Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Czech Train Journey

In previous posts I have talked about my pleasure at taking train journeys in the Czech Republic. But here is a post about another such journey and a fellow passenger.

Czech trains (well certainly the ones that run from Ceske Budejovice to Prague) tend to be somewhat old compared to British ones. This is no bad thing, as I rather feel that the Pendolino's aren't as good as the old trains - not enough luggage space and smelly loos. The Czech ones still have compartments, which caused my delighted two nieces to say it was a Harry Potter train, even if their journey began on a very unmagical platform in Budejovice. It is the nature of compartments is that you have a different relationship with your fellow passengers. This can be good and bad. If you are unlucky you will have difficulty escaping them without obviously moving away and so offending. For example recently I spent a three-hour journey in the confines of an overheated compartment with a woman with a bad cold, who didn't appear to know how to use a handkerchief. My fellow passengers and I looked on in horror, but said nothing - the Brits aren't the only ones to have a problem with challenging anti-social behaviour. In some cases your fellow travellers can be a joy, such as an elderly American doctor I met who, when her husband died, had set up a medical centre in Odessa much to the dismay of her children. If your fellow travellers are Czech, then the language barrier need not prevent your enjoyment - you can study Czech behaviour close up, you may find yourself answering questions about the UK or even sharing one of the picnics the Czechs usually bring on a journey (there are no buffet cars on our train).

But to my recent journey: I had settled into a compartment when an elderly man looked through the door at me and the empty compartment and asked if it was okay to join me. I waved at the empty seats and said "Ano, prosim". As a point of note, this is normal practice on Czech trains. To ask, without knowing Czech, it is sufficient to look in, catch the eyes of the other passengers, look round the compartment and say "Prosim?" The old man shuffled unsteadily to his seat, took off his coat, put it and his walking stick on a hook and loaded his luggage on to the rack. He sat down next to the window and opposite me, closed his eyes and went to sleep. This allowed me to study my travelling companion, he was a tall man, with grey hair receding at the temples, his hands were large and covered with liver spots, his grey jumper was hand-knitted but clean, his coat a good quality one. My first impressions of the usual poor Czech pensioner had been perhaps mistaken. I was now struck by what a remarkable bone structure he had, his face did not look Czech to my eyes, in fact he reminded me of a British aristocrat. He had been incredibly handsome when young and still looked pretty impressive.

After a nap he woke up and started to look out of the window. His gaze was an intense one and he was clearly thinking, my presence was not just ignored but didn't seem to register with him. After a while he opened his leather briefcase and took out three tattered notebooks held together by a rubberband and removed one which still had blank pages. He started to write and despite a shaking hand his writing was firm and clear. Ever so often he would stop, look out of the window with his steel-grey eyes, think about what to write next and then return to his notebook. He filled two pages and altered only one word. He was writing poetry!

At Prague he put away the book, put on his coat and shakily started to leave. As is customary he wished me "Na shledanou" and I returned it. I very much regretted not being able to speak to him properly, but then I wonder whether he would have written so openly in front of me if he hadn't noticed the English language novel I had been reading.

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