From Coventry to Trstená, with stops in Istanbul, Sydney and Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Until recently I’d never considered myself an immigrant. However, during conversation classes at the language school where I teach, I felt I had to redefine myself in my adult students’ eyes in an attempt to upset their media-fed view of who or what an immigrant is.

Photo: Archive Steve Murray


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My story started way back in 1979 in my hometown of Coventry, England. I enjoyed my life there. I had good friends. I had my Kawasaki Z1B 900 finally custom built exactly how I wanted it. I loved my family. I had an interesting and well-paid job.

Then, three of us, Mark, Rob and I agreed to buy a Land Rover and travel. I changed jobs so I could work as much overtime to save more money. I sadly sold my beloved Kawasaki. Then, on Christmas Eve 1979, Mark came into the Dive, our local, and announced that he and his girlfriend, Hazel, had just got married. One down. Four months later in April of 1980 I was best man at Rob and Diane’s wedding. Two down. This left just me, and with no driving license, the Land Rover idea was ditched.

So I bought a very good tent, an excellent sleeping bag, a petrol cooking stove and a backpack and decided to do it on my own by hitchhiking. I said my tearful farewells to family, neighbors and friends, and my dad drove me into town to the train station. One thing that really struck me as my dad and I turned the corner at the bottom of the road was that I had no idea when I would ever see anyone again.

A total greenhorn to this style of travelling I soon realized that staying in student hostels and campsites was eating into my funds, so after three weeks on the road I swore an oath to never pay for accommodation again, at least in Europe. Over the next eight months I hitched about 80,000 km all around Europe and kept to my oath. I never paid for one night’s sleep: graveyards, train stations, toilets, seven nights in a wooden train in a playschool garden in Oslo, unfinished buildings, church and shop doorways; they, and other places, have all been my bedrooms.

Somewhere along the way, brought about by my accommodation choices, I made a drastic change to my appearance and had my hair shaved to about 1cm for hygiene purposes. I had no idea when I would be able to take a full shower or bath and with such short hair I could wash it with soap in a washbasin in a motorway service station or a train or bus station.

My first stop was always the main train or bus station to clean myself up and deposit my backpack in either left-luggage or a luggage locker and then armed with my sleeping bag, toothbrush and toothpaste I would hit the streets. A huge bonus was that in most European cities the areas around the main stations also provided (and still provide) the cheapest and best places to eat. It seems this is where most of the resident migrant groups open their ethnic restaurants, which serve as social meeting points, where people congregate, chat and drink tea or coffee. Bratislava, please take note.

Exotica behind the Iron Curtain

My travels eventually took me to Garmisch-Partenkirchen where I would return to and leave several times over the following 6 years. It was an awesome place to live, work and play. The vast majority of my friends there were all travelers. I’d work, earn enough money to travel for however long and return again to work and play before leaving for another exotic destination. I realized though, that exotic didn’t have to mean tropical. It basically meant somewhere very different, offering an alternative culture, customs and habits to the ones I knew, a way of looking at life from another angle. Exotica in that sense was very close to Germany. Simply cross the Iron Curtain.

So, visas for Czechoslovakia and Hungary in my passport I hitched to Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1981. My initial goal was Prague. I found the attention I was getting there a bit much. But with multiple piercings in my ears and nose, very short hair with three braided dreads, numerous bangles and other “hippy” accoutrements, perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised. On the second day I was walking across Charles Bridge when I was called over by a group of guitar-playing young Czechs. For the next eight days I spent all my time with them, never leaving Prague except to see a concert of the legendary Plastic People. It was the beginning of my love affair with Iron Curtain countries. I went there again three months later only to find that nearly the entire original group had simply disappeared. I managed to meet someone familiar who only confirmed the rumors about the disappearance of those friends. Several years later I met one of them, Tibor, who was a 17-year-old when he fled the country, crossing the Alps on foot to reach Zurich.

Prague, for me, is an elegant old lady; when I first met her back then and fell in love, she was dignified, had lived a full life, her face was lined and wrinkled with worries, her smile and heart though were warm and real. Today’s Prague is like a film star who has had too many facelifts and tucks; too perfect, the facades all covered with false layers of modern day make-up.

From Czechoslovakia I travelled by train to Bulgaria and hitched from there to Turkey where I spent five of the best months of my life. This wasn’t the Turkey of today, full of holiday villages and packaged holidays. The overland route to Kabul, to Kathmandu and to Goa, all of these were still open and safe. Antalya was still a pleasant fishing town. Istanbul, in particular Sultanahmet, was teeming with hippies and travelers. From Istanbul I travelled by coach to Damascus. I spent two incredible weeks in Syria, befriended by nearly everyone I had the pleasure to meet. Seeing the recent destruction in Palmyra, one of the places I visited, made me cry. Is the café I sat in and smoked a hookah still there in Damascus? The hotel I stayed in? I remember the old man, who proudly wore British Army medals he’d won fighting in WWII, who helped me find my way around Homs; or the bus driver from Palmyra to Homs, who wanted me to drive his bus simply because I was a foreign visitor in his country; I wonder what has become of them.

My tourist visa came to an end so it was back to Turkey. Apart from in Istanbul and Nevsehir I never paid for accommodation. Everywhere I went I was put up by locals; once for one night, for two weeks or for six weeks. True hospitality from Turks who wanted to know about me, where I came from and what I was doing in their country. I didn’t go out of my way to ask for places to stay; it was freely offered and nothing was asked for, except that I tell them about England.

My time in Turkey made me question what I wanted from my life so upon my return to the UK in early 1982 I studied all the major contemporary religions of the world: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. I decided to become a Buddhist as it is so practical and tolerant: no church hierarchy; you save yourself. Overnight, besides declaring myself a Buddhist, I also became a vegetarian and a teetotaler. 1 To this day I still profess to be a Buddhist, I am still a vegetarian, although, since 2005 I have once again drink the occasional wine and beer.

Tired of Europe and embracing it again

Having become tired of travelling around Europe I decided to venture further afield and headed for Australia. There I enjoyed a blissful three months washing dishes in the temple kitchen on an expansive Hare Krishna farm. I went for a two-week Buddhist meditation retreat in the mountains near Sydney. From Australia I went to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Using the contact details given me by the abbot in Australia I travelled to Ubon Ratchathani, near the Laotian border, to stay in Wat Pah Nanachat, a Theravada Buddhist monastery open to westerners. I had my head shaved, wore white, and lived for several months in my own 3 x 3m hut. I’d get up at 4:00 am for morning meditation. Then go to the main meditation hall where the bhikkus (monks) would bring all the food they had begged for in the surrounding villages. It was the only meal of the day, so judging when your bowl held enough food to supply you with all the energy for the whole day was critical: not too much that you stuffed your face and would feel bloated, nor too little, leaving you hungry later in the day; eating everything in your bowl, not picking and choosing – just seeing it as an energy source – not as vegetarian or meat or fish.

However, my time in Asia came to an end and I returned to Europe and my blossoming relationship with Gina in East Berlin. The first of several complicated relationships with East Bloc women that I would enjoy over the following years. I spent about five months in total in East Germany over the next 2 years, but eventually we split up, and I headed once again to Garmisch. I did not stay long – my love for motorbikes and Kawasaki in particular saw me buy a Z1000 and in 1984 I went on a month long motorbike holiday in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Apart from my love for East German women I had also rekindled my love affair with Kawasaki and decided to part-exchange the Z1000 for a GPz 900R in 1985 and in the summer of the same year I set out from Garmisch for yet another month-long motorbike holiday, but this time only in Czechoslovakia. I’d planned a route that would, if I did it, take me via Bratislava, Piešťany, Banská Bystrica, the High Tatras and Oravská Priehrada in Slovakia before heading to Praha to visit old friends.

After departing the High Tatras, my next stop was Oravská Priehrada, where fate beckoned me. I planned to stay there for three days. I camped in the Stará Hora campsite. One day I rode out of the campsite, turned left towards Trstená, but for some reason instead of going straight, I immediately turned left and left again into the main carpark on Prístav (I still owe the car park operators the price of the ticket). There, in ridiculously short cut-off jeans and a very baggy loose knit sweater, was the most gorgeous car park attendant. I parked my motorbike. I lost my heart. Instead of staying there for three days, I stayed 17 days. Zlatica didn’t speak English and I spoke no Slovak.

I spent all the time with her, either sitting on the steps of the building at the car park entrance or taking her all over Orava and Liptov on the back of the Kawasaki. We drew stick pictures to say what we wanted; we literally translated out of a pocket dictionary. Love requires no common spoken language. Sadly, though, my visa was rapidly running out, so on the final day with her we rode to Žilina where we parted ways.

Would you like to earn more?

One last day in the CSSR was spent in Sušice where I consulted my German published road map to find the shortest route to the border crossing in Železná Ruda. Innocently I set off from the campsite not knowing that I was about to endure a very nerve-wracking day. My first problem was a military checkpoint where the soldiers stopped me, checked my passport and held me there until a police officer from Železná Ruda arrived to give me a 100 Kcs fine for going past a sign in the last village informing travelers in seven languages that foreigners were prohibited from going any further. I turned round and slowly rode back through the village looking in vain for a signpost that didn’t exist.

Back to Sušice and the longer route to the border. In Železná Ruda I decided to spend the last of my Koruna on a meal and coffee in a restaurant. When I came out it was to find two police officers and two vz.58-armed (a Czechoslovak Kalashnikov lookalike) soldiers waiting by my motorbike. To the bemusement of locals and tourists, busily taking photos of the two police officers walking in front of me pushing my motorbike while the two soldiers came up behind, I was escorted to the police station. In German, they told me I had to wait for the arrival of someone who spoke English, who would explain why I was being held there.

The room was a drab green, the walls covered with pseudo wallpaper that s in fact painted on with stencil rollers. On the walls were pictures of Husak, Gottwald and Lenin. I was literally in the dark; I had absolutely no idea why I was there. Finally, the local English-speaking ŠtB (State Security) agent arrived and we got down to my predicament. Routine questions as to why I was in the ČSSR, where I had been, who I had met and what I had done.

Q: Where do you live?
A: Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
Q: What do you do there?
A: Clean hotel rooms.
Q: Could you draw a map of Garmisch showing police stations and such?
A: Go to the tourist center; they can give you one for free (this answer didn’t get a smile).
Q: Are there any US military personnel in Garmisch?
A: Yes.

It was at this point, I saw where his questions were going and I wasn’t very happy because I was employed by the US Army in Europe.

Q: Do any US Army personnel stay at the hotel?
A: Yes.
Q: Are they officers or GIs?
A: No idea; I don’t speak to guests.
Q: Who do you work for?
A: AFRC.
Q: What does that mean?
A: Armed Forces Recreation Center.
Q: Is it a hotel for US military personnel?
A: Yes.
Q: Why didn’t you tell me this before?
A: Because I’m not going to give you information just like that.
Q: How much do you earn?
A: Enough; I’m comfortable.
Q: Would you like to earn more?
A: No, thanks.
Q: Do you intend to visit the ČSSR again and could we meet?
A: . . .

What I did find out was that the route I took from Sušice to Železná Ruda was highlighted in green on the map meaning there were good views from the road – it didn’t explain there were some sensitive military facilities also there.

I had to empty out my entire luggage. All the addresses of my Czech and Slovak friends were copied out of my address book. I had no clue then as to the problems that would cause them, as they were in turn interviewed later on. After about three hours I signed a statement written in Czech; to this day I have no idea what was written there or what I had admitted to. They let me go, and I got to the border crossing as quickly as possible. However, my problems were not completely over. They held me there for about another hour giving no explanation as to why. As I was standing there a car with German tourists returning home stopped beside me, so I told them I was a British national living in Germany and employed by the US Army, and that I was having a hard time getting out. Eventually all my papers were cleared and stamped, and with a huge sigh of relief I crossed into Germany.

I gave my passport to the German customs official who calmly told me that they had been told of my predicament and would like to talk to me . . . I parked my motorbike and was escorted into the customs post, where I had to wait for an English-speaking West German agent to come; a friendlier chat: Had I seen any troop movements? Were they heading away from or to the border? This lasted about two hours. Riding away I wondered what I’d done and was thankful it was all over. Wrong, quite wrong.

About three weeks later during a break from work I was sitting in the room where I kept all the clean bed linen and cleaning materials, when there was a knock on the door. I opened it to be confronted by an American displaying a CIA ID card. Apparently they’d been informed by the Germans. Did I have time for a chat? Again?!

A condensed version:

Q: Are you planning on visiting there again?
A: Yes.
Q: Could we talk when you get back?
A: . . .
Q: How much do you earn?
A: Enough, thank you.
Q: Would you like to earn more?
A: I’ll give you the same answer I gave them: NO!

Moving to Czechoslovakia surprised everyone

By this time, I had also proposed to Zlatica and she’d answered yes. I planned to visit her for six weeks in January 1986, except a little problem –  I worked in the AFRC ski rental facility and my boss understandably refused my holiday request at the height of the winter season – so I just went without permission. A beautiful time mostly spent in Banská Bystrica where she was studying. We did actually visit her parents who weren’t that overjoyed about our relationship.

I got back to Garmisch to find I’d been sacked, which also meant moving out of the Annex; this was the really cool building, where quite a lot of the civilian employees lived. Luckily I’d become friends with an amazing local family who thankfully let me sleep in the attic of their 400-year-old Bavarian Bauhaus. I quickly found a job at a German hotel cleaning rooms. And then another short two-week trip to see Zlatica in late spring 86.

There came a time when I needed to make a decision about my future with Zlatica. I couldn’t keep quitting jobs because they didn’t like my long absences, so I made up my mind to quit Garmisch for good, go back to the UK and find some real work and real money. My timing to leave also coincided with my mum and dad coming to Garmisch for two weeks in June 86. I cooked my last vegetarian Indian feast for close friends, before heading to Czechoslovakia for two blissful months with Zlatica by Oravská Priehrada. We again had to say our farewells as I went back to the UK to live with my parents and work. I found a job as a quality control inspector in an engineering factory – full circle – as this was my profession way back before I left the UK to travel. Zlatica and I began the tedious task of applying to get married. I was certain that my Železná Ruda episode would cause problems, but it didn’t. The paperwork for our wedding was coming thick and fast; I had an interview with the Czechoslovak ambassador in London, a really pleasant man.

June 26, 1987 was the day that Zlatica and I said our vows in Oravské Veselé. My parents made it to the wedding which was the first of many visits they made to Czechoslovakia and Slovakia. I had to leave after the wedding as part of the arrangement, so once in the UK again I found yet another job, this time in a local hospital as a kitchen porter; I supplemented it by taking on an evening cleaning job at the same hospital. Everything suited everyone as the hospital was closing down six months after I started.

Sometime along the way we’d made the decision I would move to Czechoslovakia, which surprised everyone as it was usually the other way round. There was logic though to our decision. I, for my own personal reasons, didn’t want to return to the UK to live and work fulltime again; I also had no intention of taking her to Garmisch to lead the uncertain life of a traveler. The conditions for me to live in the CSSR was that I have a job and somewhere to live. Zlatica had graduated that summer from teacher training college in Banská Bystrica and had been offered a position at the elementary school in Trstená. She paid a visit to the local ZTS factory, basically saying she’d married an Englishman who was coming to live there and needed a job, so they said yes. With the job we were given a two-room flat; both employment and a place to live. We also discovered that Zlatica was pregnant with our first child. Finally, at the beginning of 1988 I moved to Trstená in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

On the 16th of January 1988 I arrived with a huge backpack of clothes, a Mothercare pushchair and a full 30-piece crockery set.

Why do British workers always go on strike?

The whole working system in the factory was alien to me. The day shift started at 5:30 am. I only had to walk about 300 m there but some of my workmates had to take the 90-minute train journey from Dolný Kubín; God knows what time they had to get up to catch the train, but once at work they often went up to the second floor to sleep on the cardboard sheeting laid out on the floor. Work ethic was just as alien. After getting changed into my overalls, I would switch on the milling machine I’d been assigned to and get on with my job; I’d switch it off when morning break came then switch it back on as soon as the break was over, and again at lunchtime and then again five minutes before the end of the shift. Soon people from all over the factory were coming to watch me and ask what I was doing. My explanation that this was how factories in the UK worked, drew strange looks.

I was moved away from there to a hydraulic press to assist two great characters who happened to be drunk quite often. They weren’t alone. Hidden away under the section “relaxation table” were always several bottles of Stock brandy; the apprentices were given the important task of jumping over the wall to buy them from the nearest shop. If a foreman came round, he was usually called over to drink a shot or two. Before long I’d been moved to a vertical drilling machine where I soon learned to cheat the time and motion study technicians – with the right job it was easy to earn three days’ time in eight hours. But what to do with so much accrued time?

Easy. Come in in the morning, clock in, be seen, then jump the wall, go home, stay there all day and then come back around 9:30 in the evening and clock out at 10 o’clock. 16 hours on your clock card. Do the same the next day and everything was balanced out. I didn’t get on with the early start, so I put in a personal request for a change in dayshift starting-time and to everyone’s surprise it was granted. Everyone else started per usual at 5:30 whereas I came in at 7:00; then they finished at 2:00, whereas I finished at 3:30.

Something nasty happened to me during the first year which was to change my outward behavior and make me less open and willing to speak. Understandably people wanted to hear first-hand what life was like in the west and I was bombarded with questions about every aspect of it. One line of questions was why British workers were always going on strike. I explained that miners always went on strike in winter to hit the country hard and gain a better bargaining position, but then jokingly said that others sometimes chose pleasant weather, so as not to stand in a field listening to trade unionists in a downpour. Outside it was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and a hot sun, so for fun I suggested we go out.

A few weeks later my foreman told me I was ordered to go to the factory manager’s office, where I was invited to sit on a copy of Pravda carefully placed on an armchair and explain why I had suggested strike action in a socialist factory, asking if there were in fact any reasons for a strike. I said that it had been in fun, but I was quite honest and told them the wages were low and that conditions in the halls were cold. I was bluntly told that they had their own methods for dealing with such matters and that in future I was to keep my mouth shut. In shock, I realized that one of my so-called workmates had in fact told on me and I had no idea who it could have been. I guarded my words from that day on and gained an undeserved reputation for being an arrogant westerner. Only my really trusted friends and family knew why I had suddenly become so closed.

In May our first daughter, Rebecca, was born. I made a request to be present at the birth but was firmly told that such things didn’t happen in socialist hospitals. So my first view of Zlatica holding Becky, in what for better words was a papoose, was through a closed window on the first floor of the maternity ward. The second viewing wasn’t much better; this time through a 30cm square opening in the ground floor door, and all the other fathers doing the same thing trying to see their wives and kids didn’t really make it easy. This was still the time of full-blown prams when babies were tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes, wearing those clothes not based on the actual temperature, but on the season of the year. Then there was our little girl wildly waving her arms around in skimpy Mothercare clothing in an ergonomic pushchair. Scandal.

May also saw my first socialist May Day Parade in the upper Orava region. It was held on the town square in Trstená, and all the people from the schools, offices, shops and factories from a radius of about 15km were there, bussed in to carry their pro Warsaw Pact and anti-NATO banners.

At least three times I was informed that I had to visit some building or other. Twice in Dolný Kubín and once in what is now locally called the Pentagon here in Banska Bystrica. The reason was a friendly chat with the ŠtB so they could presumably find out how I was getting on. Their level of questioning hadn’t improved much since our chat back in 1985: Where is it better to live? Here or in the west? If you answered what they wanted to hear, they were happy. That or I presume I would have been deported.

Revolution brought obsession with grades

To be completely honest there is not a lot I can remember about the so-called revolution. Trstená is way out in the wilds and away from any big town. All I can remember is some workers in the factory walking through the machine shop one day waving their key rings, giving the V for VPN sign and chanting VPN. Then suddenly, or so it seemed, we were free. Zlatica’s school organized a coach trip to Vienna and I recollect being as excited as everyone else when we crossed the border, and just as amazed at all the goods in the shops. Looking back, I feel that had the revolution not happened, I would more than likely have left Czechoslovakia. My spirit for adventure and living in foreign countries was being sorely tested and I am not sure I wanted to remain there much longer working in that factory.

Sometime in spring 1990 I was at home when there was a knock at our door. I opened it to two unknown gentlemen, who introduced themselves as the recently elected principal and vice-principal of the local grammar school. Seeing as I’m English and speak English, they basically asked me if I would like to teach English. I quit ZTS in June 1990, took two months off, and we all went to Coventry for a long holiday and then came back where I started my new life as an English teacher. The next year saw our second daughter, Nina, born.

It was the springboard to where I am now. Those first years were dynamic and full of enthusiasm;
the kids gave their all until, eventually English became just another school subject and society at large demanded those ever-important grades. Even Dobrý (grade 3) was frowned upon and life for 3failed student, especially in the villages where grades were gossiped about, was not pleasant. I had eight great years at the school until I was offered a position at a local company that would let me travel and earn considerably more than a state teaching position. Sadly, the company went bankrupt in 2004, so I took all my knowledge and set myself up as a freelance English lecturer, and haven’t looked back since. Along the way in 2006 I got into downhill mountain biking and eventually started up a limited company with a friend that imported high-end mountain bikes.

I found one more thing from the socialist era that came back to me, quite a while after the revolution (but the exact year escapes me) on the National Memory Institute (UPN) website, searching through the digitized ŠtB archives and feeling totally numb with shock when I found my file there. From 1987 until sometime in 1989 I had been a screened person (preverovaná osoba). My code name was pedagóg (teacher). It gave me a good laugh once I’d got over the shock of seeing my name there.

I’ve now been living and teaching here in Banská Bystrica since 2012. When people here find out that I’m English and not Slovak the universal first question is always if I’d ever return to the UK. I have no hesitation in asking why. Slovakia has been my home now for 28 years which is four more years than I lived in the UK. I always ask them why Slovaks go to the UK, and if they really know what sort of country they think they are going to live in. Sure, if they are unemployed here then a job in the UK is going to be a better option; but at what cost? I don’t like the politics here, but the Tory politics there are possibly worse and are not at all friendly to those at the bottom end of the job market which is where I suspect the majority of Slovak emigrants to the UK end up.

Notes:

  1. Someone who abstains from drinking alcohol.
Steve Murray

Steve Murray

is currently working as freelance English lecturer for Speak in BB. Married second wife Mary in 2015. Loves cooking Indian vegetarian food. Caught the addiction of tattoos about 8 years ago. Doesn’t ride downhill mountain biking anymore but still takes an interest in the sport and thinks nothing compares to Santa Cruz bikes. Avid fan of Valentino Rossi, MotoGP in general and World Superbikes. Thinks road cycling and F1 are even more boring than watching paint dry and Joy Division are the best band ever.