The Berlin Wall had come down; the Iron Curtain, lifted.
Twenty-four years ago, I took a bus from the Czech Republic to Croatia with my ex-boyfriend. I had moved to Prague in the early nineties, and within months, my ex had eagerly followed me, despite my verbal protests. I vaguely remember long-distance telephone conversations, a delay after each of us talked.
“You shouldn’t come to Prague. There’s nothing here for you. We’re not getting back together.”
I may have also said things like, “Wait until you taste the beer. There’s a place you can stay with my friends. Let me know when you get here.”
I’m thankful we did not have email or Facebook, so the only remains of our pitiful attempts at communication are our memories, most likely very different from each other’s at this point.
In 1993, Prague was teeming with Americans. The Berlin Wall had come down; the Iron Curtain, lifted. I had moved there, honestly, because I had heard the beer was cheap and jobs were plentiful. I was killing time before my Ph.D. program started in the fall, and I never expected to stay as long as I did. I got a job teaching literature at the Anglo-American College and was given a classroom of students from Nigeria, Croatia, Serbia, and other far-flung parts of the world. I taught poems by Emily Dickinson and novels by Mark Twain. I often went out drinking with my students; we were around the same age. I marveled that Serbs and Croats were sitting next to each other in my classes, talking about literature in perfect English, and interacting with each other as if there weren’t a war raging nine hundred kilometers to the South. Kilometers was their word. I needed a translation into miles.
I didn’t know a lot about the war. In my defense, the World Wide Web had not been born yet, and I got most of my information from my students. Zoran told me how his family had forced him and his brother to escape to Prague. He did not know if the rest of his family would get out. Vuk justified the bombing of Croatian soccer players, young children, by telling me they were playing on Serbian land. We did not use the term “ethnic cleansing;” it was not in our vocabulary. But on both occasions, I burst into tears as they told me their stories.
When my ex-boyfriend, I’ll call him Nathaniel, arrived in town, I didn’t see him at first. He stayed with some other expats, and I finally ran into him at a bar. It was jarring to see him in person after many months apart; he had a big smile and was ecstatic to see me. We hadn’t broken up because we hated each other. It had been a relationship of convenience that wasn’t convenient anymore. It sounds awful now, but I was enamoured with the idea that he was enamoured with me. I desired his attention more than the clarity of ending the relationship. In a contortionistic spasm of decision-making, I shared a beer with him that night and somehow agreed to go on a short holiday with him that summer, as soon as school let out. We weren’t getting back together, I made that clear; we were going to get away from it all for a few days and take advantage of the summer break.
I’m sure I’m misremembering how that conversation went, and I can’t for the life of me remember why we thought it was a good idea to go to Croatia. We must have justified it by saying we weren’t going near the “hot spots.” We must have talked to other people who had been there, but we didn’t check with our embassy; we didn’t look for a list of State Department travel bans; we were horribly under-informed. We bought our tickets at the bus station, pointing to our destination on a board, paying a woman behind a glass window. Americans didn’t need travel visas to cross from country to country in Eastern Europe, so we just used our passports and traveler’s checks.
When we got on the bus in Prague,we were the only young people, the only Americans, and as far as I could tell, the only people going on vacation.
I’m thankful we did not have email or Facebook, so the only remains of our pitiful attempts at communication are our memories,
When we got on the bus in Prague, we were the only young people, the only Americans, and as far as I could tell, the only people going on vacation. Nathaniel and I did not discuss the war-torn areas to the south, except to shake our heads. We couldn’t have named the six republics of Yugoslavia at the time, and I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t name them off the top of my head now. I’m also ashamed at the conversations we had in the bus, ones that must have been overheard by our fellow travelers.
I repeated my well-worn phrase, “We’re not getting back together.”
But I also said things like, “Let’s share a room to save money” and “No need to bring a bathing suit because the beaches are suit-optional.”
It was a nine-hour bus ride to Pula, Croatia. We settled into our small, connected seats, opened the window for a breeze, and put on our Walkman headphones.
About five hours into the trip, the bus coughed to a stop at a small kiosk. We were crossing a border, from Austria into Slovenia, I think, but we weren’t at an official checkpoint. There were no buildings or lights or lanes or witnesses. There was only the kiosk and two young men with rifles over their shoulders. I took off my headphones, but I couldn’t understand what the other passengers were saying to each other. I hoped they weren’t going to make the bus turn around.
One of young soldiers boarded the bus and talked to the bus driver. The driver stood up; he was wearing street clothes, not a bus company uniform. He gazed up and down the rows of seats and then pointed at Nathaniel and me. My breath stopped for a second. I couldn’t think of anything to say. Nathaniel stared at me, a rapid series of questions in his eyes. I didn’t have answers, but my heart was pounding loudly enough for both of us. The man with the rifle came halfway down the bus aisle and motioned for us to follow him. His beige uniform was clean, and his trousers were too short. I could see his dark brown socks. We stuffed our headphones into our backpacks. Nothing made sense. I didn’t know if we should bring our bags. I didn’t know if we were going to be allowed back on the bus. The other passengers were annoyed with the delay and made hand gestures to suggest we ought to hurry up. Their faces looked angry, and they looked older than they had when we got on the bus. We stumbled down the steps and across the dusty road to the kiosk.
The man repeated a phrase that included the word “passport,” said with four syllables, instead of the two we knew. We handed them over, blue covered booklets with our official photographs, mine taken right before I left for Prague, my hair thick and wavy, my eyes ready for an adventure. I didn’t look at Nathaniel’s picture.
One of the men got on the kiosk telephone, yelling into the mouthpiece, thumbing through our passports, page by page, pointing at stamps, and asking us questions we did not understand. He was frustrated, and he slammed our passports on his tiny table and threw up his hands like he had tried everything he could, and now he was done. The other man stood close to our backs. It was hot outside the kiosk, the sun at its highest point of the day. I imagined it was even hotter inside the wooden structure. Nathaniel and I stood on the dirt. We did not talk to each other or speculate or ask any questions. I could see the horizon, but I couldn’t have told anyone for certain where we were on a map. The bus’s engine hummed. I kept turning around to make sure the bus driver wasn’t planning to leave us there. I didn’t want to disappear from the face of the earth. I especially didn’t want to disappear while I was on holiday with my ex-boyfriend. That would seem to tell a story about our relationship that I did not mean to tell.
Then, finally, without any conclusion to the phone calls or the questioning or any real communication of any kind, they let us go. The bus pulled away from the kiosk before we even made it back to our seats. We were baffled by the incident but happy to be on our way.
We arrived at the bus station in Pula, Croatia, and our fellow travelers left the small building quickly. We found a flyer on the wall advertising a room for rent; it said in English that it was near the beach. It wasn’t. It was a long walk to the person’s home, and we stayed in a tiny back room. The hosts didn’t say anything to us except when they repeated the price in American dollars until we paid them.
The man with the rifle came halfway down the bus aisle and motioned for us to follow him.
Then, finally, without any conclusion to the phone calls or the questioning or any real communication of any kind, they let us go.
The incident at the border and the chilliness of our hosts made us feel like the whole trip had been a bad idea, but the next night, we splurged with Nathaniel’s father’s credit card and booked a room at a resort. It was a sprawling campus with empty rooms and deserted hallways and pathways to different buildings and shops with closed doors. We spent the day at the beach. That night, we were the only people in the dining hall. The staff must have been both happy to have our business and flabbergasted at our arrival. We hadn’t read a newspaper since we left Prague, and we didn’t speak their language in order to ask any questions. We couldn’t ask if they were Croatian. If their families were safe. If they believed in the new president. If the cease fire had held this time. Instead, we joked with each other about the sunburns we had gotten at the suit-optional beach and counted our traveler’s checks to make sure we could afford the bus ride back.
Years later in graduate school, I read Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. I ended up using his words in my dissertation and thinking about languages and borders. In his memoir, Anderson writes about the importance of learning other languages “not simply [as] a linguistic means of communication.” He wasn’t concerned with how well we could talk to each other, but he believed that learning someone else’s language was a way to “learn the thinking and feeling of a people” and “the history and culture underlying their thoughts and emotions and so to learn to empathize with them.” I think about the Czech language classes I took in Prague and the private tutoring we did in our apartment. My roommates and I had practice books for vocabulary and grammar, but we made little progress from week to week. It wasn’t crucial to our survival. And we weren’t trying to understand anyone. We were trying to be understood. And even that wasn’t necessary to an English speaker in a foreign country.
If I asked a storekeeper in Prague for chléb, she would ask, “You mean bread?”
If I said, “Dobrey’ den,” invariably, the respondent would recognize me as American and say, “Good morning.”
I never really learned the Czech language even though I lived there for fourteen months. I had Czech friends and Czech students and Czech landlords, and I forced them to communicate with me in a language foreign to them. They said they wanted to practice their English. They were eager to step into my shoes and understand my language. Why didn’t I afford them the same respect?
I can’t remember when it dawned on me that the border crossing guards were asking us for a bribe. It might have been when I was in Italy years later and saw the armed guards at the train stations, or it might have been in California when I was listening to a story about police officers in Mexico. I do remember exhaling all the breath in my lungs and sitting with my chin hanging. Those young men must have thought we were calling their bluff. They must have thought we were refusing to pay. They must have tried all their tricks in the book, all their subtle language and cultural cues that would let a normal person know that it was time to palm a twenty over to the man with the rifle.
They said they wanted to practice their English. They were eager to step into my shoes and understand my language.
>And we weren’t trying to understand anyone. We were trying to be understood.
Communication is so rife with complication under normal circumstances; it’s difficult to convey the complexity of what we’re feeling or fearing or wishing for. With a language barrier as wide and long as the one I carried with me through the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Yugoslavia, it’s a wonder I got out alive. But it’s not the kiosk moment that stays with me. It’s the dinner at the deserted resort. I wanted so badly to have a night out (on Nathaniel’s dime) that I missed all the cues. I worked to understand the language of the menu, but not the language of the people around me.
Language can move us beyond simple communication; it can help us sit in another person’s shoes and feel what they’re feeling. But only if that is our intention. We can use language as a blunt instrument to get what we want but then be haunted by our lack of empathy. I’m left with that memory, finally seen from the hotel workers’ point of view. A young healthy American, using her boyfriend to pay for a dinner while on vacation in a war-torn country, asking questions only about the menu.
Feature image by Marketa, Swan Symphony