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It seems trite to say it in this day and age, when information travels around the world in nano-seconds, but when I was a kid, I was amazed that I could sit in the family room, open up a newspaper, and read stories that had been written a day earlier in far-flung places like Nairobi, Tokyo, Jerusalem, Moscow, Paris and, yes, even London qualified as far flung in those days.
Not only was I amazed, but I thought it was so cool that I could sit in my house in New Jersey and read about events taking place in far-away places, and that there were actually Americans living abroad and writing about these events. I thought being a foreign correspondent had to be the coolest job — except for being a professional baseball player, of course. Obtaining either job seemed equally implausible, and in some ways the foreign correspondent's job seemed even more difficult. I at least knew the path to the Major Leagues if one was good enough: High school baseball, college, A-ball, Double-A, Triple-A and voila!
If I ever managed to get a reporter's job at my local newspaper, I still could not see the path to an overseas posting. But overseas or not, I fell in love with the newspaper, first attracted to the sports section, but gradually paying more and more attention to international and national stories.
By the time I reached high school it was obvious I wouldn't make the Yankees in this lifetime. But the journalism bug continued to grow. By then older cousins and a brother were going abroad to study, for a semester or year. So I was determined to at least do that when I got to college — thinking it might be the only opportunity I ever would get to travel overseas.
My semester in London was transformative — I got a whole different view of the world. And afterward I traveled around Europe on a 30-day Eurail pass. I paid extra to go outside the Eurail zone for a weekend trip to Berlin. This was back in the days of the Cold War when Berlin was divided into "East" and "West." I walked through Checkpoint Charlie on my 20th birthday and into Soviet-backed East Berlin — it remains one of the most memorable days of my life.
The contrast between East and West Berlin was staggering. No American propaganda machine could have assembled such a set. West Berlin was a bustling western metropolis. Not only was East Berlin a veritable ghost town — even if it was a cold Sunday in January — but the first building I saw seemed to be a bombed out remnant of World War II. And as I walked through East Berlin, I saw buildings everywhere that were pock-marked with bullet holes. The few cars that trundled along were small, smoke belching, Skodas, Ladas and Trabants.
In West Berlin the cars were mostly Volkswagens, Mercedes and BMWs. And the only remnant I saw of World War II was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. It looked like someone had taken a gigantic knife and sliced through its lone spire. But the rest of the building — like the rest of West Berlin — was intact. It was clear that the bombed-out spire had been preserved as a memorial to the war.
The visual aspects of East Berlin were astonishing, but I was frustrated by the fact that I couldn't speak to anyone. Even if I could have spoken German no one would have dared answer the questions I wanted to ask, which generally revolved around the theme of: So what is life like here? Indeed, I probably would have been too afraid to ask such questions myself — as I could very well have been arrested, and perhaps even dubbed an American spy!
Still the questions gnawed at me: What was it like to live under a communist regime? And what did the regime do to its citizens? How had it shaped individuals and communities?
Back home in America I finished college and got my first journalism job, working as a staff writer for a small weekly newspaper in northern New Jersey. Five months later the Berlin Wall collapsed! Oh how I wanted to be there covering that! But there was no way. It seemed that every major TV and radio station, as well as the newspapers, was already there. And I was a green journalist, learning a helluva lot in my new job and having a good time doing it.
Still, the idea of working overseas as a journalist had been rekindled, even if I still had no idea how to go about making it happen.
But less than two years later I realized I had learned pretty much all that I could from a weekly newspaper and decided to go to graduate school in Washington, D.C. Being in the capital made me feel like I was a step closer to going abroad, and I enrolled in the international track of the program — hoping to somehow end up overseas, but still having no idea how that might happen.
Guest speakers came into various classes and whenever appropriate I kept asking, "How does one go about work as a journalist overseas?" I hated the answer I kept getting, which can essentially be boiled down to, "Just, pick a place and go there."
I wasn't expecting the New York Times to offer me a correspondent's job, but I wanted something a little more tangible to hold on to than "pick a place and go there." In February 1992 I was watching World New Tonight with Peter Jennings. At the end they did a little fluff piece on Prague being the Paris of the '30s, writers, artists and English language newspapers were popping up.
I'm generally more prudent than impulsive, but it hit me: "That's it — I'll go to Prague!" Still, I was troubled by the notion of just picking a place and going there. So I was delighted to discover that a professor at my university was leading a semester abroad in Prague and that I could hook into that, as an independent study for my last three credits. Now, if the reality didn't match the fantasy — if I decided that living abroad; in a comparatively poor country, less than three years removed from communist rule wasn't all I thought it was cracked up to be — I could pack up after five months, go back to America and say, I finished my master's degree in Czechoslovakia.
But the hope was that I would catch on as a freelancer, and so I did.