You know you’re in trouble when your traveling companion turns to you and says, “This will make great story material someday”.
I admit to having felt a vague uneasiness when I saw the name of the train on the ticket. The Franz Kafka Express, Prague to Munich. Oh, really?
To set the scene, you must be aware that the day before our departure on the Franz Kafka Express, I had turned over the keys to the rental car with the greatest relief known to Fretful Travelers everywhere. I’d driven out of Prague and all the way to Opava on the other side of the country and then back again. And I only got lost four times, drove through no more than one pedestrian-only mall, and had only one fist shaken at me by an irritable pedestrian, but still, the stress levels had been high. Ah, the bliss of letting someone else drive. The relief of kicking back in business class and watching the world go by for five blessed hours. No more trying to read Czech street signs while navigating the confusing meanderings of labyrinthine, medieval cities! Hurrah! I looked forward to guzzling strong Czech beer, because if anyone had earned a splitting alcohol-induced headache, I had.
Just kick back and relax and . . . wait, what’s this? Why is a large, grease-stained man with his shirt tail hanging out shouting at us? Why are the Czech passengers scrambling for their luggage and exiting the train? We Americans and one Chinese guy look at each other in confusion. The train has stopped in the middle of nowhere. Why in the world would we get off it? No explanation is forthcoming so we too join the tide of passengers flowing into the empty field. We drag our overstuffed bags across gravel and down a lumpy dirt road. Kafka begins to chuckle.
We stand around. I’m pretty sure I hear wolves howling.
A too small bus comes and people start piling in. I’m the very last to squeeze on. Rumor has it they’re taking us to the next train station. My imagination already has us bused to the nearest gulag. The communists and the Nazis might be long gone but I have not forgotten them, or maybe my paranoid genetic make-up hasn’t. Let’s say instead that, motivated by purely philosophical and literary interest, I contemplate sudden feelings of helplessness and confusion.
As I stand, leaning against the dashboard with nothing between me and the vast windshield except, well, nothing, I remember to be amused by my earlier relief at boarding a train. Now I’m standing facing a busload of pensive people. I wonder what happened to those who didn’t make it on the bus. Should I have stayed behind? Thrown myself willy nilly to the winds of chaos? This idea has a certain charm, a sort of let’s-run away-from-reality-entirely sort of appeal. This idea comes to me as I’m still thinking we’re one bus trip away from continuing our train ride, that is, as long as a wolf doesn’t lunge under the wheels of the bus, sending me headfirst through the windshield, my last vision on this earth destined to be the array of squeaky toys dangling around the driver’s cockpit.
We disembark in Rockykany, a small station with no escalators, but plenty of stairs: an Escher-like traveler’s nightmare. Did I mention that my mom has a pink suitcase the size of Vaclav Havel’s presidential desk, and twice as heavy? To get from one platform to another we must go down a steep flight and then back up another. Someone tells us to get on a train. We do. It’s the wrong train. We all pile off, down the stairs, up the stairs. Cue the Benny Hill soundtrack. Gallant men throw themselves in the breach and help us drag the steamer trunk. Rarely does the same man do this more than once. Alas, the next train is also wrong. Off the train, down the steps, up the steps. I believe it is on the third train that we finally hear the story from a native speaker. Apparently, gypsies (his word, not mine) stole the copper out of the tracks and so we have to reroute to another line. Well, I’m delighted. It’s worth the tribulations just to hear there are still gypsies afoot in the world. Yes, I’m thinking Johnny Depp in a river boat on the Seine (alá the movie, Chocolát), but hey, I need some consolation by this time.
And now, this is entirely true, it’s the wrong train again. The native speaker vanishes, no longer wishing to associate with our desperation. Off the train, down the stairs, up the stairs. We (the foreign horde) nervously settle in as the train finally leaves Rockycany for no one knows where.
We disembark in Plzeň. This is a grand old decaying station in a grand old city (I assume. We all know about the beer, right?) The waiting room is not grand. Think bus station in a Twilight Zone episode. Think hard benches. Think tepid beige coffee out of a vending machine. My cheapskate aunts don’t want to sit in the bar for four and half hours, our ETD. Where are we departing to? Anybody’s guess, really. Still, not one official (except for that guy in the blue sweater vest who told us to get on wrong train #3) has spoken to us. This is when the ‘great story someday’ comment is made. Yeah, right. I do get to take some pictures of fading communist era murals and the great arched windows of the train station.
But then Kafka rears his surrealist head. In the restrooms. The last place you want to see anything of Kafka. Within the restroom lives a bitter woman behind bars, selling, not just admission to the toilets, which we are used to by now, but scraps of toilet paper. Twenty Kronings buys you about four wispy squares. Starting to regret the vending machine coffee right about now.
Finally the train for someplace else arrives, half an hour late. Our raggedy rabble assembles. Those who spent the four hours in the bar are much happier than those who spent it in the Kafka Lounge, let me tell you. We’re all so nervous waiting to get thrown off another train I can’t even describe it. The train pulls out and the whole car bursts into applause.
That’s not exactly the end. Because the Plzeň train was late, our connection in Someplace, Germany, is being held for us. We have to RUN to catch it. More stairs? You betcha. My mom with her rolling armoire is now the pariah of the mob. The nice thing is, after we squat in the first class cabins, no one dares to throw us out. My mom expresses a profound wish that someone will steal her luggage and we are able to laugh.
Disembarking in Munich, only nine hours late after all that, we bid a fond adieu to our fellow adventurers as they hurry away through the turnstiles, never wishing to view the pink monster again.
*My apologies to the Czech Republic, the Roma People, the memory of Franz Kafka, and train lovers everywhere. However, this is a true story filtered through the keen memory of a paranoid, traveling writer.