A CZECHOSLOVAK ODYSSEY
Handing over the passports, Josef wonders whether the customs officer has noticed his trembling hands. The officer’s eyes jump between the photo of a much younger Josef in the passport and the man in his forties perched on a seat of a quietly humming Ford Fiesta.
A ripple of disapproval flows through the officer’s face. Perhaps he isn’t fond of the smirk on Josef’s photo? Many interpreted it as sarcasm. The sign of a person who dabbles in mockery and refuses to take life too seriously. The British like it. No wonder, it’s been a part of their DNA. That’s why he fell in love with Old Blighty. The officer frowns. Clearly, sarcasm still isn’t en vogue in Czechoslovakia. Four decades of chanting “Long Live the Communist Party” must have left its mark.
The officer returns Josef’s passport and looks at Ise. She’s safe. A Czech customs officer won’t subject a German tourist to an interrogation. So why is his heart thumping? He wipes the sweat off his forehead. Border crossings have never been a joy. But today’s reaction is over the top. It’s worse than what he felt back in 1967 when, together with his Mutti, he smuggled forty-eight Reichsmarks to Germany. Mutti placed them inside oranges which, under the guise of a healthy eater, she carried in a transparent bag to the airplane. He wouldn’t pass as her offspring. Perspiring profusely while she remained deadpan, even when the officer peered into the bag.
Ise’s hand is warm. She does her best to look relaxed as the officer flicks through her passport. “What’s the purpose of your visit to Czechoslovakia?” asks the officer. Silence. They have a British number plate. Truth is a relative term. Josef mumbles something about a spa treatment in western Bohemia. Why does he still feel like a criminal? Even after his motherland wants to give him a
second chance? There’s tangible proof that no one wants to arrest him. The letter of Presidential Amnesty in his suitcase.
The officer returns their passports and signals that they can go. The red Ford Fiesta speeds towards Prague. Josef remembers the sickening feeling when Ise, almost a year ago, handed him a creased, heavily stamped envelope, saying: “Some post for you. From Czechoslovakia.” That chapter of his life has been closed. Ever since that balmy evening in July 1968 when he decided to spend the summer in the United Kingdom, picking strawberries. The Russian tanks provided a convenient excuse not to return.
The letter was sent by Mr Pokorny. It promised a great future. The lawyer would help Josef to get back the family mill, confiscated by the communists. The inheritance would need to be divided between three siblings, but it would translate into a decent retirement income. Would Josef be interested in discussing further?
In the distance, a highway maintenance guy is waving at the oncoming traffic. The road to Prague is closed and a detour to Pilsen is offered as an alternative. It’s a fine stopover for lunch, Josef decides. He knows the city well from his brickie days.
“How are you feeling?” asks Ise as they drive through rolling hills of Český les. If only he could provide a straightforward answer. Fear? No. He’s innocent. Two years ago he wasn’t but today he is. The communist regime is no longer, there’s nothing to fear. Delight then? Not exactly. He’s more curious than delighted. Nostalgic?
Washed onto the shores of his island home, after twenty years’ absence, how did Odysseus feel? Did he also, perhaps naively, expect to find his hometown unchanged? Or did he choose to wear a beggar disguise because he understood that nothing, not even a good reputation, could resist the test of time? All veterans, immigrants and travellers would have experienced Odysseus’ sense of dislocation. And that’s exactly what he feels. A tremendous sense of dislocation.
“Let me show you something,” says Josef after he’s managed to squeeze the Ford in between two rusty Skodas in Vinohrady. He’s always been fond of the leafy suburb perched above the city centre; its iridescent blues and greens, bundles of begonias and blade-like leaves propelled under his feet by a warm breeze.
More than three decades ago Prague welcome him with open arms. It didn’t matter that he was a penniless bricklayer with a bourgeois background, unpopular at the time.
Can the emotions he felt as an eight-year-old boy back in 1961 be repeated thirty years later? Are his favourite haunts still there? The treasured tavern where he spent lazy Sunday afternoons. The bready taste of the only lager on offer and homemade goulash so thick that it would make his spoon stand.
He used to know the waiters by name and would watch as they, bow tied and with large sweat marks on their white shirts, made their way through the drinking crowd. Most of them were hospitality veterans, ferrying large trays of heavy bear jugs as if they carried a stash of feathers. One could easily tell novices by their need to write down an order and stick small bits of paper in front of stamgasten so they didn’t forget how many they had already. The vivid memory brings in a fresh wave of curiosity and he ups his pace.
And then he sees it. On the corner. “Would you like to try our lunch menu?” asks a waitress, giving him a half smile. There are still a few tables in the sunny terrace. In the very front, a couple, sipping on some strange looking beverages. Faux bohemians discussing Havel. How important is it to live in truth? Who knows. In the middle, a large table of robust men, laughing heartily, most likely Germans. A quiet couple on the right-hand side; Swedish, possibly Danish. Are they poised to kiss?
The board in front of them advertises cheeseburgers, deep dish pizzas and two for one cocktails. His heart sinks. Realising that the waitress is still looking at them in expectation, Josef shakes his head, grabs Ise’s hand and quickly walks away. Perhaps Heraclitus was right. You won’t step into the same river twice.
He’s a former communist. The friend of a friend who offered to put Josef and Ise up. He happens to own a villa in Prague with an extraordinary collection which bears a strong resemblance with the kitchy aesthetic of John Waters. The exterior is mildly dilapidated, and tall sycamore trees along the perimeter of the property inject the surroundings with the sad beauty of bygone days. The interior, in contrast, is lavishly decorated. Gold and glitter sit next to goatskin.
The communist-turn-businessman isn’t doing badly. His wealth, he explains, can be attributed to plastic hooks which happen to be so fashionable that he barely meets the demand. Plastic hooks? Indeed, the host says, pointing at his extensive picture gallery, an affront to all senses. Josef’s eyes fall on a picture of a giant pink snake that looks vaguely phallic but his host quickly intervenes, focusing Josef’s attention on what matters. Plastic hooks. Every picture on the wall – whether it’s a giant nude with large hanging breasts or a tiny still life of fish and apples – is attached to the wall with plastic hooks. Josef’s “aha” is interpreted by his eager host as a sign of interest. A thirty-litre plastic bag full of plastic hooks is pushed in his direction. Would Josef be interested in taking the bag to the UK and participating in the international expansion?
Josef explains that the architecture practice in London keeps him more than occupied. He is too busy to consider another venture. His host seems undeterred. Can’t Josef see that this is a goldmine? In a few months, he would be able to buy a yacht. Or a holiday in the Caribbean. Only when he says “with the greatest respect” for the third time, does Josef realise his mistake. He’s too British! His countryman has no chance of understanding that Josef’s seemingly polite phrase is telling him that he’s an idiot. If Josef keeps beating about the bush he’ll turn into a plastic hook salesman. He musters some courage, and says that he’s not interested. Politely, but firmly. The effect is rather remarkable. The ominous plastic bag is removed from the scene and everyone’s happy.
How are the underprivileged copying with the fall of communism? Are they grappling now that their safety net has been removed? The communist-turn-businessman recommends that Josef visits Wilsoňák, the main train station. There’s no better place for Josef and Ise to feel the pulse of the nation.
“It’s an Art Nouveau building designed by the Czech architect Josef Fanta,” says Josef, playing a tour guide for Ise as they descend from Vinohrady. However, as they draw closer to the station building, his enthusiasm for the history of architecture wanes. The station is surrounded by an eclectic mix of people who are peddling everything under the sun. Elderly ladies from nearby villages offer self-grown fruit and vegetables, lads in leather jackets signal that they have currency to exchange, a chap in a pleated sweater and acrylic trousers points at a pile of erotic magazines in front of him.
The interior is swarming with hustlers, taxi drivers, foreign exchange traders, city guides and escorts. Everyone wants to grab their place under the sun. The place has a peculiar energy; a go-get-attitude screams at him from every corner.
Stuffy, the air inside is a peculiar blend of the smell of sweat and last night’s beer spilled on the floor. His breath gets heavy and a few droplets of sweat emerge on his forehead. Wrapping his wet hand over Ise’s, he leads them outside. Only when they’ve hit Wenceslas Square does he slow down.
“Some things never change,” he says, pointing at black streaks smeared over the facades of historic buildings. “The regime was more keen on overwriting than preserving history. It was all about creating ‘beautiful tomorrows’, that’s why so many historic buildings are shadows of their famous past,” he says, remembering the social narratives eagerly served to him by his school teacher. The past was portrayed as a period that belonged to fat factory owners who would tuck into roast goose while families working for them would sit down to a dinner of bread and water. Black streaks bring back a bagful of memories.
He realises that Czechoslovakia is a battleground of two conflicting forces. One that advocates the communist past needs to be crossed off, erased, removed, forgotten. Even at the cost of ignoring the quest for justice. It suggests that people are best to focus on the future and overwrite the previous era as if it never happened.
The other suggests a smooth transition simply doesn’t exist. Four decades of a corrosive regime is not like a stain on a piece of fabric. It takes far more than frequent washing to remove it. Because it isn’t only about transforming the system, it’s about changing people’s mindsets. One way of helping people to come to terms with the communist past is to punish those who served the regime. There is nothing more effective to help reinstall a successful consolidation of democracy, than to give a sense of justice.
They stop at a small cafe and order two cups of espresso. Gazing at people walking past them, he wonders. Have the last forty years of Czechoslovak history was a natural consequence of being a small country in the middle of Europe which has always been a victim of historic circumstances? Or does the communist rule have deeper roots? Is the nature of Czechs and Slovaks predisposed for living under oppression because they don’t understand freedom? Perhaps a bit of both.
© Slavka Bila
By day, Slavka works as a marketing consultant, advising technology firms on their marketing strategies and by night, she is a writer. Prior to her marketing career, Slavka worked as a freelance journalist. Her documentary programmes featured on the Slovak national radio and her travelogues were published in Slovak and New Zealand dailies. Slavka is working on a creative non-fiction novel Right, Wrong, Depends which features personal stories of people who spent their lives behind the Iron Curtain.”