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Susan Viets’ 'Picnic At The Iron Curtain': An Extract
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Susan Viets’ 'Picnic At The Iron Curtain': An Extract

Picture of Susan Viets
Updated: 20 December 2016
The first foreign correspondent accredited in Ukraine and trusted expert on Eastern European politics, Susan Viets’ career has taken her from London to Hungary, and from Moldova to the Orange Revolution. Her new memoir, Picnic at the Iron Curtain, retraces her steps in the former Eastern Bloc and offers a fascinating background story to the events occurring in Ukraine today. Read the first chapter of this captivating book, exclusively on Culture Trip.
Susan Viets
The Author | © Susan Viets

Chapter 1: London

I first travelled to the Eastern Bloc because of an accident in October 1986. I was hit by a truck while cycling in London and received a small settlement from the driver’s company. When Canadian friends visited me in hospital I described the truck. It weighed 16 tonnes and was part of a demolition fleet. I told them that the truck had rumbled too close behind as I biked home from my University of London class. My basket brimmed with jars of salsa, fresh chilies, tomatoes, black beans and all the other ingredients for tacos. I do not remember the moment of impact even though I remained conscious as it happened. I landed on my back on the sidewalk near Euston station. Clouds swept overhead. I stayed still for a while and then tried to prop myself up on my elbows, momentarily distracted by a bright green door across the street. Its brass knocker glinted in the sun. Groceries lay scattered on the ground. An ambulance arrived from Emergency. Paramedics took charge. As I told the story to British friends and relatives, different words slipped in. I was struck by a lorry, rode a push cycle, landed on the pavement. An ambulance attendant offered a gas mask. I resisted. She said ‘Love, you’ll enjoy it. It’ll be like downing ten pints.’ I next remembered a door swinging open at the University College Hospital Casualty department. Then I woke up on the orthopaedics ward, in a cast from ankle-to-hip.

I was horrified when the surgeon explained that he would soon drill holes in one of my shinbones (I imagined him wielding the type of Black and Decker that lay in my parents’ garage) and install hardware to keep shattered bits of bone in place. A few days later when he next operated I was so high on painkillers that I felt quite calm. As I recovered, I became chatty in my drugged state and I made friends with other patients. Days passed, then weeks, and we bonded. Mrs. M., who had the bed directly opposite mine, sensed romantic catastrophe.

‘No letter from him again dear?’ she inquired one day when she saw a stack of mail on my bedside table. I did not want to discuss it so I just shook my head.

Most of Mrs. M.’s body lay hidden from view, swaddled in hospital sheets, just like mine. I could make out a large, lumpy figure and blue tinted hair. Mrs. M. had regular habits in hospital that included afternoon tea at three o’clock.

‘Care to join me for a cup?’ she always asked.

‘No thanks,’ I would answer.

She insisted that day, so I said yes. Mrs. M. sent a friend over with a porcelain cup. It contained a generous quantity of scotch.

Beside my mail stood a stack of university course books on the history and politics of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (I was studying for an M.A.), and a pile of magazines that chronicled current developments in that part of the world. I read all day and learned that Hungary – that small country on the edge of the Soviet Bloc – was one of the boldest to experiment with reform. Confined to bed, unable even to reach the bathroom, I travelled in my imagination as far as Budapest. I did not know how I would get there or when, but I wanted to visit Hungary to see the changes that had occurred first-hand.

Mrs. M. remembered Hungarian refugees who had fled the Soviet invasion thirty years earlier, in 1956. ‘I saw some of them at Paddington,’ she said. ‘The poor dears they looked so lost, leaving behind their homes. Who knows what horrors they saw.’ I wondered what she thought of all that time in bed. In my hospital cocoon the outside world receded and I dreamed.

Money helped turn those dreams into a plan. Another ward neighbour, Edith, who could not hear, delivered the good news. Edith usually wore a hearing aid in each ear. However, as she was ferried from another hospital to this one, both devices had disappeared. Anyone who wanted to talk to Edith had to shout.

Early one day Edith stood over a locker between our beds. She clutched envelopes.

In a loud voice I said, ‘Good morning Edith, that’s my mail.’

She did not turn in my direction or respond in any other way. Instead, she took one letter and opened the envelope.

‘Someone’s written from a legal firm. It’s about money,’ she bellowed. Then she picked up her large white rimmed magnifying glass, peered, and shouted out the contents of the letter. I had won a small settlement from the trucking company for the accident.

The news spread quickly. Patients in nearby beds congratulated me. If she’d been there I’m sure Mrs. M would have said, ‘When we’re out you’ll have to buy us all a round,’ but she was not. She had disappeared in a bed shuffle. The ward was like that. Beds filled and emptied with no warning at all.

A few days after I underwent another operation, I noticed a new neighbour, a small and slender woman in her early eighties whom the nurses called Moira. She stood by her bed holding a pair of scissors and asked me if I would help take the hem down on her pink nightgown. I wondered how to respond to this unusual request. I told Moira that I would be happy to help but that I could not get out of bed because of my leg injuries. She shuffled over and gave me the scissors; I undid some stitches. Then I heard Moira call out, ‘Porter!’ The surgeon, on rounds with his students, stopped.

Moira said to him, ‘Porter, please take my bags. I’m ready to check out.’

I put the scissors down and hoped that no one noticed the unpicked hem. Moira climbed back into bed. Really, though, I felt like her, ready to check out and get my life rolling again.

About a month later, a nurse appeared with a pair of crutches.

‘Those are for me?’ I asked hopefully.

‘They are. It’s time for you to stand,’ she said. ‘That’s all we’ll try today.’ I shook from the effort because my muscles had atrophied.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘You’ll be walking again in no time at all.’ She was right. Within days I hobbled down the ward and back again. I visited bed ridden friends. My confidence grew. Soon I was ready for discharge and my first steps on the street.

Dogs were afraid of the crutches so they barked at me. The hardware that protruded from my leg repelled and fascinated people. Strangers always stopped me to ask questions about it. Happy to be free, even though I could not yet move far, I planned. I had already missed many classes and with more operations scheduled, would have to postpone exams and extend my M.A. for another year. Now I had time on my hands. I used it to audit lectures external to my course work so that I could learn more about Hungary.

The Hungarian prime minister visited London. A professor who specialized in Hungarian politics took me to the press conference for the prime minister and his delegation. It was held in a stately room, packed with bright lights, television cameras and journalists. The buzz and energy contrasted vividly with the quiet libraries of academia. This life seemed much more dynamic and fun.

The professor introduced me to a BBC reporter stationed in Budapest. I told him that I wanted to visit Hungary, watch the demonstrations, see all the change.

‘Get journalistic accreditation,’ he urged. ‘Anyone can watch protest marches but only journalists have access to senior leaders in the Hungarian government, press conferences, Parliament.’

‘How?’ I asked. He pulled out a pen and scribbled down a list.

‘That’s what you need to do.’

In the weeks that followed I thought about what he told me and decided to act on his advice. I telephoned foreign editors at newspapers to inquire about the possibility of reporting for them in Hungary. Although I did not have experience, some editors expressed interest because I knew a little about Communist Hungary at a time when few others did. Through a friend in Canada I obtained a letter from a news agency. Vaguely worded, it only said that the agency might take occasional reports, but it was printed on letterhead, a criteria for accreditation. That letterhead, and the editor’s freshly inked signature, made my heart leap.

Picnic at the Iron Curtain
Picnic at the Iron Curtain | © Delfryn Publishing and Consulting Inc

The day finally arrived for my last medical appointment. I sat in the crowded waiting room at University College Hospital. When the receptionist called my name I hobbled into the orthopaedics clinic.

The doctor examined a recent X-ray and said the bones had healed well. I could not thank him enough. The metal bar and screws that protruded from my leg had already been removed. Now I could walk without crutches, which meant I could travel with ease. This excited me the most. I knew exactly where I would go.

I landed at Budapest Ferihegy International Airport in May 1988, with press accreditation for a Communist Party conference. I asked the taxi driver who drove me into the city a question in Russian.

‘That language, people will spit at you,’ he growled in one angry burst of Hungarian accented Russian.

I sat in silence for the rest of the trip, partly cowed by the driver, but mostly dazzled by the stately Austro-Hungarian architecture. Parliament buildings stretched along the Pest side of the Danube River; elegant bridges arched over it. Then there was the spectacle of the castle district opposite, perched high on the Buda side. We passed people at an outdoor café that overlooked the river. I had not imagined such scenes or beauty in a Communist country.

The next morning I arrived at the conference venue. ‘We won’t sit with the delegates? I so wanted to see Kádár,’ I told a Dutch reporter as an organizer corralled us in to the press centre, far from the conference hall. The reporter did not answer but just slid away and kept her distance after that.

I filed stories that no one commissioned,

‘But it’s historic. Károly Grósz just replaced János Kádár as General Secretary of the Communist Party,’ I told the Ottawa news editor in my most persuasive voice.

‘We took it from the wires,’ he replied.

None of my stories was published, but I did not mind at all. Just sitting in the press centre, pounding telex keys convinced me that I was already a journalist.

After the conference I met with a Foreign Ministry press officer who promised me permanent accreditation. Certain more than ever that luck ran in streaks and that mine had turned, I now focused on finding a rental apartment. After rummaging through a language school garbage can, I found an ad for an apartment in central Budapest. Luckily it was still available and the landlady spoke English. She accepted a deposit. I flew back to London on a wave of optimism, my accident in the past, convinced that Hungary would undergo significant change. I planned to return in a few months and felt that nothing could go wrong.

© Susan Viets 2014

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