dirty old man
I was sitting on the subway when the white-haired man sitting across from me started screaming in Czech. And, I slowly realized, he was screaming at me.
I shook my head. No, no, no. “I don’t understand,” I told him in German. “I don’t speak Czech.” I repeated myself again. He raged on. Czech beats German hands down for Meanest Sounding Language When Being Yelled at Nonspeakers. And, unlike the rest of the old men who have yelled at me in subways during my life, he wasn’t even visibly crazy.
Not getting the reaction he was looking for, he grabbed my right leg, which I had just crossed over my other knee, and slammed my foot down onto the ground, pointing at my shoes and then pointing at his pants. Startled, I looked down at my boots: tall black docs, still flaked with evidence from the hike across the field in Weisskirchen. I looked at his pants: standard-issue old-man blue courderoy. None of my mud was on his pants. None of his pants were on my mud. Maybe he was just offended that I’d even left the house, looking like I did.
I shook my head again. “I don’t understand.” Then he remembered that he spoke German too.
“Your dirty shoes! My pants!” Sometimes you don’t need to speak much of a language to really get your point across.
“I’m sorry,” I told him, and I meant it. I was sorry that I had sat across from him, and sorry that he thought my shoes had touched his pristine pants. “I didn’t mean to touch your pants with my shoes. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t touch your pants with my shoes, but still, I’m sorry to have upset you so much.”
His face still red, he stared at me, fuming. I stared back. He didn’t look away. I didn’t look away. So I smiled at him sweetly, and went back to staring off into space. The Queen was not amused. But at least he had stopped yelling.
“Czech people have a real problem with dirt,” Izz told me later. “They get told as kids that they should be afraid of some sort of microbes, so they never wear shoes in the house, and usually have an outfit for at home, and an outfit for being outside.” Which sort of explains Courderoy Pant’s outrage. Although if he was so afraid of dirt, the joke was on him for grabbing my leg; if ever there was a flourishing microbe community, it was on the pants that I had been wearing for the past ten days.
Hitching out of Prague a few days later, a white-haired man stopped to pick us up. He rolled down the window and before he said he would take us asked, “But you’re not too dirty?”
“No, no, of course not!” We assured him, picking our bags up off of the ground and hoping that none of the mud on our shoes was still wet.
strc prst skrz krk*
“So you’ve been to the circus right? Well, you know the things that the circus people live in? Like little wooden houses on wheels? I live in one of those.”
“Ah, ‘maringotka.’ That’s what they’re called in Czech.” He tells me he doesn’t know much about squatting in the Czech Republic and that he doesn’t think there are any wagonplätze in Prague. He tells me, “In Holland squatters have some rights. Here they just get arrested.”
The thing about squats in places other than Holland is that they tend to lay under the general public’s radar. So if you’re not a squatter yourself or aren’t going to a lot of underground punk shows, you could live in a city your whole life without ever noticing that your city has a squatted house or a wagonplatz. The moral of the story is that if I had bothered to check the interweb or ask a few friends beforehand, I would have at least heard about Milada, a traveler-friendly Prague squat and Klub 007, a venue with a concert almost every night. I also wouldn’t have spent four days asking myself if it was really possible for a city to have such mono-cultural inhabitants. Next time, Milada, next time.
Instead of squats, I got the Blind Eye and the Red Oak. The Blind Eye is an alternative-leaning ex-pat bar that I strongly encourage you to never, ever visit. See, there are some men who, having bought into the western world’s ridiculous standards of masculinity, can’t handle being kind of short. This is what I like to call The Small Man Complex. (Note: These are the same men who buy fancy sports cars during their American-Beauty-esque mid-life crises.) Tragically, for him and for us, one of the owners of the Blind Eye has an advanced case of The Small Man Complex.
Exhibit A: The Small Man drops lines like “when I was a young punk rocker” like American hipsters drop names and trash talks the musicians he is neither paying nor giving a single free drink to to play in his bar in hearing distance of musicians’ party. Exhibit B: When said musician steps down from the mic to take a quick toke and he is upset, he doesn’t resort to regular old verbal communication–the well known solver of all disagreements and problems–he storms into the room and yells at her in front of the crowd, then storms out again, effectively killing everyone’s buzz and forcing me to trash talk him (hii-ii Noah) and his bar on the internet for all eternity.
The Red Oak, on the other hand, is a pleasant little Irish pub, home to a weekly open mic and another set of ex-pats, though a decidedly more pleasant brand of them. The ex-pat scene is a strange, we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore kind of place, and a place where I’ve never felt completely comfortable. Thought I’ve never met an ex-pat without an interesting back story–normal people just don’t up and move thousands and thousands of miles away from home–a lot of conversations within the “scene” itself end up feeling a bit like pissing contests. Who’s been here the longest, who speaks the language the best, who has a native lover, who’s travelled the most.
Some seem to be attempting to channel that old mythical European Romance–a beast born of a mixture of fairy tales, Lonely Planet travel guides, and the nostalgic ramblings of all those college grads who backpacked across Europe that one time before getting a 9-5, a house, and some kids. That Europe is a place where rich white kids go to find themselves, where people with meticulous scrap books spent a year studying/au pairing/backpacking. Yet it’s the very same place that, if you’re like most Americans, your relatives, my relatives, fled because they were tired of being so fucking poor and/or persecuted. These days Europe is a romance, but in the real fairy tale Snow White is a bitch stuck in an arranged marriage, and they murder the witch by making her dance to death on hot coals.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prague has absorbed a tide of ex-pats, seduced by her beauty, wanting to claim it for their own. So many lost nomads, trying to channel history’s Kafkas. And she’s beautiful, but she’s probably just not that kind of girl.
There are always exceptions to the rule though, and Izz is one of those exceptions–the kind of cynical no-nonsense lady who you can share a joint and a beer and a laugh and an adventure with, all in one afternoon. And that’s how we spent our days there: Drinking Czech beer (the most delicious beer on the continent, possibly the earth), roaming the city, playing with Buddy the dog, and relaxing in Izz’s little apartment with another New Orleanser whose visit collided with ours; me, fascinated to be with so many Americans all at once for such a long period of time.
Prague is the perfect city for long aimless walks; there is something beautiful on every corner, some tiny detail waiting for you to look up already. Not to men- tion the castle on the hill and the old square and the bridges and the river and the churches and the cathedrals and the million and five can-you-hand-me-a-napkin-to-wipe-off-this-drool vegan restaurants. There are small, winding alleys; old, decay- ing cemetaries; and there is graffiti. No matter how long you stay, it will never be long enough, and this is certainly the rea- son that Prague is home to so many ex- pats. But on Thursday morning the jig was up. Leopard took the bus home, and I took out my sharpie to write us a new sign. This one said “Dresden.”
*This is a Czech tongue twister. (Look, ma, no vowels!) It means “Stick your finger in your throat.”
all hail the hitch hiking gods
Three hours of sleep, a few rolls, a few cups of coffee, and a cardboard sign, written in thick sharpie marker: “Prague.”
We’d gotten instructions from hitch base to a spot that, a whole bunch of virtual people said, would get us out of Munich in under twenty minutes. We just had to take the U2 to Nordfriedhof, climb through some alleged bushes–”They weren’t really bushes” and “It was more like a green strip between lanes” and “I didn’t see any fucking bushes,” read the comments on the Munich thread–and our luck would find us in seconds. But the directions didn’t say anything about which of the five Nordfriedhof station exits to use (any one is fine, just walk to the enormous, busy intersection with all the yellow signs with city names on them), and we, just as confused about the alleged bushes as the rest of ‘em, decided to just try standing at one of the busy intersection corners.
Leopard stood behind us, off to the side, apparently still worried that something about him was scaring people away–though it may have been a simple gender bias. People tell me, over and over again, that it’s much easier to hitch rides as a girl because people are less concerned that you’re going to try to kick their asses and steal their car/money/virginity. Katey and I stood with our long cardboard sign smiling and jumping up and down and making up little songs about the people driving by, cursing the ones who gave us mean looks, giving each other high fives when a driver would give us that “I would take you but I’m not going your way” smile and shrug.
Now me, I like to invent superstitions. Greek mythology and conventional religion have never done much for me, but superstitions, I can drink to. The way I see it, superstitions are a way of helping people mentally deal with things out of their control. They are a way to teach others how to stay happy and healthy. They are mythology, before it gets epic, and religion before it gets dangerous. Most superstitions have a basis in some sort of fact. In one part of China, one of my English students once told me, people say that you shouldn’t put your door on a certain side of your house lest evil spirits smite you and your family. The origin of this little legend, she told me, is that the wind in that area usually comes from that direction, and that putting your door on that side makes for a cold, drafty house. Superstitions turn into myth and religion and legend once we forget what the stories are for, when we no longer need them. Before that they are just stories, invented to help us keep safe, and I’ve always loved making up stories.
So I talk about the dumpster gods like they’re personal friends of mine, and I imagine that, somewhere, there must be hitch hiking gods with enormous thumbs and piles of old cardboard signs watching out for all the nomads and the tramps. I don’t know much about them yet–this trip only being my third trip thumbing–but I imagine they are the sorts who are appeased by things like getting up really early, not turning down rides (except the kind of rides that give you that warning feeling in your stomach), little pictures on your signs, and little dances on the side of the road.
For all Katey and I’s songs and smiles and dances, we couldn’t get a ride. Not in fifteen minutes, not in thirty, and not in an hour. Then I noticed the tall building down a little walking path behind us and remembered that there’d also been something about “in front of the big apartment building” in the internet instructions.
Down the path, in front of the tall glass building were the infamous bushes. Which we pushed through right onto The Official Best Spot Ever for Hitch Hiking Out of Munich Eastwards. In twenty minutes a man had stopped, and he wasn’t just going to take us to the next gas station on the highway, he was going to take us all the way to Prague. Not only that, he was the hungover hitch hiker’s dream: the car going all the way to your destination, with the driver who has no interest in talking to you at all. Sometimes you’re just not standing in quite the right spot.