Sax on the Streets
Chapter 19:
Prague, Czechoslovakia

Don't Ask Questions

© Dan Gordon, 2003

If night trains in the West are rough, then night trains in the East are utterly miserable. The very concept of night trains does not exist in the East. Normally, such trains depart at 10 or 11pm and adjust their speed so that they run all through the night without stopping until they arrive at another city early the next morning. That way one can, in theory, get several hours of uninterrupted sleep. In the East, no consideration whatsoever is taken for stops during the night; the trains ran just as they do during the day. This means that at any ungodly hour of the night, a train is liable to pull into a major station and have a whole trainload of people pile in.

Gary and I boarded our night train in East Berlin, proceeded to the second-to-last car, and found an empty compartment. We each stretched out across a row of seats and thought we were comfortably set for the night. At three o’clock in the morning, the train stopped in Dresden, near the Czech border. An army of passengers marched on, rumbled into our compartment, and started screaming at us in German and Czech. We awoke mortified and completely disoriented. Gary had red lines on his face from resting his head on a crumpled pair of jeans. His hair pointed every which way. I could hardly see straight. But I heard the screaming passengers loud and clear. Couldn’t they shut up already? There were more civilized ways of indicating that we were sleeping in the seats they had reserved. We’ll get up, just keep quiet! In a slumberous stupor we relinquished our places and staggered up and down the train looking for a couple of empty seats. We eventually found a pair, squeezed in, and settled down to get more sleep. Then the East German border guards arrived, slammed open the door to the compartment, turned on the lights, and demanded our passports so they could stamp our exit visas. When they were through, the Czech border police filed through to stamp entrance visas. All hope of arriving fresh in Prague was dead forever.

We were better off not falling asleep, because had we nodded off we surely would have slept right through the train’s stop in Prague at 5:30am. That hour of day was no time to arrive at a major rail terminal. Nor could we do anything after we arrived but lie around in the station’s waiting area. We had no money. We were “supposed to” have exchanged our mandatory daily currency on the train as we entered the country. Wrong—more bogus information about the East. When I asked the border guards on the train, they told me to change my money in a bank in Prague. So now we were stuck in the train station at 5:30 in the morning with no money and no way to get any until the banks opened at 9 o’clock. All I needed was enough money to make a phone call to a friend and we would have been all set. We couldn’t resort to our foreign coin collection like in Oslo; Eastern regulations against bringing currency into the country snuffed that. We had to waste three and a half hours for the equivalent of one lousy dime.

Putting down the hat and playing would have probably earned us enough to make our phone call, but we weren’t sure busking was legal in Czechoslovakia. Not knowing the regional laws had never stopped us before, but this was Eastern Europe. We didn’t want to find out what would happen if busking weren’t legal.

Were our apprehensions merely a figment of our Eastern-biased imaginations? Perhaps. But we saw no buskers in East Germany, so that indicated to us that even if busking were permitted in the East, it was not commonplace. Besides, with the required money exchange of 30DM (˜$17) per day—if we could ever figure out how and where to exchange it—we weren’t going to need more money anyway. We decided not to busk unless we found other street musicians playing, too.

At 5:30 in the morning, of course, there were no other buskers in the train station. In fact, there was hardly anyone there at all except the people who had just gotten off our nightmarish train and were waiting like us. “I don’t know about you, Dan, but if we’ve got all this time to kill, I’m going to sleep,” Gary said as he formed a makeshift pillow out of his towel and lay down on a bench.

“I’m sure you’ll sleep a lot better than we did on that train,” I grumbled.

From across the room, a bleary-eyed girl with disheveled hair walked toward us and said, “Excuse me, I heard you guys speaking English. Talking to some fellow Americans would be very welcome right now.” She looked around and then whispered, “So how do you like Czechoslovakia?”

“It’s a little hard to tell just yet,” Gary said. “But that train ride wasn’t a very good introduction. Did you sleep any better than us?”

“Does it look like I did?” she replied. She proceeded to tell us a story about how her German friend, asleep on the other side of the waiting room, almost got into real trouble on the train. The friend had gotten his visas mixed up and ended up leaving East Germany on a day visa. The border guards took his passport away and made all kinds of alterations to it before they returned it a half hour later and finally let him through. Gary and I felt consoled that we weren’t the only ones who were confused by all those visa regulations. We told the girl of our hassles in obtaining two visas and crossing the border three times.

“What’d you go to all that trouble for?” she asked. “I had a transit visa and I didn’t do any of that.”

“Did you spend the whole day in East Berlin before you got on the train?” I asked.

“Yeah, I crossed over at about nine in the morning and stayed until I took that train out last night.”

“And you didn’t get a separate visa for the day?”

“No, just the transit visa.”

“And the border police didn’t give you any trouble?” The pitch of my voice rose with each question.

“None at all.”

“You mean we went through all that trouble for nothing!?” Gary hollered. “What’d you have to go and ask so many questions for, Dan? We could have saved a lot of time and money if you had kept your mouth shut!”

“Forgive me for trying to obey the law!” I barked. “How was I supposed to know that everyone in the East has his own personal set of rules?”

“Well now we know. It’s impossible to get a straight answer around here,” Gary shouted. “So from now on, don’t ask questions in the East.” * * *

By 7am, I had become antsy from pacing around the waiting room. I went for a walk through the neighborhood surrounding the station and found a hotel that let me use their telephone. I got through to Jan, yet another friend from that Hungarian workcamp two summers before.

Of all the people I met on that workcamp, Jan intrigued me the most. He was the personification of the stereotypical Eastern European disgruntled with his system. When I first met Jan, he wanted more than anything to move to America. For this reason we became friends; he was immediately drawn to me simply because I was American. He was also an amateur saxophonist and absolutely obsessive about learning English. To meet an American English teacher and saxophonist was beyond his wildest dreams. I was the personification of everything dear to Jan.

The reverence Jan bestowed upon me because of this always made me uncomfortable. Yet I continued to befriend him because I respected his intelligence, his hard work, and his sincerity. At the same time, several aspects of his life remained shrouded in mystery. When I visited him in Prague the summer of that workcamp, he never allowed me to talk while walking up the stairs to his apartment. He spoke in a whisper in restaurants. And he always discouraged me from following the regulations set for foreigners. We were supposed to exchange 30 Deutsche marks for every day noted on our visas, keep a receipt for the transaction to prove it, and register with the police every time we changed address. Jan always told me that I should feel no obligation to obey these laws. I believe it hurt him to watch foreigners come into the country and be controlled by the same government that he himself so resented.

In light of all this, I was prepared to temper all that Jan said during our stay in Prague. I warned Gary to do the same. But Gary reacted differently than me when we discussed taking care of our post-arrival paperwork after Jan met us and brought us back to his apartment. “Do not worry about changing your money or registering with the police,” Jan said. “It does not really matter if you do not do it at all.” Jan spoke English remarkably well, but he never learned to use contractions.

“What do you mean we don’t have to do it?” Gary asked.

“The only ones who check to see if you have done those things are the border guards on the train when you leave the country,” Jan said. “They cannot do anything—you are Americans. They have no control over you. They just try to frighten you with their power. Do whatever you want, they cannot stop you.”

Oh no, I thought, not this again. “This is what I warned you about,” I whispered to Gary. But what I interpreted as the defiant words of a person frustrated by his system, Gary interpreted as the insightful words of an insider.

“He’s got a point, Dan.” Gary said. “What are they going to do, throw me in jail? If he says there’s no need to do all that stuff, I’m not going to give in to the system.”

Jan beamed. I felt knots tie in my stomach. I didn’t want to play any games with regulations. If I was going to visit a place, I was willing to abide by the rules set for doing so. Particularly in light of my feelings when crossing in and out of East Berlin, I would avoid any trouble if I followed the rules. Gary obviously didn’t feel the same way.

“Fine. You do what you want,” I snapped. “I’m changing my money.” I insisted that Jan take us to a bank. I changed $50, roughly the equivalent of the total required for the three days noted on our visas. Of course, no one knew exactly how many dollars were required for that amount of time. Fifty was close enough, I hoped. Gary exchanged 30 Deutsche marks, so that in case we had a conflict with border guards later on, he could play dumb and say he thought the 30-mark exchange was for the whole stay rather than per day. As for the police registration, Jan told us we would take care of it later. I was skeptical. Gary didn’t mind at all.

Jan then took us on a tour of Prague. Sightseeing in the East is a different experience from in the West, largely because sights in the East are not embedded in our consciousness the way they are in the West. Few Westerners can deny a peculiar sensation at seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Roman Coliseum, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa for the first time. We have seen likenesses of these things so many times that the sight of the real thing strikes a sensitive nerve in us. When sightseeing in the East, this preconditioned phenomenon is absent. Looking around Prague, things did not register as important to me simply because I was not familiar with them. Instead, I was left only with a general mental image of a golden baroque city full of spires and bridges, huge 17th century stone buildings blackened by age, often well-preserved, often hidden behind scaffolding. Cobblestone streets, the brooding Moldau River, Prague Castle on a hill in the distance. Not glitzy; no neon lights. Instead, painted glass. On the city’s outskirts, large, unimaginative apartment blocks.

And again, no buskers. Although Jan told us he occasionally saw street musicians in the city, we had our doubts. First of all, busking probably wasn’t legal for Westerners, since it would enable them to acquire Czech currency without spending hard currency on it. Second, any indication of obtaining money without a receipt would arouse suspicion among the authorities. Last, we didn’t want to have any extra money left over when it came time to leave because we couldn’t take it out of the country. With all those hazards involved, we refrained from busking in Prague.

That does not mean, however, that our days in Czechoslovakia were without music. We played private concerts for Jan’s family, both in Prague and in the family’s cottage a few hours north in Bohemia, where Jan invited us to spend a few days. There we met Jan’s father, a bearish man with a scruffy black beard and deep yet soft voice. We immediately pitched for a personalized performance. Jan and his father listened intently. Their attention made the presentation feel more like a concert performance than an informal demonstration for friends. The change made Gary and I play more professionally. We stood up straighter, were more careful with attacks and releases, thought more about balance and ensemble. We gave our most cohesive, refined performance.

Jan’s father sat motionless for a few moments. Then he turned and said something to Jan, who translated for us. “My father is very impressed. He says he will arrange to have you recorded at the local radio station where a friend of his works. Then many people will be able to hear this beautiful music.”

Gary and I raised our eyebrows. That seemed too easy. I wondered whether some mysterious Eastern politicking were involved. At the same time, I was disgusted with myself for reading so much into it. This was no different than any of the other spur-of-the-moment offers we received elsewhere in our travels. But in Czechoslovakia, I couldn’t keep myself from thinking twice about it. A lifetime of bias toward the East does not change in a matter of days.

“Does that offer seem a little odd to you?” I later asked Gary, who was always much more in control of his imagination than I was.

“Kind of. But remember, Dan, ‘Don’t ask questions in the East.’”

The next day we stood in the radio station’s recording studio, a microphone pointed at each of our saxophones, a recording engineer seated at a mixing board behind a pane of glass. In two hours, we recorded three full sonatas and walked out with a full-length professional-quality reel tape. That was not my imagination.

When we left the station, Jan asked us if we would play for his grandfather in a nearby hospital. He had been sick for a long time, Jan told us, and the duets would cheer him up. We agreed and followed Jan to the hospital. Jan exchanged a few words with a receptionist at the entrance before we passed through. The corridors inside were shadowy, almost empty, and reeked of stale urine. We found the specified room, where Jan hugged his grandfather affectionately. The old man did not look well; his eyes were hollow, his torso bony, his skin drawn. But he seemed to muster energy when Jan explained the intent of our visit. The grandfather sat up in bed and smiled feebly as Gary and I set up on the room’s back terrace.

As we played, windows and doors around the hospital opened, and patients in their hospital robes came out on their balconies to witness the live entertainment. To those music-starved souls in the gloomy surroundings of that hospital, our music must have sounded as sweet as the life that was slipping away from them. For the few minutes we played, I felt like we loosened the clammy grip of death.

I had long since forgotten this incident among the myriad others until I received a letter from Jan almost a year later. He wrote:

I want you to know that my grandfather has died. When I went to see him a few months before his death, he told me, “I just keep thinking about those American boys all the time.” He did not forget about you. He was glad when somebody paid attention to him. You paid your attention and made him popular in the hospital. He told me so. Now I have just pictures of his life…. Thank you for playing there. * * *

Our remaining days at the cottage were calm and restful, with hearty meals of knedliky (Czech dumplings) and venison from a deer that Jan’s father had shot from out the back window. Yet I was ill-at-ease because Jan had kept us there a day longer than he’d told us, which extended our stay in Czechoslovakia past the three days allotted on our visas. I never doubted Jan’s hospitality as a host, but I felt like he was consciously doing his best to keep us from following the regulations set down for us. He assured me that the three days allotted on my visa did not include the day I arrived or the day I left, only the number of full days in the country. I had never heard that before, but with all of the different interpretations of the law, it sounded reasonable enough. As for the police registration, Jan promised we would take care of it when we returned to Prague.

Jan conveniently got us to a police station back in Prague fifteen minutes after it closed on the evening of our train out of the country. Now we had no chance to get the registration we needed. We couldn’t wait another day for it; our visas had already expired. I was frustrated at the half-truths Jan kept telling me, furious that he had trapped me in this precarious position, and worried sick over the lack of police registration. Gary continued to be unfazed by any of it. He still steadfastly refused to change any more money, and was totally indifferent about not registering with the police.

The last thing I needed at this point was more bureaucratic hassles in buying our train tickets at the station. “I can’t wait to see how much hard currency they’re going to get out of us this time,” I muttered as we reached the window.

“One hundred twenty crowns each,” the ticket clerk said.

“Huh? Crowns? We can pay in Czech crowns?” I was so mixed up by all the currency nonsense that I now questioned why I could pay for tickets in the national currency.

Don’t ask questions in the East.

We paid for the tickets with the crowns I had from my bank exchange. Then we returned to Jan’s place for our last dinner. Over the meal, Jan and his mother repeated detailed instructions on how to deal with the border guards on the train if they gave us trouble. Jan’s mother appeared serious and tense as she discussed the issue. “Whatever happens, do not give our address if they ask you where you stayed,” Jan interpreted for his mother. “If they ask, just look at them like you are confused and ask them if they speak English. Remember, none of those silly men can speak English.” The two of them exchanged a few more words. Jan turned to us and added, “If they keep asking, tell them you took overnight trains and slept in tents in the park so there was no address to register. Be sure not to give them our name.” Jan’s mother grimly nodded her head. Gary listened calmly. I was nauseous.

Several hours later, we were sitting on a train at the Hungarian border. The stern-faced border guard entered our compartment. The moment of truth had arrived.

He asked for my passport and visa. I nervously handed them over. He looked at the passport, then looked at me. He looked at the visa and looked at me again. My heart was in my throat. He picked up his stamper, stamped the exit visa, and handed everything back to me. No questions. I heaved a huge sigh of relief inside.

The guard turned to Gary. He asked for the visa and passport. He looked at the visa, turned it over, looked back at Gary. “Address in Czechoslovakia,” he demanded.

Oh boy, this is it, I thought. I put my head down and turned away to dissociate myself from them.

Following Jan’s advice, Gary said, “Do you speak English, sir? I’m afraid I don’t speak any Czech, so you’re going to have to speak to me in English.” He spoke fast and inarticulately in an attempt to fluster the guard.


Gary waved his arms around in indecipherable gestures and babbled, “Well, uh, you see sir, I didn’t really have an address because I took overnight trains or camped in tents, you know, tents? uh, on the side of the road every night, so I couldn’t get a stamp for an address, if you know what I mean.”

Before Gary even finished speaking, the guard looked back at the papers, stamped the exit visa, turned around, and walked out of the compartment. Gary had effectively spent over four days in Czechoslovakia on an invalid visa.

Was Jan right all this time? Did the authorities really have no power over foreigners? Clearly, that border guard was aware that Gary had not fulfilled his visa requirements, yet he did nothing about it. Maybe those border guards really don’t have any power except the power of their ploy: Act as intimidating as possible, play up the secrecy and mystery, and in doing so, scare everyone who doesn’t know any better into following their rules. Not too many people have the nerve to defy them. We all fear the consequences. But are there any? Or is it all just a mind game that the Eastern authorities always win?

I did exactly want they wanted me to do: not question the authority imposed upon me and obediently follow the rules. Gary didn’t want to take any orders. No one could give him trouble, he figured, because no one seemed to know what was permissible or not anyway. The worst that could happen was that he’d get thrown out of the country. That didn’t matter to him; he was leaving anyway. So he did whatever he felt like. And nobody stopped him.

Gary made a bold statement with his actions on the train that night. He questioned the imposing face of authority and got away with it. I always assumed that Gary’s defiance was a manifestation of the traveler’s mentality; he was willing to take such risks because he was all wrapped up in the adventure, which altered his perception of risk. Several months later, when we each had a more distant perspective on the matter, I asked him again about his actions. “Sure, it was risky, but I’d probably do it again,” he said. “It’s my nature. I don’t back down to anyone when I think I’m right.” Jan would be proud.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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