Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) 17 - Steam and Iron Curtain Don't Mix - part 4:
Photo: A concrete fort, on the edge of the village of Šatov, about 400 metres from the Austrian frontier. Built to protect the Czechoslovak Republic in the 1930s from an invasion from the Third Reich, it was in use throughout the Cold War to deter any 'attack' from neutral Austria. Now a museum- tourist attraction, I only discovered it on a return trip the village in 2011. Photo courtesy of the Brno Technical Museum.
It's common wisdom to say that the best way to learn a foreign language is to find a love whose mother tongue is the desired vernacular. From my experience that Saturday evening in December, 1973, I can suggest an alternative, equally motivating method of acquiring another tongue; keeping yourself out of a communist jail.
(Continued from Post of March 10)
I stood in the little railbus looking down at a squad of four Czechoslovak border guards, who were led by fifth, who was, I suppose, the equivalent of a corporal. I have no idea of his real name, but for this story, let's call him Corporal Miroslav. (Miroslav means 'One who celebrates peace'. I'm not too sure this one did that, however.)
“Passport!” he demanded. The old, dark blue, hard-covered GB document was unusual, and possibly unique at the time - most countries, for example, the West German passport, being a slightly smaller, soft cover design.
Cpl Miroslav had clearly never seen a British passport before. He leafed through the pages, one by one, examining the stamps until finally, near the last page, found my Czechoslovak visa.
“Angličan! Angličan!“ he declared, triumphant at having determined my nationality, and saving face before his squad.
He then he muttered something in Czech. While it was pretty obvious what he meant, by then, attracted by the commotion, the train guard had appeared by my side. Conveniently, he spoke German.
“He wants to know what you are doing here?”, the guard said, volunteering as an impromptu interpreter.
This was a very difficult question. My German was very limited, and an answer like “I'm interested in the border,” would clearly not be exactly the best in the circumstances.
I was still wondering what to how to answer when Cpl Miroslav intoned: “You can't cross the border here.”
This rather let me off the hook. “I don't want to cross the border,” I replied, “I only got in at some early hour this morning. It's in the visa entry stamp.”
"Your visa says Prague, Bratislava and Nové Zámky. Why are you here? Where are you staying?” he demanded. "It was a long way to Bratislava, so I came this way. I'm staying at Znojmo station. The hotel, or hostel.” At this point the guard interjected: “I can't hold the train any longer. I'm afraid we have to leave on schedule.” “What shall I do then?” “He says you have to go with him,” the guard said, intimating I had to get out. “They'll take you to Znojmo.” I landed back on the platform, and the four squaddies formed around me, two in front and a little to the side, two behind - although they avoided any physical contact. As we went out into the station yard, the little railcar departed, reving hard and bobbling its way back to Znojmo. Nobody spoke as we tramped down the road towards the village. One thing about south Moravia, it was comfortably warmer than Bohemia. As clouds scudded across the sky, I remember looking at the hills to the north west, which were illuminated here and there by flashes of moonlight. It was a Saturday night, and I was wondering how I would get out of this one. “Chances are,” I reasoned to myself, “I'll be reported to some distant district commander, who'll be drunk. Unwilling to make a decision, he'll tell them to lock me up, to be someone else's problem. And again tomorrow, the decision going down the line to Prague. By Monday noon, I could become an international incident.” It was quite worrying. After maybe 150 metres, we turned into the gates of a 19th century, yellow-painted villa, of the kind dotted all over the former Austro-Hungarian empire. It was obviously the local border guard HQ. I was directed into the first room on the left, It was, presumably, once the reception room. Most of the furniture was covered in white sheets. I was sat at a desk, and the squad left me there, alone. I could hear talking in a neighbouring room. Then some laughter - a good sign, I thought. An officer entered the room. He spoke Czech (or Slovak) and nothing else. If I remember correctly, he had my passport. “You're British?” he asked. My passive knowledge of Czech was improving in leaps and bounds. But since I spoke no Czech, I tried to improvise, answering in German, but adding -ski to the end of every word. “Jah. Jah-ski,” I said. Well, that sounded Slavic to me, at least. It must have sounded like madness to the officer. “Empty your pockets,” he said. I was carrying some film, a flash gun, a 135mm telephoto lens, but no camera. I'd intentionally left that in the unlockable locker in my room. (I wasn't totally stupid, please understand. If I was a spy, I'd clearly forgotten my essential equipment.) Then came the question I'd been dreading. “What are you doing here, in Šatov? There is no border crossing here.” I fumbled around for an answer. What could I possibly say? Then I had a brainwave – the second of the day, you may recall. I pulled out my diary-logbook, and finding the pages for August, pointed out the entries. “In August, I was in Retz, in Austria. And from there, I looked over into Czechoslovakia,” I said, holding my hand to my eyes as if to shield them from a non-existent sun. “Now, I'm here, in Czechoslovakia, and I want to look into Austria.” I was speaking in my sort-of German, adding a liberal sprinkling of Slavic-sounding -skis to most words. The beauty of this answer was - in essence - it was the truth. But it was now something like 10.00 at night, in mid-winter, and here was this incoherent Englishman babbling about looking across the border. The officer must have thought his squad had detained a madman. “You are staying at Znojmo, the station?” “Jah-ski.” The officer got up and called the squad. I was ushered outside, surrounded by the squad, and a jeep appeared. Two privates got in the jeep, then me, then two more privates. Cpl Miroslav was the driver, with the officer, in the front. We bumped off into the night on what seemed like an agricultural road. After a few minutes, we stopped. Dogs were barking. Cpl Miroslav and a private got out, scanning a ploughed strip, maybe three metres wide, with torches. All was in order – presumably nobody had crossed the strip illicitly - and we were off again, heading north. At the station hotel, all was now in darkness. The officer rang a bell, and a minute or so later, the door opened, and the gnädige Frau stood there, trying to take it all in. On seeing me, surrounded by border guards, her eyes opened wide and her lower jaw almost detached itself. “Come in,” she said, recovering her senses. “You know this man?” the officer asked, intimating to me. “Yes,” she answered. “How come? When did he turn up?” (Please understand, this was all in Czech, but it was obvious what the conversation was about. And remember, my passive language knowledge was advancing in leaps and bounds.) “Well, he arrived this evening, at about 5.00. He asked if I'd got a room. I said yes, and he said how much? I told him 54 crowns, and then he asked if I'd got anything cheaper. So I said 12 crowns, and he said fine.” At this, the officer looked at me. I think this clinched it. The mood lifted. It was as if he were thinking: “Well, if he is MI6, he forgets his camera and all they can afford is a 12-crown room, the Party propaganda must be right for once. Capitalism is collapsing.” We went upstairs to my room. Where were my things? I went to the unlockable locker, which (naturally) contained my camera, and rucksack. Now here was a potential problem. I had newsletters with lists of trains in Czechoslovakia diagrammed for steam haulage. If the officer saw all this information, not understanding what it was, I feared it would cause suspicion again – railways were of strategic importance. I need not have worried. He gave the contents a cursory look, stood to attention, wished me a good stay in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and left. The clean, white sheets of a 12-crown Czechoslovak bunk bed had never been so sweet as that night. To be continued
Addendum: A good friend - Mr N - wrote to me about this piece, said he'd enjoyed it, but, in a series of criticisms, wrote:
"I tried to improvise, answering in German, but adding -ski to the end of every word. “Jah. Jah-ski,” - No, I can't believe you did this. You're a smart person and I'm certain you were one nearly 40 years ago. I think an utterly stupid assumption like this discredits you as a good storyteller. I got seriously disenchanted when I'd read that. And you repeat that later on in the story! OMG!
All I can say, Mr N, is that - I did! (And it was nearly 50 years ago too!) But perhaps first it is worth giving some explanation, both for Hungarian and Czech/Slovak readers (and maybe others too). I had almost no exposure to any Slavic people up to this point in my life. ( True, I remember talking to one Czech (or Slovak) student at university who had defected in 68, but it was really an unknown country and culture. I had also been to Yugoslavia in the summer of 73 - but I didn't really meet anyone or get to know any names.)
The only, rather limited contacts up to then had been with Polish immigrants to the UK from the war, or their children. Indeed, my landlord in Derby when staying in digs was one such, who's original name was Komaninski. Knowing his name, and from other readings, -ski seemed to me to be a common ending to words in Polish. And so I just transferred it on the night into my Deutsch-Czech psuedo babble. Now it's true that I can't swear I ever said Jah-ski to the officer in the HQ. Indeed, thinking about it, I had probably learned on the train down that yes in Czech was 'da'. But the essence of the story is true - that was my desperate attempt to get across some sort of meaning that night to my interviewers.
Bonkers? Absolutely - but, Mr N, I promise you, it's true.