Posted by: patenttranslator | February 1, 2015

No Direction Home


It’s only after we have lost everything that we are free to do anything.

Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

This tunnel on the border between a country that was then named Yugoslavia, and Austria, called Loiblpass in German, was the last thing I saw 34 years ago as I was attempting to illegally escape from a country that was then named Czechoslovakia to the West. Up until the moment when I passed through this tunnel, I still could have returned to my joke of a job at the Oriental Institute in Prague, where I was not asked to do much of anything as long as I showed up on time and pretended to be reading and looking for what I was told to look for in Japanese newspapers. I did that, but when nobody was looking, I was reading books about Canada and Australia as I thought that either of these countries would probably be my ultimate destination if my plan works. I did not know anybody in any of these countries, but I had a feeling that if my plan works, I will probably leave Europe and try my luck on another continent.

Once I passed through this tunnel, there was no way back because such an escape was punishable by a year and a half in prison. I had a valid passport, but my “exit visa”, a very important stamp if you carried the green Czechoslovak passport in 1981, was good only for Yugoslavia. I did not have an entry visa for Austria. In my naiveté I thought that if Yugoslav immigration stopped me and sent me back, I would somehow find a way to cross the border on foot. When I was looking at the map in our cozy apartment in Prague, only about 15 minutes by the streetcar from a short walk to the Castle and so many places that will always hold so many memories for me, I did not realize that the border was a steep, impassable mountain range.

Officially, I was spending 10 vacation days with my girlfriend of three years, whom I was certain to marry one day, on the beach of Adriatic coast near the town of Rabac. As one of her girlfriends put it just before we left, “Vy dva se k sobě hrozně hodíte” (You two were simply made for each other).

Every day when we went to our restaurant to fuel up on prepaid breakfast for another day of lazing on the beach and swimming in the blue sea, surrounded mostly by German and Austrian tourists, there were more and more empty tables at the restaurant room reserved at this time for the Czech tour group. Some people who planned the same thing as I did left the second day, others after only a few days. I was still there for breakfast on the morning of the ninth day when the room was about half empty. I was still there because I was hoping that my girlfriend would join me. We were both vacillating and up until the last day, each of us could have gone either way. But she could not live without Prague, her family, her language and her friends. I figured in my youthful impatience that I could live without all of that, but that I could not live without being able to travel to wherever I wanted to go without “exit visas”, which were obligatory and next to impossible to obtain behind the Iron Curtain. I did not know that all I had to do was wait 8 years and the Berlin Wall would come down after almost half a century. I thought that it would be there for another half century. Most people thought so, including the CIA.

For ten days, each of us was trying, gently, inconspicuously, but persistently, to finally change the mind of the other person. On the morning of the tenth day, she woke me at 6 AM by making love to me, perhaps because she thought that a morning of passionate lovemaking would finally make me change my mind. But she did not change my mind, and I did not change hers either. Maybe she just wanted both of us to have a lasting memory.

After I had to run away like a thief as I could no longer stand looking at her tears when we were saying goodbye to each other, I took a bus from Rabac to Rijeka, from Rijeka to Ljubljana, and from Ljubljana to a little town near the Austrian border called Tržić. The tunnel to Austria was just above the town.

It was Friday afternoon and the bus was full of Slovenian teens who were going home from a high school. As I was watching the kids who were talking up a storm, joking and laughing, obviously looking forward to spending another fun weekend at home, I realized, for the first but not the last time in my life, that there was no direction home for me anymore.

I got off the bus at the main square in Tržić, walked up a hill following the road signs and started hitchhiking after I found a turn in the road where cars had to slow down. It only took me about 10 minutes before a Yugoslavian driver who was going across the border stopped for me. Immigration control was just in front of the tunnel. The man in uniform first checked the driver and then he asked for my passport. He was leafing through it twice, looking for a visa stamp for Austria, then he gave me a knowing look and handed the green passport back to me with the single word “hvala” (thank you).

As we were going through the tunnel, I was a little bit dizzy from what just happened and from the speed at which we were passing the overhead lights in the tunnel. When we stopped at the checkpoint on the other side in Austria, I was sitting in the back seat, trying to make myself invisible, or at least as inconspicuous as possible. And it seemed to be working. The immigration officer quickly checked the driver’s papers and then stepped back from the car as if he were getting ready to wave the car through. But then, as the magic of my invisibility stopped working, he finally noticed me sitting in the back seat and put out his hand to check my passport too. But when he saw that I was holding up some kind of passport to give it to him through the open window, he reversed his decision and simply waved the car through. I don’t know why he did that. Maybe he knew what was going on, or maybe passports of other countries that did not need an entry visa had a similar color. Or maybe he was just pressed for time, although I did not see any car behind us.

In any case, I made it. When I got off the car on the other side of the border, I saw that I would never have been able to cross the huge mountain on the border on foot. I would either have to find a different place to try to do that, or go back to Beograd to ask for an Austrian visa. But that would take time and money, and I had very little money on me.

My magical cloak of invisibility would still work for me during my escape on several more occasions. After I got to Vienna, I decided to continue to West Germany instead of staying in Austria because I did not like the way the Austrians I met during my two days and one night in Vienna were interacting with me. I figured that Austrians would be quite happy to get rid of another refugee, but I had only something like 15 dollars left in my pocket, not enough to get by train all the way to Linz, the closest town to the German border. So I bought a ticket to St. Pölten because the fare was just under 15 dollars. When the train conductor came to check the tickets after St. Pölten, as he was asking me for my ticket and as I was taking it out of my shirt pocket to give it to him, something clicked in his brain and he realized that he had already checked my ticket – without remembering what was my last stop. So he just said “Danke” and left the train compartment. And that was how I was able to make it by train all the way to Linz.

After I got off at the train station in Linz, I was walking again to find a good spot for hitchhiking while following the road signs. One of the signs that I saw along the way told me that the distance from Linz to Český Krumlov, the town where I grew up, was only 240 kilometers (about 150 miles). It takes only two hours by car now to get from one place to the other and they don’t really stop cars on the border any more, unless something appears to be suspicious. But it took me two weeks to travel that far 34 years ago and I had to go through Hungary and Yugoslavia first. This was the second, but not the last time, when I realized that there was no direction home for me, at least not yet.

The third or fourth time when my magical cloak of invisibility worked perfectly again during my harrowing journey (depending on how I count the first stop on the Yugoslavian side of the border with Austria) was on the border with Germany.

When I told my story to a young Austrian who stopped his car for me on the road just behind Linz, he said that he was going to help me to get across the border. He was a sales rep selling in Bavaria musical instruments that were made in Austria. I still have his business card somewhere, it has a picture of a harmonica on it.

He said to me in German:”Sit in the car and try to make yourself inconspicuous”. I had plenty of practice in doing precisely that during the last two days. “If I go to the Customs Office with my stuff and paperwork, they will probably not even bother to check my car”.

And they didn’t. Once we crossed the German border without being stopped, he took out a bottle of liquor from the glove compartment and offered it to me with a grin on his face and the words “Magst Du Whisky?” I gratefully accepted. It tasted so good!!!

By the afternoon I made it by to Munich by hitchhiking, and although I was able to get residence permit in Germany within about two weeks, I decided to continue my journey to another continent as was the original plan and applied for emigration to Canada, Australia and United States.

By the time I received an invitation to an interview at the Canadian embassy, I already had a positive result from my interview at the US embassy in Frankfurt and after a little over a year in Germany where I spent the last six months working as a civilian employee for US army (this was the easiest job to get), I was ready for the next leg of my journey. I arrived in San Francisco with about 500 dollars in my pocket, about ten times more than the financial means that were at my disposal to finance the initial leg of my intercontinental trip on the Yugoslavian side of the border with Austria in the little town of Tržić.

So after about a year and a half, instead of sitting at my desk at the Oriental Institute in Prague and preparing materials for another very important thesis about this or that, I was sitting at the Visitor Information Center in San Francisco, dispensing advice in English, Japanese, German and French (occasionally also in Polish or Russian, almost never in Czech) to tourists looking for an inexpensive but comfortable and convenient hotel, a perfect restaurant, directions for going to Fisherman’s Wharf, or driving directions to the Winchester Mystery House, the Wine Country or Yosemite. Within a few month, I became an expert on tourist traps in an around San Francisco, which became my new new home for the next 10 years.

I still sometime have the feeling that I first experienced on the bus from Lubljana to Tržić, the strange feeling that I don’t know in which direction is my home, and every time when it happens, it is still confusing.

But I got used to it by now, and instead of being confused by it or sad about it, I just tell myself that it is OK to lose your sense of the direction home at some point in your life, because that is the price that people who are lucky enough to have more homes than just one simply have to pay first.


  1. As someone who was whisked out of Czechoslovakia in 1948 by his English mother and would not see his Czech father again until 1973 when, based to a sudden intuition that I must go NOW, I returned by hitchiking from the Dordogne in South West France, where I’d been visiting a long-term native artist friend whom I had first met 11 years earlier in Paris, I can empathise with the experiences that you describe so potently.
    I had the miraculous good fortune to catch a ride from the point to which Louis had brought me right to my father’s door in Prague’s “New Town – Nove Mesto” which may be newer than the Old Town but hardly looked new or fresh to me in those Communist times.
    My father had been warned of my upcoming visit by a message which reached him when he was recovering in hospital from an attempted suicide so my intuition had been right-on-the button. (Sad to say that eventually he DID kill himself following the breakdown of his marriage to a partner of about my age being the trigger for that).
    Our visit together was marvellous, however, and I brought back fresh news to my Mother and my Aunt – who had also lived in Prague and who, with her Czech husband who had fought with the Free Czech Forces in Western Europe during the 2nd WW, shared a flat with us in London.
    I returned “permanently” to the Czech Republic after having travelled far and wide across 4 continents and turning my hand to many different kinds of work-activities from cooking in a pension in Oaxaca to helping to create and run the New York Open Center where I also practiced Shiatsu which I also studied in NYC with Wataru Ohashi whom I have also hosted as a teacher when he comes here and always visit whenever I am in NYC – either for a “Session” or a social visit.
    I’m certain you are familiar with the Czech National anthem “Kde Domov Muj?” – I also consider it as my own personal anthem.
    All the Very Best!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thank you for this story, Steve. Those like you, who had the courage to vote with their feet, were the catalysts for the best of European freedoms today and ultimately changing the lives of US schoolchildren like me who grew up with “duck and cover” and the feeling of inevitability for nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Thank you, Steve, for telling us this moving story.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. This post is very touching, and it’s incredible to realize it happened only 34 years ago. I hope one day we’ll all just be citizens of the world, the idea of states, nations and countries is so passée.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Dear Steve, Many thanks for sending me the “You Only Live Once” post in the original format. Apart from adding it to my personal translation resources I’m sharing it with my daughter Tara who lived with me in Prague for several years and is now living in NYC where she was born. She has done quite a lot of translating in her time. She studied Czech and Spanish and became an “Oxford Scholar” but left prematurely to return to NYC to look after her mother who was suffering from a terminal illness and never did make it back to Oxford. She translates Czech to English but her main work is practicing Shiatsu which she studied with my former teacher in NY, Wataru Ohashi – a very funny survivor of Hiroshima who remains a great friend and sometimes comes to teach here too. I’m also sharing it with my ex son-in-law Ludek who was is also a translator of English to Czech and who lived in NY with Tara but returned here after her mother’s sad death. My long-term partner Vlad’ka and I have also had plenty to deal with – recently her father’s death – but we do manage to survive with our 3 dogs and 4 cats and working pretty hard translating. In fact I must stop here because it’s almost 1 a.m. and I’ve just been reminded that we have have to deliver 5 pages at the crack-of-dawn tomorrow. All the very Best! Michal P.S. My belief-system does include reincarnation and perhaps, if I’m right, we may be able to discuss that in another lifetime?:)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “My belief-system does include reincarnation and perhaps, if I’m right, we may be able to discuss that in another lifetime?:)”

    Alas, my belief system does not include reincarnation, so this option does not look like a promising possibility.

    But I am planning to go to Bordeaux, France to a translators’ conference (IAPTI) in early September and if possible also to Prague and Cesky Krumlov after that for a few days, so maybe we could meet in Prague or where you live if it is not too far (still within this life time to be on the safe side) and discuss things like that then.

    I am pretty sure I will go to France, but not really sure about good old Czecho yet. Hopefully, I will be able to do both.

    Or maybe you could make it to the conference in Bordeaux from September 3rd to 5th. It does not have an official website yet, but if you have a Facebook account, you can find out more about it by Googling “IAPTI conference in Bordeaux”.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Bordeaux would be great but I’m not up for much travelling these days, alas, mainly because of dodgy health. I’d be delighted to meet you in my hometown, Kutná Hora, which has some decent pensions and hotels but meeting in Prague would be no problem. I don’t go there so often these days but there is always something interesting going on and plenty of friends not all of whom are busy at the same time.
    My ex son-in-law, who these days is a Rolfer, lives there, for example and is a good friend. He lived with my daughter in NYC during a period in which my ex-wife was dying a very painful death and needed 24/24 care which stymied their relationship considerably :(.
    I’ll gladly give you my direct contact #s/e-mail addresses via skype if there’s a simple way to do that. Unfortunately my Mac’s loudspeaker has given up the ghost but my partner’s computer will do the trick.
    All the Best for now! We’ve got to attack the work-mountain and put the world to rights so we’re pretty busy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Refreshing change of pace! I follow your more usual rants, humor, and insights with great interest, but this time I enjoyed hearing something about your background, what made you the person you are today, getting to know you a bit better. Exciting story you’ve got — you should consider crafting it as a piece of creative nonfiction to publish in an essay e-zine or journal!
    — Catherine

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for your comment, Catherine.

    “you should consider crafting it as a piece of creative nonfiction to publish in an essay e-zine or journal!”

    I just needed to share with somebody … because otherwise it would be almost as if it never happened.

    A few thousand people will probably read it over time (most of my better posts are read that many times), and that’s all I need.

    OTOH, if Hollywood offered me a million dollars for copyrights to my story, I am pretty sure I would not turn them down.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Wow, what a life story! An so wonderfully told! It’s amazing that you remember the details so vividly even after 30+ years!

    Could I ask a question or two, Steve?
    (1) How old were you at the time of your “great escape”?
    (2) You didn’t mention any of your immediate family members (other than your girlfriend at the time) that, I suppose, you had to leave behind. How did it feel leaving them and how long was it before you heard from them/saw them again?

    Also, you mention that your green Czechoslovak passport was good only for Yugoslavia, but you had to cross the Hungarian border first. That did not pose a problem?

    Finally, since this is, after all, a blog about languages and translation, I think it is appropriate to contribute with some (very minor) corrections:
    Lubljana = Ljubljana
    Trzic = Tržić

    Thanks for your posts, Steve, I admit I don’t read your blog as often as I used to when I was more seriously involved in the “translation industry” (heh), but as a proponent of effective communication (I’m a university professor) and a no-bullshit approach to things, your posts are a great inspiration to me!

    Zagreb, Croatia

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hi Pavle:

    (1) I was 28.

    (2) I saw my family again after the fall of the Berlin Wall when I returned to my old home with my US passport for the first time in 1990.

    (3) I was able to travel (without a special exit visa) only to East Block countries + I had an exit visa for Yugoslavia. That was it.

    (4) It is always appropriate to use correct spelling, and I will fix the spelling of Slovenian towns in my blog later.

    Thanks so much for liking my silly blog!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Re your concept of your “silly” blog…
    Careful!! It might appear to some of your appreciative followers, even those like me who habitually take everything they read with a pinch of salt, that if they like a silly blog they must be dumb cookies.
    BTW I refuse to accept any such generalised categorisation – but I believe that you know that already, my brother Czech, whom I am looking forward to meeting in the flesh and sharing a couple of beers with on what should be a red-letter day in the not-so-distant future. 🙂


  13. @Alchymie

    Everything I write on my blog is nothing but the truth, at least the version of truth that I see from my perch here in Virginia, not far from the Great Dismal Swamp.

    It has always been the case that only clowns and jesters were permitted to tell the truth, even to the king, without a fear of consequences, since middle ages until our “enlightened age”.

    That is why I feel that by simply continuing the best tradition of court jesters and calling my blog silly, I can say what I really mean without worrying too much what other people might think about my blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Yes, I understand it as being both as a protective strategy for the writer, one that is inherently contains that pinch of salt that requires the reader to at least scratch his/her head for long enough for it to become subliminally integrated in his/her conception of reality. I understand this as representing a beneficial win-win result for both parties.


  15. […] I happen to know from personal experience that being a real refugee is indeed a much more serious situation, partly because I myself was a real refugee many years ago when I was a young man as you can read in this post. […]


  16. […] More than 33 years ago, I arrived to La Guardia Airport with all of 500 dollars in my pocket as a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia via West Germany. The refugee visa was stapled to page 9 of my Reiseausweis (Travel Document) issued by the German Federal Republic. At that point I had been a refugee for 1 year, 3 months and 1 day and although I was doing just fine, I felt like one ever since the day when I slipped illegally on June 1, 1981, through a porous border from what used to be then called Y…. […]


  17. […] I did mean it, although I was so surprised when my plan worked in the end! I shouldn’t have been surprised – the good Feng Shui was on top and in my favor that […]


  18. […] Like most people, I thought that the iron curtain would still be there for another half a century. I felt that I had to do something about it, so I chose emigration, a fairly common form of protest back then. an… […]


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