Travel is its own kind of universe, especially international travel. You tend to live in an enclosed cocoon of airlines, buses, and trains, each with its own rules and its own culture. And in the midst of it all, it’s easy to lose track of days and dates, as well as normal connections with the wider world through newspapers and commercial news programs, especially when these media come in languages unfamiliar to you.
I noticed all this again recently when my partner and I, and an old friend of ours, spent a couple of weeks traveling around various parts of Western and what used to be called Central Europe. Within this kind of travel universe, things take on a character and a vividness all their own. At least if you travel the way we do and are busy from morning to late afternoon visiting museums, strolling about in medieval cathedrals, and as much as possible just taking in the atmosphere of a city. Getting from place to place, too, presents its own logic and its own challenges, which is to say that occasionally the getting there may sometimes be even more interesting, and certainly more challenging, than when you arrive.
A case in point for us this time was the train between Salzburg and Prague. For better or for worse, we are what you might call major planners-in-advance. In other words, we had done our advanced computer-based research on all the possible ways of getting from city to city, and in the end we’d opted for making this particular trip by train. Once that was decided, we discovered that there was no direct service between the two cities. The choices available to us were: going first through Munich, or back to Vienna (where we had just been), or traveling via the much smaller town of Linz in northern Austria. Each option appeared to have its advantages, as well as its drawbacks, and in the end we picked Linz, simply because it seemed to offer the shortest and most direct route.
Or so we thought, anyway. Our first clue that things might not be as simple as they appeared surfaced when we actually got the tickets in the mail. There were no seat assignments on either train, that is, the one from Salzburg to Linz, or the train from Linz to Prague. That seemed odd, and it took us three or four attempts at asking various railway officials once we got there before we understood that what we had was an open ticket, and there were no seat assignments of any kind for anyone on these trains. It was first-come-first-served. The second clue we didn’t catch, and which we understood only later on in hindsight, was the printing of two unfamiliar Czech words on the ticket for the Linz-to-Prague leg of the trip. After failing at several attempts to research what these words might mean, we just decided we’d ignore what we couldn’t understand. Sometimes that’s a strategy that actually works just fine, but then sometimes it doesn’t.
Our train turned out to be an old one, with actual compartments in it that had doors that closed and windows that opened. In itself, this was quite nice. I kept expecting to see Hercule Poirot walking down the narrow aisle with those mincing little steps of his. Once settled in, I used my halting phrasebook Czech to ask the conductor if there was a dining car on the train. He looked at me strangely and replied, “ne jidlo.” I got that phrase immediately and knew it was going to be a long 5 hour trip, since he was telling me that there was no food available.
But that too was fine. We had some energy bars to share amongst us, and nobody dies of starvation anyway in 5 hours. So, we settled down to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, as we passed through northern Austria and into the southern part of the Czech Republic. Green, green hills, very few villages, but fields covered in yellow flowers that looked to us a lot like wild mustard, but which were, I later discovered, more likely rapeseed flowers, which are used in the production of canola oil. All in all, it was a lovely, rustic, tranquil scene with warm breezes blowing and the pungent scent of these yellow flowers wafting in. What better way, we all thought, to enjoy a trip to Prague?
It was, I think, just about that time when the conductor came by again. His brief message, though again entirely in Czech, was simple and clear even to us: we were to get off the train at the next station and get onto a bus. Really? But our ticket clearly said Prague on it, and didn’t that mean going all the way by train? So what was this unceremonious and unlooked for departure from our comfortable compartment all about? Before I could gather my wits and ask, the conductor had hurried off to the next car. The three of us huddled for a quick discussion, and I volunteered to trail after the conductor to try to get more information.
It’s not easy when you don’t speak the language of the country you’re visiting. In the best of all possible worlds, I had hoped that my Russian, as rusty as it was, might be of some use, but it turned out not to be a lot of help. Yes, there are cognates aplenty between Russian and Czech, but individual words aren’t of much assistance when you’re attempting to make sense of whole sentences. And the nearest Slavic cousins to Czech are Polish and Slovak. So, as it turned out, Russian in the Czech Republic was about as much help as French might be in Italy.
Still, I was able to make our concerns clear to the conductor. “Why are we to get off at the next station? Will the bus then take us to Prague?” I managed to get across.
“Ne, ne!” he replied, clearly a little annoyed at my apparent slowness in comprehending simple things. He then explained in, I have no doubt, very clear Czech what was to happen, but all I could do was mumble a probably incoherent “nerozumim,” – “I don’t understand!” At which point, our long-suffering conductor none too patiently took out a diagram he had obviously prepared earlier, which clearly showed what was to happen: we were to get off the train, get on a bus, and then this bus would take us on to the other train station, at which point we would board another train and be on our way to Prague once more. Why it was he hadn’t shown us this drawing in the first place still remains something of a mystery to me.
Upon arrival at the station a few moments later, the train ground to a jolting halt. This truly was the middle of nowhere. There was a station building, to be sure, old and yellow, but no town, no village, not even a couple of houses scattered here and there. The only other human being was an official-looking railway man standing on the track with a sour expression on his face, pointing us all toward the waiting bus.
It’s strange the ideas that go through your head at such times. I suddenly felt myself transported back in time and saw in my mind’s eye a group of tired, confused, and frightened Jews getting off a train at perhaps this very same nowhere train station, ordered onto buses with no explanation, with everyone hurrying to follow orders under the watchful eyes of dour, unsympathetic, and unsmiling officials. What was even more astounding was the discovery later on that the exact scenario had unfolded itself in the minds both of my partner and of our friend, Tom. I had to wonder then if this nondescript station in the middle of a field somehow still held on to frightened and frightening vibrations of horrors that had unfolded there seventy or more years ago. I suppose I will never know, but it felt like more than a chilling coincidence.
We all struggled to carry our luggage across several sets of tracks, and were told to put the bags into a waiting van (not on the bus we were to take). Maybe still under the spell of that strange vision, we just followed orders, trusting to fate and hoping that we would somehow be reunited with our bags. In the meantime, the bus started up for the half-hour drive through an even more lovely countryside. At one point, we saw the luggage van veer off in another direction, making us even more uneasy. Soon enough, though, we arrived at the next train station. Our monolingual Czech conductor was waiting there for us, and he motioned for us all to get on the next train. Finally, people began to speak up and everyone protested that we weren’t going anywhere without our luggage. The conductor pointed to what might have been a luggage car connected to the train, and said something else in no doubt excellent Czech. Those of us who were not Czech simply stood there, looking puzzled.
To our relief, however, the van with our luggage in it did arrive soon thereafter, and the ancient gentleman who had driven it attempted to unload its contents. All of the passengers scrambled to help him, and to find their own bags and take them themselves onto the train. All the while, the conductor looked on impassively. I kept trying to imagine what might be going through his mind. I finally decided it must be something like this: “What’s wrong with these stupid foreigners? I just clearly explained to them that the luggage would be loaded onto the car for them. But no! They’ve got to get their own bags and lug them across the tracks to their own compartments!”
The rest of the trip unfolded uneventfully. Our train actually did arrive in Prague, more or less on time. Apparently, the train-bus-train shuffle we all went through was simply part of the regular routine. As it turned out, as well, the two Czech words we couldn’t understand printed on our tickets were the names of the two stations. All clearly laid out, at least for those who could understand.
Prague is well worth the visit, by the way, if you ever have the opportunity. The Charles Bridge, the St. Vitus Cathedral, many old churches and museums, the gorgeous old Jewish quarter filled with Art Nouveau architecture, the food, the genuine warmth and friendliness of the Czech people. All this made for a memorable visit.
One last thought, though, is that if you ever find yourself traveling from Salzburg to Prague, you may want to consider taking the longer, but probably more comfortable and ultimately more direct route through Munich or Vienna. I’m guessing that both of these are without bus connections. On the other hand, if you did that, you might also have to do without old-fashioned train compartments, the echo of Poirot walking down the aisle, or the haunting ghosts of frightened people crossing the tracks at a lonely way station, to say nothing of glimpses of the glorious Czech countryside, the intoxicating scent of thousands of yellow flowers, or the chance to stumble along using your phrasebook Czech. And after all, in the end, isn’t that the very reason why it’s so compelling and so interesting to travel to far off lands in the first place?