Maybe it was my guidebook that gave my first trip through Europe its particular quality -- fast, hunted, shadowed and anxious. Fielding and Fodor were waiting to show me a fine and classical time, but the series I'd been plucking off the rack for years was John le Carre''s handbooks for British intelligence agents, and the latest edition I clutched in my hot hand from Wales to Prague and back was Le Carre''s latest novel, "A Perfect Spy."
Without actually wanting to do a life stretch in a gulag at the end of the experience, I'd spent years yearning to see Europe the Le Carre'-George Smiley way, through the eyes of an overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, harassed and half-paranoid British spy exiled to a washed-out existence aboard continental public transportation.
And now, at last, the chance to hunt down the mole and foil Her Majesty's foes was mine, and I had the perfect cover: a Yank tourist who'd never been to Europe before and spoke almost none of the continental languages. From my training base in northern Wales, and with just a fistful of traveler's checks and credit cards and a stainless-steel digestive tract, I was headed by ferry and rail for Czechoslovakia -- and once over that fearsome border, I'd be all on my own.
The mission began at Flint Station in Wales on a rainy Monday morning -- during a European spring whose sole sunny day seemed to be the day Mrs. Thatcher was returned to office. I caught a rare direct British Rail train that had begun at Holyhead (the connection with the ferry from Dublin) and ended in the afternoon at the English port of Kingston-upon-Hull, where the overnight Hull-to-Rotterdam ferry waited.
The huge ferry North Sea had been commissioned only six weeks earlier, and left the brand-new Hull ferry facility at 6 p.m. for the 14-hour crossing. It was the dandiest seagoing machine this operative had ever seen, and an effective way to get lost in a Europe-bound crowd, which included half the senior class of Hull University and an entire company of British reserve airborne troops, in jump boots, blue berets and combat fatigues, heading for NATO maneuvers. About a third of the outfit were women, the first airborne troops carrying purses I'd ever seen.
My steerage ticket entitled me to a comfortable reclining seat in one of two mass sleeping theaters, but the seats allowed very few passengers to get much in the way of real, continuous sleep; most of the students found floor space in the hard but carpeted aisles, and by morning the theaters resembled Europe's largest floating pajama party. Until about 2 a.m., discos and casinos entertained most of the passengers.
From the deck at night, a parallel sea lane about a mile distant contained a steady westbound convoy of ship traffic, often displaying the lights of eight or 10 ships at a time. The ferry's gentle roll wasn't enough to put any passengers off their evening feed -- a grand smorgasbord of steak, herring, mashed potatoes, pickled beets, ham and roast beef, or the heroic English breakfast of bangers (giant sausages), back bacon, black pudding (a grim, mean-spirited black disk of a sausage), raisin bread, poached eggs and fresh fruit. There were no showers for third-class, so by the time we docked at Rotterdam I matched the crowd perfectly: unshaved, funky, mildly exhausted.
At Rotterdam Centraal Station, my bewildering collection of Western currencies ("Collect 'Em All!") went into high gear with Dutch guilder and German marks, and pictures of Florence Nightingale, a crossed violin and clarinet and Jan Pieteraz Sweelinck (scowling from the 25-guilder note). Soon my brain was bleeding with problems like this:
If today's exchange rates are U dollars for V pounds, W pounds for X guilder, and Y guilder for Z deutsche marks, how many dollars are there to the mark?
But the train I caught in Rotterdam was a dream hybrid of Sherlock Holmes, Alfred Hitchcock and Le Carre' himself, with seating compartments that jammed the most incompatible nationalities and suspicious-looking characters into the closest of quarters. British Rail I'd found merely clock-reliable, but this train was a gift from Eisenbahn, God of the Eurorails, who decreed that Man, at least in Northern Europe, should have a fighting chance to survive an 800-mile schlep with something resembling comfort, efficiency and even dignity.
For those on this popular route who failed to find compartment seating, the corridors were peppered with fold-down jump seats sunk into the walls. The WCs began perfectly clean in Rotterdam and stayed that way clear to Nu rnberg, complete with the paper product so rumored by Americans to be absent on the continent. (Okay, so it isn't exactly Charmin.) Spacious baggage racks were everywhere, and everyone had ingenious little fold-out tables that seemed to spring from nowhere. Locals set their watches by the trains right up to the Czech border, and until then, the trains flew at a lightning clip.
I had only 26 minutes in Cologne for my first change of trains, but its Bahnhof was another remarkable blessing from my buddy Eisenbahn: Here was every convenience for the weary traveler, all in the most logical of sites. The signage and timetable systems guided the most inexperienced and language-lost aliens to their proper platforms. There were refreshments, newsstands, bank branches -- which gave me a peachy idea.
I was annoyed to be out of marks and didn't want to repeat the experience early the next morning when I'd be dumped in Prague before the banks opened. After buying marks, I inquired if the teller chanced to be selling Czech koruna; without batting an eye, he whipped out a wad of the stuff, quoted me that day's odds, and I bought a stack of seriously big denominations. As I stuffed it in my wallet, the teller said, "Habt ein schon Tag," and I was off for Platform 15, some coffee and wurst-to-go, and the express to Wu rzburg.
I rode with the Rhine on my left for hours, with a grim 12th- or 13th-century castle on every peak and a rash of Gothic spires in the valley below. (I learned later that I'd been in plain sight of the Lorelies' campground and hadn't even known to stuff wax in my ears.) The train raced to Wu rzburg, where the express to Nu rnberg waited across a platform, but the mad dash stopped in Nu rnberg with a five-hour layover for the midnight train to Prague.
The Nu rnberg Bahnhof was crawling with extremely happy British and American enlisted men, with the British ones given to singing country and western tunes. I tossed my bags in a locker and headed out to stalk the Great German Meal; unerringly, I promptly found myself on a strasse with "SexWorld" and "Kutie City" in garish neon -- a particularly Le Carre'sque neighborhood, the kind of place where Our Side takes naughty candid snaps of Their Side for entrapment purposes. I retraced my steps and found a hotel restaurant with some very fine schnitzel and spaetzen.
Which left me back at Nu rnberg Bahnhof with only 210 minutes to kill. The joint lacked benches or seats, a municipal touch to encourage the idler to buy something in the arcade or beat feet to the street. Most of the arcade was closed, but fortunately one establishment beckoned: a hall that chanced to be hosting the final rounds of the intergalactic beer-swigging olympiad.
I was immediately thrust into a chair by my new friend Wenner, polyglot spokesman for a band of leering cutpurses straight out of Fritz Lang's "M" and Brecht's "Threepenny Opera." My German was less than perfect, but it seemed to me that one of my new pals was showing me photos of his two concurrent wives, one in Manchester and the other in Copenhagen, and he also seemed to have served proudly in several armies of our NATO allies. Nearby at the stand-up bar, a woman discreetly slid to the floor without noise or notice. The steins that Wenner and I kept buying each other were real cheap and had no brand name.
Just after midnight, I veered onto the night train to Prague via Bayreuth. As a sort of field sobriety test, my German map claimed I was on my way to "Tschechoslawakei." With shared German-Czech rolling stock, this train was a tad older and more primitive than the others. I was crammed in with a German high-school tour group, and sat across from a Welsh mezzo-soprano headed for a singing season at the Wagner fest in Bayreuth.
After Bayreuth, the characters were reshuffled and I was odd man out in a compartment with the school tour's chaperons, physics and math teachers, one of whom spoke Czech. At the Czech border, a party of two men and two women guards worked the train in three phases: passport control, articles to declare and, finally, on the third pass, an inquiry about money.
This operative passed his first test with armed Socialist guards swimmingly. "How many deutsche marks are you bringing into Czechoslovakia?" the guard asked me.
"None!" I exclaimed proudly, and flashed my stack of koruna. "I've got Czech money!"
In the dim corridor, the guards went tense. Over their shoulders I could see the lower jaws of all the schoolteachers crash to the compartment floor.
An interrogation ensued in English and Czech, ending in a huddle among the guards. The final vote was for the theory that I was a victim of gross folly and travel-inspired dementia, but not a subject for the wrath of the state prosecutor. They showed relief when I stuffed the wad back in my wallet, made me promise to spend 150 koruna per day while in the C.S.S.R., and vanished.
"Don't you know you must not DO that?" shrieked the lady math teacher.
"Well, I knew you couldn't bring the stuff out," I said, "but I didn't know you weren't supposed to bring it in. I was bringing some of their lost money back. What's wrong with that?"
A horrified physics teacher asked if I'd bought the stuff on the black market.
"No! At a perfectly respectable bank in Cologne. Guy wore a tie and everything. He never said a word about prison." As the train started up again, the teachers patiently explained that I had chosen a crime -- currency hanky-panky -- that ranks just above cannibalism in the Socialist countries.
It was dawn, and through the windows we could see the first of many red-starred banners proclaiming a particular industry's dedication to Socialist achievement, while the Czech-speaking teacher muttered "workers' paradise" distastefully under his breath. In the industrial cities west of Prague, people were starting to go to work.
Outside Prague's railroad station, I hailed a taxi and enlisted the driver in a hunt for a good hotel. We struck out at the Esplanade, the Paris and the Europa, and I finally settled, with the help of a small bribe for the concierge, for a "nice little pensione" a block from Metro station Pavlova.
Now I was really in Le Carre' country, the classic accommodation for the British agent deep in enemy territory. My tiny cubicle was a perfect model of Roy Bland's hovel during his underground days in Posnan. I was on the third floor; the elevator was kaput, and to use the shower on the fourth floor (the one on my floor was also kaput), I had to walk down to the desk for the key, and then make another round trip to return the key. Why the showers were locked was a mystery of low-budget Prague hospitality I never solved; the shower rooms themselves were torturous reminders of 19th-century hydrotherapy for melancholia sufferers.
I slept and then headed out to find some chow among Prague's night life, and was directed to a disco across the street that was blasting out Jefferson Starship's "Nothing's Going to Stop Us Now." I was now so far from any familiar language that when the waitress came, I was reduced to pointing to my mouth. My reward was a light antipasto of ham slices and potato and sweet relish salad. The rye bread was a robust and fragrant prize-winner. Budwar, a Hungarian licensee of Budweiser, was on half the disco tables; Coca-Cola was on the other half.
The next morning I attended to my American tourist cover with a Metro ride to see New Town Hall, site of the infamous Defenestration of Prague, in which papal legates were tossed from a window by rebellious followers of religious reformer Jan Huss in the 15th century. It's now a police station, and no one in the neighborhood knew which window they were tossed from.
The Prague Ghetto, with government encouragement, has become an attraction with great appeal for tourists, chiefly respectful and curious West Germans of all ages, although the only Americans I found in Prague were also there. Its synagogues, including the famed Alte Neue ("Old New") Synagogue, ironically survived because the Nazis used them as warehouses for confiscated Judaica. While the Alte Neue, which dates from the 13th century, continues as a house of worship, the others serve as extraordinary museums tracing the middle European Jewish experience from medieval times through the Holocaust. One contained a heart-rending exhibit about Terezin, a concentration camp near Prague chiefly for children; astonishingly, hundreds of samples of artwork by the interned children have survived, some depicting happy prewar scenes, others showing the grim and lethal day-to-day life in the camp.
Next to Pinkas Synagogue are the black, wrought-iron gates leading to a place of unearthly medieval wonder, the old Jewish cemetery, where 70,000 Jews who flourished in the Prague Ghetto now rest within a few acres; burials ceased there in the 18th century. The seemingly endless jumble of headstones with faded, often unreadable Hebrew inscriptions leans out of the earth at wildly skewed angles. Huge crows guard the hilly paths and shriek at tourists passing beneath their tree limbs.
Somewhere in the eerie maze is the tomb of Rabbi Leow, known also as Judah ben Bezalel, the 16th-century rabbi linked to the golem legend. To circumvent the ban against laboring on the Sabbath, the rabbi is said to have made a great homunculus of clay that came to life when EMET -- Hebrew for truth -- was carved in its forehead. With the first letter removed, MET, the word for death, remained, and the golem was lifeless again. Angered at this imitation of life, God let the golem run amok. Later legends say the golem still lives in a windowless, doorless room in the Prague Ghetto and comes to life each 33 years. Many see the golem as the inspiration for Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" monster.
I spotted a young Chicago writer as my first contact when he spoke the password: "Does anybody know where Franz Kafka's buried?" We teamed up to find it about five stops up the Metro. At the gates of the new Jewish cemetery in the suburbs, we bought flowers and were confronted by a large sign: "HERR DOKTOR FRANZ KAFKA," with an arrow pointing down an aisle. The simple family plot was well visited with fresh flowers and pebble markers. Some Czechs told us that Kafka's works were not looked on favorably by the government; the works of his contemporary, Karel Kapec (who coined the word "robot") are more visible in Prague bookstores.
That night I decided to hope for a spare ticket at Prague's performing-arts centerpiece, the Smetena Theater, and was just in time to be hurled into a private box with another latecomer, a young West German woman, as the curtain went up on the opera "The Kiss," by the theater's namesake, Bedrich Smetena. The theater is a splendid temple of opera from the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, replete with tiers of private boxes and gilt rococo ornamentation.
The artists and orchestra were magnificent, but it took us until half time to find programs and catch up with the plot. (The widow and widower get engaged, but she won't kiss him until the wedding. They feud, part, have adventures in the woods, get back together, etc.) After the opera, the West German woman, Sabine, hauled me through a long string of discos she'd discovered, all in the basement vaults of labyrinthine 19th-century buildings, all with electrically amplified bands blaring Elvis and Chuck Berry.
The next day I engaged in a little industrial snooping at an exposition of the hottest in small East German computers. The hall was packed, but I elbowed my way to "Robotron" systems that were roughly eight years behind American personal computers, with bootlegged English-language software. Michael, a Czech electronics technician, explained that although Czechs are as crazed about computers as anyone in the West, computers have yet to make an appearance in Czech schools; even college students have a hard time getting their hands on the machines, and home systems are almost unknown.
On the Saturday morning when I left Prague, the exchange window at the train station was mobbed, so this very Imperfect Spy's unwilling last mission was to smuggle most of the wad of koruna back to the West -- eventually to be exchanged by a surprised but very willing bank clerk in Amsterdam. (If you're not hot for fine Bohemian glassware, costume jewelry or exquisitely lithographed picture books, there's not much to spend on in Prague, and the souvenir scene is dismal; except for those from Prague's Carolina University, there's not an indigenous T-shirt in town.) At the German border, Czech rail guards inspected the seams of the train compartments with flashlights, and the Czech passport control officer handed me back my passport with a blunt demand that I get a newer photograph.
We went through in daylight this time, so for the first time I could see the guard towers and barbed-wire zone that demarcates West from East; conversation among the returning West German tourists fell to a near hush as we waited for the train to switch engines and get permission to move on.
I'd finished reading Le Carre''s "A Perfect Spy" in my plaster-and-whitewash pensione cell in Prague, and it was a corker, a real nail-biting thriller. It made the perfect guidebook to Europe; while others gawked at cathedrals, I was hunting for clandestine letter-drops and peering over my shoulder through crowded Metro stations.
Harassed, hunted, haunted -- that's my brand of Eurointrigue and travel, and when the master publishes his next one, he can count on me to follow in his footsteps.
Robert Merkin, author of the novels "The South Florida Book of the Dead" and "Zombie Jamboree," is a native Washingtonian who now lives in western Massachusetts, where he's writing a third novel.