Friday, August 28, 2009

Premysl: Not a Diaper Rash Ointment (though it sounds like one)

Crossing over into Southern Bohemia, the landscape flattened and houses spread out. At one station, a man boarded the train, paced up and down the car, and poked his head through my “do not disturb” curtain. So tall he had to duck even in the train corridor and with his small green backpack, plaid short-sleeved shirt and glasses, he looked like an oversized schoolboy lost on his way to kindergarten. He said something in Czech and gestured to the empty seats (there were five free in my compartment—the body odor-afflicted man had taken up two, but now he was gone). This man looked like he had showered at least once in his lifetime, so I nodded and smiled hoping he hadn’t asked if he could rip the seats out and use them as projectiles.

He took off his backpack and waved through the window to an older woman on the train platform. She waved back, peering though the window at the compartment he’d chosen. I wondered if I should wave too, maybe lean out and tell her that her son would be fine, that we would have recess and naps in the afternoon. She had a look somewhere between fear and resignation as if she still hadn’t quite gotten used to saying goodbye. Though the mid-summer air in Southern Bohemia was mild, she crossed her arms and hugged herself as if trying to warm up.

He settled in opposite me and took out a book on political science (though the title was in Czech, I guessed the topic from a few of the words and pictures—of course he could have been reading about Latvian home decorating tips and I wouldn’t have known for sure). The train continued on and we left his mother behind on the platform. Bye, mom!

I wondered if I should try out the tips from CultureGrams Czech Republic, maybe thrust out my hand and chant my last name along with a formal greeting. Luckily, I refrained. A few stops later, a loud noise came from the next compartment. My compartment-mate and I exchanged puzzled looks, and then he said something in Czech.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t speak Czech.”

He shifted into English without blinking and we wondered out loud about what was going on in the next compartment. We talked for a while before exchanging names. His was Premysl—not a common named in the CR, but it was linked to the history of Prague. Premysl. Sounded like a diaper rash ointment, but his name could have been “Herbert” and I would have been equally enchanted. He looked like he often got his limbs mixed up and tied up pretzel-style just walking down the street. Pasty pale skin, completely unstylish wire-framed glasses, and a stutter that came out when he spoke too quickly. A complete nerd from head to toe. Ah, Premysl.

We talked nonstop until Prague. He was part of the Ministry of the Environment and spoke eloquently about how environmentally friendly practices were the only sustainable and economically viable option for governments in the long run. Sigh. I told him I was from New York and he lit up.

“I’ve been there six times!” he said, as if this were the most remarkable, impossible coincidence. We talked about his experiences in New York—he’d only been in Manhattan and spent most of his time there at the UN building. He told me about the UN meetings on environmental issues, how they took place in a windowless air-conditioned basement room with no hint of natural light. When the meetings took place in Prague, they took the delegates to city gardens and spots outside of the center. In New York they shuffled out of the dark basement only after the meetings were over.

Sometimes, meeting someone, you just click. Even if it’s not a romantic connection, the conversation flows from the first word. Though we were speaking with his second language (or fourth, since he also knew Russian and German—I felt woefully lacking with my schoolgirl French, conversation Italian, and hopefully adequate English), we didn’t reach for things to say or have awkward pauses. We didn’t talk about the weather once.

There’s a Josh Radin song, “Today,” that he wrote about a chance meeting on a train. The song fits the scene, though they didn’t play it on the train. Here he performs it live and tells the story behind the song:

"Today" performed live by Josh Radin

Premysl had also been on vacation in California where he drove on freeways and went whale-watching. This made me think of the Margaret Cho stand-up piece “Lesbians Love Whale-Watching,” but I didn’t share this with him.

Once we entered Prague, the train went underground. I’d had a romantic vision of seeing the Vltava river for the first time from the train, winding into the city on tracks above ground. No. My first view was the pitch black inside of the tunnel. And then the station: noisy, overcrowded, and fluorescent lit.

As we neared the stop, Premysl went over in great detail how to say “How much to go to the Hotel Pyramida, Belahorska 25?” in Czech. He wrote it out phonetically and went over price possibilities and what would be reasonable. But when we arrived, and I piled on my backpack and various handbags, he stepped in.

“Let me carry something,” he said and took a bag, not even cracking a smile at the sight of me piled from head to toe with luggage. We walked through the station and he helped me negotiate exchanging money and after an extensive consult with two Czech policemen (tall, burly blonde men who looked like Arnold Schwartzenegger without the tan-in-a-can) , we proceeded to the taxi area where he found me a taxi to the hotel for 400 Czech crowns (roughly $20). Ah, Premysl.

We hugged good-bye and he gave me his number “in case anything happened” during my stay and I needed help. He also aired the idea that we could meet for coffee, though I was too sweaty and exhausted to consider the idea. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I said, and was soon speeding over bridges and back roads, the city zipping by, possibly being kidnapped to some far off corner of Prague where I would be dropped into a work camp, left to chant my name and say formal greetings for the rest of my life among strangers in a language I didn’t know.

When the Hotel Pyramida appeared in all its glass and concrete fascist-architect-remnant pyramidal splendor, I exhaled. It existed. And despite knowing exactly zero words in Czech, I’d arrived (I did know “Ahoj”—pronounced “Ahoy” from letters sent from the Prague Writing Program office—and “Dobry Den” from the CultureGrams hand out, but that was all). When Premysl and I practiced the one Czech phrase on the train, “How much to go to the…”, I’d forgotten a key detail: even if I had managed to say the words, I wouldn’t have understood the response. So luckily, Premysl Stepanik, member of the Czech Ministry of the Environment and ambassador of the Southern Bohemian overgrown Kindergartner set, helped me arrive at my destination.

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