“I want you to know: we don't want war.”- Czechoslovak Adventure - part V
Updated: Apr 3
Steam and Iron Curtain don't Mix - Every Picture Tells a Story (Don't it?) 18
Photo: This 1965 Ford Taunus and its proud owner may both have been in Bratislava over New Year in 1973-74. But a western motor was a motor to be cherished in communist Czechoslovakia, and I suspect this cheery gentleman spent many hours loving his vehicle, which would otherwise have long been in the breaker's yard in the land of its origin, West Germany, by the time I took this piccie, in April, 1990.
Sunday, December 30, 1973 - Znojmo, Railway Station Hotel, South Moravia
The next morning kicked off with a strange little incident: I came down from my room and tried to go straight out onto the street via the front door, but someone – I can't remember if it was the gnädige Frau or someone else, indicated this was, mysteriously, impossible, and ushered me into the station buffet.
And as I entered, I noticed a man in uniform, talking to the cashier at the end of the self-service counter. Both looked up and across directly at me as I came through the door.
Hmmmm. Perhaps my little encounter on the border at Šatov the previous night was not over and forgotten after all.
I had some breakfast, collected my things, paid my 12 crown in dues and bid goodbye to the gnädige Frau.
I took a train to Břeclav, a town about 40 miles – 60 km - to the east, where I rejoined the main line from Prague to Bratislava. As I remember, it was hauled by a massive, modern tank locomotives, but I had been so shaken by the previous night's experience that I timidly avoided taking my camera out.
(If I remember correctly, it was one of these beasties:
Moreover, it transpired that the line at some points ran within one or two metres of the border fence with Austria. If I was being watched, any suspicious activity would almost certainly invite another interview, and the outcome might not be so favourable this time round. What's more, on the trip two neighbouring passengers at different points just happened to speak English and struck up conversations. Nothing meaningful or provocative, in truth. Coincidence, probably. But I just didn't know.
Photo: Always complaining? Two agricultural workers in fields near Šatov when I returned in 1993 for the first time since my little border encounter almost two decades earlier. Quite a nice pic for The Economist, with one of its wry captions I thought, but it never sold and the United South Moravian Ladies' Agricultural Association (Šatov Chapter) missed out on its best ever chance of global fame.
At Břeclav station buffet I had my first taste of carp. It's common, of course, in central Europe, but the fried slab of freshwater fish felt exotic at the time. Next, in what was an uneventful journey, I caught a train, travelling beyond Bratislava to my furthest destination, Nové Zámky – and found a hotel in the evening gloom.
Unbeknown to me then, the town - Érsekújvár in Hungarian – had (and has) an ethnic Magyar population, though I would not have known who was speaking Slovak and who Hungarian at the time.
Monday, December 31, 1973. Nové Zámky, SW Slovakia
A cold, uninviting day. I walked close to the locomotive depot at Nové Zámky, but couldn't see much activity. There were certainly no blue 498.1s to be found, and I didn't pluck up enough courage to try to enter.
Sometime in the afternoon I caught a train heading towards Bratislava. My plan was to stop off at some small, welcoming town and find out what went on on New Year's eve – but everywhere seemed so dead, dark and uninspiring that I remained on the train to the Slovak capital, where I arrived about 7 pm.
Wandering down the station approach, I asked a young woman, aged maybe 30, if she knew of any affordable hotels nearby. Surprisingly, she spoke English, but not being local, she promptly stopped an elderly lady, and asked her for advice. To my astonishment, the answer came back: “You can stop with this lady. She has a room. You don't have to pay anything.”
Just like that: on a street of a European city, at night, Mrs Mlynárova (let's call her that), probably edging the wrong side of 60, invited some strange foreign bloke with a rucksack into her home. And she didn't speak English or German.
Perhaps today's Slovak authorities should put a plaque on the wall in commemoration: Couch Surfing was Invented on this Spot etc etc.
My hostess lived but 150 metres from the station, down the hill and then to the right. To overcome the language barrier, she knocked on the door of the neighbouring flat. It was something like a scene from some zany movie, because it sounded as if there was a fight going on inside. Forty seconds later the neighbour answered the door – sweating, though not bleeding.
In a short, after a three-way, German-Slovak conversation, I found myself invited out with Mrs Mlynárova, who was to meet her daughter and son-in-law in a city centre restaurant to celebrate the last night of the year.
It was a strange, at times embarrassing and somewhat exotic evening. The daughter was around thirty, a graduate in Spanish studies. As I'd been to Franco's Spain, a country absolutely off limits for anyone from the eastern bloc at the time, she was fascinated to hear my experiences from there. This, however, was much to the growing chagrin of her hub, who began to invite her to dance in order, it seemed, to divert her avid attention from yours truly.
The exotic bit was provided by a gypsy band – well, admit it, it's exotic the first time round – and, being left alone with dear Mrs Mlynárova, there was little left to do but invite her to dance. I don't know if there were any prizes for the best couple on the floor, bit if there were, we didn't win any.
We repeated this cycle a few times. Somehow I avoided a thumping from a jealous son-in-law, we drank some fizzy wine, watched fireworks at midnight, and got back to the flat about 2.00 am.
Tuesday, January 01, 1974. Bratislava
Somewhere around mid-morning, Mrs Mlynárova offered me tea and toast for breakfast, for which I was very grateful. But it didn't seem appropriate to hang around, so I thanked her kindly in some language or other and stomped off to discover the delights of a largely hungover Bratislava.
Except - the Danube embankment apart - there weren't many delights I could find. As the east European winter gloom descended, I went to the station for something to eat – and to keep warm.
In the queue at the self-service counter a young soldier behind me struck up conversation.
“Are you English,” he enquired.
"Yes," I nodded, in some surprise.
“Can we talk? Not here, outside. Afterwards, on the platform,” he said gesturing towards the door, where loitered what I took to be two military police.
Intrigue, it seemed, lurked in every second station buffet in Czechoslovakia.
Ten minutes or so later, we met outside.
“Remember Dubček?" he said, referring to the communist reformer ousted in 1968. "I was in Leeds, studying then, when the Soviets crushed the moves to democracy here in Czechoslovakia."
Then, making it clear he was very serious, he added:
“I want you to know: we don't want war.”
What was going on? It may have only been filler paragraphs, but once again I seemed to be living the pages of a spy novel. Could this really be a set up?
We must have spoken more, but I forget what about. I paid sympathetic attention, but avoided, or tried to avoid, saying anything that could come back to haunt me. In any case, he disappeared quickly.
I slept on an overnight train to Prague.
Photo: "Hey, how do you hold it?" - Humorous Slovak political graffiti, Bratislava, April 1990.
16 years after my first visit, Czecholslovakia had shaken off communist rule in the Velvet Revolution of November 1989. Such graffiti before this would have sparked an immediate, widescale investigation by the ŠtB, the State Security Police.
UPDATE: I felt there must be more to this graffiti that needed explaining than the mere translation, because it doesn't really work in English. It seems I was right.
"Both guys are communists (with an award), and their faces and the words imply they are not so clever. They are not workers either because they do not know how to use the hammer and sickle (hold in Slovak can mean use or handle too). And they do not understand the instruments are symbols, not for work. So this all together is funny. I am confusing or clear?" wrote Irena G.
I think we are getting closer to the essence, Irena - thank you.
Many thanks too to Helena T, who also advised on linguistic issues.
To be continued.