12/16/2013 01:47 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Following the Magic to Eastern Europe

In the early 1990s, Eastern Europe entered the list of expatriate wonderlands, like the Left Bank of Paris in the 1920s or Tokyo of the 1980s. Prague was the most powerful magnet: Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution was relatively cheap, jobs teaching English were plentiful, and the city was full of beautiful buildings and creative energy. Caleb Crain's new novel, Necessary Errors, chronicles the lives of the young and the restless who flocked to Prague in that early post-revolutionary period. Even the characters in Prague, the novel by Arthur Phillips, who lived in Budapest at that time, were all convinced that the real excitement was taking place in the magical city of the book's title.

But Prague was not the only magical place. The journalist Paul Hockenos was living in the region at this magical time. He freelanced for a number of publications, and his first book, Free to Hate, was the first full-length examination of the rise of nationalist extremists in the region. Like the characters in Prague, he lived in Budapest in the early 1990s; unlike those characters, he was delighted to be where he was. He arrived not long before the Berlin Wall fell.

"The bars were full of people, East Germans coming through, just everybody from all over," he told me in an interview at a restaurant in Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin in February. "It was just then incredibly vibrant and everybody was alive, and everybody was talking. You would have these conversations like, 'Tell me about second grade in Hungary!' And then they would say, 'You tell me about second grade in the United States!' Everything just seemed infinitely interesting: to talk to these people about the minutiae of their lives."

After a couple of years in Hungary, Hockenos moved to east Berlin where "there was still a lot of magic going on," he continued. "It was after unification, but still. You could walk down the street that Tacheles was on and there were four bars. You could get a beer at Tacheles, at a place called Obst und Gemuse, another place called Ansel. There were also places on the side streets, and they were absolutely fantastic, places you could go in and just talk with anybody all night long. Everything was still cheap. There were still East prices for a lot of things."

It's no longer cheap in that part of Berlin. Prenzlauer Berg is like an up-and-coming Brooklyn, bursting with bookstores and baby strollers and trendy bistros. There are still significant expat communities throughout Eastern Europe. But it's not like the early 1990s when everyone, east and west, was in wide-eyed discovery mode.

And it's not as easy to cover Eastern Europe any longer as a freelance journalist. Editors are no longer falling over themselves to solicit articles. "I've abandoned Eastern Europe and Central Europe, for the most part," Hockenos confessed. "On the one hand there's no interest anymore. With the Balkans, no one really wanted to understand the place, and when it was off the map they were glad they didn't have to try anymore. That was true also among Germans. On the other hand, the situation has stabilized. Some of these countries aren't doing so badly at all. Some of them are in the European Union. None of them is at war. The motor of change in Southeastern Europe is European integration. There's less interest in reading about it. But it's also less interesting. It's also less interesting for me. I'll read an article about Croatia on the most recent elections or how many chapters of the Acquis Communautaire they've made it through. I can read those articles once, but the second time the topic comes up I might not."

We talked about the exciting new trends in East European culture, the trajectory of eastern Germany's economy, and what it means to be a realo these days.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I most certainly do. I was in Budapest. It was kind of strange: I was in Budapest when the Wall fell, and I was in East Berlin when the Romanian Revolution happened. When the Wall fell, we were preparing for a trip to Romania, which was one of the hairiest and most incredible trips I have ever taken, and it was at the height of the Ceaușescu dictatorship. That night I was in Buda, the first place where my friend Maggie and I were living when we arrived in Budapest. We had hitchhiked down from Berlin via Vienna, showing up in Budapest in late September, early October. When we saw the East German refugees coming through, I decided to stay, and well, she didn't have anything to do either, so she also decided to stay. We put up an ad: "two journalists, one from America and one from Wales, need a place to live." This young woman who today remains a very close friend of mine--she came to my wedding and everything--called us up. She lived with her mother in the Buda hills. Her mother was a seamstress and eventually threw us out. One of the things that actually distressed her as much as anything was our reaction when the Wall came down. My mother called me and said she was watching it on the news. We were getting ready to go to bed, but we flipped on the news - me, my friend Maggie, and this woman Dorothea -- and we said, "Oh my God, the Wall fell, it's incredible! Let's break out some beers!" or something like that.

Dorothea's mother was sleeping in the next room over. She opened the door and said, "What the hell is going on here?"

We said, "The Wall came down!"

And she said, "Be quiet, I have to work tomorrow morning."

Maybe it was because you hadn't specified which wall had come down!

"I got to work tomorrow morning"? Give me a break! We were like, "ohh", and then we went out and had some beers together.

What was your immediate thought? If you could remember back through all the subsequent thoughts you had.

I was of course surprised. But I had been in Leipzig and had been following very closely what was happening. As one Hungarian said to me, "If they don't let the Wall down, they're going to push it down." The demonstrations had become so big in Berlin and other cities and seeing what happened in Hungary, I guess I felt that the Wall's days were numbered and that the Wall itself, being up or down, wasn't the primary issue. It was very symbolic, but the transformations that were happening and that would happen afterwards were more than about just travel freedom. In East Germany, there had already been some concessions made, and it was clear that more were going to be made. Then, with what was happening in Hungary, it was just clear that the East German government couldn't maintain the status quo. Things were going to change. But I certainly didn't think that things would change as they did, that there wouldn't be two Germanies. At the time I probably still thought that East Germany would be a socialist Germany with some kind of free elections, like what was happening in Budapest, where the reform wing of the Communist Party had a certain amount of power alongside other elements outside the Party. In Hungary, there were the civil society people, the nationalists, the liberals. In East Germany, it was a little bit different, but these dissidents had what we would've at the time thought was a left-wing vision, a radical kind of social democracy.

Were you tempted to call off your trip to Romania and run over to Berlin?

As a freelance journalist, I was always going in a different direction than everybody else. If the "mainstream media" were at the Wall when it was falling, then it would behoove me to be somewhere different. It would have been a lot of fun, but Maggie, the Welsh woman, and I went to Ceaușescu's Romania, which was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, for different reasons. What we experienced there, I wouldn't trade for anything. It was the most terrifying, raw, totalitarian regime that I'd ever experienced. It was clearly on edge, and everybody else was as well. The tension in the air, in all of Romania where we were, was just so incredible. If you were living in Budapest, people were going to tell you how bad Romania was, and there was a lot of solidarity with the people of Transylvania, so I'd heard an awful lot of it, but it was even worse than all of that. It was worse than anything we'd expected. By the time we came back, it was almost too much for me. I was 24, 25 years old. I wrote an article about it for In These Times, but I wasn't even a mature enough writer to be able to tell this story the way it had to be told. To get across this kind of sheer terror, well, you have to see the film 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days. That hits the nail on the head. That's exactly the way it was. It was that ugly.

Did you get out to Timisoara?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.