Bridget tries her hand at smuggling. Again.
“Čokoladu?” I try my Serbian knowledge of this international word with two women attendants in a little shop in Košice. They look at me with interest, so I show them a small packet of cocoa powder which I had purchased in Belgrade and have smuggled into Slovakia, the eastern part of Czechoslovakia. They take it off to the back of the shop and look at it behind a curtain. Coming out smiling, they ask how much, and I tell them. “150 krone per pack.” That is quite a lot of money for them, but they want it and happily pay up. Chocolate is a prized rarity in 1967 Slovakia.
I don’t look like a seasoned smuggler, or feel like one. I am nervous, but I persevere. I find a few small shops in the main shopping street of Košice and, dashing from one to another in the pouring rain, I manage to sell six packs. I decide that is enough and keep a few for spares.
When I had been on the train, crossing the Hungarian/ Czechoslovakian border, the frontier guards asked me lots of questions. Where are you going? Why are you going? They tried in Czechoslovakian and Hungarian, and whatever I mumbled in reply caused them in the end to stamp my passport with a grumble. They didn’t trouble themselves to look in my bags. My visa was in order, so they let me be. My little gamble with fortune has succeeded to this point.
My problem is with the weather. The rain pours down relentlessly. With my new earnings, and despite it being an expense I rarely allow myself, I find a hotel in the wide main street. This is going to cost me all of three hundred krone, two packets of cocoa, or about two British shillings, for the night. I will have a warm, comfortable room, and there is no reasonable alternative if the rain won’t stop pouring.
I go shopping, which is something I seldom do. I buy an umbrella, an essential road map of Czechoslovakia and a novel in English. In a local pharmacy, I invest in some DDT, considered a great boon in 1967, to deal with anticipated insect friends. My smuggling adventure has paid for all these purchases.
Churches made of little pieces of wood
Never in my life have I seen such a little miracle as now appears before my eyes in the pouring rain of Košice. Next door to the museum, right in the centre of the town, is a small church made of tiny pieces of wood. It is the size of perhaps an English chapel but otherwise completely different. It is in three sections joined together, with layers of sloping roofs and arrangements of domes on the top. Every part of it is made from small pieces of wood, joined and overlapping. The three-dimensional geometrical structures are perfectly lovely. I am entranced, and although the great Gothic cathedral in the centre of town is much grander, I have seen plenty of those on my travels. A wooden church like this is a complete surprise.
In the museum, they tell me this church has been moved here from a village called Kožuchovce and that there are others like it in this remote corner of Slovakia. I know then what I’ll do. My diary:
Suddenly I decided – bother this rain. I can’t waste time. It’s better to go out and get wet than to hang around a place, and my visa isn’t going to last forever. I packed up from the hotel. Leaning against the cold wind and belting rain, I made my way north. I had to walk a lot. It amused me to think of myself, a lone English girl in this wild country, charging along in the rain with rucksack and umbrella. It got funnier as the countryside grew more mountainous, very beautiful rolling hills but no sign of the rain abating. Eventually, I began to walk along a muddy track to a village called Hervartov, literally in the middle of nowhere. I got a ride on a tractor and arrived in the centre of this mountain village.
There in the dripping trees was a dark wooden church, on a little hillock by the stream. All around me were slopingrooved houses, many of wood with thatched roofs or wooden tiled roofs. There were many little barns, like miniature houses, and huge, raftered barns with mossy thatched roofs. Many of the barns were painted bright blue, which I’d seen before in Poland.
The tractor driver calls over a man he knows, who beckons me and wants to show me the church. Dripping wet as I am, tired and cold, and unsure where I’ll be spending the night, I follow him. I must prioritise looking at this church. Who knows if I’ll get another opportunity. My diary:
The inside of the church was incredibly lovely. However could such a gem be found in such a wild place! It was, is, a Catholic church, and my guide and a couple of other people there genuflected respectfully as I’d been taught in my youth. The walls were covered in medieval paintings, excellently preserved, and worth so many million krone per picture as my guide constantly assured me. There was a wealth of intricate wood carvings and a little figure of ‘sorrowing Jesus’ as I’d seen in Bavaria. It was tiny, with only room for about fifty people.
Children begin to peep inside the door of the church, and some of the older ones come in and smile at me. I tell them I am English.
That does the trick. A few minutes later, a bandy-legged old man wearing breeches and an ancient cowboy hat appears in the church. “You from the States?” he asks, with a distinct American twang. When I say I am English, he says: “I was in the States for twenny years before the war. But I come home to my kids. Where you stayin’ tonight? You stay in my house. C’mon.”
He leads me to his self-constructed cottage and shows me his bull and his pigs. I am taken into the house to meet his family. My diary:
There were ducklings in the kitchen. The house was so clean, and his daughter-in-law was busy working. She wore a simple peasant costume, a white lace cap, a pleated skirt with a hoop arrangement underneath that swished around as she worked.
My host’s name is Jan Marsalek. He proudly acts as interpreter to his family and friends that evening who all come round to visit. I get stares of amazement when I light up a cigarette. “We know girls smoke in the towns,” he says. “I seen ’em smoking in the States. Girls don’t smoke here.”
As we make conversation, I tell them my name is Bridget. The pronouncing of my name normally results in someone saying Brigitte Bardot. In Hervartov, no one, young or old, has heard of the French film star. Western radio, films or TV barely exist. My diary:
There was home-made bread and fresh eggs for my supper. They ate potatoes with jam, and I had some too. The house was warm, well lit, and the food was good. My bed had a feather down cover, and we all slept in the one room, grandfather, daughter-in-law, son and me.
I’ve stayed in farmhouses in Poland and in Mezőberény in a traditional Hungarian family home. I’ve spent weeks in student hostels and the last two nights in, what for me are, luxury hotels. But I’ve never stayed anywhere like this. There is no bother about bathrooms or washing. The outhouse is in the yard, as with all these country houses. There’s no need to dig out clean sheets, to scrub the corners of the guest room and all the palaver that accompanies having visitors in a modern home. My bed is prepared on a long wooden seat, with rugs underneath me and a feather duvet on top.
My steaming damp clothes are drying with the heat of the woodburning stove. I’ll smell deliciously of wood-smoke tomorrow. There I lie in the heart of the family home, snores and smells together. I am cosier and happier than I could ever be in the most splendid hotel.
Extracted from Bridget Ashton’s new book, Cold War, Warm Hearts.