Ostrava, Czech Republic 2006

If you were colorblind here it would not matter. Everything is shades of gray…and cold. I got off the train in a stark station that was barely lighted and, once again, cold. Other European train stations are magnificent.  Not this one in Ostrava. It was tired, with no life. The stores in the station were not interesting.  There were no cafes. Old people hobbled along with broken down shoes, old hats and scarves across their faces.  They all seemed to be propped up by wooden canes. Everything here struck me as needing help.

I finally found a way out. In the front of the station had the streetcars looped around the front in a tight circle.. Taxi drivers leaned against their cars and smoked. The streetcars were barely lighted, the lights dim and dirty. The wheels screeched as the cars slowly made the bend to the station. There were about four cars, and few people for 6 pm. The cars looked old enough to have been from the strassenbahn in Munich in the 1950’s. The wheels screeched, big bent bars went from the top of the cars to overhead wires that sparked and crackled. The few people riding seemed to have their heads leaning against the windows as if there were nothing of interest to see.

I saw looked around and saw no hotels, so I went back inside to the information desk. A kind young girl who spoke near perfect English helped me find a place to stay. She went through a list of several  hotels, called them all and could not find a room. I have never left home without a place to stay but how could all the rooms be taken in a place like this? I had no place to sleep, and we were now looking at cheaper and cheaper hotels, still with no luck.

The girl said there was a place where men and women slept. “So what?” I said too quickly. “That will do. The look on her face puzzled me. I thought I was getting the idea, but had no choice. I booked the room. How bad could it be? Naturally, I had to pay in cash.

I went out again and got a taxi driver to stub out his cigarette, handed him written directions but every cab driver in town knows these places. No one spoke English, as in other European countries. In Prague, a few people spoke German, although my German is meager and unsatisfactory. Here, they speak Russian as well as Polish and Czech but no German. The Russians forbade German during their occupation, teaching Russian in schools along with lessons about Comrades Lenin and Stalin. It is harder to get around here than Thailand.

AS the taxi drove along, the streets became more deserted. There were only a few cars, none I recognized. This was a steel and coal town. All the mills were closed but coal is still mined. The city had a harsh pallor, like one would expect in England in the  19th century cola towns.  The street lamps were too far apart and cast dirty, dim circles of light that don’t touch. The apartments don’t have curtains and seem to all have a bare light hanging from a cord in the window. A few kids walk on the sidewalks. They are in packs of six to eight. No one is alone but the packs are few and far between.

We got to the hotel…or whatever it was. It looked deserted but for a dim light inside. I went inside.  The guy in the hotel was waiting for me. There were eight keys hanging from hooks. He handed me one, leaving seven empty rooms in a hotel with eight rooms in a town completely booked. I had the only room. I made my way up the stairs to the room, as small as a closet with a metal shower, a small sink, and a bed with no sheets.

I went back downstairs and the guy handed me one sheet and a dishtowel. I couldn’t even bitch at him. I wanted something to eat. The guy at the desk was so confused he called the information counter at the train station.  I was lucky the girl was that booked the room was still there. I asked her to get a cab for me in the morning and that I was hungry and had run out of slotys.

She asked the hotel guy to drive me to a place to eat. He locked up, and we went to the ATM at the train station, then to a place that was a drab pub. There was nothing appealing about the place, nothing that would make me want to have a beer with a friend here.

I bought the the hotel a beer.  I couldn’t get the waitress to understand that I just wanted a tonic, so I went behind the bar to grab a tonic from the cooler. I ordered some pork, which seemed low risk. Pigs must like it here.

The waitress was what you would expect. Big. There were seven guys sitting around one table all drinking beer. They were the only other people. No laughing. No loud banter. No sports on TV, no TV, no music. Just sitting, drinking and smoking. No arm waving, just elbows on the table and enough movement to take a drag on a cigarette or lift a beer.   They seemed beaten. Not crazy, just beaten..  These were good people whose culture had been destroyed. I ate and was glad to leave.  I could not talk to the driver, and was glad for it.

I hoped I could find the factory in the morning. I had come a long way for this job. As I lay in bed, I heard someone else check in.  I heard two people coming up the stairs, no talking, but one footfall lighter than the other. I hope they are quick about it and keep the noise down.

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Ostrava to Prague, Valentines Day, 2006

I am on the train from Ostrava to Prague. It is 6:30 at night, damp and rainy. The project in Ostrava did not go as well as usual. It was frankly disappointing. The client had to keep running the equipment that we needed to test. It reminded me of the Canadian woodcutter who wanted to sharpen his ax. His boss wouldn’t let him. He had 200 more trees to cut. I know I need to relax to sharpen my own ax, more often than I do. I keep working instead. I find myself on this train in a hurry to get nowhere. The house will be empty. When I get “home,” it won’t be. I am not sure when my next day of work will be. I went to the restaurant in the hotel last night. There were no tables; all booked. And there were no parties of one, no pairs of businessmen. All lovers. The piano player and the woman singing caught my eye, and my ear. She was a beautiful tall Czech, with auburn hair draped over one shoulder, singing old love songs in English, but sounded like Marlene Dietrich. For once, the cigarette smoke looked just right. An old man stood, walked around the table, handed his wife, his lover, a single tulip, put his hand on the back of her chair and bent to kiss her. She looked up, her eyes met his, and I knew she loved him. Even the singer, with her black low cut dress and bright red belt watched. It was Valentines day. And I’m not in love. I went outside, turned up my collar and pulled down my hat. It was my old Boston red sox hat sweat stained with salt. A woman in Thailand told me the hat made me look like an old man trying to look like a boy I stopped wearing it for a day or so. It’s my favorite hat. Sam gave it to me. As usual walked until I found a place to eat. It looked like a nice old place, with lots of wood. It was late. I had to beg with the receptionist to seat me. She wanted to close in 45 minutes. “Impossible!” She cried. They all say that. Everything is “impossible!” Those who have been out of here blame it on the Russians. “I hate the Russians,” they say. It seems as if everyone hates somebody. The ones that remember the invasion of 1968 are easy to get excited. (It’s hard for me to accept that they all can’t remember). I sat down and ordered salmon, no appetizer. Impossible! Gimme the salmon, I wanted to say. I eat alone almost all the time. I read the paper. Look out the window. Read a little blue book I carry in my pocket. Last night, alone was no fun. Tonite, I will arrive at a hotel at around midnight, hungry. I will get up at 5 am then go to the airport, grab a flight to Amsterdam, then wait there for 6 hours, enough time take the train to town to smoke some dope in one of those legal Ganja bars. But I won’t. I was in Amsterdam years ago. You don’t find those places; they attack you. Just like a foundry in an old Midwestern town, you can’t miss them, smoky and noisy. There were so many of these joints it looked like Indian smoke signals, smoke billowing out every time a door opened. The plane leaves Amsterdam, then to Boston at 5 PM. I will get the 6 Pm bus to Portsmouth if I don’t get pulled by the Homeland security for being undesirable. I know them by name in Boston and they still pick me.