For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
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, which quite a few funny German tourists were pronouncing as “Josey might” (although, she might also not).
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.