Lying to the Girls at Tsunami

There is a new bar in my neighborhood. I watched with interest as the place was installed, with a big fancy sign proclaimiing “Non-Stop”. From the outside it looked pretty slick and glitzy, and I wondered how it would do in my blue-collar neighborhood. Last night I noticed that it was open, and when I glanced through the glass door it looked pretty full.

Tonight I walked in, and found myself in a small room with six slot machines, a snazzy glass bar with three stools, and nothing else. At the back was a metallic door. There was no one in the place save a bored, young, top-heavy girl behind the bar. I proceeded to prove myself a moron. In my head, I was in the foyer to the real bar, and the girl was a gatekeeper. This is one of the few times I’m glad my czech is not very good, because if she had actually understood my questions (which seem stupid now in any context – “How can I go back there?”) she would have thrown things at me. I was so completely convinced that there was more to the bar that it took her a while to figure out what was going on. Finally she said (in Czech), “This is everything. The door is to the toilet.” I looked and there on the metallic door were the letters WC.

As some have noted in the past, I’m an idiot.

So I sat at the bar, ordered a beer (no beer on tap), and contemplated the place. Mirrors everywhere except behind the bar. Six gambling machines, all that would fit in that space. Directly behind me a television. Directly in front of me, the bartender, watching the television over my shoulder. It was… awkward. “I am Jerry,” I said, holding out my hand. She told me her name and and awkward conversation ensued, in Czech.

“How long have you been here?” she asked. “A year,” I said. That was a lie. My proficiency with the local tongue is at about the one-year-here level, but I’ve been here quite a bit longer. That’s a discussion for another day. I don’t feel good about it, but there was no point digging all that stuff up with my bartender. “How long are you going to be here?” was her next question. “A long time,” I said. Another lie. I already have a foot out the door. “What is your job?” she asked. “Writer,” was my answer, and sometimes I don’t feel like that’s a lie.

“Why are you here?” she asked. I was struggling through my explanation that it was in fact easy for me to come here, that my brother lived here and there were people he knew that became my friends as well. I didn’t get far when the new bartender arrived. Her English was pretty good, but that had to wait as the two discussed business. She was older than the previous bartender, and profane enough even I understood. (At one point she apologized for a particularly coarse word, I said it was no problem.) Once business discussions were concluded, the new woman came over to my side of the bar to smoke and (I assume) wait for her shift to officially start.

I sat, mirrors to the left of me, mirrors to the right of me, a full display of me in all my oopma-loompa physique. I wondered as I sat there if the people who will be pumping their money into the slot machines really want to see that much of themselves.

After a while the new bartender (the manager, I believe) struck up conversation with me. We talked about the neighborhood for a bit, but that didn’t interest her. (To be honest, I not sure any of the conversation interested her.) “What do you write?” she asked. “Mostly science fiction,” I said. “That’s all I’ve sold.” While that was technically true, it gave the exact wrong impression I was trying to give, that I write science fiction to pay the bills but really I write literature. These days I save this deception for people I just want to deal with easily for a few minutes until I will never see them again.

“Do you have books here I can read?” “No books, but magazines. English or Russian. Nothing in Czech.” “I can read the English.” “Okay,” I said, “I’ll bring a magazine next time I come in.” Another lie. She smiled, and seemed pleased, but I wonder if she believed me even just a little bit. Because, by then, it was pretty obvious that Tsunami and I were incompatible. She must have known.

Things got difficult when she asked, “Are you going to stay here forever?” Forever? C’mon, even if I believed I was going to stay forever, she wouldn’t. “Not forever,” I said. “What do you like about here?” she asked. I tried to give her an honest answer, about how the dominant art form here is the written word, how that challenges me every day. I talked about the czech tendency to outlast obstacles rather than overcome. Somewhere in my speech she lost interest. Just another outsider spewing shit without really understanding.

“Another?” the new bartender asked as my beer neared empty. “No,” I said. “I have to go home.” My penultimate lie; I already planned to visit Little Café Near Home. She nodded, expecting my response, and looked up the cost of beer. I paid, wrapped up for the cold weather outside, and said, “See you later.”

The Feast of Stephen

I’ve been even more reclusive that usual lately, and I’ve decided to give myself a challrnge that may prove substantially more diffucult than writing a novel in thirty days — instead the challenge is to get out and see friends twelve consecutive days. Just being in Little Café Near Home working while people are around doesn’t count; I actually have to interact. In fact, I should probably make a rule that LCNH doesn’t count, or I can only count it once, or something like that. I’m making this up as I go along. The goal is to break my bad habit of finding reasons not to go out when friends invite me, and maybe even come up with my own plan from time to time.

Today’s kickoff was easy; I was invited to a family dinner. Historical trivia: “Good King Winceslas” is not a Christmas carol, but a boxing day song. The 26th of December is St. Stephen’s day. While there were no Vaclav’s (rhymes with Winceslas, who was Bohemian) at the dinner, it was still a festive (and belly-busting) affair. Mmmm… duck and knedliky (potato dumplings). Homemade cookies. No carp. One bit of bad planning: I wore my “nice” blue jeans. They’re nice because I don’t wear them much. I don’t wear them much because they’re a bit on the snug side. Not the right outfit for gluttony. Whatever the reason, I was a little concerned when I declined more duck that I might hurt my host’s feelings. I was stuffed.

It was a relaxed and pleasant dinner, some conversation in English and some in Czech, and then it was home to take a nap. (One topic of discussion as dinner wound down: the amount of time different animal species spend sleeping. It’s good to be a lion.)

So day one of Twelve Days of Social is a success! I really don’t know how I’m going to pull all of them off. New Year’s Eve I’ll be going down to the center of town, which I’m told is completely crazy. You know all those warnings on fireworks? They will be disregarded. “Wear eye protection” is a common piece of advice. Not really my kind of thing, but worth seeing once. (At this point it’s such pyrotechnic madness in my imagination that I’m probably heading for disappointment.) Anyway, anyone who reads this is welcome to join me. We can meet at the statue of Winceslas. (Did you see how I brought that back around to where I started? Not bad, huh?)

Killing Time, Christmas Eve

I dawdled just a little too long this morning, then was barely behind the curve all afternoon in search of a meal. It culminated at 4:01 pm at a McDonalds that closed at 4:00 (my phone still said 3:59, but I was in no position to argue), followed closely by my arrival at the big “always open” store that also closed at 4.

I headed back to my neighborhood, and was happy to see the run-down večerka (večer means evening, a večerka is a store that keeps long hours) that supplies the drunks in my neighborhood was still open even as their competition closed. I entered and thought I had come to the wrong place. Fruit? A variety of food? Efficient use of space? No bums? The store is under new management. All that, reasonable prices, and my favorite cookies. I am feasting tonight!

But before I go home I decided to have a little christmas cheer at one of the only places open in my neighborhood, the non-stop sports bar that almost never puts sports on the TV. I think there’s a big fotbal (rhymes with soccer) match on right now, but instead we’re watching a czech-budget film that features clever demons dragging greedy people down to hell.

Speaking of movies as I ramble on, last night I watched Límonadove Joe, (rhymes with “He-man Otto-vey Yo-way”), a Czech western filmed in 1964. Until I typed that date I had not put the film in the context of the politics of the time. The hero, Lemonade Joe, is shamelessly capatalist. So shamelessly that it circles back around and becomes irony, but then loops back around again. It is a silly movie; perhaps a precursor to Rustler’s Rhapsody (which is funny as hell). It takes place in a rough-and-tumble Arizona town, and opens with an extended brawl in the Trigger Whiskey Saloon. The bar is owned by Mr. Badman. Then Mr. Goodman and his beautiful daughter come to town, reformers with a message of abstinence.

Conflict ensues, and Lemonade Joe arrives. He drinks only KoloKola. (“Lemonade” is a generic term for soda here.) He kicks some ass with ease, makes everyone want to drink KoloKola, awards the distribution rights for the drink to the Goodmans, and moves on. Lemonade Joe is a crusader for justice and a shill for KoloKola. One of my favorite bits was when two drunks stagger out of the Trigger Whiskey Saloon to have a gunfight. They are plastered beyond competence and after fumbling around they laugh, embrace, and head back into the bar, their pistols still lying in the road. Not long after, once they are converted to KoloKola, they head out for a duel and shoot each other. “No need to call the doctor when they’re drinking KoloKola!” someone proclaims.

The ending is apparent from a long way off, but you have to respect the way they went for a staggering pile of clichés heaped up with reckless gusto, with a coating of hyperbole served sideways with irony. And when it’s all over, neither good nor evil triumphs, in true czech fashion. There is a winner, but I won’t tell you who.

On another note, there really should be a Trigger Whiskey Saloon here in Prague. Everyone knows the movie. Maybe there is one. If there isn’t, the Czechs aren’t as opportunistic as I thought.

Kamarády

The TV show “Friends” is only slightly less annoying in Czech. At least it doesn’t have David Schwimmer’s voice.

A Tough Old Bird

This morning I heard the rap-tap-tapping, but I did not realize it was at my door. It was a little more tentative than the average door-knock. Then my phone rang. The gang was gathered on my landing, collecting me for our big meeting with the landlord. The purpose of this meeting: getting some paperwork signed that is a step toward solidifying my legal status on the continent.

There is a lot of fear running around the ex-pat community right now, as Europe tightens its immigration rules and steps up enforcement. Neither Soup Boy nor I are particularly worried about that, but we each have our reasons for wanting to be more compliant. I want to cross borders without worry, and he wants to be able to work for bigger clients who are more of a stickler for paperwork. Soup Boy found a guy who helps people in our situation for a very reasonable fee, but he had one sticking point. He needed a business address. Strangely, this was difficult for him to come by, but when he realized that I would soon be in the same boat, we worked out that we could both use my address. The only catch: the building owner has to sign a document. I didn’t anticipate that my landlord, Otakar Ptáček (rhymes with little bird), would have a problem with that.

MaK made the calls and we set up a meeting. It turns out that Otakar has transferred ownership to his daughter, so it is lucky indeed that she is visiting from the Unites States right now. Papers in hand we trooped into the landlord’s home, directly below mine.

Otakar did not get up to greet us. He sat in his favorite chair, a tissue pressed up against his nose. He had a nosebleed. Not just a little thing, but a big ol’ nosebleed that had been going on for two hours. His medication had changed recently, which may or may not have been a contributor. Still, we forged ahead with the meeting, making our way through documents that, while simple, carried just enough ambiguity to cause errors. As with every czech transaction, there must first come a lengthy discussion of the task and it’s reflection on the world as a whole.

Then Otakar started hacking and spitting blood. There was talk of an ambulance and hospital, but Otakar insisted that if he was going to see the doctor he would drive. His coughing subsided and some semblance of normalcy prevailed. We continued to wrestle with the documents.

Finally we were as done as we were going to get (there was a search for an ID number that had Otakar up and moving furniture), and it was time to go. Otakar was back in his chair, looking small, a new tissue over his nose.

I later met with the Visa consultant, and because Soup Boy managed to put together a group, we got a pretty deep discount. Not only that, but much of the haze of confusion about the whole process has been lifted. It almost seems possible, now.

Hospoda Feng Shui

You all have heard of Feng Shui (note to self: look up spelling before posting this). It’s about making a place harmonious for human habitation, about the way energy moves through a place (not to me confused in any way with the definition of energy employed in Physics. Those two energies are completely unrelated). I don’t really know a whole lot about the Feng and/or Shui, except that there are some parts that sound an awful lot like common sense.

In any case, a Czech pub has it’s own rules of Feng Shui, not based so much on wind and water but on tradition and history. There are people who have settled in at the same table in the same pub every day for the last fifty years. The Czechs have a sense of nationalism, but it pales next to their tableism. Had the communists started moving people to different tables within each pub, the revolution would have come much sooner.

Of course, occasionally you get the tourist who just doesn’t know better, who, having no appreciation of tradition, comes in and sits at a table that everyone else knows is already reserved. Such an act throws the entire bar out of balance, as many of the regulars simply cannot imagine sitting somewhere else in the bar. This is magnified when there is a group of tables and the visiting savage breaks the connectivity. Still, those things happen, and while the tourist won’t be welcomed with open arms, the Czechs are a roll-with-the-punches sort of folk, and generally interlopers don’t stay long.

But then you have the guy who maybe should know better — the guy you’ve seen a couple of times before, who doesn’t just grab a beer and a snack before leaving again, but opens up a frickin’ laptop of all things, and settles in to stay a while. That’s what they had to deal with at the Pink Gambrinus Pub tonight. I knew the table next to mine was a regular’s table, but I thought I was all right. It was when I ordered a snack and a minute later heard my order repeated at the table behind me, along with a reference to oxen, that I realized I was cramping the regulars’ style.

The service there is about as friendly and attentive as any you’ll find in these parts, so there was never any pressure on me to leave — far from it, in fact, as my first attempt to say I was finished resulted in another beer. (I have a bad habit of starting with “Ahh…” as I compose my Czech, which is the start of ‘Ano’, which means ‘yes’. That my “Ne” (no) sounds more like “Nay” doesn’t help.) Anyway, I stayed longer than I intended to. By the time I packed up and left, the regulars had dispersed into the rain.

It’s a nice place, and I’m sure I can be forgiven for that one mistake, but next time I go back, I’ll find another place to sit.

Dia de los Muertos

I didn’t notice the crowds outside the entrance to Olšanský Hřbitovy, the sprawling, ivy-covered cemetery complex that I pass when walking home. I was feeling lazy about then, and thought I’d take the tram the rest of the way. As I passed the next tram stop I looked back and — what luck! — tram 11 was pulling in just then.

Oddly for a Sunday, it was packed to the gills. I kept walking. It was when I passed the next, smaller but more neatly-kept cemetery, that I noticed the crowds. There were more people than I had ever seen there before, and the road was lined with illegally-parked škodas. The people were in general dressed nicely, but not in a funerary fashion.

I peeked in the gates and one of the central monuments was surrounded by hundreds of candles, while people wandered the pathways bearing pine boughs and wreaths. Even the run-down little graveyard close to my house was jumping. Tram 11, tram of the dead, was filled with folks coming and going from the graveyards and the crematorium.

If this is the day to pay respect to those that have gone before, I’m surprised that here in Strašnice, Haunted City, my neighborhood, there is not a city-wide celebration of this day. There should be a wiener-dog parade and children’s pageants. Some of the supermodel wannabes from the center of town would come out for the look-like-a-skeleton contest. Tourists would mistake it for a Haloween celebration, but the locals would know that this is just Strašnice’s one chance each year to celebrate it’s own unique character.

It’s a silly thought, probably. While other parts of town are doing their best to establish a reputation and a marketable local vibe, sleepy Strašnice has no such ambition. It is here, just getting along, minding its own business, and just being Czech.

Something’s Brewing…

One of the nice things about the house where I live is that the back yard has several large fruit trees. A month ago my landlord was forcing upon me all the apricots I could possibly eat, then a few more. Recently it’s been plums.

On a couple of occasions in the last couple of weeks the smell of plums in the stairway has been pretty powerful. Obviously Otakar was not finding uses for the plums as fast as he was collecting them. Time waits for no plum.

But here, sometimes the obvious is not the same as it would be in other places. Anyone who live here would already have figured out that the plums downstairs were not going bad, they were going good. As I came down the stairs this afternoon there was a pot of plum juice, complete with peels and some of the pulp, sitting by Otakar’s door. The light bulb suspended over my head blinked on. He’s making Slivovice.

The Czech Republic has two national boozes. Becherovka is a brand name, made from a supposedly secret recipe; it hails from the Jagermeister school of boozemaking but is far less foul. Slivovice, or plum vodka, is just the opposite. It’s a people’s drink, the recipe owned by all collectively, and the best stuff is homemade. (I have had three chances to confirm this, and the homemade stuff really is better.) You have to love a country with a national tradition of making hooch. I wonder if old-timers lament that kids these days are content to drink liquor from factories rather than make their own.

Czech word for the day…

The spelling may not be quite right, I’ve not seen it written down. The word means ‘wallet’, as in: Zapoměl jsem mou penižinku, or in English, “I forgot my wallet.”

Some lessons stick better than others. More context, you might say.

2

I’ll always remember What’s Her Name.

The guy who runs the little café near home is, by all accounts, a jerk. There’s been some turnover in the staff lately, but when I came back from the mini road trip I found the owner’s girlfriend long gone and in her place there was What’s Her Name. I’ve mentioned her before. I have, in my day, exchanged words with more than a couple of bartenders, and often the connection is an illusion constructed to enhance tips, but around here there are no tips.

She looked over my shoulder as I practiced my Czech, something I was awkward with at first, but I quickly got used to. She was practicing her English at the same time, and her advice and expansions were welcome. Somewhere around the time I managed to pronounce Kristina and Kristyna differently, I knew we had become friends. Apparently most people who share What’s Her Name’s name have given up on the distinction. She’s Moravian, though, and they like to get things right. Apparently her speech was a little too formal for the crowd here. That’s the way she tells it, anyway; she never felt welcome.

Under the incandescent light of the bar she was not what you might term a classic beauty. Whatever that means. There is the beauty her boyfriend has captured with his camera, and let me just tell you, hoo-dang somewhere between the eyes and the lips, with a side order of wild hair, I’m sold on the photographs. Wow.

But my What’s-Her-Name is not the beautiful, passionate woman in the photos. Those photos remind me of just how much I’m not an artist. I see them and I know I’m just a hack, some guy spewing words, and I’ll never be able to match that expression in that photograph, the one when she’s looking straight into the camera and there’s only one word (the other 999 unnecessary) and that word is yes.

She is leaving now. She’s worried that her boss is going to rip her off on the way out the door, but overall glad she won’t be working for him anymore. It’s a pity. She had an almost American-style friendliness, and she responded well to my American-style humor. Now, she will join the legion of bartenders I’ve met, connected with, only to have one of us (usually me, given my wandering ways) move on.

Will I see her again? That’s a tricky thing, isn’t it?

A Little Bit of Humor for You

A regular at the Little Café Near Home told me this joke last night. I offer it to you as a lesson about the culture I am now surrounded by. (This is not a verbatim rendition, my rambling instincts are evident in the retelling.)

An American, a German, and a Czech were exploring the deepest jungles of the Amazon when they were captured by a tribe of cannibals. They were trussed up and brought before the chief. With three large pots heating over roaring fires behind him, the chief addressed the captives. “You will each be given two glass spheres,” he said, “and placed in separate huts. I will visit each of you in turn. If you can show me something with the spheres that I have never seen before, I will set you free. Otherwise, you’re on the menu tonight.”

The three captives were each given a pair of glass balls and taken to their huts.

First, the chief visited the American. When he entered, the American was sitting cross-legged on the dirt floor, with his hands in front of him. Over each hand a glass ball was hovering, in complete defiance of gravity.

“Seen it before,” said the chief.

Next he visited the German. Like the American he sat in deep concentration. He was moving his hands fluidly, and the spheres were flying about the room in a graceful dance.

“Seen it,” said the chief.

Finally, the chief visited the Czech. He entered the hut and returned almost immediately. The tribe waited for the verdict. The chief shook his head. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “It’s been five minutes and the guy broke one of the balls and lost the other.”

A Good Day at the Potraviny

I go to the market often now. Rather than occasionally going in and stocking up with all I can carry, I try to make a habit of grabbing a few things every time I pass by. This has led to a steadier supply of food in the domicile, but less variety. The cycle goes: buy rice, stay home until the rice is gone, go out and buy rice. Today I had to go down to the bankomat to withdraw rent, so I found myself outside the market when I already had a supply of rice at home. What do you buy for someone who has rice? Bread. If you have bread, you have to have cheese. Cheese requires talking to the woman at the meat and cheese counter.

There are three women with whom I interact while buying sliced products. One of them is almost shy with me, one indifferent, and the third is strict. Now that my face is showing up across the counter from her more often, she expects me to order correctly. Last time I was in there, I asked for one hundred grams of bacon. “Deset deka” she said. Ten decagrams. This time I was was all over it, and she gave an approving nod as I said “Taky patnact deka” for my second variety of cheese. While she measured out my cheese I heard “Dobrý den“, and turned to face a very pretty czech girl smiling at me.

Of course, if a girl smiles at me, she is by definition a member of the food service industry. This fine example of the best the republic has to offer (blonde, curvy, cheekbones, taller than me) works at the bowling alley. On days when I need to get out of the house but I don’t know where to go, she is a definite factor in my decision.

It was a good moment. I had won the gruff approval of the sliced things lady and I had a pretty girl smiling at me, who had just heard my successful use of her language. I took my cheese and got in line. It was a little awkward when she ended up in line right behind me, having received her sliced goods much more quickly. On my way out I said goodbye to the people in the store, as one does here, and I enjoyed my walk home.

Itchy!

File this one under ‘more things you really didn’t need to know’…

It started a few days ago. I started feeling itchy all over. Then the bumps started showing up. I am now covered with itchy red bumps. Writing about it makes me think about it even more. Itchy, itchy itchy.

You’d never know by looking, however, and when I figured that out I had the likely cause of my malaise. I only have bumps where my clothes touch me. Two weeks ago I bought a new batch of laundry detergent. I have heard the complaints of others (some who read this, in fact) and I have always counted myself as fortunate that such afflictions do not affect me. Until now. I can’t imagine what would happen to someone who actually had sensitive skin if they used this stuff.

Of course, after I bought the detergent I washed all my clothes (had a bit of a backlog waiting for the detergent) so suddenly I was left with practically nothing to wear that wouldn’t make things worse. My hawaiian shirts escaped, but the weather isn’t really favorable for those. The worst, of course, is the underwear. Once I figured out the problem I put the remainder of my clothes that were still clean through another wash cycle with no detergent, hoping for some intensive rinsing action, but I’m still itchy and bumpy. I’m not sure what it’s going to take to fully expunge whatever chemical it was that I reacted to. Whatever it was, it was nasty.

Hopefully it’s just that the irritation is slow to fade and its not that the problem is actually something else entirely.

Thunder in Krumlov

Out on the water, making our way downstream, our raft stood out. Cap’n Soup Boy standing tall, waving the battered Jolly Roger, wearing his pirate gear, while Izzy and I acted in a generally piratic way… it worked. Those on shore called out and took pictures. There was no doubt that the ladies were particularly impressed (I kept a low profile). Izzy was making plans. When we got to Krumlov, he was going to tear that place up. Rock and roll all night, etc.

We pulled up at our final stop (“Let’s keep going!” Little John called), dried off, and boarded the van to Krumlov. It dropped us off right in front of our hostel. (Total cost per person for the rafts and the lift into town: $12. Just try to beat that.)

The van brought our baggage with us, and most of that was of the personal kind. While we on the Zen Boat had had a most enjoyable pull, there was dissent on the other boat. Nothing major, but there were some larger-than-average personalities crowded onto the raft, and friction occurred. I was surprised, then, when later there was friction between Zen Boat members, and that I was one of them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were delivered safe and sound at our hostel, and the seven of us checked in. We were put in an eight-bed room, with the last bed already occupied by a chinese guy traveling alone. He was nowhere to be seen, but already I felt sorry for him. It was pushing nine o’clock when we invaded the place, and I groaned when Soup Boy declared that he was going to take a shower before we went out. I was hungry after paddling his ass around all day. Soup Boy showered. Izzy declared his intention to shower as well. I said I wasn’t going to wait while everyone showered, and if that’s what was going to happen, I’d just go on ahead. Rosa also objected.

Izzy got pissed off. Not at me, though, at Rosa. If he’d gotten pissed off at me, I could have apologized and explained that it was my stomach talking and I would continue to be a pushy jerk until I was fed. His anger was directed at Rosa, however, because for much of the day her advice sounded like criticism, and even though Izzy was not the target for most of it, it still bugged him. (In retrospect, I realize I could have stepped in an apologized and intercepted the anger. That’s hindsight for you.)

Advice and criticism. The distinction is not simple, and it’s more complex when you consider friendly criticism. Rosa, however, could improve her delivery. Like me, she was among strangers, and I think she wanted to present her most competent and assertive self. With two exceptions on this trip, I just paddled. Exception one was getting our collective ass out the door for food before everything closed. Izzy knew of a place with a dish called Bohemian Feast, which translates into English as “Big plate of food for not so much money”. Were it not for this special knowledge he held, I might have taken off on my own.

The castle tower in Český Krumlov

The castle tower in Český Krumlov, taken from the riverside table where we ate out feast.

I’m glad I didn’t. The bohemian feast is awesome. We sat at a table by the river, and the food was plentiful and bohemian. Izzy made the right call, and not for the last time. We ate, we drank spiced mead, and fun was had by all. We toasted Soup Boy and I officially thanked him for putting the trip together. We ate more.

Finally it was time to go. Izzy and Little John, both determined previously to get laid seventeen times each, declared they were tired and going back to the hostel. I was up for a bit of nocturnal walking around, and when Soup Boy signed up, the rest of the party expressed interest as well. Where we ate was on the riverside, with the castle soaring above us on the opposite bank. We headed that way.

We strolled through the castle grounds. I was mostly with Rosa, and we chatted about nothing important. Jane was dedicated to talking with Soup, which left Beau on his own. That made me a bit uneasy, since he was Jane’s boyfriend and all. Beau, I think, has a traditional streak like mine. It was peaceful at night, and during one moment of solitude I saw flashes away behind the hills. Lightning, still too distant for me to make out the thunder. I noticed later that the flashes were getting closer. Eventually we moseyed down into town, and looked around for a place to have one final birthday toast. Although it was the weekend during tourist season, most places were closing up by then, with the exception of clubs that looked loud and uncomfortable.

Shadows on the castle wall, Český Krumlov

Shadows on the castle wall

Eventually we found a spot that wasn’t quite closed yet, and I voted for the patio. Others thought maybe we should get home before the rain started, but for me the right choice was to be under a big umbrella outdoors when the deluge happened. I carried the argument for a while, and when Beau complained of getting wet I managed to get us to move to another table with better umbrellage, rather than go inside.

The rain came down. Torrents of big, fat drops splattered into the street, quickly soaking anyone caught out in it. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, I sipped my beer and wondered how it could get any better. When the waiter came to suggest we go inside for shelter, Beau and Jane jumped at the chance, however, and so we went into the closing restaurant and sat next to a table full of smokers. Even so, the conversation was pleasant, and I had a good time. The storm passed, we paid our bill, and headed back to the hostel, with only one wrong turn.

When we got there the light was on, Little John and Izzy were sacked out, and Chinese Guy was asleep on the bunk underneath mine. I tried not to jiggle the bed too much as I climbed up. Soon I was asleep.

But not for long. I awoke a short time later to the sound of Chinese Guy snoring gently, and the feeling of my shoulder stiffening up. Hours of steady paddling was going to take its toll on muscles more accustomed to typing. I rolled over to put my arm in a more comfortable position. The bed shook. The snoring stopped.

That set the theme for the rest of the night. Short sleep, snoring and stiff muscles, roll over. I didn’t sleep that much, but I was pleasantly surprised to awaken in the morning, (after Izzy’s alarm went off at 4:30 and Chinese Guy got up early and quietly left) with my muscles in relatively good shape. After a bit of that very pleasant lazy-morning snoozing I climbed out of bed, planning to write while others slept. Izzy and Little John both got up as well, however, and without a single word being spoken we headed out to find breakfast. Not one damn word. That, friends, is how decisions should be made. I enjoyed everyone’s company on the trip, but I was glad to get out into the morning air before other people got up and the inevitable decision paralysis set in.

The streets were deserted that early in the morning. We headed back toward the middle of town, where the most touristy places were, and eventually Izzy landed us at another great place to eat. It was a hostel with a full kitchen that served true English breakfasts, and had unlimited self-serve tea and coffee. On top of that, it was cheap. Breakfast was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip, hanging with a couple of guys, not having to talk but finding things to discuss, some of them even meaningful.

Eventually it was time to go back and join the others and catch the bus back to Prague. As smoothly and calmly as the morning had been to that point, going from a cluster size of three to one of seven increases complexity by several orders of magnitude. Eventually I went out to the hostel’s garden to wait for the others to unknot. Izzy was already there, and Rosa was not far behind me. Beau, it seems, is not a fast starter in the mornings.

Finally we were moving (after Beau ran back to get his phone), but we didn’t get far before some people wanted to stop for breakfast. It was cutting the time a bit close, but I figured that the absolute worst thing that could happen was that we’d be stuck in a truly pleasant little town for another day. From my point of view, that wasn’t so bad, so once again I forced myself to relax and not worry so much about missing the bus.

Sardines

The bus ride home (artist’s rendition).
Photo stolen from here

We did not miss the bus, thanks largely to Izzy and Little John. I’m not sure if it wouldn’t have been better, however, if perhaps we had. When we got on, there were no seats left, so we stood in the aisle. A few more people got on, and the driver called out for everyone standing to squish together more so we could squeeze more people on. Some of our group ended up standing the entire way back to Prague. When people needed to get off the bus, it was a major chore for them to make their way to an exit.

At least there were no chickens. There was a fat guy who wheezed on my head for a few kilometers, and I wondered if there would be more rainstorms in Český Krumlov that night, and why I had wedged onto the bus just because everyone else did. The bus the next day would have been much less crowded. Still, I got to sit much of the way, which is more than some of the others had.

Home at last, tired, happy to be away from the crush of people, I truncated my goodbyes as much as possible without being too impolite and headed for home.

Happy Birthday, Soup Boy, and thanks for putting together a fantastic weekend.

Floating down the Vltava

I got the message on my phone last week, saying something like “We are go for rafting. Meet at Hlavni Nadraži at 6 a.m. Bring rain gear. Pray for sun!” I prayed extra-hard, as I don’t own rain gear.

Soup Boy, my ex-flatmate, was having a birthday party, and he decided to do it in style. That’s the way Soup Boy is. He decided that a serene float down the river with his friends would be a jolly fine way to celebrate his annual quantum aging event. He called the rafting company, went over train schedules, sent out invitations, and managed the whole brouhaha. We would start our journey near the Austrian border and float gently north on the Vltava, stopping along the way for refreshment, paddling through beautiful scenery, and generally having a good time. At the end of the day, if we had not reached Chesky Krumlov, we would get a lift from the rafting company into the beautiful-if-touristy little town, where we would bunk overnight in a hostel.

And that’s how it worked out, sort of.

During the week I got messages from Little John. “Do you have a pirate flag?” was one of the first. Before long the party, under Little John’s influence, became a pirate outing. I had no problem with that, especially when I got the latest cut of Pirates of the White Sand the day before. Arrr!

The day approached and the forecast was changing by the minute, and all we could do was wait for the butterfly in China to flap its wings or not. I got to bed reasonably early, but I had difficulty sleeping. Not nerves, I don’t think, just one of those nights. I was already up and about when my alarm went off at 5, and under the fizzing glare of my noisy lightbulbs I packed a change of clothes and the Jolly Roger. A peek out the window was reassuring; the sky was clear.

As is my way, I got to the meeting point a bit early. I’m pretty laid back about most things, but when I’m traveling I’m not comfortable until I’m installed in my seat and ready to roll. After a short wait I saw Soup Boy and Little John, and their buddy Izzy. (Izzy because not only is that a damn fine pirate name, but because that’s the name of his dog.) While we waited in line for train tickets we were joined by Rosa. That made five out of seven, with time counting away. Soup Boy’s phone chimed and he read the message. “Jane and her boyfriend aren’t going to make it. They overslept. They’ll join is tonight in Checky Krumlov.” I had never met Jane, but I was disappointed. The more the merrier, I figured.

Tickets in hand, Soup Boy said, “OK, we have about fifteen minutes before the train leaves.” As I mentioned before, I like to have butt in seat well before the train pulls out. Generally, I bust my ass to get where I need to be, then sit waiting and wish I’d stopped to grab a sandwich on the way. Fifteen minutes. No problem. The group stood in a ring for a couple of minutes, then some people declared that they were going to grab sandwiches. Just relax, I reminded myself. You’re just along for the ride.

We missed the train. Soup Boy had been a little vague on just when the train left, and we got to the platform in time to watch it pull away. This is why I like to have a margin of error. Now I had no train and no sandwich.

The next train left in an hour, but we were going to have a long wait in Cheske Budejovice. Nothing wrong with that, the center is very pleasant. It just meant that we would be getting out onto the river late. On the plus side, Jane and her beau had time to join us. Overall, a net positive.

An hour later we were on the train, heading south. It is time to review the cast of characters.

Seven Deadly Pirates

Seven Deadly Pirates

  • Me. Mild-mannered writer, watcher of people, drinker of beer. Not so good with strangers. Quiet, except for the times I chew people’s ears off.
  • Soup Boy. Creative and competitive, he doesn’t do anything half-assed. On the surface very unlike me, but we are compatible. We both find the Universe to be slightly absurd.
  • Little John. Offer him any two pieces of information, and he will discover an interesting parallel between them. His answer will likely be given in song, either a snippet of a tune that was popular within the last 100 years or his own adaptation of one of the above. LIttle John is a talker. His enthusiasm is infectious, and a little bit scary.
  • Izzy. A relative youngster, and a good guy to be on a boat with. He speaks his mind, but is not a butthead about it. Izzy likes girls. A lot.
  • Rosa. Born and raised north of the arctic circle, Rosa has stories. She tends toward the talkative end of the spectrum, but not obnoxiously so. When she speaks her mind, it sounds more like criticism. Not sure what the defining factor is there.
  • Jane. The only Czech in the group. She is a very touchy-feely person, and also a talker. When not teaching english to Soup Boy, she is a psychologist and a tutor of gifted students. She is a very sweet, sincere person, but knows every trick in the book for making me feel uncomfortable. The contact, the probing questions, and the honest confessions when I have only known her a few hours are difficult for me to handle. Still, for that, she’s very smart and fun to be around.
  • Beau. No matter where he lives, he will carry Boston with him. Of all the people in the group, I did not form a strong personal opinion of Beau. From Jane I learned that he is a good cook and that he came into her life at a really tough time and he’s been great. Beau, I think, does not like the unexpected.

I am tempted right now to go back and rename all the characters after Gilligan’s Island. The only question: who’s Ginger?