Boo

Les gens qui ne rient jamais ne sont pas des gens sérieux

Be who you are and say what you mean, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How to miss the night train from Prague, made easy


The last meeting surrounding the last day of the Important International Conference that had been preoccupying the time of many many people came to an end, as even Important Events tend to do. The whistlestop tour of the beautiful city over, I went back to the hotel to collect my luggage and get myself to the night train to Warsaw.

I set out from the hotel, wheelie suitcase pulled behind me, in the direction I was fairly sure I'd find the tram. Sure enough, there was the tram stop, and the number 22 was approaching slowly down the road. I had so much time, it seemed silly to go straight to the station, but then again, I could stock up on some rations for the journey, and grab a bite to eat along the way.

The tram driver stopped unhelpfully far down the stop, so I walked fast to make sure he knew I was headed his way. As I lifted my suitcase onto the tram, a man sitting in the second row looked at me and my case, and slowly stretched out a hand, pointing to a large red sign hanging over the place that usually shows the destination. I nodded and smiled my appreciation, then set about trying to figure out what the hell the sign said. There were four words. Four Czech words. None were close enough to Polish to be helpful, and as we set off along the track, I decided it must mean it was not going as far as usual, naming the stop it would end. I'm not altogether sure why I came to this decision, and I still have no idea what the sign actually said, but the most helpful comment at that stage would have been TURN BACK NOW! You have NO idea what awaits you. Benefit of hindsight huh. There was no such sign. Just the incomprehensible Czech one.

The tram tracks split, and we went the wrong way. Hmm, I thought. I think I'd better get off this tram. We'd only gone 3 of the 5 stops I was supposed to go before changing trams, but I knew the other tracks were parallel so I'd just walk down here... no maybe down here... and find them right away, get on a tram going the route it is supposed to, and be right back on track.

I pulled the suitcase, noting the annoying noise the wheels were creating, and kept walking. I passed street after street and failed to come across any more tram tracks. Oh well, I thought. I'm basically heading for the centre and that must be this way. This road seems to lead downhill so it'll probably end up at the river, then I'll know where I am and I can check the best route to the station. Sweet. I set off down the street, which got ominously quiet, but then a man passed me and I saw the bent figure of an old lady walking very slowly ahead of me. As I came up behind her, the old lady made way for me and my noisy case, smiling briefly, then halting in her tracks and spouting a whole load of Czech. I made an apologetic face and said I didn't speak Czech. For some reason I said this in Polish, although I'm sure the message would have been just as clear in any other language. Still, she said 'aah' and shook her head sadly, saying in Czech what I assumed to mean 'you don't speak Czech.' I should have learned that phrase from her for the next time.

At the end of the road was a crossing, and I chose the route past the antique car showroom and towards promising twisty cobbled streets, one of which, I was sure, would lead to the river. I turned down the second one, noting the dog walkers and joggers. Good indicators for rivers, I thought.

Or parks, was my next reflection, as I came round the corner and saw the park gates. Before I got there though, a jogger jogged his way over to me and started asking me about 'autobusy'. That much I understood. Sorry, I said, again in Polish. I don't speak Czech. He said 'oh right,' or something of the sort, and jogged off up the hill. Why people do this when they see me I don't know, but my very first day in Warsaw was the same. I got stopped by old ladies, young ladies, old men, young men, even [Polish-speaking] tourists had something to ask me that day. I seemed to be wearing the same Questions? Just ask me! sign on my forehead. This time in Czech.

Entering the park, I saw a map. I like a good map. Of course I had one in my bag, but it only covered the very centre, and I'd lent someone else the more comprehensive one we'd got in our conference packs. I looked for and found the river on the map and decided to follow the most direct path around the park. I still had an hour an a half before the train, but I decide there was no point in taking too much of a detour. Ha.

The sight of me, slightly bedraggled and pulling an awkward suitcase behind me, was presumably not what the people on scooters usually saw on their exhausting-looking repeated circuits of the park. They seemed a little surprised. I just returned their smiles. The path twisted and split. I followed the route that led out of the park towards the river. Except. No, this was not the river. This was a canal. I walked a little further and passed a hotel, the gate padlockd shut.

Even further on was a sports centre and a crowd of footballing men. I seemed to be in a residential area miles from the centre of Prague. A brief moment of panic was followed by a pull yourself together! thought and then I went back into the park, heading for what was shown on the map as an area likely to have people I could ask for directions without interrupting the game.

As I continued down the path, curious glances came my way. Families out walking, cyclists enjoying the sunny weather, and me. With my scratchy old case. Then I saw the train tracks and I was sure I was nearly there. No evidence, but a train passed. It would stop soon and I'd come out of the trees, straight into the station. It was all going to be ok!

I saw another map, and went over to see whether the station was marked. No such luck. A couple on bikes went past, and exchanged surprised glances. They cycled up an incline and the man shouted out that they'd found the bridge. I looked behind me but he was definitely talking to me. In German. 'The bridge is over here.' he repeated. There's this one over the canal, and then another.' It barely seemed odd that a complete stranger had gone to the trouble of telling me there was a bridge, without even knowing where I was headed. I took it as a sign 'Uh, ok.' I said, 'um, thanks.'

I set off over the bridge, and it slowly registered that the train was going to leave in 45 minutes, I was in the middle of nowhere, on a bridge over a canal I didn't even know existed and if I didn't do something, I was going to miss my train.

A large family, made up of large mother, large father and extra large young daughter came my way. I approached the woman with my least threatening, most pitiable expression. I asked if she spoke English. She shot me a horrified look and shook her head violently. I tried Polish and her eyebrows raised ever so slightly. A little. I showed her the map, pointed at the name of the station and asked if it was far. He eyebrows were now right up by her hairline. 'Far! It's far!' she repeated. She told me to continue to the main road on the other side and that there'd be a bus. I thanked her and walked a little faster.

Almost at the main road, I decided two opinions were better than one and stopped a man, approaching me with his dog. 'The station! Oh, but that's this way,' he said pointing back in the direction I'd come. 'It's very close!' He took my bag and led me back down the hill. 'But this station?' I asked again, pointing at the ticket. 'Oh!' he said, his face darkening, 'but that's a different station.' A woman passed at this time and joined the discussion. 'You must take the bus! Up here!' she pointed back up the hill. It was ridiculous and I almost let out a burst of hysterical cackling, but managed to hold it in. The man shrugged, apologised, gave me back my bag and carried on his way. The woman took over. She chattered on in Czech, me getting the gist of every fifteenth word. I kept asking about how long it would take, conscious I had half an hour or so to get there. 'Forty minutes,' she said. Shit. I thanked her, she wished me luck and disappeared and I checked the timetable. The bus wouldn't arrive for another ten minutes. I needed a taxi. I rummaged in my bag and miraculously found the piece of paper the conference organisers had provided a taxi number on.

I called and squirmed inside as it rang and rang. A smooth voice told me I was first in the queue, in English. Good sign. When the operator picked up, the conversation went something like this:

Me: Hello? hello, do you speak English?
Her: Yes of course.
Me: Great, I need a taxi, urgently, I'm... oh shit where am I? I'm a bit lost and I've been walking around and I need to get my train. I'm in a bus stop. The, er, number 112. I think I'm near the zoo.
Her: [snorts of laughter] I need an address. Can you see the street name?
Me: No, there's no... wait, yes, it's Trojska. [triumphant] Trojska!
Her: [openly laughing at me now] OK, what is your name please?
Me: Becca
Her: OK, Mrs Becca you wait and taxi comes in ten minutes.
Me: But I need to catch a train, could you please ask them to hurry
Her: [still laughing] Ten minutes.

I stood by the roadside, forlorn and convinced it would be too late. A taxi sped past and I waved my arms like a madman, but he didn't stop. When the next came, I didn't even try to stop him, but he stopped anyway.

He leaned over from the driver's seat and asked, first in Czech, then in English, whether I needed a cab. 'But I just called one,' I said, checking the sign on the car, which didn't match that of the company I'd called. He shrugged. Seizing the opportunity, I showed him my train ticket. 'Can I make it?' I asked, the anxiety clear in my voice. He looked at his car clock. 'Ooh,' he said, shaking his head. 'I don't know. It's 21.02 and your train leaves at 21.24.' 'But is it possible?' I pleaded. 'I would say you must leave now,' he said. 'Right then, will you take me?' He laughed. 'Sure!' I got in, pulled the case in on top of me and he revved the engine. Then I remembered my wallet, empty of Czech Crowns but surprisingly padded with euros. 'How much will it cost?' I asked, as he worked his way through the gears. '200, 250 crowns.' 'Can I pay in euro?' 'Um, ok, ten euro.' 'I'll give you fifteen if you get me there.' He laughed again. I seemed to be amusing a lot of people.

We moved slickly through the traffic, onto overpasses, weaving past slower moving vehicles. He turned up the radio and the bass pumped in my ears, drowning out my heartbeat, which was thumping with the adrenaline. I kept my eye on the clock. Fifteen minutes until it leaves. Twelve. Nine. Suddenly we were there. I handed him the money, thanking him continuously for getting me there. Still laughing he wished me bon voyage and I ran to the departure board, to the platform and onto the train.

It was 21.22.

I stood in the corridor outside my compartment, leaning out of the window into the cool night air like the other passengers. I was grinning and sweaty and surprisingly muddy, but it was the best feeling in the world. I slept like a log.

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