When Werner was back in Prague, where he lived, it was almost impossible to communicate with him. International calls were recorded, so one had to speak in a kind of code. “I will be in Vienna September 3rd,” meant meet me in Vienna, and then he’d embed a number into the conversation so I’d have his flight info. Because of his impersonal tone and heavy accent these calls were stressful. I never knew for sure if I’d understood him correctly.
By now my friend Celia had joined me in London. Because our families were so close and we’d always been in each other’s lives, she was more like a sister than a friend. I’d been very anxious about how she and Werner would get along (and how critical she’d be of the age difference), but I needn’t have worried. The two of them took an instant liking to one another. Celia enjoyed his teasing, affectionate manner, and he respected her fairness and generosity of spirit. The immediate problem was where we’d live. Celia wanted to stay in London for at least a year, which suited me fine. I still had a semester of college to complete, but it seemed like a good time to take a break, and we decided to look for a flat. Werner had already returned to Prague. Celia and I were due to meet my parents for a week in Italy, so we had to make our minds up fast. We chose a small, furnished railroad flat on a tree-lined street in Kentish Town. The landlords lived upstairs, but it had two bedrooms and a garden — and it was in our budget. We caught a plane to Naples the day after we moved in. From Naples we took a boat to Ischia. Both of us dreaded the confrontation that lay ahead with my parents.
Franyo and Gustavo were staying in a luxury hotel, while Celia and I were in a simpler and cheaper place down the road. Over the first night’s dinner I told them not about Werner — they knew something was going on, but not with whom — but about the fact that I was taking a break from school and remaining in London for the next year. Celia would be studying pottery and I would be doing a foundation course at the Sir John Cass School of Art. Needless to say they weren’t happy. It didn’t help that from Naples I would be flying to Vienna where “I was meeting a college friend who was a serious violinist working with a maestro there.” (Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.) They had a lot of questions about the made-up college friend, but I wouldn’t budge from my story. The friend was from my days at the University of Wisconsin and this would be a very educational experience for me.
It turned out my parents weren’t the only ones interested in my upcoming trip to Vienna. The next day I was accosted in the lobby of my hotel by two extremely nondescript men who greeted me by name, and wondered aloud who I was traveling with. “You will be going to Wien from here, yes?” The hair on the back of my neck stood up. They both had Slavic accents. They were very affable, but there was something sinister about them. When I asked who they were and what they wanted, they slithered away like cats melting into the dark. It was as if they’d never been there. So much for being careful with language on those international calls. I’d been followed and it was creepy.
A few days later, in Vienna with Werner, I mentioned the two men. “Ya, this happens,” he said, brushing it off. For him scrapes with government officials were a fact of life. He traveled constantly, always needing exit visas to leave Czechoslovakia. Of course the powers-that-be kept an eye on him, and now, by association, on me. But the stay in Vienna, a city my mother had described as “an elegant old lady,” stirred fears and emotions that must have existed for generations in my psyche. German everywhere, ladies in dirndls, a parade with flags and heavy stomping boots, insouciant smiles on people’s faces. I’d wake in the morning with goosebumps, shades of my mother’s prewar days in Hamburg. I should have told myself then, “One-two-three, get ready!” I was in a relationship with a mysterious and prominent man who lived behind the Iron Curtain. The serious stuff was about to begin.
To be continued…