in 1990, I got to take a school trip to France again. This time it was a school trip where we went to a number of places I had been on my previous trip: Paris, Avignon, and Nice. But also a number of places I have never been since: Turin, Italy and Geneva, Switzerland. I must admit that neither of these last two places marked me in any significant ways.
At the end of that trip, I flew on my own to Czechoslovakia (the country that is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) where my sister was living, working as an English teacher.
It was a time when things were changing in the world: communism was dying and the country was transitioning into a western nation. However, it was not yet the case. Things were changing and the sounds of Scorpions' "Wind of change" hung over everything. A perfect song for the time.
So little sixteen year old me flew to Prague. From there, we travelled to Cesky Budejovice where she resided. Because the pronounciation of slavic languages is something rather beyond me, I took the habit of reading everything as they would sound in French - a habit I still have today which drives my wife nuts. As such "Denver" is now a verb and the action of being in Denver.
Perhaps what struck me first and most was how grey and grimy everything looked. Up until then I had been quite lucky to travel to western Europe (France), the US and the Caribeans. I had never seen that. Things looked nice, but the exteriors were... grey. This greyness is something that I can never shake off when I think of Communism to this day.
I won't bore you with the details, but it was quite interesting - and scary - to visit some of the local sites as it was filled with its history - a history I admit I was not as up-to-date as I wanted. But to visit the Gestapo offices, then the castles where the communists lived was quite a contrast.
Another thing that is still in my mind today: my sister's friend drove us in his Skoda (I squeezed in the back) to a small town just over the border in Austria. The walls of barbed wires and machinegun towers were still there.
That scared me.
The length to which a government would go to force its people to stay and obey. Our driver told us a number of stories about this which terrorized me even more. To hear stories of people who had lived through this and knew about it first hand made it real. It was not something in a book or a story from "far away". It was real. It was right there. There was really no way to deny it. And unlike the events of WWII, this guy was in his twenties. Barely older than me!
But all was not doom and gloom, far from it.
Cesky Krumlov Castle was quite a sight. It is exquisite and something the communists (and occupying nazis before) did not damage. They both used the castle.
One thing that has stayed with me is a little custom they have. In one of the alleys was a blackened stone statue of a Saint at whose feet, about man-height, is a skull (of stone). Passersby all put their index and middle fingers in the eyes of the skull to prevent death from seeing them. Such a small and strange custom. That was something my North American upbringing had never seen. Yet it made perfect sense as a tradition inherited from the middle ages.
Little things like this have stuck by me and made me see things in a new light. These tiny, inoccuous acts make a people come alive. Make them different from others.
During the final days of the trip, we went to Prague, a wonderful city (but also grey).
Finally, this trip taught me about being in a foreign country where you meet people with whom you do not share a common language other than a few off words here and there. My sister's czech was not great.
It also led me to rethink my travel strategy. If you remember in my post about Spain, I mentioned that I like to travel away from people I know, to immerse myself in the culture. This trip is the one that led me to that decision. I felt really helpless many times not understanding what people said or how to ask for even basic information. That marked me.
To this day, I think the Common tongue in D&D (and other games) is one of convenience, but really not based in reality. I read an article about the Common tongue in an early Kobold Quarterly and understood exactly what that person was saying.
If you read about Bohemia (the medieval name of the region), ethnicities are always mentioned: there were Czechs, Jews, Germans, Romanians, etc. Which to my North American mind meant they all lived together.
BUT NOOOOOO. They each lived in their quarters and parts of town, dealing with each other only in plazas, markets and adjoining areas. Otherwise, they each lived together in their communities with their own language and their own customs. This is something that I try to keep in my RPG writing: a natural separation of people for day-to-day and coming together in specific locations.
Thus there would be a Dwark enclave, an Elf enclave, a human enclave, each with their own uniqueness. Perhaps only the humans poke the eyes of the skull under the saint? Perhaps they all do it.
While making research for this, I looked for pictures and wow! The place has cleaned up nice! The grimy greyness seems to be gone and the place looks good. I would love to visit it again.
To add to the gothic effect? I read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein while in Czechoslovakia... Nice. (Though I will admit I did not enjoy it as much as Dracula).