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.