War movies often dredge up the tired old cliché of a generational debt of gratitude. It is the notion that the heroism and extraordinary sacrifice of an earlier generation has allowed future generations to live in peace and freedom. It is undeniably true, but it is also true that viewed from the perspective of history no amount of suffering has every been enough – despite brief respites, the killing, torture, genocide and people displacement goes on, and it shows no sign of abatement.
While considering how to write this installment of my travels in Europe, this idea of a debt of gratitude shuffled onto the shabby stage of my addled imagination. Firstly, there is the debt my brother and I owe to all the kind people who gave us lifts; next, there is the debt that I owe a couple of Dutch women for giving me acid; and finally, there is the debt that one particular Polish truck driver felt towards my country because of Britain’s obdurate refusal to be annexed into Nazi Europe.
Bearing this in mind, I crave your indulgence to allow me to continue the meandering tale of my time hitching around Europe. Leaving Budapest and hitching to Prague proved a doddle. No long waits, no inclement weather, no brushes with the law. We were having a charmed time. We were in love with the former soviet bloc countries. They had not yet lost the old habit of helping out strangers. Eastern European development had been held in check for 40 years by poor infrastructure and public services; and by a lack of many basic freedoms. On a practical level the people had learnt to help each other because it was blatantly apparent that the promises of communist governments that the state would provide for the basic needs of all were fatuous lies. The other thing we loved about Eastern Europe at that time was that they all had their weak currencies and prices hadn’t yet shot up to reach a parity with Western Europe.
In Prague we did what most backpackers were doing at the time and that was to camp out in some old dear’s back garden. Hanging out with Lonely Planet wielding teenagers from Europe, America and Australia on hot afternoons smoking it up and downing cheap plonk in someone’s garden reminded me of many a hazy afternoon spent on the lawns of back home England. Three people stand out in my memory from that time. Firstly there was a bloke who was cycling through Europe, and who had only bad things to say about Bratislava where he got his bike stolen and had to buy a new one; and secondly and thirdly a couple of young Dutch women who seemed to be stalking us.
Prague was an incredible city. It fully deserved its sobriquets of “the golden city” and “the city of hundred spires”. To walk through the medieval cobbled ways of the inner city is like strolling through a museum. Every narrow street seemed to lead onto a beautiful square that offered gothic churches, baroque styling, and limitless cafes and eateries. The castle sitting on a hill overlooking the city seemed too sumptuous, almost overdoing the effect. Between sunning ourselves in the old lady’s garden and visiting historical sites there was no shortage of ways to pass the day. Travel was a cinch with trams you could jump onto without paying and underground train stations without ticket barriers.
One night we went out with the cyclist to a restaurant where everyone sat at long wooden tables. Doughty maidens continually placed huge beer jugs in front of us and put a chalk mark on the table. We ordered the cheapest things on the menu and filled up on the complimentary bread basket. The beer was out of this world and thankfully tasted nothing like its cruddy American counterpart Budweiser. After eating we wandered down a few lanes and stumbled upon a pool hall. It was a big place with maybe 10 tables for rent. The deposit for the white ball was more than our bar bill for the entire 2 or 3 hours we spent there. In the end we were too drunk to play and instead sat around chatting and idly fending off over-the-hill prostitutes who wanted to be treated to champagne. What nonsense when you could drink the champagne of beers for next to nothing.
The following day was to be our last. On leaving the garden we noticed that two comely looking birds seemed to be following us down the street at a discreet distance. At the time we joked about it and did nothing about it other than to hop on a tram and get lost in Kafka’s hometown. As luck would have it, we were caught later that day riding the underground without a ticket by the undercover police. We paid a fine on the spot which we later calculated was in the region of the amount we had saved by not buying tickets anyway. So we didn’t feel that fate had dealt us too heavier a blow.
For our final night we resolved to really large it. To facilitate our plan we borrowed a LP and read up on ‘in’ bars and clubs. The bar we choose turned out to be a disappointment. Although it was packed with alternatively dressed youth it lacked the surrealism that we had come to love of local out of the way dives. However, we did finally get the chance to meet our young female stalkers. On seeing us enter the bar, they quickly presented themselves to us. Although not as pretty as I had fantasized, they were nevertheless admirable company for our final night in Prague.
Like us they were doing things very much on the cheap. They had been researching squats while camping in the garden, and they proudly announced that they were moving into one the next day. They also knew more than us about where to go at night which they quickly proved by leading us to Prague’s oldest running nightclub.
I curse my failing memory for not remembering either the name of the club or of those two fine women. It was an awesome club. From the outside it looked like any other grand dark brick building, but on entering the impression of ordered grandeur was replaced by Mad Max anarchy. The walls were covered in graffiti. On the bottom floor there was a smallish dark room where thrash bands performed without being able to see what they were doing. Down the corridor was a narrowish room with a makeshift bar selling shots and beer in paper cups. Upstairs was a fancier bar with sawdust floors, more long tables and glassware. The music was punk meets thrash meets Frank Zappa meets eastern European folk. The sheer free for all nature of the place was exhilarating. It was obvious that partying in such hidden spots had been an important way for the youth of Prague to protest the oppressive lifestyle meted out to them by Moscow megalomaniacs.
My brother and I were doing our best to impress the two blonde waifs who had picked us up. They began to look more desirable the more paper cup beers we downed.
It fell out that while my bro was taking a leak the girls pulled out a couple of acid tabs. One of them expertly divided the tabs and handed me a piece which I promptly washed down with a mouthful of budvar. On returning my brother was a bit peeved to be missing out on the hallucinogens but he was soon cheered up when I gave him the majority of what remained of my local currency. He was further buoyed by the thought that the strong drugs might expedite getting into the pants of his chosen Dutch bird.
As you might have guessed the night flew by in a trippy and hilarious fashion. I spent a lot of time at the bottom of the stairs having a nonsensical conversation with my bird for the night. I remember a cigarette butt tossed from the top of the stairs and landing in my hair. Momentarily the smell of burnt hair played intense havoc with my composure.
Sadly neither of us made any breakthrough that night with the Dutch women. They seemed to like us but primly kept us at arm’s length. Six am came rolling into town and we were kicked out of the club penniless, hung over and with the task of trying to get to Poland lying ahead of us. Outside the club the women seemed to be more up for it. They pleaded with us to move into the squat they had found. Sex looked like it was on the cards. However, in the morning light they looked haggard and unappealing. The omens were against them and so we bid them a hasty adieu and left them to their own muddled devices.
We quickly found a tram going back to the campsite where we hurriedly packed up our tent. We risked the fines (we had no choice since my brother had spent our last koruna on beer) and kept catching trams heading north out of the city. Eventually we made it to the motorway. By this time my second wind of wakefulness was coming to a quickly wilting end. My brother seemed to be more compos mentis and managed to stand and hitch. I, on the other hand, couldn’t fight back sleep. Within seconds I was snoring away slumped over my rucksack.
The next thing I remember is being shaken awake by my brother and told we had a lift. We got into a car driven by an oldish Czech fella who was playing some type of story tape on his car stereo. The serious voice and mass of consonant clusters played with my acid wreaked state of being and had me thinking that I was on the verge of slipping into irrevocable insanity. As luck would have it was a mercifully short lift. The old man dropped us off by the side of the road at a quiet junction. I was half hoping for a dry spell on the lift front because I longed with a passion for some sleep. Naturally my brother had no sympathy for me because he’d missed out on the acid and failed with the Dutch lass. His mocking barbs helped me keep my heavy eyelids from closing.
And just when it seemed no amount of cajoling would stop me passing out by the side of a Czechoslovakian road, a medium sized truck pulled over. We quickly bundled ourselves into the truck cabin and met Edmund who turned out to be one of the nicest people I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. Although he spoke minimal English and no French we managed to communicate to him that we were British and we were heading to Poland. Edmund seemed very pleased with the news. He was Polish and heading back to his home country. He quickly managed to inform us that he thought Britain was the bee’s knees because we had made a stand against Hitler when he invaded Poland and that his father had served in the British air force.
It was a dream lift. He plied us constantly with fags and kept up a lively banter despite having hardly any English. He soon realized what a parlous state I was in and insisted I slept it off in his cabin bunk. I didn’t have to be told twice. I crawled behind the seats, took off my boots and passed out without further ado.
A couple of hours later we stopped at a motorway service area. On coming out of the bogs we saw Edmund with three plates of food sitting at a booth. I broke my vegetarian vow and tucked into a free schnitzel and fries and washed it down with a big beer. He had also kindly bought us a pack of Marlboro 100s each. What a gent!
I can’t remember by which route Edmund took us and his cargo of sheep skins to Katowice in Poland, but I do clearly recall that we passed through countless border posts. Edmund handed over small bribes of beers and cigarettes at each check point while my brother and I anxiously prayed not to be searched. Since our encounter with the gendarme in France we had hidden our remaining gear down the metal frame of one of our rucksacks. Despite this precaution we did not feel beyond the reach of zealous border guards. At one crossing we were ordered out of the truck cabin by a policeman wielding an automatic rifle. He indicated that we should open our packs. He took out a sleeping bag and squeezed it while at the same time giving us a dead fish stare. My legs trembled with panic. I owe the gods or god one for interceding at that point because just as it seemed we were destined for Eastern Europe’s equivalent of Guantanamo Bay, the tension broke, the guard’s eyes regained their humanity and we were pointed back to the safety of Edmund and his truck.
We drove through the night. Edmund seemed almost superhuman in his ability to do without sleep and deal with border officials. The next morning we pulled over to the side of the road and Edmund showed us how to work his gas stove. We made black tea and ate bread. There seemed no end to Edmund’s hospitality or the journey.
A few hours later we waited in a long line at the Polish border. It seemed hours before we finally made it to Polish soil. On crossing the border it was a relatively short drive to Katowice where Edmund had to deliver his load. He dropped us off at the outskirts of the town and other than our profuse thanks all we could offer him in way of compensation was a cheap bottle of red wine that we had carried with us from Czechoslovakia.
Looking back eight years to this particular lift I still feel a twinge of regret that I could be the recipient of such comprehensive charity from a poor over-worked Polish truck driver. I was born with all the advantages of belonging to a middle class family in a first world country and there I was shamelessly draining the resources of a man who drove thousands of kilometers a year to feed his family. And the saddest thing is that because I can’t drive, there isn’t even the possibility of me ever being able to pay it forward.