28 January 2015

Painting, Secret Trams, & Giving Czechs a bad name

One evening a week, I go to a painting class in Prague. The class takes place in the top floor of a lovely building just up the hill from Prague Castle, and it's a weekly reminder that Prague is a really lovely city.
Our teacher is a friend of L's mother, which is how I found out about the class. She doesn't speak much English, so I'd like to think it's a bit of a Czech class, too. Just this past week, I learned the phrase, 'Ho malovala jsi jako duch. Více barev! To je velmi tmavý...' (You painted him like a ghost. More colour! It's very dark...).

Did I mention my teacher is also an illustrator for children's books?

Since she is a friend of L's mother, they often meet for coffee, and it seems like these conversations occasionally turn into parent-teacher meetings.

'She says you are a good student,' L's mother will inform me. 'But she wishes you would talk more. Remember, it's also a social class and a chance to improve your Czech.'

Most of the time, L needs the car, so I take the bus back to our village. The bus leaves from the main bus stop for buses outside of the Prague Integrated Transport System near the metro stop Dejvická. I used to take the tram from the painting atelier, walk 500 metres, and then catch a bus to Dejvická. This was ok, but a bit of a pain and a lot of waiting on a cold, dark evening.

But then I found the secret tram. This tram has the normal number, but not the normal route. There are lots of secret trams snaking their way through Prague, delivering their passengers to unexpected places. Some stops list them on the timetable with a demarcation that they are abnormal, but some stops leave them off from the timetable completely.

You know you are on an abnormal tram if it has a piece of card slid in front of the information about the normal route. Or if your tram unexpectedly turns left where it usually goes right.

This abnormal tram of mine takes me from the stop by the atelier straight to the metro station. No walking, no extra waiting on a chilly night. It's lovely and I feel a certain comradery with my fellow abnormal passengers, smug in the knowledge that we have found a better route home. All expect for the ones who look panic stricken when the tram turns the corner and hop out at the next stop.

And now we get to the part where I join the fellowship of Unhelpful Czechs.

After smugly getting off the tram at Dejvická, I then have a 15 minute wait for my bus to the village. (I really do appreciate it when L doesn't need the car). The area is busy with other passengers and people coming and going, but still feels a little dodgey, so I try to be quite aware of my belongings and surroundings while I wait.

So, when a man came up to me and asked if I spoke English, I pulled my coat a little closer and mumbled, 'Omlouvám se, ne.' (I'm sorry, no.)

He approached another woman who was also waiting for her bus. Like me, she shook her head and stared more intently at her mobile phone.

'Please,' he wailed to the world in general, 'I just want to know if this is the place for the bus that goes to Lány.' 

Oh gods, the guilt. 

'Yes,' I said. 'It's the yellow one and should come in about 5 minutes.'

'Can I buy the ticket on board?'

'I'm sorry, I don't know.' I said.

'Yes, no problem to buy from driver,' the other woman said, looking up from her mobile. And she helped him buy his ticket when the bus came.

Offending strangers, Czech style

I was riding the bus a few months ago and a middle-aged man got on. He was moving a bit slowly and clearly favouring one of his legs. The bus pulled away from the stop and the next stop was announced. A woman noticed that he was standing awkwardly and offered him her seat.

'What? Am I such an idiot? I just got on,' the man barked (in Czech).
'Do you think I am so selfish I would sit in my seat when perhaps you need it?' she barked back.

And then, to get all Buzzfeedy about it, something interesting happened.

'Oh,' the man laughed, 'You wanted to give me your seat? I thought you asked if I wanted the next stop. I am stupid.'

The woman laughed too and said something about how she was getting off soon anyway and they chatted amiably until she got off.

I found the whole interaction fascinating, and I am sure that there is a clue in there about Czech norms.

I can't imagine the interaction going the same way in either the US or the UK. Such effrontery at the beginning, followed so quickly by so much good will and humour? Strange.

If I were in the place of the woman in that interaction, my cultural training would have me quietly, ragingly offended for the rest of the bus ride. My instinct when confronted with angry strangers is to be unfailing polite and (to my internal shame) often excessively good humoured. I've had far too many encounters with shopkeepers and government officials where I notice midway through I'm smiling nervously and nodding apologetically.

More swagger is definitely required for living in the Czech Republic.