The Happy Bus

Last Friday happened to fall on October 28th, a national holiday in the Czech Republic, that marks one of its three independence days. As my Czech flatmate was feeling exceedingly patriotic on this special day, he proposed we drive to Dresden, east Germany, for a short two-day, one-night visit.

And so, we left in the morning in his little Ford Fiesta from Kladno, passing through a handful of charming little villages – so small they probably qualify as hamlets at best – until we reached the motorway that crosses the non-existing borders.

Stretches of straight roads laid ahead of us, squeezed in between either vast fields, ploughed or not, all bare, or tall forests that were turning ginger and blond, courtesy of the upcoming winter. Seas of ochre, orange and red, spotted now and then by dark green patches of some scattered and lonely coniferous copses.

A pleasant addition to the usually beautiful, but flat Czech landscape, was the presence of mountains. A sight that I hadn’t realised how much I had missed, until seeing it for the first time since I moved from the Lebanon one month ago.

Czech roads, like Lebanese roads are landmarked by occasional roadside shrines, erected, I suppose, in memory of dead loved ones, in the location of their demise. In Lebanon, these little memorials are usually elevated, little house-shaped constructions, sheltering the statue of a saint and some horribly ugly, horribly dusty artificial flowers. While here, the shrines are quite similar to the aerial part of a grave. Startling big wooden crosses, sometimes even headstones, warmed by lit candles and surrounded by fresh flowers. Ever-occurring reminders of death. And love.

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Roadside shrine or weirdly-placed grave?

On Wednesdays and Thursdays, my language courses end at 13:30. And every week on those days, I make it a point to run across the city, not to miss the 14:20 bus for the way back from Prague to Kladno. The driver of this bus is a lovely little woman, late thirties, blonde, super friendly, and she has stocked the bus with plush toys, a whole lot of colourful animal plushies. I like to call this bus the “Happy Bus”. And the driver, in her fuchsia sweaters and sparkly headbands, cannot be be any plushier than her bus.

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The numerous plush toys hung, or more precisely hanged, in my favourite bus

And so, on the way to Germany, rushing past picturesque landscapes and death reminders, I decided that if was to meet my end in a tragic road accident, I surely want it to be fast, painless of course, but most definitely on my “Happy Bus”.

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On Words and Coins

“Today, we are going out on an excursion!” our teacher happily announced. “This week you’ve learned how to introduce yourselves and ask for directions, and it’s time to put that into practice. We’re all going to take a bus, and at every stop, one of you will get off. We will all meet at a location that I will only disclose privately to each one of you, when your turn to exit the bus comes. Your task will be asking people on the street for directions to reach our chosen location. And of course, you must speak in Czech ONLY, and must not seek the help of technology.”

“Where will we find these obliging Czech strangers, when locals are not exactly known for their friendliness?” asked one of my colleagues.

“You might be surprised,” he answered with a big self-complacent smile.

After three weeks of intensive Czech language courses, I am quite disappointed to say that, when confronted with an only-Czech interlocutor, the phrase that I pull out most often is “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Czech.”, in perfect Czech.

I am lucky not to have found – or more realistically, put – myself in intricate situations, where I would be compelled to say or explain something in the language. But on a second thought, that has not been unusual, ever since globalisation and tourism were invented.

My most frequent exposure to locals that don’t speak English, is when I have to pay bus drivers and supermarket or grocery store cashiers. And honestly, any chance to practise the diverse greetings, simple phrases, and much needed apologies learned in the last three weeks, has been wasted on my stumbling over my coins.

Where I come from, people deal in two coin denominations only, the half, and the quarter of the smallest banknote. Well, now I have to struggle with as many as three times that number. Six different coin denominations that are not easily distinguishable. Especially not when I’m rummaging through the large collection that inevitably adds up in my wallet, my hands shaking in near-freezing temperatures, in the soft obscurity of a 6:25 A.M., when I have to take the bus to Prague twice a week.

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When I set off to the bus in the pre-dawn hours, I fear a clown might be lurking in the dark

On a regular basis, I end up giving the concerned parties more coins than necessary, and don’t bother checking the new collection of smaller coins that they put back in my freezing, stress-sweaty hand.

But I digress. Back to our little game, the teacher whispers in my ear the meeting location and I get off the bus – luckily at the forefront of a metro station. I look around and everybody looks extraordinarily laid-back. I approach a young lady with a stroller, standing near the metro entrance. I stumble over my newly acquired Czech vocabulary, but she must really be gifted; she understands me, then gently tells me how to get to my destined location.

“Where are you from?” she asks in Czech.

I suddenly have no idea what that simple, hundredfold-repeated phrase means, and I slowly echo the words to give my brain another chance.

“Where are you from?” she asks again, this time in English.

And my tongue merrily flaps in a language much more familiar. I explain to her that I’m studying the Czech language and that this is an on-the-field exercise. She insists on praising my feeble attempts, and most importantly my wish to learn this “very hard language”, and then we set apart.

Spurred on by her compliment, I excitedly jump down the staircase two at a time. But as I wait the minute or so for the metro to come, I gradually feel less and less proud, and increasingly relieved she didn’t have to see me paying for a bus ticket.

A Sprint and a Stroll

I hurriedly climb up the stairs of the metro station, just to see tramway number 11 hurriedly rushing past me to its stop, a hundred metres away. I start running. My book-loaded backpack, and in extension my back, suffer the consequences. I can imagine myself running after a tram, and believe me, the picture in mind is not a very graceful one. A few wrenched muscles later, I manage to slide my hand in between the closing doors to stop them, and I jump up the tram to the sound of its alarming whistle.

The sprint leaving me ridiculously panting, I take a seat, and my mind takes a stroll of its own.

Two weeks ago, I still had a job, I was still lazily catching “service” taxis in the sunny and tediously hot Beirut mornings, and I was still calling Lebanon home. It’s hard for me to believe how fast the transition has been, but also how fast I have been to strip the title off of my country and give it to a new, foreign one.

Nowadays, I wake up to brushed metal skies, wrap myself in jackets and scarves, and take all forms of grounded public transport to school where I learn a Slavic language, Czech.

I still find it hard to wrap my head around some very elementary familiarities in Prague that need not concern me in the first place. But I am curious in nature, and the everyday sight of people wearing shorts and/or sandals when the temperature doesn’t exceed the number of one hand’s fingers leaves me questioning their motives, sometimes out loud, in the tram, to myself. Have they recklessly invested in their summer wardrobes and need to see their investment come to a beneficial end? Or is it me?

Another curiosity to my Middle-Eastern eyes is the traditional Czech food, which seems to come solely in one monochromatic colour palette: the brown one. The potato dumplings, pancakes or purée, coupled with smoked pork shoulder or roasted goose legs are all delicacies to my exploratory nose and taste buds. But every Czech meal I’ve had until now lacks so blatantly in colour, that it kind of looks sad. Especially when it is compared to the brighter, fresh vegetable-rich Lebanese cuisine.

A delicious example of a traditionally all-brown Czech course
A delicious example of a traditionally all-brown Czech course

I must admit nevertheless that every traditional course I have tried had left me quite content. I have come to the conclusion that Czech food might look sad, but it certainly makes one happy. Happy and warm. But not warm enough to bare my calves, no doubt about that.

The female voice announces in Czech that the tram has reached its terminus, a male voice follows her lead, repeating the message in English and adding that we are to get off the train. I disembark and most unusually, slowly walk up the path to school. For the first time in 9 days, I have made it to my lesson on time.