Reader feedback: An effort well worth it

Re: Let the victims remain anonymous, Volume 10, Number 45, November 22 - 28

During our first trip to Czechoslovakia, as far as my wife and I know, our eyes and fingertips were not scanned. However, since comparisons like to be made to the United States, I’ll offer one.

We waited nine weeks, with our passports held at the Czechoslovakia embassy in Washington DC, to get a visa good for one entry for a period of 14 days. I forgot how much the fee was.

We arrived at the only border we were allowed to cross, Petržalka, where we were ordered to pull our car into a derelict-looking parking lot, get out, hand the keys to a guard carrying an AK-47 and accompany another armed guard to join a few others attempting to get into CS that morning. We waited inside a pee-smelling, filthy concrete blockhouse, where our passports were taken away and we were told to wait. It was an unusual feeling to be sandwiched between rows of razor wire, and spotlighted guard towers.

We stood as far from the open toilet door as possible, but not so far that the guys with guns might think we were going to “make a run for it”. Through the window we could see the guards removing everything from our car. We watched them open our suitcases and paw through everything, removing some items, including two books, which they put on a small table.

Meanwhile, we were ordered to go to a little card table by the toilet, where sat a chubby little woman in an ill-fitting uniform but a nice big gun, and told to “Change money,” which was, except for “Passports,” the only words spoken to us in English. Our moneychanger opened a tin box filled with stacks of crowns and we were told we must exchange the equivalent of $35 per day for every day in our visa (regardless of how long we actually intended to stay). The exchange rate was 8 crowns to 1 dollar.

Flush now with our little wad of crowns, we were again told to wait. We waited. About half an hour later, one of the guards who had been “inspecting” our bags came to the blockhouse and began asking us rapid-fire questions in ... ? Could have been Czech or Slovak, since we couldn’t tell the difference then. After we shrugged, presented more puzzled looks, another man trying to get into the country, an Austrian-Czech, translated. It went something like this:

“You have Bible?”

“No, no Bible.”

“You have books.”

“Yes, two novels.”

“You have radio?”

“No radio.”

“You have copy machine?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You know... copy machine to make copy.”

“No, no copy machine.”

“Ok, now you must wait.”

We waited. So far we had been trying to get over the border for an hour and a half. Another car pulled in. Now the guards had something else to do and left our car (with all our bags opened and stuff strewn on the pavement behind the car). It did feel a bit strange to realise that we were at the only border crossing tourists could use between Austria and Bratislava, and by total count, in two hours at mid-morning on a Monday, there were 6 people, including us, trying to get into Czechoslovakia. Made us feel special.

The man in the thin black suit with the even thinner black leather tie came back, dropped our passports on the table, and went to the toilet. We guessed that meant we could go. We picked up our passports, walked back to the car, and crammed our clothes and books back into the suitcases. We figured we were safe, so we started the car and drove up the ramp back to the highway, my wife’s look saying clearly - Are you sure we really want to do this?

We had arranged by phone for our friends to meet us. We were going to stay in their flat, but they first would have to take us to register at the police station. They told us they would be parked on the side of the road, in a green Škoda, about 3 or 4 kilometres from the border because they were not allowed to come any closer. We found them parked near Einšteinova, where they had been waiting for three and a half hours, since they had no way to predict how long it would take us at the border.

Then, off we went to the police station, and thus began our first tourist visit to Czechoslovakia.

Frankly, since I have nothing at all to hide, I believe I would much prefer to get my fingerprints and eye scanned into a computer, so I could more easily and quickly come and go when I travel. Too bad Czechoslovakia didn’t have that simple system at the time.

Was it worth it? Of course. In fact, it is one of my more interesting memories of the country.

Don Merritt,
Berlon, Germany

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