Saturday, January 16, 2010

Trabant Chronicles

John Steinbeck: Cannery Row

"It was not so interesting driving at night."

The Trabant was lime green. Father had a whole chain of Trabants - as soon as he got one, he made the down payment on the next one, so three or four years later when his current Trabant was about to fall apart he’d get the a new one.

It would be an overstatement to call the Trabant a car. Sure, it had four wheels, a steering wheel and a car-shaped body - vaguely reminiscent of those little Fiats and whatnots that you'd see zipping around Rome or Paris in movies from the 60's and 70's. However the body was made of fiberglass, and housed a two-stroke engine. It was a lawnmower modified for passenger transportation - a proud achievement of Communist era East European engineering.

I have many fond memories of summer vacations spent with father, featuring one or another of his Trabants. I remember lying back on the rear seat, lost in daydreams, bare feet on the window, trees whooshing by, while father was navigating narrow country roads in search of the perfect fishing spot.

Father liked fishing, I liked being outdoors. I was the proud owner of my own fishing pole, and made sporadic attempts to catch something, but was easily distracted. Fishing to me meant getting mud between my toes, catching baby frogs – and releasing them when father happily offered using them as bait.

It was not so interesting driving at night. Not to father anyway. The nights were deep dark, and the headlights (no high beams) could penetrate it only so far. For me it was like being beneath the ocean. We could have been anywhere, any time; time and space became works of fiction.

Father made his own fish bait. It was grain-based, cooked, fermented… something. Its pungent aroma permeated the Trabant. Father threw big chunks of it into the water, its purpose being to attract the tiny vegetarian fish, who in turn would attract the larger carnivorous fish.

Normally Trabants came in uniform dust-grey. Grey seemed to be the theme of those days. Then in the early 80's something shifted. There was a fresh breeze in the air. Private enterprise wasn't incompatible with the tenets of Communism any more. The dirt-colored buildings of Budapest - many still wearing scars of 1956 - were one by one repainted in creamy yellows, greens, peach, burnt orange. But before all that there were - unexpected, often mocked, but secretly cherished - the colorful Trabants.

My father was one of the first people who got the lime-green one. At first they were so rare that when two came across each other drivers and passengers were compelled to madly wave at each other. Eventually brightly colored Trabants became more common, Budapest too became more colorful, privately owned shops popped up all around the city. Then in the course of a year everything changed; the Soviet tanks left again, and this time they didn’t come back.

I still believe that the fall of Communism started with the lime-green Trabants.