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The World of Franyo, Part 29: Orient Express

Nicole Jeffords 3 months ago

I grabbed the phone as if it was a big glass of water and I was dying of thirst. I heard Werner’s voice and joy flooded my system. My heart was beating so fast I could barely speak. He was in Vienna; he was okay.

When we later pieced together the events of that day, there was a very odd synchronicity. Werner had a valid exit visa and was able to board a series of slow-moving trains headed for the Austrian border. When I woke early that morning with hope in my heart, he was already traveling. As the day progressed and my strange sense of anticipation grew, he was getting closer and closer to the border. At the moment hunger finally kicked in and I raced to the pub for sandwiches, he had just crossed the border to safety. And as I paced the hallway, chain smoking and waiting for the phone to ring, he was on a train making its way to Vienna.

orient express

Two days later I myself was on a train to Vienna. Celia and I flew to Paris the day before, a city in turmoil because of the student uprisings that had begun in May. Barricades everywhere and an excitement so intense you could taste it in the air. Celia stayed on with friends and I boarded the Orient Express. What a journey! It seemed like everyone on the train was somehow connected with political upheaval. People were jumpy, nervous. A lot of them, like me, were hoping to meet relatives and loved ones fleeing Czechoslovakia. It was an overnight voyage and I had booked the cheapest berth – four to a compartment, so very chatty and communal, the air thick with cigarette smoke and food smells. The train was crowded and I was lucky to have gotten a berth at all. Every time I stepped out into the aisle to get some fresh air or go to the loo, I was reminded of my mother’s travels in and out of Germany in the dark years preceding the war and how she had been pulled off a train for depositing subversive newspapers in the bathroom. Three decades had passed and now we were in the middle of a very different kind of war – Vietnam – with horrible losses and atrocities. It was the year that had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, a violent and confusing time for people of my generation. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll on the one hand; race riots, civil strife and dissension on the other.

orient express

Werner met me on the platform the next morning, tense, pale, but also a little blasé – he’d been through all this shit before. The violence. The incredible disruption. The need to escape. The fear of consequences, repercussions. I was a kid who knew nothing other than my parents’ history. And a certain whir of anxiety that sang in my blood, probably passed down from one generation of Jews to the next. Because of his experiences, Werner was a secretive man. He’d left Prague with two suitcases. He had a round-the-world trip planned in connection with a book he was doing on Sir John Cook. As to where and how he was going to live now that he was out of Czechoslovakia, I had no idea – he kept those cards close to his chest. We spent a day or two in Vienna and then flew to London. There were quite a number of Czechs on the flight – Werner was not the only one who’d gotten out. We landed, retrieved our luggage and started toward passport control. And then things went into slow motion as the guard held out his hand for Werner’s documents.


**An episode from this memoir is published every Tuesday & Thursday for those following!

**Need to start at the beginning? Find Part 1 here!

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