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.

0 Comments on “dirty old man

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  2. No one is afraid of dirt. Parents can’t afford to keep children clean in those commy contries in Europe. When this started (long time ago) people were making they own soap, washing clothes by hand or with some old beat up machine. Dirt is hard to get off when you don’t have Tide and a washing machine. That is why growing up we had clothes to play outside and clothes to dress up. You get your ass beat if you play with school clothes because your parents can’t afford to buy new ones till the next school year or till you out grow them.

    I am not even 40 and I can remember when I was little seeing my mom shaving homemade soap into a old washing machine that pretty much spinned the clothes in circle; and she had to handwash each peace of clothing. She would repeat over and over: You must try and stay clean. It’s all about money 🙂 You should get a job so you can support your self.

  3. Violet: Thanks for sharing that. It is a beautiful image, that of your mother shaving the soup. I don’t know why. It just sits in my mind like a black and white photo I’ve had the luck to discover in someone else’s attic. Thank you.

  4. Sorry, just going through your categories and saw Czech Republik..I could be parked on your blog for a while 🙂

    Was in Prague a few years back. I remember shopping with my wife at a Lidl-like store. At the checkout after my wife paid, the cashier ran off this 40 word sentence at my wife that had the intonation of a question at the end.

    With absolutely no body language to help us interpret what she wanted from us – ie pointing to a bag, some change, our funny north american clothing.. my wife just stood stock still like a predator had her in her sights, then slowly blushed a ridiculous shade of red. After what felt like several minutes with everybody in line waiting for my wife’s reply she finally apologized and told her she didn’t speak Czech.

    Sometimes it can be a lot more fun to not understand a language in a different country.

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