Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I’m writing this on a train in Eastern Europe between Budapest and Prague.  Don't know when I'll be able to post it. Probably most of you aren’t old enough to really remember the Cold War.  You weren’t raised with an expectation of imminent nuclear apocalypse or inundated with stories of a shadowy underworld of spies and assassins who were just barely keeping the world from the brink.

Budapest and Prague (and Berlin, but that’s not on the itinerary this time) were staples of these stories.  Messages passed in cafes and beer halls; secret signals; beautiful, seductive counter-intelligence agents; desperate knife fights in alleys; a satchel bomb always ticking down to zero…

Both are tourist towns now.  Big, beautiful (but I am coming to find that ‘big city’ and ‘dirty’ seem to always come together).  Cleaner and less depressing (I am told) than they were under Soviet control.  The business of the day is business and people are working, studying and making connections.

It’s still cool to be here.  One of those childhood fantasies (“I want to be a spy when I grow up”) almost fulfilled.  Almost.  No world to save.  Extremely limited numbers of damsels in distress.  Agents and operatives?  Check, but significantly more talking, eating and drinking than fighting happens… and that’s cool.

So, in the International Man of Mystery qualifications category—
Beautiful Eastern-bloc refugee wife.
Keys to apartments in Boston and Athens.
Metro tickets in the wallet for two coastal cities.
Passport stamps that sometimes get me detained.
Cover story?  “I’m a writer, just in the country to do a little research…”
And, most important of all, some very, very cool friends in some very interesting positions.


Justthisguy said...

Heh. The housemate was a Sigint guy in Army intel in the Berlin Brigade in the seventies. (I've seen his DD214) He and his wife, who also wore the rose and dagger, were required to sleep with their chemical gear by their bed in their off-post apartment, and have the telephone handy. He tells some good stories..

TimP said...

My wife was a student in Rostock, East Germany in the 80's. After the re-unification she sent for her Stazi file - all foreign students had one, and they are now covered by Germany's Freedom of Information laws. After I told my work colleagues this they kept telling me there will be a phone call one day: ring, ring... "Hello?" heavy russian accent: "The snow lies deep in Serbia"... at which point my wife's eyes will glaze over and she will go fetch a machine pistol from under the kitchen floorboards, and run out and drive at speed to the nearest airbase, crashing the gates guns blazing.

ush said...

Old enough to remember the cold war and,thanks to a Hungarian girlfriend,spent enough time in Budapest to appreciate the John La Carre vibe that the locals are oblivious to. Fascinating city

Justthisguy said...

ush: Just watched "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" the other night. Very excellent movie. I think the George Smiley character showed commendable restraint at the end when confronting the bad guy, who had not only betrayed their country, but f#*ked his wife.

I kept yelling at the screen,
" C'mon, George, knock him down and keep kicking him in the head until he stops moving!"

George did not succumb to that temptation, but used his head, instead.