On November 20, 1969, I boarded a train heading out of East Berlin toward Istanbul. Beside me was a man from Japan who had days earlier advised me of making this particular connection. After passing through the outskirts of Dresden, we approached and crossed into Czechoslovakia. Then my traveling companion suggested that we stop over in Prague. He clearly knew things about the route, and there was no way that I would act other than by this advice. We got off and shared a room, but after a couple of days he was ready to move on while I had become infatuated with this Pearl of Bohemia.
Communal life had denied most Czechs the luxury of an automobile, but with that denial Prague’s streets had been left as virtual walkways. Those I tirelessly followed back to other times: to where Mozart had lived and composed; to a square with an extraordinary astronomical clock that rewarded those who attended the hour with a file of statuettes; and to a cemetery wherein rested not only deceased members of the Jewish Ghetto, but once upon a time, an inanimate pile of junk held together by mud to form a monstrous appearance. It was then that rabbi, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, needing to have something get done, would merely write his instructions down, fold up the paper, and stick it in that pile of junk at what appeared to be a mouth. I am certain that up to this point all that I have told you is true, but I was not there to see that monster trudging through the streets of Prague fulfilling the notes instructions; nor to hear the screams of those who had on other occasions themselves been tormentors.
Before leaving for long-term lodgings, I needed to make a pit stop and came upon two doors marked muži and žena. With no little urgency, I stood pondering what to do; and then a beautiful, fashionably dressed woman emerged, along with a way to resolve the ambiguity and meet her. I pointed to the doors and to myself and said, “Muži? . . . žena?” She said something which I presume was in Czech, then held back only slightly a smile on her face. . . . One . . . Two . . . Three . . . I knew what had just happened. I was a muži (not a very bright muži as muži go but a muži, nonetheless), and she had by then vanished.
Before the war (1938-1945) Anna and her husband, a doctor, had acquired a beautiful home with multiple floors surrounding a central atrium. Under communism their home had been converted into apartments: one of which would be hers or should I say at her disposal. In compensation she had been permitted to rent a room in that unit to anyone visiting Prague. Guided by a tourism bureau, I had walked into her life and into that room; the arrangement worked well for both of us.
Nearby the cemetery was the Old New Synagogue. When I finally entered its sanctuary, my mouth dropped. On a smaller scale and by virtue of its magnificent ironwork, and still further, in the context of its own simplicity; the awe that I felt was comparable even to that incurred when I beheld Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral (London). There was notice of a Friday evening service in the old sanctuary, and I was thrilled at the possibility of attending. I would return and make that minion: the required ten males for initiating a service. When I arrived in the evening someone ushered me into an area hollowed out of rock. That recess was, in fact, the old synagogue or all that was left of it. What I had visited earlier was the youthful, 13th century, new synagogue.
One evening while walking the streets, I heard music and followed it to a dance hall. I was not allowed in until they realized that I was an American. There must have been several hundred in attendance: much like today’s raves. I asked someone to dance but was turned down. Then I moved to another large room with people milling about before a huge screen showing an educational narrative of . . . well, I didn’t speak Czech and there were no subtitles, but judging from the projected images, what was being described were the various positions available for sexual intercourse. It was handled much like an earth science lesson on the merging of two continents. There may have been mention of affection or sexually transmitted disease; but it was too matter of fact for the former and lacked the necessary visual breaks of the latter. I soon left and called it a night.
Although Czechoslovakia and German-speaking Austria had once been conjoined by the House of Hapsburg, and my conversations with Anna were in German; leading with that language to a younger generation hadn’t been such a great idea. I knew about the spring of Alexander Dubček and Prague, but was out of the States in August of 1968 and may have missed its end. The troops standing guard about the city were mistaken by me to be typical of a communist regime and hence Czech. I would soon make friends and have that illusion unraveled. The guards had actually been part of Warsaw Pact forces, including some from of all places, East Germany.
Throughout that year, I had occasionally visited local mathematics libraries as my own imagined entry into a nation’s stream of life. Upon noticing Univerzita Karlova (Charles University) on a city map, I headed there, finally resting my weary legs at a bench in a university passageway. After a while, a student came up and spoke to me. We quickly zeroed in on French as our common tongue, and exchanged small talk about who each of us were. Fortunately, Milada’s French was better than mine; otherwise our strained conversation would have been simply impossible. Soon she would introduce me to the Jans (henceforth Jan and Jan C.) and through them, to others. There would be tours, and beer halls and even political discussions, but never public, political discussions. As for visiting a local mathematics library, that would be put on hold until my return five months later at the end of May 1970.
Jan spoke English and most of my insights about what was around me came from him, but Milada turned my head. Her warmth and dignity touched a primordial chord within; nonetheless, I would soon discount the way I felt about her. One day when looking up at a scaffolded building, I realized that staying in Prague would mean relinquishing much; it would be I up there working on the side of that building. Then this thought snuck in: “Prague had enraptured me; she was easily a part of that, but that was also a part of her.” I never imagined it possible nor even wanted to take her away from this legacy that had really predated both Nazism and Communism.
Soon the soldiers stationed about the city became occupiers. While walking pass one, Jan and I spoke of him; and suddenly Jan approached and in Russian reproached him. He stood pale and said nothing. Actually throughout my stay in Europe and the Middle East, I would easily ride a wave of respect gained simply in my being an American, but there would be none such in Prague for that soldier.
Jan and others once took me to a solidly walled beer hall which they claimed had predated Columbus’s voyage to America. I ordered [in Czech] a small beer and must have been noticed noticing the barmaid. Jan, definitely a romantic, hatched a bizarre scheme in his head; it wouldn’t be the last time. He said something to me in Czech as though I were supposed to understand it; no, I was supposed to learn it. “Then what?” I asked. He did not refer to the great French swordsman nor perhaps had I even heard of Cyrano de Bergerac; but I was to approach her not far from where he sat, speak to her the phrase, and he (without benefit of sword or schnoz) would Cyrano me through. I did; he did; she didn’t.
One morning Anna spoke to me of a Jewish museum, and I set out for it. What I found was, by virtue of its tight packing, more storage facility than museum. It overflowed with the well crafted accouterments of religious service. Stripped from European synagogues during the holocaust, each opened as a window onto its own tale of heaven upstaged by hell; but I walked past them oblivious to another hell: that from which I was peering, the collection itself as an intimation of annihilation. Perhaps there hadn‘t been guidance in English or it had gone unnoticed, but I misunderstood all of it. For me it had been a sanctuary for remnants of destroyed synagogues, now brought together by the Czech people. I cannot recall where I was when the truth finally gnawed its way through to me, but it was near the bottom of wherever I was.
When traveling around Europe and the Middle East, I never watched TV or read newspapers; anything, beyond what surrounded me, would have been an overload. One exception was on the day that Jan spoke to me of a draft lottery that had taken place in the States. I was out of graduate school and presumed that my deferment had lapsed. As I headed for the U.S. information center, Jan assured me that I would be noticed and perhaps followed afterward. It never happened. . . . Well, it didn’t seem to have happened.
Inside was an attendant: not an American; by me, not even a Czech. He pointed to a rack of newspapers and I was able to find the lottery results for my birthday April 2nd: 271st. There would be no need for me to cut this journey short; I would not be drafted. Was I even in it? I would wonder about that years later. At some point, I had taken a physical, and upon the drawing of blood, had passed out—not a good sign. Furthermore, my London decision to stay in Europe after the Summer (1969) included no draft board notification of a de facto end to my school deferment.
By then it was almost winter, and other friends were expecting me in Istanbul. Soon I was on a train heading to link up in Belgrade with the Orient Express: Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Sophia and then Istanbul. My departure from Vienna was delayed when I contracted die grippe. All I knew was that die grippe must have meant the flu from hell. That was until the summer of 2009 when the northern hemisphere was anticipating the re-emergence of H1N1. There it was in Wikipedia: during 1968-9, H3N2 or the Hong Kong flu afflicted mankind with its third modern, devastating influenza. It returned in late 1969 for me and, in early 1970, for the elderly Bertrand Russel whom it took. Actually grip or grippe are old, German and English terms for influenza.
Having returned to health, I boarded a train crossing back behind the Iron Curtain, stopping overnight in Budapest, and arriving late the next day at Sophia in a light drizzle. A fog hovered over the city and although exhausted, I walked along one of its larger streets up to a point where it seemed to disappear into nothingness. Being hungry I turned around and headed back, stopping at a restaurant not far from where I would finally sleep.
As I ate, two locals approached and in English offered to buy me a drink. People living under Communism rarely traveled between countries and easily spotted someone who could. On the other hand, I was eating and they may merely have overheard me ordering. That was it: my order and their offer had been in English. Our conversation is lost to me but for a mutual disappointment in the limitation setting in. I had been on trains since Budapest with what seemed like an hour stop at the Bulgarian border. There I had been taken off the train, brought into an office, asked questions and intermittently left to twiddle my thumbs.
Now I was looking through droopy eyes at a pair of towheads, enough alike to be sisters, thinking of the bed around the corner waiting, but only for me. I thanked them, said good-bye, returned to my room, to its bed, to its lumps and dosed off.
The next day the fog had lifted and I walked down that grand street to find out why it seemed to end in a void. There rising before me was a mountain that had only last night been enshrouded in fog. I abandoned my longer stay to the drizzle, failing to respond to its actual clearing up. The train pulled away into a brighter and brighter day, so that as I crossed the frontier, I was left with a pristine memory of Bulgaria. There customs admonished me for misrepresenting the length of my stay. Perhaps that is why I and the entire train were held up for an hour just the day before: my visa. Oops!
Now the Orient Express was in Turkey, rolling towards Turks and Turkish memories.
It had all started at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, with a string of misjudgments that eventually brought us all together. Growing up I was argumentative except on those occasions when I was reduced to such by relatives hoping to distract attention from what I had to say. Noticing the intense discussions in scattered groups about the Corner, I thought to myself, “I can handle this.” Actually I couldn’t, and for my effort, got laced into, chewed up and spat out. There, where I landed, was Michael who took me in and comforted me. No . . . actually first he comforted me; then he took me in. During the weeks that followed, he seemed to encounter a remarkable series of unfortunate circumstances, but then with Michael, things were never what they seemed.
The Express rolled on through the bleak, Turkish landscape of early January, and I, with nothing to read, nodded off back to an even earlier year and to the Kensington Central Library.
It was the Summer of 1968, and I was wrapping up my first trip to Europe in London, staying at a room near the High Street Kensington Underground Station. One day at that library, I engaged someone in a conversation that lasted through that Summer and briefly into the next. I had her phone number but can’t recall ever picking her up at her flat. Maribé and I would arrange a place to meet, and when the day or evening had ended, she would make sure that I could find my way back. Then that Underground, which had brought us together, would take her away.
Compounding the enigma, I am unsure that I ever really knew her family name. Way too far into our relationship, I had finally asked her what it was, and without hesitation she answered; but beyond Marìa Beatriz, her name continued instantly too far ahead of my pencil. She had grown up in Oporto, Portugal where her father fished the Atlantic and mined for emeralds.
Not being able to keep up with her wasn’t exactly new, and in that sense, much of her remained unknown. She spoke five languages (Portuguese, German, English, French and Italian), and since her English at midway was quite fine, what I missed may well have been my problem; and of course, she was memorable, so I look back from time to time. Now, her words are dinned by the percussive roll of wheels on tracks. Istanbul is much further from the Bulgarian border than I imagined, but what do I care.
When looking for a room in London in July of 1969, I went to my former residence hoping to find something in that familiar location, but it had by then become dedicated to the housing of apprentices from Turkey. Cengiz and a dozen or so others, had been training near Victoria Station, London in all the skills required to run a hotel. There was no way that I could stay there but a time would come when I did stay just the same.
After meeting them, I wandered over to Marble Arch and Speaker’s Corner where one man ranted at me mercilessly and another, Michael, came upon his next mark. Now I remember speaking of him to Maribé, after I had helped him out of his first difficulty; but for forty years that conversation would remain hazy. It was to be our last.
Often when recollecting our time together, her words make a last effort and their meaning sneaks through. There was a place she wanted to surprise me with; it turned out to be the British Museum. The collection was magnificent, but when we came upon the mummified remains of an Egyptian, she was noticeably upset. For her it was much as though a corpse had been robbed from its grave and displayed under glass for our curiosity. No, no, that’s . . . . Well, I forget what I said, but the worst two misses were yet to come.
She shared with me a fear: women in London were being kidnapped into servitude. I had never heard of anything of the sort, and insisted that it could not be so very common. The subject was dropped, but in time I would read of trafficking in human lives, and the true nature of her fear would dawn on me. She had said servitude, but I had somehow heard washing, sweeping and other Cinderella chores; never rape, I had never even thought of rape.
As on that train, she would drop in on me from time to time and disappear; until one day, friends asked about the London swindle and just as quickly were off on a phone call. While waiting I prepared what I would say to them, and the last time that I saw Maribé came back with a new clarity. She was asking me unobtrusively if I really knew much about this man. I wish that I could remember what I did say and forget what I had thought: that Maribé had been distant of late and that Michael offered an introduction to English life. I had never adjusted to the question itself. She had been concerned about my being taken in, but if also about my time being taken from her, then what I was about to stuff into Michael’s pocket was a pittance.
Well, a couple of weeks later, I was broke and gave up a room which I had rented from an Indian couple. Michael had been looking for me there, and in retrospect, the husband had confided his own doubt of him. Somehow he knew of Maribé since he suggested that I seek financial help from her. It didn’t feel right to me; perhaps, too Michaelesque. Instead I returned to my old haunt in Kensington, and ended up mooching off perfect strangers: its temporary Turkish community. When I told them about Michael, they accepted the change in circumstance, and also me. Cengiz, Selim, and Ertugrul shared their room, food, and money
Shortly afterwards, I set out for Michael’s lodging to check out the story. Fearing that I would be walking into a den of thieves, Cengiz sent along Big Ali as an escort. Trying to comfort me, Ali showed his big, concealed knife, and that clearly worried me more than getting anything back from wherever it might find itself. Still I accepted the escort.
On arrival, I asked the concierge if Michael lived there and was answered with another question: “How much did he take from you?” Up to that moment, I had held a remote trust that it would all be cleared up, but now a string of victims and law officers would convince me of how lucky I had been to have lost so little. Ali and I returned to Kensington.
In a day or two the phone rang; it was Michael. Perhaps I had left a phone number at his former residence; who knows. Now he was at the High Street Kensington Station and needed directions. I told him that I’d come to him, and that he should stay put. “Don’t worry about my staying put, I haven’t any place to stay tonight:” was his unexpected response. Still convinced that he belonged to a gang, about twenty Turks went ahead, fanning out and blending into the station area.
I cannot remember what happened next, or whether Big Ali was with them or if he even had his knife; but soon Michael and his escort were up in one of the rooms, Turkish words were bouncing around and someone was closing the windows, drawing the curtains. As he generated each illusion it was immediately translated into Turkish. There was excitement in the air and I was caught up in it, but much less than nothing at all would come of it. It was decided that he’d be watched all night and the next morning . . . . Well, now I realize that I had spent too much time with him and will not compound the error even in recollection.
I stayed with the Turks until money arrived, and during that particular period, chose not to return to the States and higher education, but rather to travel through Europe, linking up with them in Istanbul: as there I was approaching the Istanbul station, Cengiz, and the others.