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."

Crosscut archive image.

Karlovy Vary street view

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

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.

That evening, ready to make Karlovy Vary a tourist’s pleasant, healthful memory, I awaited the Prague-bound bus at the exact spot where it had dropped me in the morning. Praha! Here it came. But when I boarded, waving my remaining ticket, the driver growled "Nay!" and gestured vaguely north. I hurried to the northernmost pillar of the platform (where, curiously, there were nay other passengers) and waited some more. Soon the driver and his empty vehicle came roaring past.

Standing there I began thinking that the key to Kafka’s symbolism might be the Czech bus system, which the author cleverly concealed behind Grog booths in dim basements and other dark Czech imagery. But though Grog has been plentiful throughout human history, including Kafka’s time, what about bus systems? Did they get dreamed up before he was dead?

As I meditated on the true meaning of Kafka at the platform’s deserted, darkening north edge, a flat-headed hoodlum with cold eyes, unshaven jaw and a cigarette dangling from his sneering lip — not a Good Tourist, apparently, and not one of Michka’s little pals, either — loomed up and grabbed my ticket. He slouched there reading it, maybe to see whether he was interested in the destination printed on the slip before bothering to pocket it and scram. I cleverly grabbed my ticket back. Praha-ha! He shot me a look, half conspiratorial and half “Whatever,” then nodded his hostile buzz-cut in a northerly direction and started walking.

I realized that he wanted me to follow him into a maze of blind corners leading to a dim pedestrian tunnel. Was there a bus stop cleverly concealed behind it all, or a less healthful destination? Faintly visible in the gloom ahead was another pedestrian, so, lacking an alternative plan I fell in step behind my guide, meanwhile wadding all the krone I had in my pocket together with the bus ticket and my even more precious Praha Metro pass, ready to hand over in case he and I arrived at the dark Czech imagery of my imagination. To bolster my courage I ventured telling my guide a little joke: "Did your town get its name because they Vary the bus stops?" but his silence shut me up.

We slouched about 200 meters that way until (Praha-ha!) a bus stop crept into view. My Virgil halted, motioning me onward with another silent jerk of his buzz-cut and a smoky sneer that might have cleverly concealed his nicest smile. Praha! May all travelers' troubles be as anticlimactic as my Karlovy Vary “mugging”! Or my Devicka “dogbite” — but that’s another story.


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