At least we were sensible when we arrived at London Heathrow. After clearing customs and immigration (who planted a cryptic "A LEAVE TO ENTER" stamp in our passports) we ...took a cab. London cabs are unique vehicles. Always black, diesel powered and manufactured exclusively for this purpose, they allow ample room for five adults seated club-style. Descended directly from the horse-drawn Hansom cab they have a partition separating the passengers from the driver through which the meter can be clearly seen. And we watched the meter very carefully as it seemed to increase with every second. Not quite understanding the local currency of pounds, shillings and pence, we spent half of our cash in just a few minutes. We asked the driver to take us to the nearest subway station - the tube. This was Hounslow West, and from there we made our way across London, eventually taking a double-decker bus to the southern suburb of Croydon. Everything was so new to us. Sitting on the upper deck of a bus, right in front and being able to smoke. Imagine! By late afternoon we arrived at the address in Croydon. It was a typical London neighborhood with "one up, one down", "semi-detached" houses. We walked along the Main Street, looking in the store windows. We started making shopping lists, what we'll buy as soon as... .
The two Czechs guys we were trying to contact had lived in the UK for some time. They were not home. We walked into a neighborhood grocery store and asked for "something to eat", totally confusing the Jamaican shopkeeper. We came out with a loaf of sliced Wonderloaf. I still remember the plastic taste and rubbery texture.
It was 7 pm and we had no idea where we would spend the night. Finally, we made a contact with the Czech guys and they arranged for us to stay at their friend's house nearby. Phil was his name. And he had a car. In our value set, that was a big deal. Phil's parents were on vacation in Spain so we could stay the night.
In the morning, we were packed and ready to go, when Phil asked about our plans. We had none beyond somehow making our way to Glasgow and Audrey. We planned to hitchhike, we said. Phil figured out that we didn't have a clue and offered to help us with jobs and somewhere to stay. In the meantime, we could stay at his house, until his parents returned. There was also the question of getting the right papers, social security card and so on...the stuff we did not think of yet.
Phil was a bit dull, but he really came through for us. He showed us the London tourist sights, found us jobs in a paper factory and a room to rent from a family nearby. I never knew what his motivation was. He did not demand anything in return...he simply helped us and then let us be.
Few days later Michal and I moved in with the Morris family. Mr. Morris was English and a house painter, Mrs. Morris was of an Italian heritage and ruled the diminutive Mr. Morris mercilessly with an iron fist. They had two teenage children, Linda ("Lyn-dah") and Peter ("Pee-taah"). Linda was a cute, puppy fat-ish 17-year old who caused havoc to our testosterone levels. Peter was a 13-year old who was a consistent pain in the ass. Michal and I occupied a room in the front of the house, sharing the bathroom with everyone upstairs - a situation that is hard to imagine now. Yes we spied on Linda and one of us was sure to be at the bathroom door as she was about to emerge, ready for bed. Or a variant thereof. The Morisses were nice, up to a point, but we were there to help with the finances and no more. In retrospect, I felt sorry for poor Mr. Morris. Two horny teenagers in the house, a seventeen year old daughter and a shrieking Italian wife...sounds like a good sitcom, but it was not easy on a day-to-day basis. Mr. Morris tried to keep up, but he had his own demons. One night I caught him peeing in the kitchen sink - he was so panicked he nearly severed his Anglo-Saxon pecker on some unwashed cutlery protruding from the sink. He had his pressures.
Phil took us to the Home Office at High Holborn - the government agency dealing with immigration. Within a few hours, we were given social security numbers and an indefinite permit to stay in the UK - a kind of Green Card. I am not sure why it was that easy. There was a lot of residual sympathy towards Czechs at the time; perhaps a sort of collective guilt. We appreciated this largesse and were surprised by the efficiency.
Communicating with our parents and friends in Czechoslovakia was difficult. We could write letters, of course. In the early days the authorities were not really aware that we'd emigrated, so our letters were not intercepted and read. We had some access to the phone at the MorrisŐ house, but it was made clear to us that this amenity was to be used only in the direst of emergencies. So we used a nearby public "coin box" - a pay phone. To call Czechoslovakia in 1969 was a complicated procedure. The call had to be "reserved" several hours prior. At the set time we had to redial the operator, deposit a number of coins in the pay phone and then listen as the call was manually routed through France and Germany. Although it must have been a traumatic experience, I do not remember the first call I made to my parents. We were in the middle of a great adventure and, as shallow as it may appear, we did not allow ourselves to imagine the emotional crisis our parents were experiencing. My mother later described it as a perfect mix of despair, worry and relief. The despair and worry are clearly understandable, the relief less so. That she was able to look at the positive side of this situation, that I now had a chance to live a decent life, is a testimony to her strength of spirit.
After three weeks of work in the paper factory, we received our paychecks, which were actually not paychecks at all. Just before the end of our shift, we were given tiny brown envelopes containing our wages - in cash. It was not much, I think we each received about 14 pounds ($40, perhaps) every two weeks. We celebrated the first payday in style - we got disgustingly drunk. This was the first time, ever, that we had some money in our pocket and it just so happened, another important, earth shattering event took place; The Beatles released "Abbey Road" that day. Armed with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red and the Beatles album, we borrowed Mr. Morris's gramophone and settled in our room for the night. Or so we thought. We were not used to hard liquor and we were blind drunk before the end of side one. Mr. Morris took away his gramophone after that, and to his credit, allowed us to sleep it off without a lecture on the perils of demon alcohol. To this day, I cannot abide the smell of Johnnie Walker Red scotch.
We settled into a routine at the factory. At first, as if we were being tested, we worked alongside a dozen or so women operating light machinery. We were making rolls of copy paper about the size of kitchen towel rolls. It was repetitive but not hard. Our supervisor was a woman in her forties (old!) with a habit of carrying a pencil in her mouth, as if she was expecting an epileptic fit to strike at any time. She was fair and we liked her. Subconsciously, we needed to have people we could trust in our orbit.
A problem with the English language emerged - we could not figure out what "fucking" meant. The word was ubiquitous, everyone used it, all the time, peppering their speech with "fucking" this and "fucking" that. The use was not consistent, sometimes it was a verb, sometimes an adjective, sometimes a comma or even a pause. That confused us so we discussed it at length one evening and we checked our dictionaries, but nothing made sense. We asked our supervisor: "What does "fucking" mean?". She blanched and excused herself, trying to contain laughter. We were onto something. So we asked Mr. Morris. Again he came through, aided and reinforced by various dictionaries, and valiantly attempted to separate "fucking" from sexual intercourse, which, as I now know, is the only way to explain how a word can have two totally disconnected meanings at the same time.
We had a love-hate relationship with the English language and it's idiosyncracies. We knew we had to master it. No matter how much we tried to learn the proper grammar and syntax, just as quickly were our efforts thwarted by the babel of local accents and dialects. For example, every morning we took the same bus to work. The conductor assumed that you knew your fare. Every day, we said "one-and-six", and every day, the same conductor would not understand us..."What? three-and-six?
There was always confusion over money. The English monetary system in 1969 was a diabolical conspiracy by the locals to reduce all foreigners to quivering wrecks. The basic unit was the pound sterling (inexplicably referred to in Czech as libra) but the locals called it a quid - singular; as in five pounds would be "five quid". There were 20 shillings (or bob - singular, again) in a pound. And then there was a special unit called a guinea that was "one pound and one shilling" or "21 shillings". The guinea was used exclusively in horseracing and real estate. It made the value appear slightly cheaper. Each shilling had 12 pence (not "pences" ) and each pence, or penny, had a half-penny or "ha'penny", this being the only concession to the sanity and logic of a decimal system. The coins had names. Three pence was a thrupence, sixpence is self evident, but less so was the half-a-crown which was two shilling and six pence.
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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions