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LETTER FROM ABROAD

Memories of the Frontier

I've never had a problem with talking. I am, my friends would agree, most definitely a 'talker'. Passion for verbal communication helps me overcome communication barriers yet gets me into hot water sometimes for being 'full on'. And yet, I can't help but talk.
There's only one situation in which I've been made to speak against my will - the Slovak side of the Iron Curtain frontier between Austria and Slovakia back in 1982. I was five years old. The soldiers lined up in a row - still, waiting, rifles slung over their khaki-clad shoulders. The eerie tranquillity of that place still haunts me.
As a little girl who regularly frequented this bare, spooky stretch of land between Hainburg (the final village on the route from Vienna to Bratislava) and the equally grey fringe of Petržalka, these surroundings became familiar.

I've never had a problem with talking. I am, my friends would agree, most definitely a 'talker'. Passion for verbal communication helps me overcome communication barriers yet gets me into hot water sometimes for being 'full on'. And yet, I can't help but talk.

There's only one situation in which I've been made to speak against my will - the Slovak side of the Iron Curtain frontier between Austria and Slovakia back in 1982. I was five years old. The soldiers lined up in a row - still, waiting, rifles slung over their khaki-clad shoulders. The eerie tranquillity of that place still haunts me.

As a little girl who regularly frequented this bare, spooky stretch of land between Hainburg (the final village on the route from Vienna to Bratislava) and the equally grey fringe of Petržalka, these surroundings became familiar.

My parents took me on many cross-continental trips in our 'Bus' (the trusty family RV) from England to see Opa (grandpa), Babi (grandma) and other family members in Slovakia. The first of these road trips was in our Ford Fiesta, a blue jalopy with an economy-size trunk. Looking back on it, it astonishes me how few of the things we saw fazed me back then, but at that age it all seemed normal somehow.

That's how I experienced my first bouts of interrogation at the Slovak frontier. After we had spent hours anxiously waiting at the barriers, the guards would finally decide that they had nothing better to do than deal with us. This was the start of an often-repeated psychological game. It usually opened with a full examination of the vehicle. Forget chit-chat; you were expected to shut up and pray that they would let you through to the other side unscathed.

Attempts by my English father to build rapport with the guards by conversing in Slovak were invariably met with suspicion rather than admiration. The patrols would open storage areas (cupboards, boxes - even the oven) and empty the contents. They seemed to think nothing of helping themselves to anything which wasn't nailed down, in their search for evidence of smuggling. It seemed, though, that this exercise was more for the kick they got out of intimidating anyone wanting to cross the frontier rather than for security purposes. An officer once took my Dad's guitar down from the top bunk-bed and played it, without asking permission. Music is at the core of our family culture so this was a violation of the highest order.

The guards were always eager to take some time to talk to me, however. The funny little blonde creature in the back of the van, slurping a milkshake and colouring by numbers. Their tactics were immaculately planned and focused on getting incriminating evidence out of me. The fact I spoke Slovak presumably made me an even more irresistible target for their interrogation - less effort required on their part.

First, a few warm-up questions: "What's your name?", "How old are you?", "What's that you're drawing?" before moving onto the killer questions. "What does Mummy have in this cupboard?". "Are there any secret places you hide things?", urging me to expose my parents' supposed guilt. The truth is, at that frontier even Mother Theresa would have been made to feel guilty. That was the nature of passage from West to East back then.

Nowadays, life at the frontier is different beyond recognition. The road in from that once sleepy village in Austria is now often heaving with traffic, the Iron Curtain has been ripped up, leaving ugly scars in the ground. There's even a kiosk for food and drink, unthinkable in those days of high-strung inspections. Previously it would have been impossible for Slovaks to consider travelling to their workplace across the border but now this is a realistic option with regular bus services from Mlynské Nivy bus station to Vienna.

I sometimes still have nightmares about the time I spent at the frontier, being so small and answering seemingly innocent questions for strangers in peaked caps. In my nightmare I sit in a large, dim office. There are flags and pictures of tanks on the walls around me and a big glass-topped table with medals proudly laid out on a piece of red satin. I cannot figure out whether these images I dream are a figment of my imagination or whether they really happened, but it scares me nevertheless. And then I wake up and talk as much as possible to those around me - just because I can, without being afraid.

Letter from Abroad is a bi-weekly column chronicling the experiences of Slovaks who have moved to foreign countries.
The next Letter from Abroad will appear on stands April 8, Vol. 8, No. 13.

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