Nine Years to Freedom

Teal M. Gaylord

2022 Travel Story Finalist

© Copyright 2022 by Teal M. Gaylord

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash
                                                        Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

The American birthright based on “liberty and justice for all,” is unique in this world. As an American my appreciation of this birthright began with an experience I had as a teenager when I experienced what life looked like under Soviet occupied Eastern Europe. In 1979 and 1980 I lived in Sweden as a Rotary exchange student. I decided that in the Spring of 1980, before my return to America, I would spend a month traveling Europe on an Interrail pass. Interrail passes were only available to residents of Europe. This pass granted me access to Eastern-bloc countries, which most Americans at that time would have had difficulty entering. This story is about a small part of that journey that changed me forever.

It was May of 1980 when I passed behind the political boundary separating Eastern and Western Europe known as the “Iron Curtain.” This barb-wire boundary was guarded to keep people from the East in and influences from the West out. Most Americans born after 1989 do not understand the menace and mystique associated with this man-made divide. I was seventeen and traveling from Munich to Athens on the Hellas Express. The train takes about 40 hours and crosses Hungry and the former Yugoslavia on its way to Greece. As a seventeen-year-old from a small town in upstate New York I was unacquainted with the realities of the world I was about to encounter on this journey across Eastern Europe. As we headed East from Munich through the Austrian Alps and across Hungary along the Czechoslovakian boarder, I was unable to see outside my window since it was dark. It was not until the following day after we left Budapest that I was able to explore this new world.

I was awake early that first morning and at once glued myself to the window; I wanted to see this part of the world that I had only read about in history books. I recall that I soon felt like I was in a time warp as the train passed small rural villages filled with stone cottages with handmade wooden shingles. From pictures I had seen in my textbooks of Eastern Europe during World War II I believed these buildings had not changed at all in forty years. As we continued through the countryside and entered the former Yugoslavia heading toward Belgrade, I began to see people going about their daily activities including farmers moving over filled wagons of loosely piled hay, people on bicycles and old women pushing what looked to be crude heavy wooden carts loaded with vegetables and other supplies. Again, I thought to myself that these people dressed just as they would have a hundred years ago. As we traveled nearer to Belgrade, the muddy wagon-rutted roads of the country turned into busier muddy roads entering the city. I recall that most people I saw from my window seemed to be wearing clothes that appeared very heavy given it was early May. The fashion in the countryside was quite drab and it wasn’t until we reached the station at Belgrade that I began to see people who looked like they belonged to 1980.

From the comfort of my train, I was grateful to be a voyeur into a world that looked so different than mine and I was fast becoming educated on life in this part of the world. I did realize these people were extremely poor compared to Western standards and isolated from the rest of the world. Although the poverty was unlike anything I had ever seen the simple life of wagons pulled by horses and carts pushed by old women appeared charming. I must admit the muddy roads endlessly winding across the countryside and practically touching the edge of the city were a surprise and I still vividly remember them today.

Heading out of Belgrade toward Athens the Hellas Express traveled further into the former Yugoslavia, hundreds of miles behind the Iron Curtain. The deeper we traveled into the country the more stops we made. At these stops the routine was typical, passengers disembarked, and others joined us on board. However, at each stop before the doors closed and we were allowed to continue the police boarded the train and all passengers had to produce identification. Of course, for me this meant surrendering my American passport.

We were a multinational group of passengers aboard the Hellas Express; there were travelers from around Europe, including Finland, Belgium, and Germany as well as locals. However, during the frequent inspections the police (complete with Russian Kalashnikovs) were most interested in my passport. I believe most of the police officers had never met an American before; they seemed to be quite curious about a 17-year-old American girl on a train in their town. At every stop the police took my passport and sometimes did not return with it for what felt like an hour or more. Fortunately, my passport was always returned; how it was returned varied from the train conductor who said nothing to a more friendly visit from a police officer who smiled and said one word “American.” Not all encounters were amenable, occasionally the police would question me as to why I was in their country, and once the floor in front of where I was standing was spit on.

I was never afraid even when it was obvious the police officers did not like me because I was an American. I had been forewarned by a Czech named Nikko sitting next to me the first morning that the police would scrutinize my passport and they would not be as excited to meet an American as he was. I remember surrendering my passport countless times and being fascinated by the experience; naively feeling a bit special at having so much attention focused on me.

Our train stopped in Belgrade on May 4, 1980. I am sure this date is meaningless to most people. However, this date holds significant importance in history; it is the day that Josip Broz Tito died. Tito was the leader of the former Yugoslavia for over 40 years and had a precarious relationship with Moscow. Remarkably he had kept the country together and the Russians out during his entire tenure. I recall that there was speculation and fears throughout the Western world that upon Tito’s death the Soviets would invade. It was not until I reached Athens on the 5th of May and saw the headlines announcing Tito’s death the previous day, when I was in Belgrade, that the enormity of where I had been hit me. Although I was only a teen, I had enough knowledge of the geopolitical situation in former Yugoslavia to know that I had happened into the country at a most inopportune time. I also realized I was fortunate that the worst did not happen for me or the people of the former Yugoslavia.

On my journey I was lightly interrogated, strongly intimidated and shocked as I watched a man being removed from the train by the police. Looking back at my experience I now realize that being inside of country in 1980 as it is invaded by the Soviets; it’s quite possible that I may have never returned to Sweden or ultimately the United States. Unless you have experienced what everyday life was like for those who lived under Soviet control it is difficult to imagine – it is a memory that I have carried with me and that has made me appreciate the freedom that so many Americans never think about.

When the Berlin Wall came down in late 1989 it became one of the most meaningful days of my life. I watched the news reports and wept for the countries of the Eastern-bloc. My thoughts went to Nikko, and I knew that the end of Communism was close for him and the others I met on that train nine years before.  

I am a Human Resource Director for a manufacture in Corning New York. I enjoy writing non-fiction essays about topics that interest me. I write to have a voice and share my thoughts. When I can make others feel the way I did when I was capturing my thoughts on paper it makes me feel like I may have some talent. I have no professional writing experience. 

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