Welcome to Czechoslovakia

Posted: October 22, 2014 at 5:05 am

“Nick,” I said over a Belgian Mort Subite beer, “I have to go to Czechoslovakia next week. Sam wants me to scout around and find some bike routes, try the food, stuff like that. A reconnaissance mission. He wants to run a bike tour there next year, so I’m going to set it up. Do you wanna come, if I pay? He gave me quite a bit of money.”

Une autre bière, s’il vous plait,” he said to the tuxedoed waiter. “I’m free next week, so maybe,” he said to me. “Where do we start in Czechoslovakia?”

“We have to go to Prague first to meet with someone from the tourism bureau.”

“There’s a train with a dining car that has a great wine list running between Paris and Vienna, which is on the way to Prague. OK, I’ll go.”

Stopping in Vienna, we stayed a night with Nickipedia’s college roommate Andy, an Estonian-American working for Radio Free Europe. Andy was an expert in Soviet affairs, and asked us to deliver a package to some native Czechs in Prague. Usually when someone asks me to deliver a mysterious package to people I don’t know across international boundaries into a communist country, I am mildly suspicious.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” said Andy, laughing. “Look, it’s USA Today, Le Monde, a hot rod magazine, some zippers and other sewing stuff, and a bunch of plastic bags.”

“I understand Western newspapers and magazines are unusual in Czechoslovakia, and I can guess that sewing supplies aren’t plentiful. But I don’t get the plastic bags,” Nickipedia said.

“These aren’t merely plastic bags,” said Andy. “These are plastic bags with writing on them. See, they have the name of the supermarket where I usually shop. This one’s from Steffl department store. There’s no advertising in a communist country, and there’s no reason to try to drum up more business or show the name of a store. But these bags, with writing, will be the coolest bags in Prague, as they obviously come from the West. My friends will use these bags every day until they disintegrate. They’re precious.”

If I had been asked to transport drugs or military secrets on microfilm, I would have been nervous as our train approached the Czechoslovakian border. If I had known better, I would have been worried. The train went through a gate in a heavy metal fence, 10 feet tall, topped with barbed wire. The word ‘POZOR’ was written on several large signs.

“This ‘Pozor’ thing seems to be fairly important, Nick. What do you think it means?” I asked.

“I have my dictionary, remember? Let’s see….ahhh….‘pozor’ means ‘warning.’ As in ‘Pozor, Minefield.’ We’ve crossed the border and if the fence and the barbed wire and the guard towers won’t stop a Czech from escaping, the minefield should do the trick.”

“I see there’s another fence ahead of the train. More barbed wire,” I said, as the train came to a sudden stop. “Pozor.”

The rest of the people on the train were locals, as evidenced by their lack of wearable logos. They didn’t look surprised by the stoppage, but a few glanced around furtively. Suddenly, the whole train jumped ahead a foot, and with a scraping of metal on metal, the engine disengaged from our car and left us sitting in what we assumed was a minefield surrounded by barbed wire. As we fretted about losing our ride, the car shook again and all of the cars behind us were detached and pulled back towards Vienna. We were now one single car, attached to no other, straddling the border, waiting. There was zero chance anyone was ready to venture off of that train car. After 15 minutes, the door at the front of the car, and the one at the back simultaneously opened, each admitting a soldier with a finger on a machine gun trigger.

“Pozor,” said Nickipedia quietly.

Having machine gun toting soldiers approach you from the only two exits on a train is a claustrophobic experience. The soldiers reviewed everyone’s passports, and then painstakingly opened up each piece of luggage of every passenger (save two), and laid out the contents on the empty seats. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but I was glad that Nickipedia and I, and our subversive newspapers and magazines, were spared this scrutiny. At the end of the luggage examination an hour later, a couple of the passengers were escorted off of the train while we intently examined the tops of our shoes. Without another word, the soldiers left the car. An engine coupled with our car and we were finally pulled over the border. Welcome to Czechoslovakia. Pozor.