Caught in a Czech Funk

Travel Stories: All David Farley wanted from the tourist information office in the tiny town of Nove Hrady was directions to the train station. Then he asked the young clerk a seemingly innocuous question: Was that funk booming from the speakers?

The next morning, Saturday, Jessie and I awoke early. The bus was leaving at 7:55 a.m., which would get us to the train station in plenty of time to hop on our Trebon-bound train. Perhaps because Richard had explained our passage so clearly I wasn’t worried when we rounded the corner and noticed the vast parking lot-cum-bus station devoid of buses and passengers at the exact time the bus was scheduled to arrive. But I did worry when I read the schedule: There were no buses on Saturday. 

Jessie and I stood there, looking at each other and then at the schedule again, hoping the arrivals and departures would miraculously change. 

“Nice going,” said Jessie, breaking the silence, as drizzle began to spot my glasses. “You got that guy at the tourist office so enthralled in his Czech funk or whatever it’s called that he overlooked the fact that the seven fifty-five bus doesn’t go on Saturdays.”

I wandered into a nearby tobacco shop and asked a woman if there was a different bus to the train station. Negative. A taxi service? Nope. Out of desperation and needed comic relief, I asked if there was a rickshaw we could take. She just stared at me.

Which left us only one other option. Our thumbs pointing heavenward, we stood on the side of the road that led out of town toward the railway station. It was 8:15 a.m. and our train didn’t leave for an hour. Hitchhiking is still practiced with some regularity in the Czech Republic and, though I’d never hitchhiked anywhere, I was confident we’d make it.

The first car sped past, the driver making what appeared to be the international I’m-just-going-around-the-bend-here hand sign. So did the next. And the next. And the next. Forty-five minutes elapsed, our outstretched arms now limp with discouragement.

“It’s nine o’clock,” Jessie said, and then nodded toward a café on the corner, conceding defeat. I sighed, and tilted my face up to the gloomy sky, thinking about the funk we were in. When I looked back at the road, I noticed a bicyclist approaching. Jokingly, I stuck my thumb out. As he got closer, and his face came in to focus, I had to take a long blink to make sure I wasn’t imagining this: It was Richard. 

When our eyes met, he went from happy to horrified in two seconds. By his accounts, we should have been standing on a train platform at that moment. When I explained what had happened, Richard said, “Okay, I get you to train station.” Just then, he jumped off his bike and hurled himself in front of a clunky orange Skoda. The driver made a wide swerve and then slammed on the brakes. Richard might not have known who was driving the car when he darted in front of it, but in a town this size it was certain to be someone he’d known all his life.

After a quick discussion with the driver, Richard, at one point steepling his hands together in a begging motion, finally looked at us. “My friend Honza will take you. Get in.”

Honza was a fisherman—not that he had to say so. The inside of his car reeked of it. Jessie sat in the front seat straddling a bucket of freshly caught carp between her knees, and I took the back where a stack of logs was piled up to shoulder level. I lay across them on my side, my left hand propping my head up, as if I were laying on the carpet in front of the TV. Cut off branches poked at my ribs. Within seconds, we were speeding down a tree-lined country road, passing cars and slow-moving tractors.

“Don’t you think south Bohemians are friendlier than Praguers?” Honza turned and asked me as we swerved around a carload of gray-haired heads. “They’re better drivers,” I lied, stumbling through the Czech language I once knew so well when I lived in Prague. We laughed and then Honza put his foot on the gas pedal.

He had a point: The Czech capital has become a victim of its own beauty, as foreign tourists make the city swell to a nearly intolerable size each summer. Outside Prague, however, where few tourists forge, traveling can take a less predictable and refreshing course. Or so it seemed, as I brushed away a bug that had made the jump from branch to my left bicep.

“Have you tried the carp yet?” Honza said, nodding at the bucket of fish and then taking his eyes off the road even longer to make eye contact with me. Southern Bohemia is crammed with carp ponds; the fish we consider to be dirty scum suckers are Czechs’ main Christmas feast.

“Yes ... it’s ... er ... quite tasty,” I said, making a promise to myself that if we made it to the railway station without any broken bones or the need for a prosthetic limb or two, I’d happily eat carp tonight in Trebon.

“Try it with garlic sauce,” he said, skittering around a corner. And then he brought his fingers to his lips and kissed them, the way a satisfied Italian might in an old movie. 

A minute later, we skidded to a stop in front of the small train station. “Have a nice journey,” Honza said. Jessie jumped out and I slowly crawled off the logs. We thanked him profusely and ran into the station with five minutes to spare.

That night, the rain having stopped, Jessie and I sat at an outdoor cafe on Trebon’s dressed-up square, nursing beers and sifting through the long menu of carp dishes. I ran my eyes down the list: carp with potato salad, carp with cabbage, carp Chinese style (read: carp with soy sauce), carp with dumplings and, finally, carp with garlic sauce. We both ordered the latter, happy to fulfill at least one promise.

I raised my beer and said “Here’s to aching feet and being gawked at by entire villages tomorrow.”

“And,” Jessie added, “getting out of the Czech funk.”

We clinked our glasses and ordered another round.

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