“Don’t be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything.” -Carlos Ruiz Zafon in The Angel’s Game
Being scared happens. It’s part of living. And, sometimes it’s what teaches us who we are, and how to be brave.
I’ve had a few scary instances in my life … of being followed when I was a 16-year-old model in New York City, more than once; of failing when I’ve dared greatly; of having hard conversations when they’re necessary; of the route when all hopes fail; of being alone, left in the darkness, and all the crazy scenarios our minds can cook up when we’re tired or we feel we’ve reached the end.
But there is one true happening within the last year that sticks out as scariest in my mind. My story involves Swat Teams, burglary, nighttime, and the very not-secure back door to our rental house. True Stories at JessicaVealitzek.com, and since Jess’s site is now undergoing renovation, I’m posting the piece here, as well:
A True Scary Story from My Days in Prague
When my writing friend, Jessica Vealitzek, asked me and some of the other ladies on the team at Great New Books to write a “The Time I Was Most Scared” essay for her blog, True Stories, I knew instantly what I should share. 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 this story must be told. Living as an expat in Prague, the spying capital of the world we were told, is not the easy life it’s sometimes made up to be. It’s pretty scary, in fact. It’s an example of one of the extra-trying experiences I had while an expat with my family in Prague.
The Time I Was Most Scared
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 becoming suddenly shiny or more beautiful, but of the depth of difficulty of the experiences while abroad. I can say this from experience.
One evening in my first year of living in Prague, I sat in the school auditorium amongst a loud conversational buzz. Dozens of languages passed around me, and I remember thinking the excitement might be over the fifth-grade music performance. Then, soon, an Egyptian woman in front of me shared the news: a man had been shot in front of the director of the school’s home.
I grasped for details. What happened? Why? Who was it? And heard the dissatisfying answers – a man had been sitting in his car on the narrow street, another car drove by, a gun appeared in the window and shot the man. It happened in the same small village just outside Prague which my family and I lived in.
It sounds shocking, doesn’t it? But this is the world of Eastern European expats, 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 when we hadn’t parked inside the wall. People dressed as Polizie visited our house and demanded to see our passports, visas, and other important things. Expat friends warned against leaving garages open and valuables in open areas inside homes because theft is common, even if it’s daylight and people are home. These instances became normal. And then one day in my fourth year in Prague, our lives went from silence to chaos, not unlike hearing the Communist village loudspeakers blaring their frequent warnings, echoing through the narrow streets.
A friend whispered to me about a friend whose house had been invaded by a “Swat Team” at 3 a.m. that 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.
Then it became personal a night or two later. Our garage door began going up on its own in the middle of the night.
The first time, my husband and I both heard it, and thanked God it squealed and squeaked on the tracks every time it went up. Our dog went crazy, but there was no one there.
The second time it happened, our dog woke us from deep sleep, and again, there was no one there. We asked our landlord to please change 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 the break-in at the house of the first friend, who’d had the “Swat Team” at 3 a.m. It seemed sure they were coming to my house next.
I remember my heart beating outside my chest, trying to figure out what to do. Our house had an alarm, but we lived so far on the outskirts of the village, I knew no one would do anything. All of our neighbors were Czech, and often an alarm would sound, but no action was taken. And, calling the police, though I spoke adequate Czech, was pointless. They were the opposite of help.
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 the turn of the 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 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 then, 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 about that duct tape job. But at the time, I was more scared than I’d ever been in my life. Rightfully so. It turns out 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, friends in Prague have since then had their house turned upside down with a terrible break-in.
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. I know the experiences will fuel my writing for a lifetime.
Next week is a big week here — I’m celebrating 5 years of blogging with a giveaway!