Scenes From Central Europe

LOS ANGELES had reduced the museum curator from Vienna to tears. We could sympathize with him because it has sometimes done almost the same to us.

``I was staying at the Gamble House in Pasadena,'' he explained. We knew the Gamble House, that small, well-kept monument to the architecture of the brothers Greene and Greene and to a now long-past era in southern California living. ``And I had to drive out to Malibu for a job interview at the Getty Museum. In a car someone had given me to use.''

He mused a moment before continuing. The dreadfulness of that day still evoked ambivalent reactions.

``First of all, it astonished me that I had to make a parking reservation for a job interview. What they did with my car seemed almost more important than what they did with me!

``When I got onto the Los Angeles freeways, I was terrified. Highways were stacked on top of one another. Signs directed me to places I'd never heard of, the offramps flashed by. Finally I pulled off the road and burst into tears. Why had I wanted to leave this pleasant, familiar Vienna? What had made me think I might want to work in this endless network of roads?''

We were having Christmas cookies and after-dinner coffee in the curator's Vienna apartment. It was on the third floor of the building he had lived in all his life. His grandfather had bought the building early in the century on the proceeds from a prize mineral collection sold to Harvard University's Peabody Museum. His mother lived downstairs.

``Fortunately, on such occasions I always give myself plenty of time,'' the curator continued. ``So I arrived at just the proper moment.''

But the interview was not a success.

``Returning to Pasadena, I realized that I needed gasoline. I entered a station and stopped by a pump. Then I could not find the opening for the gas tank. I walked around the car several times. I was sure the attendant would think I had stolen the car. So I drove off before he could report me.''

``Was it behind the license plate?'' my son Paul asked.

The curator nodded. ``I discovered that later,'' he said. ``But at that moment I just wanted to get out of Los Angeles.''

* * *

``One of the worst things about that time,'' the Czech woman said, speaking about the era of Communist rule, ``was that I was not allowed to travel. My husband was a diplomat in Istanbul, but because I was a journalist....''

Her voice trailed off. We were sitting in the small, utilitarian lobby of the Inter-Hotel Ambassador. Outside on Wenceslas Square, hundreds of visitors strolled Prague's sidewalks.

``There has just been an ecumenical conference here of 80,000 young people,'' our friend had earlier explained. ``Most of them are leaving today and now there will be room to breathe.''

We had liked seeing the ecumenical kids in town. After Paul, my wife Donanne, and I had watched the famous clock strike 6 o'clock the previous evening, the kids watching with us in the Old Town Square had applauded. It was fun to see the carved medieval skeleton rattle its bell and watch the tower windows open and the statues of patriarchs peek down at us. Perhaps it reassured us that a clock which had begun striking in 1410 was still to be relied upon.

As the applause died down, we heard singing. A bunch of the kids had gathered nearby, many of them sitting on backpacks and rolled sleeping mattresses on the old paving stones. A young man strummed a guitar. ``We are the world,'' the kids sang with a seeming conviction that they were and they could change it. A couple of young men walked about passing out candles and lighting them. ``We are the world,'' the young people sang. ``We are the children....''

``Still, things got better,'' said the Czech woman as we sat together in the hotel lobby. She had a lovely smile on her face, and I felt confident that the Czech people would somehow succeed with the difficult transition they're now moving through. ``Long before the events of last year I was able to visit your country. I have a cousin in Van Nuys. He plays the violin and has a quartet. I visited Los Angeles and stayed with him.''

* * *

The Orient Express had just pulled out of Keleti Station in Budapest headed for Vienna, and the Japanese man sitting nearby wanted to talk. He looked around the compartment, nodded at Donanne, Paul, and me and tried some German on us. He seemed relieved when we answered him in English.

``You are Americans?'' he asked, surprised.

Few Americans were traveling because the dollar was so weak. People kept mistaking us for Germans.

``I have a daughter in the United States,'' said the Japanese man. ``She's married to American!'' He laughed and delicately covered his mouth with his hand.

The young German couple sitting at the window listened to our conversation, understanding it but saying nothing.

``She lives in San Pedro. My wife and I have visit her.''

``We live about two hours north of Los Angeles,'' Donanne explained to the man.

``Ah so,'' he said, brightening. ``We have drive up the seaside,'' he continued. ``We have camp in Yosemite. Eat outdoors.'' He did quite an expert pantomime of barbecuing with charcoal briquettes.

He turned out to be an engineer supervising the construction of a chemical plant near Debrecen, Hungary, not far from the Romanian border. His wife had recently returned to Kobe where they had a house; he himself would return in February.

It was not until they came back from the dining car that the Germans joined our conversation. The man, Christopher, turned out to be a photographer/writer of travel articles for motorcycle magazines. He had motorcycled from Germany to India and also across North Africa.

At the mention of North Africa, the Japanese opened his wallet, unfolded a tiny world map he kept inside it, and showed us where he had supervised a construction job in Algeria.

We asked Christopher if he had been to East Africa, explained that we had lived there for four years and that Paul had been born in Kenya. East Africa sounded interesting, the young German said, but he hadn't been there yet. He had, however, taken a quick trip to California. He had flown into LAX, driven immediately to Palm Springs, and raced from there to Tijuana on a motorcycle furnished by Kawasaki.

``You should go up the seaside,'' the Japanese engineer told the Germans. ``California seaside very nice.'' He laughed and covered his mouth again with his hand.

* * *

``You want a cheap vacation?'' asked the taxi driver in Vienna. It was the first day of the new year, chilly and overcast, and he was taking us to the Franz Joseph Bahnhof. ``Go to L.A.''

I cannot say that the first information I wanted to get this new year was that the region where I lived was good for a cheap vacation. ``Oh?'' I said.

``I've gone there every year since 1979,'' the cab driver said. He was tall, bald, and talkative. ``One year my wife and I went on the Concorde. Cost me $8,000. That's where I left my hair,'' he said, giving us practiced cabbie chatter. ``The flight went so fast my hair never caught up.''

In his early 60s, the cab driver said he had been the first Austrian after the war to import a Harley-Davidson. In the quest for spare parts, he had struck up a friendship with the Motorcycle King of Fullerton, Calif.

The cabbie and the king biked together every summer. ``This June we are going to Monument Valley and Yosemite and Phantom Ranch at the bottom of Grand Canyon.''

``Are you hiking down in?'' we asked.

``We're going on mules,'' he told us. ``They say 200 pounds is the limit for a mule. I'm at 196 right now and I'm watching it carefully.''

We pulled up before the bahnhof. ``You going to Prague?'' the cab driver asked. When we said yes, he said: ``That's your second mistake,'' without ever specifying our first.

``Have a good trip in June,'' we said after pulling our luggage from the trunk. He waved and drove off to his next fare.

I did not bother to give him a tip. He had more resources than we did.

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