies in the U Flecko courtyard. To enjoy their precious weekend excursion, they have traveled some seven hours by train, and rented a room in a drab suburban apartment. Central city hotel rooms are reserved for West Germans and other tourists with hard currency.
No matter. The East German youth all are smiling.
``In Prague, we meet people from Palestine, people from Poland, from France, Britain,'' Andreas says, ``and, of course, most of all from West Germany.''
U Flecko is the best-known meeting point. Founded in 1477 by the Flek family, it was a gathering point for Prague's celebrities, including Rainer Maria Rilke and Franz Kafka. They, too, came to U Flecko mainly to talk. In Czech tradition, a beer hall is an oasis of liberty, where one can always speak one's mind and not worry about the consequences.
``Here the Iron Curtain is nonsense,'' says U Flecko Manager Stanislaw Kahout says. ``People just sit down at the long tables and talk.'' What they talk about, be it politics or sport, adds Mr. Kahout, ``is their business.''
Despite its 1977 renovation, U Flecko retains a medieval flavor. After throwing open a massive wooden front door under the famous ornate clock, one enters a magical world of dark-wooden rooms with low arches, and then a cavernous courtyard. The beer hall is Prague's largest, seating up to 1,200 people. It always exudes a festive atmosphere, which particularly appeals to Germans.
``On a spring weekend, most of our clients are German,'' Kahout says, adding for emphasis, ``We don't care whether they're from East or West.''
Not always, of course, does U Flecko break down the Iron Curtain. At one long table, 20-year-old Maria from M"uhlheim, West Germany, sits silent next to 21-year old Gisla from East Berlin.
``I'm interested in talking to her, but how to manage it?,'' Maria asks. ``I don't know what to say to them.''
For Gisla, it's the same story. ``We look, they look,'' she says, ``but what questions should we ask?''
Both Gisla and Maria remain silent. An oompah band begins to pound. Gisla finally rises. She turns to Maria, and says ``chus'' (``goodbye'') and leaves.