Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Tale of Two Busses

My trip to Malta began Thursday morning at 4:30—not because I had to be on an early flight, but simply because I like getting up early. My flight to Heathrow was at 11:30. At Heathrow I would take a bus to Luton airport to meet up with my travelling companion, Josef the Hungarian Steel worker, where, in turn, we would fly to the windy group of islands called Malta, which gained its ultimate independence from Great Britain in 1964, the year of my birth. Everything is so connected.

London. First Bus, First Driver: Heathrow > Luton

Somewhere in the middle of that paragraph above is where our story begins. I’ve just taken my seat on the bus to Luton when the busdriver makes an announcement.

“Sorry for the awful smell, ladies and gents,” he says.

I sniff but don’t notice said awful smell.

“But,” he continues, “I did notify the company, and I did try to get another bus.”

Continuing to sniff like a puppy, I survey the peoplescape of the bus. There are the few, cliché elderly couples, an attractive woman behind me (who will speak on her cell phone the entire one-hour ride to Luton), and a single man near the front of the bus (he’s already hit on me, and this has made my day). But I cannot place the source of the promised stench.

“You see,” the driver continues, “When the passengers use the lavatory, they miss when they go to flush”—he demonstrates flushing with the foot—“causing the bowl to fill up.”

Everyone is listening to the driver’s speech politely—except the cell phone-addicted woman behind me of course.

“And when the bus goes around a curve,” he continues, “the contents of the bowl—”

I give the audience a sharp sideward glance, hoping for a few oh-for-goodness-sake faces, but everyone is still listening quietly.

“—begin to slosh . . .” He uses a litre bottle half full of orange soda, which he’s just drunk from, to demonstrate the sloshing motion of a bus lavatory. Totally unnecessary. I will never drink orange soda again. “. . . until the contents of the bowl splash over the sides of the loo and onto the floor. So, I do apologize for the inconvenience.”

For what inconvenience? The stench that wasn’t or the description that was?

As it turns out, our driver to Luton is a talker. He lets us know right up front that he hates his job, that “it just ain’t no fun no more.” As we lurch onto the motorway, he announces, “Keep your fingers crossed that we don’t hit no heavy road works.”

I cross my fingers and hope that he won’t decide to end his miserable life and drag three elderly couples, two youngish men and an attractive woman yapping on her cell phone with him to his death.

As we’re sputtering through the delightful little town of Hemel Hampstead, he takes a call on his speaker phone.

“Whatever the question is,” he says in lieu of hello, “the answer is no.”

“Hallo, mate,” the caller says.

“No,” the driver repeats.

“Oh, all right, mate.” And the caller gives up, as I’m sure so many people have before him. As we go around a curve, I finally get a whiff of the lavatory. No wonder the driver is tetchy.

Malta. Second Bus, Second Driver: Mellieħa> St. Paul’s Bay
On the second day of our Malta trip, Josef the Hungarian Steel worker and I decide to take the bus from Mellieħa to St. Paul’s Bay. Mind you, I’ve ridden in the kamikaze busses of Rio de Janeiro, so I can tell the difference between a busdriver on cocaine and one who’s just having a good time.

When we board the bus, I see the driver hand a woman a CD case. She grabs it and starts shuffling through the CDs to find the one he wants. She’s his DJ, and he’s much more interested in getting his groove on than selling tickets to the boarding passengers.

Once we’re on our way, whipping around curves and plunging down hills, the driver starts singing into a microphone. He’s also smoking and trying to drink orange juice from a carton. The passengers who can’t see this look-Mom-no-hands feat are laughing and whooping as they’re knocked from one side of the bus to the other.

What the hell. I join in: “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza. There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole!”

“Shut up,” says Josef the Hungarian Steel worker. “You are embarrassing me.”

But I will be heard. I sing louder. “With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza? With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, with what?”

The roller coaster to St. Paul’s Bay is only about forty minutes, but by the time the driver deposits us on the side of the road—after we've requested the stop by shout-singing the obligatory “Stop! In the name of Love! Before you break my heart!”—we are exhausted and, quite frankly, a bit weary of the UK hit parade. We are also a bit giggly. Josef, it turns out, is an ABBA fan.

St. Paul’s Bay is a fantastic place to walk along the torrid sea, letting the wind blow through your hair and sandblast your face. Be warned, though. Horse bathing is not tolerated. When I’m eighty-six and British, I might consider returning to Malta for a holiday, but until then . . .

I must be off,

Monday, May 10, 2010

Third Time's the Charm?

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Gelid. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of my third trip to Prague. It was fifteen years ago. A friend who was teaching in Lithuania had come to Munich for a Christmas visit. She was interested in Eastern Europe, so we planned a trip to Prague and Budapest. After a few days in Munich, we—together with my Cocker Spaniel, Bodie—took off for Prague on the train.

At the border to the Czech Republic, when the border police started coming through to check passports, someone punched me in the stomach—or at least that’s what it feels like when you realize you’ve forgotten your passport.

“You’ll have to go back,” the officer said.

Scheiße,” I said.

The train fare wasn’t exactly cheap, so “we” decided that my traveling companion and Bodie would continue on to Prague, where we already had hotel reservations. I would go back to Munich, grab my passport and be on the next train back.

A few hours later back at my apartment in Munich, I called the hotel in Prague.

Dobrý den. Blah blah blah blah.”

“Hello. Do you speak English?”

“A little.”

“I’m calling from Munich. A young woman with a dog—”

“We’re full.” She hung up.

I called back.

Dobrý den. Blah blah blah blah.”

“Hi, we just spoke, and you hung up on me.”

“We’re full.” She hung up again.

When I finally got bitch back on the phone and made her promise not to hang up, I explained to her that I had a reservation, that, yes, technically I was in Munich, but half of my party (plus pooch) was going to be walking in the door any minute. I just wanted to make sure she got a room--because I'm that sort of guy.

The next morning when I met my friend at the hotel, I noticed that the people we’d been sitting next to on the train were sitting with her at breakfast. They’d gone with her to the hotel, and they didn’t look happy. In fact, they were giving me looks to kill—looks that said, “How could you leave her alone like that? And why this dump of a hotel? It’s nowhere near the city!”

“But she wasn’t alone,” I said with my puppy-dog eyes. “She was with you. And Bodie was there. She had the address of the hotel, albeit written in Czech.” It’s a miracle she ever spoke to me again.

Growl (This wasn’t the dog.)

After this initial drama was over, it started snowing and the temperature dropped like a heavy rock. By the time we made it to the Charles Bridge, the city was a scene out of The Day After Tomorrow, but with a castle and lots more statues. It was stunning. It was gelid. It was quite frankly too much for poor Bodie. On the Charles Bridge, Bodie lifted his puppy-dog eyes to me and held a paw off the frozen bridge. He was the biggest sissy. RIP.

I ended up carrying the poor pooch around the iced-over streets of Prague as we shuffled from one coffee shop to the next. We could stay outside for only a few minutes before the cold crept inside our clothes. The thermometers read minus 20 Centigrade.

On Christmas Eve we attended (around ten minutes of) a mass. Curiously, it was colder inside the church than it was outside; and, although I was already fairly familiar with the reason for the season, I didn’t understand anything the priest was saying. I listened carefully, but he never said dobrou chut or drž hubu!

On Christmas Day, we ate a traditional Czech meal in a quaint restaurant on the path up the hill to the castle. I remember it was kassler, cole slaw with oranges and Bohemian knödel, but I don’t remember which restaurant it was. I do remember this, however, as one of my most favorite Christmas moments.

On my third visit to Prague I still didn’t know how to enjoy the city. I had no earthly idea what to do; maybe I still don’t. Maybe I’m not a very good tourist. There’s some irony for you.

The greatest irony is that I was more a part of Prague fifteen years ago when I was pumping iron in a basement with an old man who had no idea who I was. In fact, I think Prague and I have grown apart. When I go back--and I often do--I try to connect, but I never get past playing the tourist.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire)

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Dobrou chut!

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As you can deduce from my first visit to Prague (below in Prague, Rain and Common Sense), I learned more about myself than I did about the city. My second trip, a year later, was like a journey into an entirely different world.

(The pictures in this post are from my recent visit to Prague and have absolutely nothing to do with my second visit to Prague 15 years ago. They're just prettier.)

I made the trip in the company of my then-partner, who was Czech. I was going home to meet his parents. Much of this story is too personal to tell, so I’ll leave the horrifying details for a novel: a thriller in which the protagonist, an attractive, brilliant and young American, murders his Czech partner, a conniving-yet-handsome liar. We’ll keep it light and fun, but we’ll also be aware of the undercurrent of deceit and disappointment (in a humorous way).

By the time we reached my then-partner’s ancestral home outside of Prague, I had mastered the language enough to say the following:

dobrý den = Good day
ahoj! = Bye-bye
pivo prosim = A beer please.
dobrou chuť = Enjoy your meal!
Ano = yes (curiously)
Miluji tě = I love you
drž hubu! = Shut your trap!

So, as you can deduce from my knowledge of Czech thus far, my relationship, both with the man and the city, was headed in the love/hate direction already.

Not two minutes after we arrived at the ancestral home of my Czech partner, the father, a burly little man of around 70 years, decided he wanted to show me his work-out room in the cellar of the ancestral (sixties high-rise) home.

The work-out room was a tiny cubicle with the usual suspects: a benchpress, some dumbbells, a bar for pull-ups, and the odour of a decade of sweat.

“Youski muscli,” he said to me as he took off his shirt.

Ah, he not only wanted to show me his work-out room; he wanted to work-out for me, show off a bit, flex some old-Czech-man muscles. OK. I can improvise when someone needs to strut his stuff. No problem.

“Sure,” I smiled. “Go ahead. Show me what ya got there, Gramps.”


“Me? . . . Ski?”

He nodded. Apparently, not only did he want to show off his saggy pecs; he wanted me to show off mine as well. This was getting creepy, but I have always been proud of my pull-ups. So, off the shirt went, and to work we got. Pull-ups, benchpress, dumbbells. Not exactly the works when it comes to a work-out room, but he made good use of it. After thirty minutes, when I suppose he was satisfied that I wasn’t a wimp, he put his shirt back on. I was one rep away from death.

That evening, at a restaurant in my Czech partner’s ancestral neighborhood, I wondered if it would be rude to lap my food up like a dog since I couldn’t raise my arms to eat.

“Dobrou chut,” everyone said as they lifted their glasses of Pilsner Urquell.

I smiled and nodded, leaning over to my beer to lap a little. “Dobrou chut.”

More memories of Prague to come, but for now,
I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire). It's funny. Buy it HERE

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Prague, Rain and Common Sense

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Do I have a relationship with Prague? We’ve been on a few dates, had a few fights, a few laughs, a few beers. I suppose you could say we’re getting to know each other slowly. I just got back from a rainy weekend in Prague. It took me back, so I’m taking you there.

Sixteen years ago, Prague and I were much more alike. I had long hair; Prague still had post-cold war charm. I was standing on a train platform in Nürnberg all those years ago with a Eurorail pass and the desire to see every inch of this planet, both burning a hole in my pocket. The next train was to Prague, and I took it.

The main station in the Czech capital was crawling with rain-soaked touters trying to make a koruna from the fresh influx of dry tourists. I didn’t have a hotel (or very much common sense), so I allowed myself to be taken in by a woman offering a room for 10 dollars a night. She was dripping wet and had an impressive smoker’s cough. My travel guide had warned against leaving with such people, but--as I’ve just said--I didn’t have much common sense.

“Where is your home?” I asked the woman once we were on the train.

She smiled at me with tarred teeth and said, “Rainy.”

OK. This response answered so many questions. I tried German: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”

Ja, ja,” she replied.

Super,” I said. “Also, Wo wohnen Sie denn?” We’d passed seven or eight stops, and I was beginning to think the woman didn’t live in Prague at all.

Ja, ja,” she said. “Rainy.”

So, I suspected at this point that the woman didn’t speak anything but Czech, which I didn’t speak. The train rolled on. The woman kept smiling. “Rainy.”

“Yes,” I said, “Rainy.”

The apartment was about thirty minutes outside the city in a run-down high-rise building. The room where I was expected to sleep was the only bedroom in the apartment. The woman and what might have been her adult son apparently slept on the floor in the kitchen when they had visitors. She showed me a long list of people and their passport numbers who’d slept in their bed. Yes, oh my Lord. Live and learn. Common sense does not come easy. You might have to sleep in some old woman’s bed (which she probably shared with her adult son) before the dawning comes.

When the next morning dawned, I got up early to take a cold bath—cold because I couldn’t figure out how to get the hot water to work. I then told the “adult son” that I’d be looking for other, more appropriate, accommodation. I could have told him that Jupiter was falling from the sky; he didn’t understand anything I said.

I took the train back to the main station and went straight to the Tourist office.

“You should never go home with those people,” the woman said at the “Acomodations” window.

“Yes, I know,” I said.

“But you went home with one, so you obviously don’t know,” her look said.

“OK, stop looking at me that way. I’ll be smarter in about sixteen years. Give me time.”

“I like your sweater,” she did not say, but I wished she had.

“Thank you. It makes my shoulders look broader,” I said as she handed me the voucher for the four-star hotel I’d just booked in the center of the city.

On my first visit to Prague I met some nice people (none of which at the main station), had my first view of the Prague Castle (one of the most stunning views in the world) and learned one of my first traveler’s lessons:

Ignore anyone who approaches you in a train station. Whatever they want from you is probably not anything you want to give them.

I’ll be remembering Prague for the next few weeks, so Ahoj! for now, but I’ll be back with more.

I must be off,


Christopher Allen is the author of Conversations with S. Teri O'Type (a Satire)