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 2 days 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 Yugoslavia to Austria.
West Germany already had a refugee problem at that time. But compared to what is happening today, it was a relatively minor problem and the Germans were handling it with their typical efficiency and German Gründlichkeit (thoroughness). When I showed up two days later at the German Immigration Office in Munich, (which is actually called Ausländeramt, or Office for Foreigners in German), and asked an employee in a hallway in German whether I could apply here for political asylum, she inquired about the first letter of my last name, and when I told her that it was “V” (which is pronounced “fau” in German), she looked at some papers, told me that I needed to talk to Frau so-and-so, gave me the correct room number and continued her brisk walk to her own office. All in a day’s work.
From that moment on, I knew I was in good hands as long as I followed procedure. Which I did. I am usually good at following procedure (until I decide not to). I had to go through several refugee camps at first, but two weeks later my application was approved and two months later I was a student in an advanced German language course for “Aussiedler” (emigrants, some of whom were ethnic Germans from Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia, but most were refugees like me).
Six months later I had my blue Reiseausweis (Travel Document), which I valued immensely because of the freedom it gave me. I still keep it as a treasured souvenir and I look at it several times a year when I feel like reminiscing and wallowing in rich nostalgia. I found a job and as I was finally able to travel throughout Western Europe as much as I wanted, meager finances allowing. I traveled with some Slovak and Polish refugees to Italy, Belgium, France and Holland, sleeping mostly in youth hostels, a couple of times under the stars on the beach.
I could have stayed in Germany. I had a job there and would probably soon have been able to find a better one. I was speaking mostly Polish during the day because most of my coworkers were Polish refugees, but after work I was reading German books, listening to German radio stations, watching German TV and after about a year I started to think in German. Contrary to what some people who don’t know this language think, it is a beautiful, poetic and very clever, expressive language.
I was enjoying my newly found freedom and most Germans were extremely nice to me. In fact, I can remember only one old German man expressing to me his general displeasure with all those damn refugees who were invading his country. Perhaps he wanted me to hear it because he overheard my accent. It was at a railway station and he was drunk, so I didn’t say anything. What was there to say?
But although Germans were making every effort to be nice to refugees, or maybe because of that, I had no German friends. And as I didn’t want to stay a refugee for the rest my life, I decided to move to a country where immigration was a well-established tradition and applied for immigration to the United States, Canada and Australia.
By the time I received an invitation to an interview at the Canadian Embassy, my application for an immigrant visa to the US was already approved after my interview at the US Embassy in Frankfurt. Australia never got back to me while I was still in Germany. I couldn’t figure out the national origin of the American embassy representative who was interviewing me in Frankfurt because I had never seen somebody who would look like him in my life. It was only after I arrived in San Francisco that I realized that he must have been what is called “Hispanic”.
My sponsor in the United States, an organization financed by donations from private individuals, mostly ethnic Czechs and Slovaks, called American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees (AFCR), found a bed for me, or rather just a mattress on the floor, in a house on Bernal Heights in San Francisco where I would be later living for a couple of months with about eight refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia in two tiny rooms while I was looking for work. In Germany they told me that I would be going to New York, so I was studying guidebooks to New York in my studio apartment for several weeks prior to my departure. I still haven’t been to New York to this day, although I’ve passed through its various airport many times.
After the immigration officer at La Guardia collected my immigrant visa that was stapled to page nine, he put a stamp into my German travel document and let me into his country. A guy waiting for me at the airport with a sign that had my name on it said that I was going to San Francisco and gave me the plane ticket. It was a loan, I paid the refugee fund back once I found a job.
Since I didn’t know anybody on the entire American continent, I didn’t care one way or the other which way I was going. I was young (29), fearless and immortal. In other words, pretty stupid.
Pretty stupid and pretty lucky. Within a few weeks I found a job as a multilingual Visitor Services Representative dispensing advice to tourists in downtown San Francisco in English, Japanese, French and German.
At first I was making a lot of stupid mistakes because I didn’t know anything about San Francisco, or America for that matter. I remember once when my ignorance annoyed a certain man who was looking for an answer to what he thought was a simple question, although it was not necessarily a simple question for a recent transplant from Central Europe. The man turned to my boss, his name was Harry, and said:”What is this guy doing here? He’s not even an American”. But Harry just looked at the man and said:”No, he is an American!”
I was not really an American, but I didn’t feel like a refugee anymore either. After about six months I stopped feeling like a refugee because in San Francisco, I was finally pretty much like everybody else. I was still very lonely because in one fell swoop I lost all my friends, my family, my language, my entire old identity. And I knew, or thought I knew, that I would never be able to go back to Prague. In my mind I gave the idiotic regime there 30 to 50 more years. Little did I know that it would collapse in only seven short years.
Loneliness in San Francisco is not such a bad thing when you’re young, stupidly fearless and adventurous because it’s such poetic city, just like Prague. Plenty of things to do and places to go, even if you are on your own.
On Friday night I would be doing my laundry at a Laundromat surrounded by neon signs of Chinese restaurants and grocery and liquor stores as colorful fog was invading the city streets once again, listening to the foghorn from the Ocean mixing with the sound of chimes on porches of former hippies who were now paying their taxes while chasing the dollar like everybody else.
At first I lived out in the Avenues in Sunset District near Judah Street, only a few minutes by the N-Judah streetcar from the Ocean Beach. I used to take the streetcar and walk there by Ocean Beach on the weekend, watching people throwing Frisbees to their dogs, all the way to the Cliff House, and then I would take the bus back on the other side of Golden Gate Park.
Later I found a place on the fourth floor of a little house on Joice Street off California Street just above Chinatown. I saw the lights of the Financial District and the Transamerica Pyramid from my windows on one side, from another big window I could see the wonderfully cool fog rolling in from Mount Sutro, and at night I could still hear the sound of the foghorn from the ocean. The little big city was just at my feet: I could walk to my job on Market Street in less than 15 minutes, or I could take the cable car part of the way. Back then, what they called “Fast Pass” worked on everything, buses, trams, the short metro track within the city, and even cable cars.
Because part of my job was telling local residents and tourists about the many things to do and places to go in San Francisco and Bay Area, I and my colleagues were often given free tickets to concerts, theaters, ballets and operas, as well as amusement parks and other attractions to use by ourselves or to give to friends. The tickets had the price on them, but with the words NOT FOR RESALE, and the catch was that we always had to give them away the same day. So I had to quickly hit the phones and start calling everybody I knew to make sure that the tickets would not go to waste, which would be a major tragedy.
It turned me into a regular culture vulture and I quickly became popular among my growing circle of new friends and acquaintances who greatly appreciated cultural events at no cost to them. During a period of three years in my first job in San Francisco, I went to a lot of classical music concerts given by famous musicians from all around the world, theater plays, operas, even one Chinese circus with incredible acrobats who looked about 12 years old, and a genuine American rodeo show.
I saw Dvořák’s Rusalka in Czech, the whole series of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in German with all kinds of special effects, and other concerts and operas that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to afford back then because one ticket to the Opera cost 50 dollars. I married the third girl I took to an opera. She actually fell asleep during the second act and I had to wake her, gently, when she started softly snoring on my shoulder. Well, I’m pretty sure it was Janáček’s Její Pastorkyňa in Czech – who can blame her. That opera is very difficult to follow.
San Francisco was quite expensive even back then, but not nearly as outrageously so as it is today thanks to Google and other high tech outfits that have eventually driven out most normal people who have to work for normal wages. Former San Franciscans, the normal people who don’t make an outrageous amount of money mostly for doing something with a keyboard, were turned into refugees in their own city by the Internet.
After I got married, the children came of course, as they have a way of doing. I moved out from the fair city in 1992, a long time before new technology rendered San Francisco mostly unlivable for most people. That little studio on fourth floor on Joice Street that used to cost 500 dollars when I lived there probably costs well over 3,000 dollars now.
When I see images on TV of refugees pouring in hundreds and thousands through the fields and dusty paths in Greece, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia on their way to Germany, it brings back a flood of half-forgotten memories.
In some ways, they have it much more difficult than I did 34 years ago. I was not fleeing a war. I was mostly just looking for answers for myself. I found answers to some of my questions, I am still looking for more.
In some ways, the new refugees may have it easier now than I did all those years ago. Once I made it to the other side of the Austrian Alps, I was all alone in the big wide world, completely cut off from the world I used to know. They are not alone now as thousands of them are pouring across borders in Europe, connected with smartphones to their families back home. Some day, hopefully soon, the war in their own country will end and they can then go back home if that is what they want to do.
But mostly it will be much more difficult for them than for this former refugee.
I know that they will not be welcome in Europe as readily as I was many years ago, and my own country seems to be mostly shutting the door in their faces. People were not afraid of refugees like me back then, but they are afraid of the new refugees now and it’s hard to blame them.
I was able to achieve my goals by following a few simple rules, pretty much along the lines of the stereotypical image of refugees who, although they came to America with nothing, eventually started their own businesses and through a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work became quite successful at what they were doing.
But the old world back then was a very different world and I have to say, I don’t really understand the new one.