Sometime this morning in 1968, having checked out of the hostel and returned to the center of town, I ran into the woman I’d traveled into Czechslovakia with. She had been looking for me, she said, keeping near Prague’s Wenceslas Square and the train station, figuring I would show up around there at some point.
The idea of expecting to run into someone on the streets of Prague sounds preposterous today but, then, with so few people walking around, it didn’t seem unlikely at all,
She had chanced to look at the stamp in her passport that morning and had realized that our visas had expired. They had been good for a single day, not three–and we were now heading toward the conclusion of three since arrival.
Neither of us knew what to do–except that we had to do it quickly. Somehow, we learned almost immediately where the American embassy was (I think I had passed by it the day before) and walked across the Charles Bridge to it. Someone there, certainly, would speak English (no one we had approached so far did) and could tell us where we should go and what we should do.
We were scared, both of us. Alone on the other side of the Iron Curtain, we had no idea what might happen to us if we didn’t straighten this out. The few tales we had heard of the Soviet bloc back home had all been meant to terrify the American population into complicity with Cold War policies; we had no idea what bits might be true, what not. We had both read some Kafka and probably a little Gogol; we knew that people could disappear into the vast state apparatus that had long been the tradition, or so we believed, of the Eastern part of Europe. We easily believed the worst, having grown up victims of Western propaganda.
We found the embassy easily enough, feeling relief at the sight of the American flag outside, irrationally believing that it might, somehow, protect us. The door was guarded by a Marine, however, who stepped in front of us, demanding our business. We told him of our situation and said we were there for help or, at least, advice. He told us we couldn’t go in, that we had best check in with the nearest police station. He clearly did not like what he saw before him and wasn’t inclined to help.
“Well, where is the police station?”
He shrugged. It seemed he neither knew nor cared. Clearly, he wasn’t going to let two who looked like us into the hallowed grounds of the embassy, no matter what our passports might say. To his eyes, most likely, we were an insult to his country.
That is was ours, too, didn’t seem to matter.
Probably, we were both dressed in jeans and both certainly had long hair, hers down to the middle of her back, mine starting to reach my shoulders. Our clothes, even if somewhat clean, we’re worn. In my recent mania for cleanliness, (the one clearest manifestation of the rape), I had washed mine in the bathtub the day before, hanging everything around the room so that it would be dry when I packed. We both carried canvas rucksacks. We must have looked to him like the ‘hippie scum’ of the mass media, kids who should never be allowed to mix with ‘real’ Americans, kids who had given up their right to the country.
We turned away and started scouring the streets, trying to ask directions of the few people we saw but finding no one who could understand us. It was getting hot and we were getting frustrated when we stumbled into an official-looking building that, indeed, proved to be a police station. One of the officers, fortunately for us, spoke German and we were able, with a great deal of finger pointing at passports and selves, to get him to understand our plight.
The woman wanted to stay in the country and had the funds to buy (or bribe, we weren’t sure which it was) an extension for a week. I was ready to leave, so was given an extension only until midnight that night. We walked back to the train station, much relieved, where we once again parted.
It must have been approaching mid-afternoon by then; our quest had taken the better part of the day.
In the station, I figured I only need to buy a ticket to someplace on the West German border. No trains would be crossing the border, I knew, but a little walking wouldn’t be a problem. Another difficulty quickly faced me, though: no one at any of the ticket window seemed to speak any language I found remotely familiar. “Allemande?” Shaken heads. “Deutschland?” Same thing. Finally, someone sold me a ticket to somewhere, a track number and a train number written upon it.
Before heading to the platform, I managed to buy a copy of the London Times at the one lonely kiosk in the cavernous station. Matching ticket to platform, I boarded a waiting train, pushed open the window next to me (it was stuffy in the car and the day had gotten quite muggy) and pulled Erich Fromm’s The Sane Society from my pack. There was nothing I could do now but wait for the town name on the ticket to appear on a station.
The motion of the train brought the faint idea of a breeze, but the heat made me sleepy. After the sonambulent conductor came by and punched my ticket (I was one of the only passengers in the car), I closed my eyes.
A thump or a bump sometime later awoke me. Instinctively, I ran my hand over my hair—gritty, strange. I looked at my palm; it was streaked with black, and there were black speckles on the back of my hand when I turned it over and, I saw when I looked down, covering the newspaper on my lap. At a turn, I could see the part of the train ahead out the window: we were pulled by a coal locomotive.
Wow. But where was it taking me? Due east, I imagined, Russia. Alone, in a country where I could speak to no one, a country included in the anti-communist scare campaigns back home, a country we had been allowed to learn so little of that all we imagined was squalor and misery, I imagined only the worst.
From the perspective of a world where the Czech Republic is a known and friendly place, my anxiety seems impossibly silly today and even improbable. But this was still the time of the Berlin Wall, of gaunt escapees from the East in tattered clothes and tales of want and imprisonment. I felt incredibly small and insignificant–and in danger of dwindling to disappearance myself.
Emotionally speaking, this was proving to be an extremely tough week.
There was, at least, that town name on the ticket and I grasped it. I watched the stations, hoping to see it, hoping we hadn’t passed it while i was asleep, keeping the ticket in my hand like it was some sort of talisman leading me to safety.
An hour or so later, much to my relief, I did see the town name (one I’ve completely forgotten, though it may have been Usti nad Labem on the way to Dresden–or one of the other towns along that route), and hopped down onto the platform of a tiny station in the midst of a number of tracks, many with electric lines over them. I walked inside—and there before me, and I almost collapsed with relief, was a map with a you-are-here star. I was, I saw, on the German border, but the wrong one… and, of course, I had no visa for East Germany.
There was a town on the map near what was clearly the West German border: “Cheb,” I shouted to the man behind the little ticket window, the only other person in the station.
He frowned, then motioned me toward him, then kept motioning as I stood outside his window with nowhere forward to go. Finally understanding, I reached into my wallet and started shoving money towards him. He took some of it, pushed the rest back at me along with a ticket, and then ran outside. I followed, dubious but without any real option. We jumped across one set of tracks after another.
A little electric train was heading out, almost already past the little station on one of the farther tracks. He flagged it down and motioned me aboard.
There were simply bench seats in the open car I entered, occupied by what were clearly multiple generations of one family. They were what I then would have called “gypsies,” what I would now refer to as “Roma.” Relaxed and enjoying themselves, they passed around food and drink, sometimes looking at me and commenting to each other.
The oldest woman, who had a kerchief over her hair and a scarf pulled over multiple layers of clothing, got up, walked down, and sat next to me. She talked to me, but got nothing out of me, for I could understand nothing she said. Finally, she asked me a question. I understood, I thought, one word of it, something that sounded like “Rouski.” Was she asking if I were a Russian? I answered, “No, American.”
Everyone laughed, she the loudest. I did, too. Great fun, this. She rubbed thumb and forefinger together and said, “American? Gelt? Gelt!” This, it seemed, was also hysterical. Again, I joined in. “Keine gelt,” I said, between guffaws.
She clearly didn’t believe me and laughed more, along with everyone else (me included). After a time, I was able to mollify her through a handful of the Marlboro cigarettes I had been hoarding. She secreted them somewhere and returned to where she had been sitting. One of the younger men then came over, on her instruction, and handed me a number of curious cigarettes with long tubes and not much tobacco. Strong stuff: he showed me how to pinch the tube so I wouldn’t draw too much and continue the choking that had been nearly doubling me forward since my first try. And amid another round of furious laughter.
Cheb arrived about dusk, or we to it. At another ticket window, I asked which way the border was. A curious look preceded a reluctant finger, and I turned to walk that direction in a light rain.
The road did take me out of town (I remembered from that map in the earlier station that Cheb wasn’t on the border, simply near it). After a time, though, I began to wonder if I were headed at all in the right direction.
I had left the town behind and was coming upon a village. A couple of boys saw me and ran up to me and stared. I asked them where “die grenze” was and they ran away. Walking on, I was startled to see them returning, pulling along an older man amidst a much larger and loud group of children.
The man approached and spoke. Again, I understood not a word. He tried again, in what was clearly another language. I shook my head, pointed at myself, and said, “American.” Again, as on the train, pandemonium.
The kids just loved this, for they too, apparently, had decided I was Russian. The man, after some confusion trying to communicate, pointed me down another road.
It looked promising at first but then it got smaller as the sky got darker and the rain heavier, then became a path, then ended at a gate with a not-so-friendly German Shepherd eyeing me from the other side.
Across a field, maybe a mile away, I could see another road, a lighted road heading to a group of buildings. A road with cars on it.
The wet crop I pushed my way through, whatever it was (it certainly wasn’t corn; it could have been wheat), soaked what little of me wasn’t wet already by the time I had crossed through it. Cars were passing by, some with German plates. Good. Likely, they were heading to or from the border. But which way? One direction was dark, into woods. The other would head me towards those buildings.
I chose the buildings. That way seemed easier, at least. Near them, however, was a little sign.
Two hours or more, and I had made a circle.
Logic now said to me, “Go the other way.”
So I walked back and beyond. And tried to hitchhike. And walked. Forever, or so it was starting to seem.
At one point, a huge noise came from the woods to my right, and a dog as big as a Mack truck came bounding towards me, attached to a uniformed giant with a weapon larger than he. I stopped. Petrified.
He motioned for my papers. I handed them over, shaking, along with a few more of my Marlboros. He grunted shrank to human size and age not far removed from mine, took the cigarettes, handed my back my passport, and motioned for me to go on.
Now I knew, at least, that I was likely headed in the right direction.
Aside from that, everything was starting to get… I don’t know… surreal. It was as though I was there, but not. The soldier disappeared back up his hill, dog at his heel. I continued down the road trying not to consider anything but the steps right in front of me.
Walking on, no cars stopped. Walking on, and on, thinking little, just listening to the squish of my wet shoes, and suddenly a different sound came from behind—a tractor. I didn’t bother to thumb, but it stopped. The driver, perhaps my age, motioned me up behind him.
The noise of the engine was too loud for conversation, but he talked to me anyway, keeping up a steady monologue in a language I wouldn’t have understood even if I could have heard him while I sat backwards looking out at the road behind us, no longer wondering much about anything, just tired, feeling the vibrations from the motor and the road, letting them enveloped me.
Finally, we came to a stop. I climbed down to find one of those guard stations straight out of a spy movie, a movable barrier and a phone-booth sized station—this one with an actual phone.
My driver turned his tractor around and waved at me. As I waved back, I wondered why he had brought me so far. He certainly had no reason for doing so. He chugged off and I walked over to the man in the booth.
In the distance, about 100 meters up the slight hill we were at the bottom of, I could see the lights of the real border. Might just make it out, I thought.
For some reason, though, that didn’t seem to matter so much now that the end was in sight. I just wanted to sleep.
The guard took my passport and picked up his phone while flicking through pages and then reading from it into the mouthpiece. After listening for a moment, he raised his voice and gestured (as best he could, in that confined space), and then waited again. Then talked once more, raising his voice again.
Finally, someone on the other end must have given him satisfaction. He handed back my passport and motioned me towards the border.
Walking up, I handed my passport to the first guard I saw. He took it and pantomimed for me to wait. I asked where I could change my Czech currency. He dismissed the need, said “souvenir,” and disappeared into a building. Cars came and went, both directions, but he did not return for me. I stood under an awning like that of a gas station and watched the other guards check papers and wave cars on.
I got the feeling that all of the guards were keeping their eyes on me as surreptitiously as possible. Each one would get extremely busy each time I looked in his direction.
After some time, I got tired of simply standing there. Beyond me, across a couple of lanes of cars lined up, there was something of what was obviously a gift shop, bright and with shelves of cheap geegaws and a bored clerk keeping his eye on the customers. I was cold and wet and it looked dry, maybe even warm. So I went inside, walking carefully in case it turned out the guards wanted me to stay where I was. The guards, still pretending not to, watched me the whole way.
Some guy, a little older than my sixteen years, perhaps college age and with that fresh college look that was already somewhat out of style–unless you were being ‘clean for Gene’–but with hair long enough to make it clear to me that he wasn’t military, was talking to a German couple, trying to exchange money with them. What struck me was that his German was worse than mine—and I could only speak a few phrases. What I noticed, too, was his accent—certainly American.
Standing there, I felt like I was underwater. Certainly, I was wet enough, but there also seemed an extra thick barrier between me and everything else, between the sounds I was hearing and my ears. I wanted to speak, but I was afraid of what it would sound like.
Finally, I managed to, shamed into it, I guess, once the three had noticed I was watching them.
It would have been hard for them not to, I having stopped just feet from them. “I know they say you can’t take the money out,” I said to the young man in English, “but they just told me to keep mine.”
He looked over at me, in astonishment.
But I had expected that. I knew I looked a mess and, anyway, I could hardly keep my eyes open.
What I was not prepared for was that everyone at the whole crossing stopped what they were doing right as my words dropped to the floor. Even outside.
Nothing moved. Every guard in sight was watching us, cars no longer waved through.
Under water? Maybe not, but certainly I was in a fishbowl.
The German couple sidled away. The other American looked at me, nonplussed. I just wanted to collapse but stayed on my feet. This was making me more tired than I already was, physically draining me. Emotionally, I think I had already shut down.
We stood like that for a few minutes. Finally, and slowly, we took on mutual looks of question, not moving anything but our eyes, as still as the rest of the tableaux we centered.
He spoke first.
“You’re an American, too.”
Brilliant. I nodded. But I didn’t seem able to speak again.
“They seem to be interested that you spoke to me.”
I nodded again.
“Well, got any idea why?”
I shook my head.
“Look,” he said, slowly lifting an arm and pointing, “let’s go over there and sit down, get out of the limelight.” He hesitated, “If that’s possible.
But we did, moving slowly, everyone watching our every step.
It had been a strange and lonely day so far, to say the least, packed with unexpected events under a dark cloud of emotions that never seemed to stop its threat. A cloud that had formed through the days of a rather painful and lonely week. Less than a week.
Just five nights ago, I had been in that bar in Munich about to be initiated into that comradeship of what was then a silent victimhood of rape survivors. I fought that off, even then, insisting to myself that I was not a victim and was moving on–once I got clean. But it was ever there.
Nothing helped. But there was a new wall around me now and I didn’t believe i could fight that, too.
We sat down. The clock above the head of the gift-shop clerk said it was just about midnight.