Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Old Man and the Infidel

I spend lots of time on public transport. Not as much as some of my English-teacher counterparts but quite a bit. Enough to know which end of the train I should be on to be the first off and up the escalator or where to board the bus so there will definitely be an available seat. 

One of the companies I work at is located in a relatively secure facility up in a neighborhood in Smíchov. I have to take a bus from Anděl. It's honestly not very far, but the bus gets crowded with elderly people and tiny children, people who I basically wouldn't ever have to deal with if it weren't for public transportation. (Also people who get first pick at all the seats so that only a few are left for those of us who are between ages 7 and 65.)

When I get on a bus that is basically empty, I usually try to find a row of seats that's empty so that I don't have to actually sit next to someone and so that I can sit next to the window. I like the seat next to the window for some reason. That's true of buses, cars, planes, trains. Any form of transportation you can think to put me on, I won't freak out am more comfortable if I can be by the window.

One afternoon after finishing my classes at this company I got on the bus to find that only one row was empty. It was a newer bus where some of the seats face backward and the ones across from that face forward. You're basically sitting knee-to-knee with a stranger.

Generally this doesn't bother me. Czech people don't really talk to strangers and even if they did I wouldn't know what the hell was going on anyway and could just smile and nod. Don't get me wrong, I like talking to strangers, but it can be exhausting, especially when trying to work it into a long work day.

Well, apparently old people do talk to strangers. What have they got to lose, eh?

I was sitting in a seat facing backward and an old man was sitting in the seat facing me. I smiled when I sat down and then promptly started reading my e-mails on my Blackberry. I had my iPod on a respectful volume, loud enough that I don't have to hear small children crying but not loud enough that anyone else has to hear my music. 

Suddenly the old man just starts talking. I glanced up to see if he was talking to me, but it seemed he was talking in general. You know, like old people can do without getting weird looks, or like crazy people do without caring about the weird looks.

I shouldn't have looked up, but honestly, I'm glad I did otherwise this would be one boring ass story.

He saw me look up, looked me right in the eyes and then asked me a question. I had long since taken one of my earphones out so I could hear him and I realized, "Holy crap, I actually know what he just said to me and how to answer!"

He had asked what the next stop was and I told him. I did a little happy dance and went back to my e-mails with a proud (read shit-eating) grin on my face. Oh but wait, there's more.

After that the old man decided he wanted to keep talking to me. He went on and on. He was pointing at things out the window and telling me about something. I smiled and nodded. Eventually he said something and I told him, Promiň, Nemluvím česky. Sorry, I don't speak Czech.

He looked really surprised and then said, škoda. Pity.

Then I got a huge surprise because apparently he speaks all of 12 words in English. 
Let me explain: You don't typically expect old people any where to know English and 
especially not in the Czech Republic where every one learned Russian until the Iron 
Curtain fell in 1989. 

Old Man: "Teacher?"
Me: "Ano, Jsem učitelka angličtiny." (Yes, I'm an English teacher.)

Old Man: "California?"
Me: "Ne, Jsem z Texasu." (No, I'm from Texas.)
Old Man: "California." (pointing at himself)

At this point I was lost. Clearly he wasn't from California. Did I miss something?

Finally a woman who had sat down next to me a few stops earlier piped up and told 
me that he has a grandson or someone who is from California. She told him I don't 
speak Czech and tried to get him to let the conversation die. 

She was unsuccessful. 

The old man continued talking to me though he had switched back to Czech. He 
pointed at something and asked me a question. I looked at him confused. 

Lady: "He's asking if you go to church."
Old Man: škoda... (There's that word again. Clutch: škoda is also the name of a 
Czech car company... Just sayin'.)

Then he continued to say something.

Lady: "He wants you to come to church with him and his grandson."
Me: "Oh, this is my stop! Na Shledanou!"
Oh, Encounters of the Czech kind.

***Funny story: After I wrote this post, I saw the same old man on the bus Tuesday 
and we had essentially the same conversation, but with no mediator and significantly 
more smiling and nodding. What a cute old man.

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