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    Czech buses: The key to Kafka?

    A Karlovy Vary "mugging" turns out to be not so bad. But then this journey was for "Good Tourists Only."

    Karlovy Vary street view

    Karlovy Vary street view Wikipedia Commons

    In one of the Metro stations in the city of Prague, called Praha by a nation fond of open-ended gutturals, there’s a Bus Information Booth where you can buy tickets to interesting destinations in the Czech countryside. That's what the guidebooks say, anyway. One early morning after my usual wrong turns I finally found the station and the booth and requested a ticket for the 8 a.m. bus to Karlovy Vary, a famous resort aka Carlsbad, a couple of hours west of the capital. The Bus Information clerk at the window instructed me to buy my ticket directly from the bus driver, adding that the bus stop was "200 meters that way" and waving in a vague 200-degree arc.

    My watch said 7:45. I rushed to the nearest intersection encompassed by the clerk’s sweeping gesture, turned left, and sprinted 200 meters that way. Then I returned to the intersection, headed right, and jogged 200 meters thatway. Then I staggered 200 meters up a street that lay perpendicular to the one I was getting to know so well. Buses emblazoned with the names of small Czech towns rumbled up and down, and a “Praha — Karlovy Vary” bus hung a wheelie around a distant corner, but I detected no bus stop, or even a stopped bus. Back at the “Bus Information Booth,” as I caught my breath to speak, the same clerk wordlessly slapped against the window a torn piece of cardboard on which was scrawled "200 METRES!!!!" underscored with a loud arrow pointing in the direction whose possibilities I had just exhausted.

    Returning to the intersection, I again rushed off in all directions. This time — aha! — I spied a bus stop cleverly concealed 200 meters behind a solid row of apartment buildings. Limping to the “Praha — Karlovy Vary” platform I offered a fistful of krone to the driver of the vehicle currently filling the morning air with diesel breath. “Nay!” he growled, and promptly drove off without me. A chuckling Czech bystander pointed to a building several platforms away. Inside, cleverly concealed in a dim basement behind a row of booths selling "Grog," which I felt a strong urge to sample although it was only 8:30 in the morning, was a Bus Ticket Office.

    Maybe "Praha” is actually a gleeful bark of triumph over foreigners' stupidity? Musing on this question, I joined the bus ticket queue. At last I scored a round-trip ticket and caught the 9 o'clock bus, which transported me in due course to Karlovy Vary, celebrated in Czech travelogues for its “Healing Mineral Waters Pouring From 12 Different Springs.” Over the centuries the resort has been a favorite of Europeans, who still flock there in order to drink and bathe, and it was the baths-place (try saying that aloud to yourself) of hundreds of world-famous artists and musicians. Statues of Goethe and other luminaries who, though dead now, once felt revived by the healing mineral waters serve as trail-markers into the hills above the town. The trails are labeled "Easy Walk," "Moderate Challenge," and "For Good Tourists Only." I was a Good Tourist, having trained that morning in the capital.

    In a couple of hours I descended, well stretched and hungry, to the sunny town and the banks of the Tepla River. The river sparkled, its pleasant meander through the valley "canalised," as one brochure said with unfortunate overtones of dentistry, between tidy stone walls. Above me, the valley’s flanks were dotted with gorgeous chateaux and mansions and castles in 19th-century Nouveau Retro style. Disney has appropriated so much of the architecture of spires and crenellated towers that it was hard not to wonder whether the scene above might really be a vast movie set with "Michka Mouse" and sidekicks frolicking behind the façades. But after my healthful hike it was lovely just to lounge in the sunshine near the civilized Tepla, drinking a glass from what the menus call “The 13th Spring" (beer) and taking in the spectacular view.

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    Posted Fri, Dec 18, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    Why didnt you ask the ticked clerk to be more specific? And you would have avoided running around like the typical American chick without a head?


    Posted Sun, Dec 20, 4:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    We Czechs can't be more precise; that's as good as it gets for the great unwashed not versed in the language itself. And, besides, as the medieval streets of Praha will attest, it's not about the destination, it's all about the journey.


    Posted Sun, Dec 20, 5:29 p.m. Inappropriate

    Ah, those marvelous winding Praha streets! Within which, the grumpiness of the general population toward visitors seems a holdover from their gray years under Soviet rule. Who wants to make efforts to be cheerful with outsiders after having to live in the leaden regime of THAT bunch?


    Posted Sun, Dec 20, 10:34 p.m. Inappropriate

    Ah, Morro, Morro. It's not about the grumpiness of the Soviet times; it's much more about the grumpiness toward inane tourists who don't know the difference between Jan Hus and Jan Zizka, who have never heard of Karel Capek, Jan Masaryk, Milos Forman, Tom Stoppard, Milan Kundera, Dvorak, Smetana, Martinu, or the magnifent soprano Benackova-Capova (Don't even get me started on the jazz contributions or the visual arts. Oy.). Prague was, by many accounts, the source of the Jewish Kabbalah, and at least the source of much of the mystical, magical tradition in Judaism. Its rebellion against the Holy Roman Empire set in motion the the Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years War, and the creation of the modern state.
    This "small" nation has survived Catholicization, Germanifiction, Nazification, Sovietization, Europeanization because they have ferociously clung to their language, music, art, architecture, and, yes, their provincial ways, their beer, their bus systems, and their sense of dark humor which foreigners have a hard time understanding. An example of the latter: when the Soviet tanks arrived in 1968, the Czechs didn't shoot back, they took down the street signs so the young Soviet drivers had no idea how to navigate a medieval city--chaos ensued.
    So when tourists ooh and aah at the churches, they fail to realize the churches exist as a form of oppression on Czech localism, the independent spirit that has driven so much of Czech history; there are so many churches in Praha because the Czechs were so resitant to them.
    The upshot is, I would argue, that we Americans can't keep condescendingly treating other cultures as failures to live up to U.S./Western ideals of rationality and what is "normal." American tourists are, for the most part, monolingually stupid people whose ideas of how things ought to be should never become the ideal of how a local population or culture ought to behave.
    So, if someone wants smiling sycophants who will make you feel that you are the rational center of the universe and know how bus systems ought to run and how much English others ought to know, go to DisneyWorld.


    Posted Mon, Dec 21, 5:41 p.m. Inappropriate

    I apologize for the bad-spirited tone at the end; I did not mean it personally toward Ms. Lightfoot or Murro. A bit of a hot-button issue for me. Again, sorry.


    Posted Mon, Dec 21, 7:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for this note! Any wincing I did is due to my own shortcomings in not having learned enough about Czechoslovakia. I also loved your comment, especially your catalogue of names to be reckoned with (I flunked Zizka, Martinu, and Benackova-Capova) and your story about removing the street signs to confuse the invaders.

    Posted Mon, Dec 21, 7:17 p.m. Inappropriate

    P.S. Yes, I know the country's name is "Czech Republic"!

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