Lost in translation

Mitteleuropa, 1990

Jane DeLynn
9 March 2015

Jane DeLynn, an American writer, is primarily an author of novels investigating sexuality and human relationships. She also worked as a journalist and correspondent in various conflict zones, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the First Gulf War in 1991. She has travelled widely, exploring various local lesbian cultures, in search of experiences and material for her prose. She visited Central Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. What follows is the reconstructed travel diary of her visit to Central Europe in the early 1990s.

 

It was January 1990. My girlfriend’s mother had just died. She lived in France, and for some reason the memorial was to be a month later. I would have flown off to the Caribbean and zombie-ed in water and sun, but my partner, Marie-Christine, thought that visiting Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in the dead of winter was just the thing to cheer her up.

The Wall had just fallen. Everyone seemed ecstatic but me. Most revolutions ended up making things worse. The rulers and political prisoners might change, but little else. And why should I – a Jew – be expected to rejoice in the reunification of Germany? As far as I was concerned, it should have been kept divided for the length of the planned Thousand-Year Reich. Solidarity? Poland? Worse. And now that the US had lost its Jungian dark shadow, who could fill that role but ourselves?

First stop: Vienna. Marie-Christine believed in psychoanalysis, so we had to visit Freud’s birthplace. It was not an optimal time for Americans to be there: Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, whose Nazi past was for some reason ignored while he was Secretary General of the UN, had been banned from entering the US. All around us in cafes people drank their Kaffe mit Schlag while we signaled in vain for a waiter. Unless it was not nationality at all, but that somehow, despite my blue eyes and Asian-looking hooded eyes, they could still smell the Jew within.

Perhaps a gay guide would have helped, but we had not thought to buy one, so our thoughts about Austrian homosexuality were an amalgam of Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Mädchen in Uniform, campy Nazi officers in World War Two movies, and the sense that a society that gave birth to the gold-covered paintings of Klimt must have more than its share of perversion. This, however, would be of no help in navigating current Vienna, we’d have to rely on “gaydar.” At the hotel we received an immediate shock, as the hotel clerk looked at us in disgust when we requested a king or queen-sized bed, insisting all he had was a room with double beds and a bathroom down the hall. Was homosexuality illegal? We peeked in what seemed like sympatique bars as we walked around the city, but our quest was fruitless – in both senses of the word.

What to do? The opera of course, where any male unaccompanied by a wife was likely to be gay and almost certainly recognizable by a persona usually confined to gay bars: loud laughter, voices that trilled up and down octaves, excessive hand movements, and the reference to each other as “Mary.” Lesbians were fewer in number and less noticeable in their behavior, but still, any female couple…

Despite years of practice and a presumed facility, I still had trouble walking over to someone I didn’t know and introducing myself. “Je m’appelle Jeanne.” “Me llamo Juanita.” “My name is Jane.” The response “So what?” had once driven me out of a bar in humiliation, and I dreaded its repetition.

But travel frees us from our usual ways of being, if only because it gives us leeway locals don’t have. We can ask stupid questions in horrible grammar and worse accents. No blame for violating customs we don’t know. And if we make fools of ourselves, at least we have the consolation of knowing we’ll never run into those people again.

So I thought, but I had never been to the Vienna opera, a Rococo palace compared to Lincoln Center, with people in formal dress as if it were the 19th century. Americans had long since stopped dressing up for the theater or opera, and we were in our travel clothing. At least my pants were black, albeit wool, but Marie-Christine had obstinately left her mourning duds in France, and was wearing purple corduroys and a green sweater dotted with tiny yellow ducks that had surely been purchased in a flea market, her favorite place to shop. No place could have been worse for someone with unerringly bad taste and a belief that money spent on clothing was money wasted. To top it off, she insisted on wearing her parka during intermission instead of leaving it behind.

I immediately wanted to slink back to my seat, but Marie-Christine was unaware or indifferent to the inappropriateness of our appearance. “I think those women are looking at us,” she said. I turned around to see a group of women staring at us with great interest, presumably talking about us too, for their conversation was interspersed with further stares.

Could they possibly be interested in us? In their long formal dresses and gold and diamond jewelry, they could not have provided a greater contrast. But perhaps they were some contemporary repressed version of the elegant and wealthy cross-dressing dykes who had lived in England and France in the earlier part of the century and had filled my heart with longing and false expectations for what seemed a glamorous and less repressive time: Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West, Natalie Barney, and Romaine Brooks.

Sexual attraction could not have been further from my mind. But an entree to lesbian Austrian life would be fascinating.

“Let’s walk over to them,” Marie-Christine suggested.

“No!”

She ignored me, so I followed her. But as we got closer and could better see the women’s expressions, it became clear their look was neither one of curiosity or desire nor curiosity, but contempt. Even hatred.

Such distaste seemed excessive, even for our apparel. Were we so obviously American, or I so Jewish?

Despite our tight budget and the exorbitant price of bar drinks, those looks drove us to the bar. “I finally understand Freud,” I said. “He invented the unconscious as a way of excusing such horrendous behavior. Have you ever met such unfriendly people in your entire life?”

“Excuse me, but did I hear you correctly?” said a voice in a barely perceptible German accent. We turned to see a handsome if somewhat foppish man in the midst of a group of other handsome, if somewhat foppish, men. I was glad to be talked to, even if only to be chastised. Perhaps they could tell us where a gay bar was, even bring us there themselves.

“You are sadly mistaken. Nobody can be warmer than Austrians, once our initial aversion to strangers is overcome. Your looks are skeptical. But I will prove this.” He took an engraved invitation out of his pocket and handed it to us. “You must come to a reception my wife and I are hosting next Wednesday. You shall see then if people are unfriendly. And why do you say we don’t like Americans? We Austrians have not forgotten how you liberated us from Hitler during the War….”

Next stop: Hungary. Despite the expense of overseas phone calls in those days, I called my parents to let them know I was going behind the Iron Curtain. My father, who had marched with Patton across Europe, was not impressed, but I knew my mother would be full of worries. I did not always think before I acted. What if we got caught in some demonstration? Got arrested? Shot? Better wait for a year or two until things had settled down.

Her anxiety only augmented the pleasant titillation that the prospect of (extremely unlikely) danger induces.

While waiting for our train, we heard two men speaking a language unlike any we had ever heard. They were… could it be?… Albanians! Rare animals we had seen in zoos, but nothing as exotic as an Albanian – whom we had been told were locked not just behind an Iron but a Steel – even Titanium – Curtain. Hard currency was valuable – they told us they had been routinely allowed to travel to Italy to work. Could The New York Times be as unreliable as Pravda?

Budapest only increased our confusion concerning communism. Pastry shops with mouth-watering treats. Teens in logo tee-shirts; baseball caps that read “NY Yankees.” Pirated CDs and videos sold out of boxes like on Canal Street in NYC. Sunglasses I wouldn’t have been embarrassed to wear. Heterosexual couples pawed each other in public. The private apartment we were staying in had the usual appliances one might find in America, albeit older and less stylish. But the TV was no electronic version of the Lada, but was made by Phillips, the Dutch electronics company. How could Hungarians afford a First World TV? Where was communist misery and deprivation, or were we in some version of The Truman Show – a gigantic movie set which Jim Carrey had mistaken for the real world?

A gay guide would have been no help in Hungary. Although the sight of naked women in health clubs never aroused me in the slightest, the elegant baths in the Hotel Gellért seemed a possibility. And indeed, there was something vaguely arousing about how bodies would appear and disappear in the haze of the giant steam room where we waited for our massages, augmented by the sounds of the masseuse’s hand slapping skin. But all this disappeared in the dressing room. Back to the opera.

The opera house, a slightly younger sister or perhaps cousin to the one in Vienna, brought up memories a thousand movies had shown us of couples dancing to “The Blue Danube Waltz” toward the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the clothing was far less formal than in the Viennese opera, plus instead of the grim Viennese there were cheerful Hungarians.

Assuming homosexuality was illegal in communist countries (though it wasn’t) and would therefore be hidden (it was), we were alert for the slightest of signs. I sensed a kinship with two women, whose eyes seemed to evince the sad expression of people whose inner selves had to be hidden. I knew such expressions well. Several times we had exchanged nods and smiles. I was getting up my courage to walk over to them when the bell signaled the end of intermission. So we looked for them after the opera, and caught them as they were putting on their coats above the grand staircase.

We went over to them. Their expressions were friendly, but talking was difficult. We of course did not know Hungarian, and Russian had been their second language, so they had only a slight knowledge of English. After introducing ourselves, we stood there smiling at each other.

Then I pointed to the bar. “Bar.”

They shook their heads, the bar was closed. I shook my head, and mimed taking a drink. They nodded, and motioned us to follow them. They brought us to a water fountain.

I shook my head. “Bar.” I pointed to my partner, then me, then put the first and middle fingers of each together and held them up to show we were together. “Women.”

They conferred. “Restaurant.”

“Women.” I again pointed at Marie-Christine and myself.

“Restaurant. For women. Of course.”

Outside they found us a taxi. But instead of joining us they shut the door. I opened it and motioned them to join us. “Come. I pay.” I took out my wallet. The shorter one pointed at her watch and shook her head. Her friend was talking to the taxi driver.

“Very nice. You will like.” She shut the door. A bit nervously, we waved goodbye.

“Don’t worry,” said the taxi driver in better English. “I know very well.” The ride was amazingly long, but we told ourselves this was hardly surprising; places for gays were sure to be hidden.

After what seemed about half an hour the taxi driver stopped in front of the kind of old-fashioned restaurant. We hesitated getting out of the car. Could this be the right place? Would we be able to find a taxi to take us home? “Very nice. You will like it,” the driver kept assuring us.

And we did, very much. Two dollars for a gigantic plate of fried goose liver. Ice cream and some variation of apple strudel for dessert. Gypsy violinists playing songs you’ve heard in a thousand movies.

What it was not, however, was a gay restaurant or bar.

Next stop: Czechoslovakia. A freezing train, a sink without water, men shoveling coal into an open furnace. The Iron Curtain still existed, though it was getting rusty. Our taxi drove us down an eerily empty Wenceslas Square to our hotel, no sign of the hundreds of thousands of joyous revelers we had seen on our TVs just a few months before.

But how long could one be joyous with such food? No vegetables except potatoes, cabbage, onions; perhaps, if you were very lucky, a carrot. The North Sea must have been out of fish. For breakfast at the Europa – an elegant hotel – a variety of bologna and a plate of uncooked bacon whose disgusting white strips of uncooked fat were being consumed – appropriately, to my mind – by a young German couple. No fruit except a lone orange splayed open so its segments resembled a flower; an apple divided into thin slices whose outsides were turning brown.

Or perhaps it was the nascent stirrings of capitalism. No matter how large the tip, the taxi driver always seemed disgruntled. The laundress wanted forty, okay thirty dollars, for washing our clothes. It took a $10 tip to get our room.

We had drinks with a Czechoslovakian curator I had met while he was teaching in America. With eyes closed and a beatific look on his face he took deep sniffs of the Scotch we’d bought him. He was living on a pension, and hadn’t had any since returning from the States. The tiny sips he took to drag out the pleasure made me feel ashamed of the way I gulped things down. He refused another, saying the second was always less pleasurable, and would dilute the intensity of the memory.

“But things will be better now,” I said, “with the Revolution.”

“Yes and no. The people in charge have changed, but the others are the same. If you are young, perhaps, but for people like me, on a pension, it will be bad. Prices will rise. I like America, but I do not like your capitalism. One time I am in a store looking for popcorn. Many brands. There are fourteen different ones each with a drawing of a man on it.”

“Orville Redenbacher.”

“Yes. I look at the ingredients to see what I like best. But they are all the same, even the one that says ‘butter flavor.’ There is no butter in it.”

We sat quietly a few minutes to honor his pessimism, and then I asked if he knew of a bar for women.

He seemed confused. “I am not homosexual. You know I have wife, even if we do not live together.”

“But you’re in the arts. You must know such places.”

“If there are any, they would be very hidden.”

“You said homosexuality wasn’t illegal.”

“Technically, that is true. But…. Czechoslovakia is very different from the United States. Such things are considered personal here.”

“Someone you know…”

He thought for awhile. “Yes, there may be one person. But we have never discussed such things.”

We met his friend the next day. He was friendly but nervous. He took us to the place he always went to. We walked a number of blocks in the cold, and then he stopped in front of a door with no name or sign that it was a bar. You could hear no noise. When we knocked we heard the door unlocked. They recognized him and let us in. At first few people were there, but it soon got more crowded. There were both men and women, but many more men than women. It was much more restrained than such a bar would have been in the US: a few subtle looks between the men, women occasionally putting an arm around each other.

I thought being American would have aroused some interest, but it didn’t, except for the bartender. Our friend had plans for the evening, and after introducing us to a few male friends who spoke English, he left. We talked with them awhile, but their English wasn’t very good and after discussing what Americans had seen of Czechoslovakia and the Revolution the conversation soon petered out. Still, the men were friendlier than the women. This did not surprise me. It was true of bars in the United States as well.

Perhaps it would have been different had we gotten drunk. But we were in a subdued mood, dull and gray as the sky. Our glass of wine had depressed us rather than otherwise, and we soon left. All in all, it was a night not very different from many I had spent in New York.

Coda: 1998. My mother and I were in St. Petersburg during her “farewell tour” of Europe. It was the white nights, and after my mother fell asleep I would go down to the river and watch people walking their cats, a sight that never failed to amuse me.

1998 was the year of crisis for the Russian ruble, and the street where we were staying, across from St. Isaac’s Cathedral, was almost completely empty. Nonetheless, every night when I returned from my walk and got out of the elevator I would see two or three attractive women with low-dresses and too much make-up lounging on chairs, looking bored and staring into space.

Prostitutes, I realized. They were not my type; I preferred reticence and subtlety. But the hot days and midnight sun made me feel like a cat in heat, and I wondered if they would accept me as a customer. Why not? They could use the money, and there was no fear of my beating them up. Perhaps they were lesbians, like most American prostitutes are said to be. They did not respond to “the gaze”, but perhaps they thought it one of disapproval rather than desire.

On the other hand, they might be disgusted, even angry. Perhaps there was some line I was not supposed to cross. They could take my money and not fulfill their part of the bargain. They could report me to hotel management, or blackmail me with threats of going to the police. They could rob me, strip me naked, tie me up, and leave me on the bed.

In life one always needs luck, whether hiring a prostitute or crossing the street. So I flipped a coin.

This article was first publish in Visegrad Insight 1 (3) 2013.

 

Jane DeLynn is an American writer. She has published the novels “In Thrall” (1982), “Don Juan in The Village” (1990), and “Leash” (2002). She lives alternately in New York City and on Long Island.

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