Schweik Lives!

ELIZABETH POND

April 29, 1992|By ELIZABETH POND

BORDER CROSSING, CZECHOSLOVAKIA. — Border Crossing, Czechoslovakia -- The round-faced, apple-cheeked Czech customs official interrupted my jotting of notes to glance at my American passport, then practice his English. ''Do you have gifts for anyone?''

''No,'' I replied ruefully, thinking of various Prague friends. ''I wish I did.''

He returned the passport to me in the corridor where I was standing for lack of a seat on the crowded weekend train, and started to step into the adjoining compartment. His visored hat was tipped back on his head in permanent perplexity. Despite being in his 50s, he had not risen above the rank of major -- surely a mark of credit in this sometimes unsavory bureaucracy in the Communist years. As an afterthought he added the rote, ''Do you have any Czech crowns?''

''Yes,'' I answered. It hadn't crossed my mind that the old Czechoslovak prohibition on importing crowns might still apply in an era when the country was sprinting toward the international market. Schweik, as I was already coming to think of the inspector, looked uncomfortable.

''How far are you going?''

''To Prague.''

There was a pause; Schweik seemed sorry he had raised the subject, but, having done so, he clearly felt obliged to see that the rules were followed. For the more difficult transaction ahead he switched into German. ''Where did you get the crowns?''

''In a bank in Nuremberg.''

''Do you have a receipt?''

I rummaged in my purse and miraculously came up with the slip of paper. My 1,400 crowns (about $40) jibed with the document.

''Unfortunately, you're not allowed to keep these.''

''But that was the old Czechoslovakia, not the new one,'' I protested. It seemed absurd that laws intended to foil black-market deals at a time of unrealistic exchange rates -- or, more accurately, laws intended to give the government a monopoly on the black market -- should apply in a Milton Friedman paradise in which currency now trades on every Prague street corner.

''We're still a poor country,'' Schweik countered; ''we're even poorer.'' It certainly was true that prices and rents were rising, putting the squeeze on people like him with fixed government salaries and lowering their standard of living.

Still he stalled. ''You have a choice: You can either keep the crowns and go back to Nuremberg, or else you can go on to Prague and give up the crowns.'' He signaled to his two companions to check the next compartment while he dealt with this anomaly. We were more or less alone in the corridor, and he still couldn't bring himself to put the money into his pocket and record the misdemeanor on his pad.

Suddenly, one last inspired hope struck. ''What is your profession?'' he asked.

''Journalist.''

Instantly, he thrust the 1,400 crowns back into my hand. ''Then if I take the money, you will write about it in the papers, and Czechoslovakia will get a bad name.'' We both grinned. He disappeared into the next car.

Ten minutes later the three inspectors again trooped past on their way to the first-class section. Schweik was in the rear. ''By the way,'' he whispered, ''please don't write that a Czech customs official let you keep the money.'' I jiggled my head in what I hoped was a conspiratorial but non-committal fashion. He vanished again.

My apologies, Schweik. I couldn't resist. But I have at least provided camouflage for your chivalry in altering the details of our encounter. May you, and the Czechs, thrive.

Elizabeth Pond is a free-lance journalist in Europe.

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