Have I ever mentioned flirting with years in a Soviet prison for breaking the law with a baker’s dozen university students behind the Iron Curtain? No? Well, the story goes something like this…
Late in the ‘70’s I was teaching German studies when the opportunity to spend a winter semester in Europe presented itself, paid for by the generous parents of the students. My wife—prescient as always—imagined traipsing past Kalashnikov-wielding guards and interminable customs inspectors with college students in tow a less than relaxing vacation, especially in the frigid hold of January. She suggested I go it alone. Alone, except for those twelve girls and the one guy who signed up for my tour of West and East Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Munich.
We arrived in divided Berlin on the heels of a massive winter storm and found the city sheathed in snow and ice. After a day getting our internal time-clocks back on track, we gathered in the pre-dawn cold to board the S-Bahn elevated railway and glide through the darkness into the Soviet bloc. Armed East German guards stood to either side of the bridgehead over the Spree River, and at the first stop we were ordered off the train to enter a stuffy, overheated holding room.
I glanced around somewhat nervously as the imperious customs inspector worked her way page by page through each of our passports and visas. It was obvious she hoped to find something out of order which would bring our grand tour to a screeching halt. But all was good, and—that test passed—we were rudely instructed by more armed guards to move single-file through a gate to long tables where our luggage was exposed to the world. More inspectors searched through every nook and cranny for contraband. No smiles, no banter, just gruff and intimidating demands. One of my students was forced to surrender her copy of Shape magazine purchased at the Berlin airport…too explicit photography for East Germany, or perhaps too tempting as future ogling material for the young inspector. Forty-five minutes later we were allowed to re-board the S-Bahn for transport to the train terminal, where we caught our express for Prague.
As the day broke to overcast skies and more snow threatening, our train rolled through magnificent country of rolling hills and mountains and beautiful frozen rivers. We noted at every stop that drably-dressed locals boarded the train, but never entered our car. In fact, we had our rail car all to ourselves, with the exception of a young German man who sat at the very rear. By watching closely, we saw that any passenger attempting to enter our carriage was directed to a neighboring car. Our one fellow passenger was obviously not there by accident, and my students thought to have some fun with him.
Two co-eds plopped down next to the young man in his poorly-fitted suit and struck up a conversation. “Do you speak English?” “Have you been to America.” “Would you like to show us Prague?” With every question he blushed more sheepishly and glanced repeatedly toward the windowed door to the front vestibule. He said not a word, braved a brief smile or two, and looked utterly helpless.
At the next stop he left our car and never returned, to be replaced by an older man, who appeared to find his bad suits at the same shop. The girls decided to have their fun with him, as well, and he too eventually succumbed to their infectious smiles and enthusiasm and uttered a few words in broken English. At the following stop our new “traveling companion” was a sour-faced middle-aged woman who stared directly ahead and refused to respond to any greetings.
And as evening settled over the Vltava River, our train pulled into the Prague train station. We gathered up our luggage and made our way to the taxi stands past roving soldiers with Kalashnikovs shouldered, always in pairs. Very welcoming.
Now picture this: the storm which brought such ice and snow to Germany and Eastern Europe that January also brought a massive countrywide power blackout, and the most wondrous beauty. Prague by night, lacking electricity and enveloped in a blanket of white now glimmering under clear skies and a full moon. A mirage of the seventeenth century. No streetlamps, only the glow of candles and lantern light from behind curtains and drapes. And giving imagination free rein, you could pretend that the lights from the few taxis plowing their way cautiously through the icy streets were carriage lanterns. It was magical.
For several days we wandered the enchanting old city, crossed and re-crossed the Charles Bridge over the Vltana, climbed high to the castle, drank great beer at U-this and U-that. We admired the architecture, visited the hangouts of Franz Kafka, strolled museums while bundled to the teeth in heavy coats and scarves. And never lost track of our follower, our minder, the discreet fellow who traced our steps through the snow, always keeping a bit of distance, never making contact.
Evenings we sat in restaurants with many-paged menus listing a wide and inviting selection. But we quickly learned that it was all for show. If one asked for goulash, the kitchen was temporarily out. If one requested a salad, they had just served the last one. So at almost every meal we had fatty chunks of pork in gravy served with a large dumpling or steamed potatoes and plenty of cabbage. And there was cabbage soup with a little bacon, as well.
Each room in our hotel had a radio installed in the wall above the bed, and each radio had one station only…the state-run station. You could turn down the volume, but not switch it off entirely. Even the elevators were tuned to the latest propaganda. While dressing one morning I stopped abruptly as—buried in the unintelligible Czech reporting—I heard my own name mentioned. Once dressed and in the elevator, I asked the operator (who spoke good English and was grumpy in public, but magically transformed once we were alone in the cabin) if he had happened to note the mention of my name. “Yes,” he said, “You should know that you are here in Czechoslovakia to show American college students the wonders of the Communist state.” How nice to learn I was doing my part. He revealed that he had held a top political position in the Czech government during the brief liberalization of the 1968 “Prague Spring,” but after the Soviet tanks rolled in he could now only find work as an elevator man.
On our last evening in Prague we gathered high atop the Hotel International (now Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza), a 1950’s Socialist Realism landmark and one of the few designed solely for foreign visitors. Thus it was one of the few with a restaurant overlooking the city and offering more than the drab monotony of fatty pork and dumplings with cabbage. Since it was strictly forbidden to take a single crown of Czech currency out of the country, we all pulled our coins and bills from pockets and handbags and once the bill was settled piled them high on the table as a momentous tip for our servers.
The next day we boarded the train for Vienna. The girls befriended a young Austrian paper-products salesman, Johann, who often traveled between Vienna and Prague on business. As we approached the border the train squealed to a halt in the countryside, far from any station. We heard shouting outside along the cars, and watched as bayonet-wielding soldiers moved from car to car, stabbing the long blades up into the undercarriage and in between the diaphragms joining the rail cars as they sought out potential escapees from the “wonders of the Communist state.” Next the soldiers boarded our car and moved along from seat to seat, demanding that all passengers open their luggage.
I glanced back as a great ruckus arose around two of my charges, and went to see what was happening. Two girls were being arrested for attempted currency smuggling, and perhaps I as their leader put them up to it? Sure enough, monetary souvenirs had been hidden in the students’ bags! Visions of Soviet gulags. How to explain to the parents that I and two of their little darlings would have an extended visit in the Soviet bloc?
I tried to explain in German that no harm was intended, but the officials were buying none of it. The law is the law. And then came the girls’ Austrian knight. The paper-products salesman interceded with his perfect command of Czech. As a frequent traveler on the route he knew the soldiers by name, and soon had them laughing at the stupidity of Americans.
And we breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed the border into Austria.
I came down with a cold, my immune system surely compromised by the stress. My student charges? They had a nice evening out with Johann, enjoying a glass or two of new wine at a Heuriger. I paid. Cheaper than Soviet bail, I was sure.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon