Look, you need to understand that no matter how I tell this, Erin and Tanya are going to say that I got parts of it wrong. For example, Erin insists that those guns were serious; I maintain that they were more show than threat. And the last time we talked about it, Tanya was a little embarrassed about the tears in the translation part of the story, though when I get to that part, I can never quite suppress a smile. Honestly, I’m not sure any of us have a completely clear picture of what happened because there were a lot of languages involved. And emotions. And those guns.
And I might as well tell you right now that we were young. Stupid young, really, which is the only way to be young if you happen to be studying abroad in Europe for your junior year. Which we were. As a result, we thought we were worldly, but of course we weren’t because we were 20 and studying abroad. And if you’re paying any attention at all, by now you already know that we were ridiculously stunning because we were 20 and studying abroad and that’s how that goes.
One more thing: this is a Spring Break story – the kind that meant adventure and freedom, not minivans and visiting relatives – because of course it’s a Spring Break story. So, let’s recap: This is a hotly contested junior-year-abroad Spring Break story about three pretty 20-year-old girls traveling through Europe. And yes, there are guns and tears and beer.
Our trouble started not long after the train crossed the border into Czechoslovakia (that’s how old this story is). We were chattering away in our compartment when the money-changing guy came in. As we decided how much of one currency to change into the next, a handsome young Czech border guard appeared and asked for our passports. We handed them over and continued to change our money. The guard looked at our passports and returned both mine and Erin’s. He flipped through Tanya’s a second time, then left with it. Suddenly, we were on alert.
Moments later, the first guard returned with others, including an older man who seemed to be in charge. They said something, presumably in Czech. We couldn’t respond. They tried again in German. Between us, Erin, Tanya and I spoke four languages, but only Tanya spoke German even remotely fluently, and it was her passport they were holding.
The conversation was terse. Erin and I were American; Tanya was Canadian. Did she have a visa? No, she didn’t. Our guidebook – she pulled it out – said she didn’t need one. They shook their heads. There had been a change last week and now travelers from the Commonwealth needed a visa. She would have to go back to Vienna to get one.
In the corner of the compartment, the money changer, eyes wide, very slowly counted out bills.
Tanya translated everything. She was going to have to get off the train at the next stop. We were upset, but calm-ish. We started to gather our belongings. The guards stopped us; only Tanya was being deported. Erin and I should go on to Prague.
Maybe it was because we were, in fact, not worldly, or maybe because we were 20, or maybe simply because we were stubborn, but that was not our plan. At some point after being told she had to return alone, Tanya had started crying, but she was still the only one of us who really spoke German. Thus the translation fiasco began.
“Tell them we’re coming with you.”
Tanya turned to the guards and explained. They replied. The tears continued. She turned back to us and translated: “You can’t come with me. Your passports have already been stamped.” Then she added, “You don’t have to go back. We can meet up later.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re staying with you. Tell them we’re not leaving you.”
More tears – hers and ours – as she translated for the guards, who were looking quite uneasy possibly because of all the crying. Unsettled, the guards conferred in Czech. Then they spoke to Tanya in German then she spoke to us in English then we spoke in English and she explained to them in German and they spoke in Czech. This continued for quite a while. Our tears continued unabated.
In the corner of the compartment, the money changer watched.
We never wavered. Tanya would not be deported alone. I think I spoke directly to the captain at one point. We didn’t speak the same languages, but he knew what I meant, tears or no tears. The guards were unhappy, but eventually they gave up. We could stay together.
The money changer left the compartment and armed men took up their post outside our door. Soon enough, the train slowed to a stop, and border patrol herded us out onto the quai. Curious passengers poked their heads out of the windows and watched as the guards installed us on a bench and surrounded us. This was clearly not a passenger stop: aside from the empty quai with our one little bench, the tiny train station had only one room with several tables and a bar. Our bravado gone, the three of us huddled together with our backpacks at our feet.
The minute the train was out of sight, the guards relaxed and started chatting. Suddenly, they were handsome young men, not gun-toting soldiers. As they headed inside to the bar, one of them gestured to us. Did we want to come in?
Shocked, we exchanged glances. We were being deported. By them. And they had GUNS. We couldn’t go into the bar with them. Since she spoke German and was technically the one being deported, we deferred to Tanya. She declined their invitation. They shrugged and went inside for a beer.
Outside, we huddled. We whispered. We tried to be scared. Heck, we were scared, but we were also young. And the guards were having a really good time inside. Minutes passed. We huddled. Finally, Tanya said, “What are we doing?” We left our backpacks and went inside.
The table of guards erupted in cheers as guards raised their mugs. Huzzah! They were delighted. Suddenly brash, Tanya announced she was buying everyone a round – after all, what else was she going to do with that Czech money? – and they cheered us again. The total for all of us came to $7. We sat down and enormous steins of beer appeared. With that, we became what we truly were: a group of young people eager to know more about each other and the world. It wasn’t long before the men were laughing, we were laughing. We muddled through conversations in English, German and French. Questions flew; stories were told.
Some time later, the train back to Vienna finally arrived. The guards gathered themselves and us. They solemnly escorted us onto the train and into first class. They stationed two men outside of our door and appeared very serious all the way back to Austria. After we crossed the border, they turned and waved goodbye, then they left us. Minutes later, the Austrian ticket inspector came in. Obviously we had no tickets and we had to explain what we were doing in first class. As we talked, his face lit up, “Oh yes, I’ve heard all about you” he smile, and he left us in the first class compartment.
When we finally got back to Vienna, it was late – even by our standards – so we used Erin’s father’s emergency credit card. We stayed in a nice hotel and slept deeply. The next morning, Tanya went directly to the embassy and got a visa for entry into Czechoslovakia. That afternoon, we boarded the train to Prague for a second time.
Just as we were settling in, we saw an Australian girl who we had met at the hostel before leaving the first time. She got on the train, and we proceeded to practically shove her off once we found out that she didn’t have a visa. “Trust us! Go to the embassy!” And the train left the station.
This time, when the train stopped at the border, we stuck our heads out the window and waved to “our” squadron of guards. The captain came over to chat.
“You have your visa?” Tanya assured him she did. “Good! You’ll have fun in Prague.”
Only then, as we chatted through the window, did we learn that they had been deporting people regularly since the new visa regulations had come into effect. In the ten days since they had started, not a single group had stayed together – not one. The captain had a daughter about our age. “I hope,” he said, “that she has friends like you.”
Sadly, our border guards weren’t scheduled to be on this train, but they told the current patrol that we were the girls they’d been talking about and to take good care of us on the way to Prague. And they did.
(With gratitude to Erin, who’s been pestering me to write this story and who answered my texts this morning when I needed to double-check bits of pieces of my memory. Potts, Jaeger & White live on!)