Today, I welcome Jennifer King–writer, photographer, painter, and founder of Great New Books. She continues the October series of visiting writers sharing their scariest experiences.
When Jessica asked me for a story about being scared, I didn’t have to think too long—but I wasn’t sure I could share this story out loud. Then, this past weekend, I talked with one of my dear friends overseas whose home was just targeted and knew my story must be told. Living as an expat in Prague, the spy capital of the world, is not the easy life it’s sometimes made up to be. It’s pretty scary, in fact.
The Time I Felt Most Scared
I’ve often said one of the best things about living overseas is the appreciation an expat feels when he or she returns home. It’s not the result of the home place suddenly being more beautiful, but reflects the depth of difficulty an expat usually faces while abroad.
One evening in my first year of living in Prague, I sat in my kids’ school auditorium amongst the familiar conversational buzz of dozens of languages swirling around me. I remember eavesdropping in my limited other language skills and hearing the news, which I confirmed in English, that a man had been shot in front of the school director’s home.
I grasped for details. What happened? Why? Who was it? And heard the dissatisfying answers – a man had been sitting in a dark car on the narrow street when another car drove by and a gun appeared in the window and shot the man. It happened in the same tiny village just outside Prague in which my family and I lived.
It sounds shocking when I think back on it now, but the world I lived in was a different universe, an Eastern Europe which often is a Jason Bourne-type reality.
For a couple of years, the Bourne factor settled a bit. Our car alarm sounded on occasion outside our house from attempted break-ins. People dressed as Polizie visited our house and demanded to see our passports, visas, and other important things. The Communist village loudspeakers blared their warnings through the narrow village streets. We worried about the giant dog that bit a chunk from my husband’s jacket on his morning run, and listened as expat friends warned against open garage and house doors because theft is common, even if it’s daylight and people are home. These conversations became normal.
And then one day in my fourth year in Prague, an expat friend’s house was invaded by a “Swat Team” at 3 a.m. one morning. The men jumped the front wall, pounded the front door, and demanded entry. They told her in broken English that they needed to “check her house because her garage door was open.” Her husband was out of the country on a business trip. They were armed; she let them “search” the house.
It became personal a night or two later. Our garage door went up on its own in the middle of the night.
My husband and I both heard it, and thanked God it squealed and squeaked on the tracks every time it went up. Our beloved dog barked like crazy, but there was no one there.
The second time it happened, our dog woke us from deep sleep, and again, we couldn’t find the cause. We asked our landlord to please change the opener system to one with a rolling code. But these things take time in places like Czech Republic.
By the third time our garage door went up on its own in the middle of the night, I was sure the Swat Team would come rolling in. They didn’t.
But then a night came when my husband was out of the country, and a friend called to tell me about a break-in at the house of the first friend, who’d had the Swat Team at 3 a.m. I was sure they were coming to my house next.
I remember my heart beating like fireworks going off outside my chest, while I tried to figure out what to do. Our house had an alarm, but we lived so far on the outskirts of the village, I knew none of our neighbors (all local Czechs) would help if it went off. And, the police couldn’t be trusted. As an American expat, I felt like I wore a target.
We had two doors into the house—the front door, which locked with a deadbolt, and the back door, which was all glass and locked by a simple turn of a door handle. I was at home alone with three children for the week.
And so, that night, out of desperation, I secured the back door the only way I could. With duct tape.
Every hour of every night that week, I felt on edge, waiting. I knew it was coming. And yet it didn’t.
My husband returned and saw the duct tape striping the back door and laughed. But within a week, expensive cars with dark-tinted windows began staking-out our street. 24/7, men in long black trench coats sat in their cars blocking access to our tiny road, sometimes walking up and down the cobblestones. I truly felt fear to the depth of my being, the kind of fear that makes you use duct tape to try to seal your door.
Now, living back in the United States, I’m able to laugh at my desperate duct tape job. But I’m horrified to say that the men in black stayed at the end of our tiny street for over a month, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And, our friends in Prague have since had their house ransacked.
I remember the horrible feeling of living through each day with a bulls-eye marking my head, my house, my heart. It was a Bourne world, every day, in Czech Republic.
One thing is for sure: I learned what fear tastes like. It’s distinct, unsettling, and lingers. The experiences in Eastern Europe will fuel my writing for a lifetime.