Prague, 1968: Memory #2

In this, the second piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year of 1968 through my own experiences, I write of my departure from Prague, a couple of weeks before the arrival of the Russian troops who displaced the power of the Dubcek regime.  I hope I am, finally, beginning to discover how to make at least a little personal sense of that most peculiar incident in that most peculiar year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these “memories.”  The first piece can be found here.

The main train station was huge and underpopulated. Nothing like the Munich hauptbahnhoff or Paris’s Gare du Nord except in size and, perhaps, age. To me, as I rushed in from the police station, the long row of empty ticket windows was as daunting as long lines of anxious travelers would have been: I had no idea if there were some reason no one was buying tickets. No idea if the people behind those windows even intended to sell tickets.
It wasn’t going to work, buying a a ticket in Czech. My rudimentary French and German generally managed to get me what I wanted (after a bit of perplexed negotiation and pantomime); I couldn’t even say ‘hello’ in Czech. At the first window, I asked if the man spoke French, tried German, then English. Got only a negative head shake. At the next, the same. At the third, I said simply “Deutschland,” hoping that would be understood and sufficient. The man said something, but I didn’t understand. He then wrote a number on a slip of paper. I counted out the amount from the bit of Czech currency I had and he handed me a ticket, a destination and track number printed on it. As I turned away, I noticed a kiosk selling newspapers, among them The London Times. I bought a copy, and probably some bread someplace. I had to have eaten, but I don’t remember getting any food.
Looking across various boards, I soon found where I should be, and entered the train. The car was old, and there was no one else in it. It was laid out like the ones in Western movies, bench seats in twin rows, a large window next to each. The floor was bare and stained, the cloth seats not much different. A small table could be pulled up from the wall under the window. I did that, laid the newspaper upon it, and pulled the upper part of the window down before settling in.
As the train started to move, I realized I had made no distinction between East and West Germany when I had bought my ticket—but also told myself I probably couldn’t have, anyway, my command of the language being that weak. It didn’t really matter: I was going somewhere at least… somewhere? In another part of the world, that might be OK, but somewhere, here, could be a dead end. What if the train were heading straight east, towards the Soviet Union? What if I ended up on the border with Poland or Hungary—or even East Germany. I couldn’t cross into any of them—and I couldn’t stay here… hmm…. I began to imagine that I was disappearing without a trace.
With nothing else to do, and wanting to stay away from idiotic speculation, I reached into my pack for one of the books I’d traded for a couple of days earlier. The one I pulled out was a small volume called Anthem by Ayn Rand, a writer I’d never heard of at that point. Almost from the start, the book annoyed me: Here I was, at the mercy of systems way beyond my control, from railroad to national borders, reading about someone able to rise above all of these, simply by strength of personality and will. The book just made me feel smaller and more insignificant than I’d already imagined, shrinking away to nothing, disappearing right there in my seat.
When I started to close the book, I notice a film of gray on the pages. I shook it onto the table: black dust. I’d been holding the book over the newspaper; there was now a book-sized outline, a reverse shadow surrounded by gray. Standing, I pushed my head as far out the open window as I could (which wasn’t much), to try and see what this was. Ahead, as we rounded a curve, I saw the locomotive, not electric or diesel, as I would have expected, but coal-burning, spewing a trail of smoke that covered the cars behind.
That, the car, and the family that had gotten on at the last of the frequent stops started me thinking that this was a train not only to nowhere, but to the past.
Today, I would recognize them as Roma, at least four generations of Roma. Then, they simply seemed like they’d stepped out of a storybook from a long-forgotten century. The matriarch, colorful scarf over her head, leathery skin, only a couple of teeth, long and full skirts, layers of blouse of multiple colors, sat down across from me after the rest of the family was settled. She tried to talk with me, but I couldn’t understand a word she was saying.
Eventually, I realized she was trying to guess my nationality. “American.” I pointed at my chest. “American!” She laughed, turned to her family, and shouted, “American!” Turning back to me, she rubbed thumb and middle finger together and said, “Gelt, gelt.”
I spread my arms and smiled, “Keine gelt.” She laughed again, clearly not believing me. I still had some of the Russian cigarettes the Yugoslavs had given me. Rummaging through my backpack, I pulled a few out and handed them to her. She smiled and they disappeared. After a few minutes more of trying to talk to me—or of trying to get more out of me (I don’t know which)—she got up and returned to sit with her family.
Station after station, I looked out for the name (which I’ve long forgotten) on my ticket. The Roma got off someplace, and I had the car once more to myself. Finally, at the point where I’d almost decided I really was headed for the U.S.S.R. and oblivion, we did pull into the correct station.
Unlike the pre-WWI extravaganza in Prague, this one was small and in the middle of noplace. But it did have, inside, a map of the country—with a star indicating “you are here.” I stared at it, realized I wasn’t at least, on the Russian, or even Polish or Hungarian border—but that I was on the East German one. I searched over towards West Germany, and saw the name of a town near that border.
Cheb!” I shouted its name at the man at the lone ticket window. He looked up startled, motioned me over, and kept motioning. I started shoving money at him; he sorted through, took some, pushed the rest back along with a ticket, ran out of the booth and the building, motioning for me to follow. He sprinted across the tracks towards a short, red electric train passing in the distance, waving. It slowed, then stopped. I climbed aboard and he turned back to his station after giving me a grin and a final wave.
The day was fading as I descended from the train at the Cheb station. At a ticket window, I asked the way to the “zoll,” the “Douane,” the closest words I knew relating to the border. The woman behind it looked at me strangely, but pointed. I hurried outside, pulling my raincoat from my pack, for it had begun to look like rain.
The road the woman’s finger brought me to did take me out of town. But it got smaller, and then even smaller. I kept walking though, wondering where I was headed, but with no real alternative.
Eventually, I came to a small village. It was getting pretty dark. Someone, I figured, must speak German in town, especially this close to the border—assuming we were close to the border. A couple of kids were walking along towards me. I said to them, “Deutschland?” and pointed ahead. They looked at me, uncomprehending, but motioned for me to follow them. I did. One of them ran ahead, shouting to someone else.
Other children joined us, and a couple of adults, including a kid on a motor scooter, who circled around and around. The kids swarmed ahead to the doorway of one house and waited in anticipation until the door opened and a man stepped out. He spoke to me, but I could understand not a word.
Seeing my blank expression, he asked a question. Of it, I thought I gleaned one word. It sounded something like “Russki.”
No, no. American.” I pointed to my chest.
American!” The crowd started laughing and yelling, the fellow on the motorbike circling faster and shouting. The man raised his arms—he seemed to have the control over them of a schoolteacher—and they began to quiet down. He had, fortunately, a few words of English. Not enough so that we could really talk, but enough so that, with a little work, we seemed to communicate.
He pointed me to a path, telling me to follow it to get to the border. I thanked him and started walking. The kids trailed along for a few minutes, the guy on the scooter being the last to tail off home.
This path, like the road I’d been on before, got smaller and smaller, finally ending at a gate before a small house, two German shepherds on the other side warning me quite loudly not to go further. It had begun to rain and was completely dark.
In the distance, off to the right, I could make out lights, like those of a town, and a row of them trailing off to the left, like those over a road. There were also moving lights, like headlights.
Well, something to aim for, at least. I turned into the field, walking between rows of some crop or another, waist high and wet. By the time I got to the road, the water from the plants had soaked my underside as much as the rain, now just a drizzle, had done to the rest of me. I was thoroughly miserable, wondering if I would ever get through the evening. I turned towards the town.
Traffic on the road included several cars with German plates. A good sign. I increased my pace. Maybe those were lights of the border itself, not a town. Maybe, if I were lucky.
There was a sign on the roadside, just where the buildings started, one word on it: “Cheb.”
I had walked in a gigantic circle.
All I had to show for several hours of trudging was the water that now chilled every part of me.
What to do?
Well, if this were Cheb, then the border must be the other way.

The night would only get stranger from this point on.  I’ll try to write about the entire rest of it in the next installment.  It was an eventful night, however, and it might prove necessary to divide it further.  Next, I should at least get my young self up to the border station.  Across into Germany?  We’ll see.

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