Thursday, April 28, 2011

Prague, 1968: Memory

It eventually becomes possible to write about things that one has puzzled over for quite a long time, finally making some sense of them.  The year 1968 was, for me and many of my generation, quite formative.  It was bizarre in ways that can hardly be believed, even decades later--and I don't mean bizarre in terms of the major events--though it certainly was that, too.  It was bizarre for many of us personally, for American culture had turned topsy-turvy and it was possible to try things that, quite frankly, shouldn't even BE tried.  It was possible to do things that should never be done.  And things happened to us that, bluntly, should never be wished on anyone.
In this, the first piece in a series that will, I hope, cover the entire year through my own experiences, I write of my arrival in Prague, a couple of weeks before 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 year, and I hope I am doing it for others in these "memories."
August 6: The Czech border station was quite spare. I recall but a single man who stamped our passports with visa information and waved us on. There must have been more, but I don't remember them.
The entire country seemed relatively empty compared to the Austria behind us. The trees, starting some hundred meters or so from the border, looked as though they hid nothing. The pavement showed little sign of car traffic—certainly, there was none right then. In memory, it reminds me of a turn-off into an abandoned sub-development. If there was a village nearby, we couldn't see it.
We walked towards the main road to turn north, towards Prague. Up until then, we'd had great luck. Only minutes after getting to the autobahn entrance at Munich, a car had slowed, stopped, and later dropped us outside of Linz, 200 kilometers on. Almost immediate, another offered to take us up to the border, though the driver wasn't even going that way. This was my first experience hitch-hiking with a woman, and I was seeing the advantage.
She was a few years older than I, perhaps twenty-two or twenty-three to my sixteen. We had met that morning at the youth hostel in Munich, where I had gone to shower. I had had a particularly bad night, a horrible night, and wanted to get out of town as quickly as possible. She had heard that you could now get Czech visas at the border, and for almost nothing—for a week's stay, no less—but didn't want to hitch alone. By noon, we had agreed to be on our way.
Each of us traveled light. Her backpack was bigger than mine, but not by much. Mine was stuffed with two changes of clothes, a few toiletries, a long military-style raincoat, a couple of paperbacks I'd traded for just as we'd left Munich, and my stack of maps. I didn't need much else; when sleeping rough, as I sometimes did, too many belonging could prove a problem.
My companion, whose name slipped from my brain even before I returned to the States at the end of the month, told me that she didn't think our luck was going to hold. Not a single vehicle had passed on the road ahead during the five minutes we had walked towards it. Not only that, she said, but she was starting to have cramps.
At that point in my inexperience, I had no clue what she was talking about, but she was clearly in pain. A few minutes after we had turned north on the real road, she told me to stay where I was and disappeared into the woods. When she came back, I could tell from her face that things weren't much better for her, and she told me something had better come along soon. I was used to empty roads, rideless roads at least, and had learned to be a little patient. When I told her just to take it easy, she glared. I shrugged and we continued walking.
I don't know how long we trudged up the road, or how many vehicles passed us. I think there was a tractor, but could be confusing that with one a few days later. Maybe a car passed, or a truck or two. But that was it. The woman was feeling worse as time went on, and getting angrier about it. I probably sulked: Whatever was wrong with her wasn't my fault, and there wasn't anything I could do about it, anyway. My only concern was that I'd smoked the last of my cigarettes.
It must have been getting on towards evening when a bus overtook us from the south. My companion said “Fuck it,” stepped into the road, and waved it down. To my surprise, it stopped. The driver pushed the door open, and we climbed in.
The people inside—we soon saw they were all young men; they filled about a quarter of the seats of the bus—greeted us. First, all in the same language and then in a number of different ones. I recognized German, French, Italian, and finally English. They were Yugoslav students, they told us, heading for Budĕjovice where they were studying. We could accompany them.
They offered, after we had talked for a time and they had found we were exotic “Americans,” to give us a room for the night (they'd decided we were lovers—and refused to accept the woman's vehement denials, and mine, less loud). We accepted, though she gave me a look that made it clear I'd better stay clear.
Not only did they provide us with a room—twin bunks, she on top on one side, me on the lower opposite—but they bought us dinner, beer, and gave me a couple of packs of Russian cigarettes (my first experience of those monstrosities). The next morning, they gave us breakfast, then took us to the train station and helped us buy tickets for Prague. Three things made this palatable: First, I hadn't spent anything at all since entering the country, so had a little extra. Second, I did realize that there probably wouldn't be more traffic than the day before. And, finally, the cost of the ticket was hardly a cost at all.
That the woman was through with me was obvious as we got off the train. I had recognized this the day before, but we hardly knew each other, so wasn't really upset. Besides, I couldn't blame her. I knew she felt insulted, for I understood that I was way to young to be considered her lover without embarrassment on her part. I also knew that she had only needed me to help her get to Prague, and now we were there.
When we exited the main train station, she asked me, quite pointedly, what I planned on doing, and where I would go. I said that I didn't know, but that one of the Yugoslavs had given me directions to a student hostel I could probably afford. She said she had the address of another place, one she'd been given a few days earlier. We quickly agreed to go our separate ways on the steps outside, me to the right, she to the left. Out of her own guilt, I suspect, she suggested that we get together next day for lunch. As neither of us knew the town, we agreed to meet again right there.
As I walked, directions crumpled in my shirt pocket, I looked around. The city was gray, covered with soot, and somewhat crumbly. The buildings were older than what I was used to seeing anywhere but in the restored areas for tourists of what little of the rest of Europe I'd really seen. The doors were huge and heavy, none providing any indication of what lay behind. Eventually, I climbed on a tram that took me away from the old area. Getting off where directed, I found the hostel. It was more expensive than I thought it would be, but I figured I could swing it for one night. They took my passport and handed me the key to what proved to be a suite with living room, bedroom, kitchen, and (something I hadn't seen in quite some time) private bath.
I couldn't resist. For an hour, I bathed, then washed out all but the clothes I had on and hung them over the tub to dry.
Later, I went out, making my way back to the center of town, where I walked around, looking at things. I don't remember much of what I saw, other than the synagogue in whose graveyard Kafka is buried. I do remember the Charles Bridge and the castle on the other side, but the city frightened me a little. There was no one I could talk to, and very few people on the streets.
A bit hungry, my eye was more towards eating places than anything else. I did find a store, of sorts, and purchased a bottle of what looked like soda pop. But it was sticky with syrup and tasted so sweet it made me a little sick. When I set it down and abandoned it, I felt rather guilty: Though the city was grimy, there was no trash anywhere.
It's possible that I didn't eat until the next day. It wouldn't have been the first time that had happened. But I doubt it. I vaguely do remember managing to buy a few things and taking them back to the rooms—but that could have been another time in another country. Next morning I did check out, retrieving my passport and heading back to the center of town, where I did a little more wandering and looking. I was rather bored, though, and thought I'd probably move on, heading back towards Germany. 
 First, I'd meet the woman.
She was there, right when and where she said she'd be. When she saw me, she came running. She grabbed me by the elbow, saying, “We've got troubles. I talked to some people this morning. Our visas aren't for a week, but were simply for a day. We were supposed to get longer ones yesterday morning.”
Well, what do we do?”
I don't know. But we have to do it now.”
Who can we ask? I've yet to meet anyone, except for those Yugoslavs, who speaks any English. My little German and French won't help, even if we find people speaking those.”
I don't know. All I can think of is finding the U.S. Embassy and asking there.”
I had seen it, the day before, but didn't remember quite where. We set off in the general direction, and eventually did come across it.
They wouldn't let us in. Not that I blame them. Even though I had washed my clothes as best I could, they still weren't much better than rags, and my hair was shoulder-length--a no-no to many Americans of the time. She also had long hair, was dressed in jeans. We looked to the Marine guard (I am sure) like we belonged in Haight-Ashbury, not Prague, and, more rightly, in jail. The best he could do, he said, was direct us to a police station down the way.
There, after a number of hints and proddings, the woman realized that she could, for a small bribe beyond the cost of a visa, extend hers for a week, even though “technically” that should not be allowed (there was someone there with rudimentary German). For me, because I could not afford that, they “relented” and gave me until midnight to get out of the country.
I headed back to the train station as quickly as I could.

And there commenced one of the longest and strangest twenty-four hours I ever hope to experience. It included guns and trains, coal dust and rain, a presidential nomination and a former SS officer who had learned perfect English as a prisoner of war. It got me out of the country and to Nuremburg, but without sleep. It got me two new friends there, an Italian and a Brit, with whom I split a liter of vodka and a small bottle of mixer. It was exhausting, but it will have to wait until my next small bit of free time for writing.

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