Monday, 24 January 2011

The Bohemia Express

Photo by Rhiannon Rees 

The old warship Warrior rose from the drizzly gloom and, as my eyes drifted to the right, I saw the masts of Victory, another retired warship. And then the engine of the National Express coach started and we began the journey to London.
         Joe was in the seat behind me listening to music on his headphones. It was hardly more than an hour ago when we'd met for coffee in the shopping precinct. He'd told me miserably about conflict at home. I finished my coffee and said I was on my way to London. He wanted to come as well but I told him I was going on from London to Prague. Could he come to Prague then? I said he could if he could be ready in an hour. Joe leaned forward, removed his headphones and asked how old you had to be to get into bars in the Czech Republic. He showed me a National Identity Card, which showed he was eighteen. It was fake. He was sixteen.
        We're out of the city now. The corn looks just about ready for harvesting. The farmers, not in charge of their destiny because of the weather, would be worrying. You can't harvest when it's wet. A field has a lone tree but it's not alone at the moment because two horses are standing beneath it.
        The Devil's Punch Bowl reminds me of Tennessee but I need to go back there to check my observation is accurate. Coming into London, Putney, the Brazilian Naval Mission, Battersea and finally to Victoria Coach Station. Half an hour spare before our connection. Bought water, doughnuts and a couple of quiches. A Mercedes coach rolls up to the bay. It's ours, the Bohemia Express.
        There's the Alanya Kebab shop in Peckham.  Alanya, south coast of Turkey. Balmy night time breeze blowing through the window making the gauze curtain billow. Hash smoke. Laughter fits. Coughing fits. Paranoia. There's a huge pile of water melons outside a shop in Lewisham. Smile to myself as I remember the melon fancier in a McCarthy  novel. He'd have an orgy here.
         Allotments. Runner beans running up poles, heaven-bound life lovers.
         I thought Kent was supposed to be a place of pretty villages and orchards. It's been taken over by pylons.
         And Dover port too seems to have been taken over by aliens.. It's agoraphobic, big spaces designed, not for humans it seems, but for huge vehicles. It's good to get through it and to be reclined on a ferry, sipping coffee and looking out to sea.
         More pylons, Orwellian beasts, strut around the dreary flatlands of northern France. We, like them, are haughty and above it on our elevated stretch of motorway. Below is old Europe, an estaminet next to an abandoned customs and frontier post. We must be passing into Belgium. And yes, a line of sodium lights start up like forty foot soldiers guarding the motorway. Even the rural areas are lit up at night and Belgium  is turned into an orange blob that can be seen from outer space.
        The lights aren't switched on now. It's early evening and the sun is shining for the first time today. The fields are smaller and a circular copse encloses a lavender crop.
        Antwerp. Last time I was here, I was seventeen and we were wondering where to turn at three in the morning.  There was no one to ask but we found an open cafe and it was surprisingly lively. We ordered coffee but received as well ham in baguettes, chips, and beer. When we indicated we'd not ordered these, the waiter just pointed to customers, a man here, two women over there who acknowledged our thanks with nods of the head. Was this the kindness of the demi-monde ? It certainly wasn't a bourgeois joint.
         It was night when we arrived at the home of sprouts. I had time to get out of the coach for a puff of marijuana. Huge glass towers were all about and, for a moment, I thought I'd arrived, not in Brussels, but somewhere in America, Pittsburgh maybe.
        We drive into Liege. The bars and cafes look so inviting and to console myself for not being able to go out there to test Belgium's reputation for excellent beer, I extract a bottle of wine from my bag. It's a struggle to get through the cork with a penknife. I begin to lose my temper and end by nearly falling out of my seat as wine squirts from the bottle as the cork suddenly gets squeezed down the bottle's neck. Hope the driver didn't notice the commotion. There was an announcement before we left London warning against drinking alcohol on the coach.
        We're out of the city but it's not dark.  The sodium lights blaze away, Belgium's orange hell.   Stopped for a break at  Services somewhere in Germany and Joe and I chat to a Roma-dark woman who's going back to Prague to visit family. She fled her country because of racism and now lives in Newcastle. She says it's racist there as well. She doesn't seem bitter though. She smiles.
        Back on the bus, I started to hate the journey. The hammering of the engine. Seemed to get louder and louder.  I couldn't sleep, there was nothing to see out  of the window and I couldn't read because I'd drunk too much wine. Why hadn't I gone by plane ?
       When suffering seems forever, some philosopher, not in pain, will say to you. 'This too will pass.'  And it did. The sky lightened and I could see a pleasant, hilly landscape. Even the  hammering of the engine had lessened. In the motherland of motorways, we'd actually left the motorway and were trundling at a quite a slow pace through neat and pretty villages.
        The next town we came to though wasn't neat. It was drab; paint peeled or perhaps there never was any paint. We were in the Czech Republic, just recently delivered from half a century of dictatorship. There was a bright sign though, a huge sign and it rose above derelict buildings and it indicated the coming of Tesco. The Czech Republic will shortly join the European Union. Will it help to ensure Czech freedom or will it diminish it ?
       We arrived at Prague bang on schedule at nine. The bus station was tatty but the coffee and pastries were far superior to what you're likely to get in England. The woman at Information had never heard of the village we were trying to get to but her computer had. We bought tickets for an afternoon bus and I texted Jana with the information. We then set off to look around the capital.
       Jana was painting harlequins, I think, when I first met her. I thought her foreign accent and blonde hair might have made her Swedish but she told me her hair was dyed and she was Czech.  I told her I was reading a book by her compatriot Martina Navratilova. As a result of years of German and Russian oppression, the Czechs had developed a resigned melancholy and an ability to seem to agree even if you didn't. It was a way of getting by. But Martina wasn't having any of that. Not for her a regime of mediocre, timid and intimidating bureaucrats.
       Jana felt the same. The authorities, rather than face the expense of incarcerating people said, 'All right, get out of the country but if you return you really will go to jail, two years at least.' Jana went to Germany and then to England. Joe and I found a quiet square with a fountain, a gathering place for winos it seemed. We shared  a quiche we'd bought in London with one of the men and his appreciation suggested he'd been hungry. We wanted to try the local fare though, a hot dog maybe. Instead we went into a courtyard restaurant, which served pizza with tinned pineapple rings. Joe was disgusted and the waitress looked disgusted when she took away his uneaten dish. In a country where shortages were the norm, maybe the service industry could afford to look ill at its customers. It was like that in Britain, wasn't it when there was rationing.
         Boarding our bus back at the bus station, the driver tried to make us understand  something but failed. In hindsight he was saying, 'this is an old, dictatorship-era rattletrap of a bus which weaves its way from village to village and takes hours. There's a fast modern bus that'll take you to where you want go in a fraction of the time.'
         We bundled along like tumbleweed through dull, flat land. Joe was asleep. Sleep wouldn't come to me but depression did and it got worse when we arrived at the huge Skoda works. There were dormitories and shops for the workers. It was a large town built, not for people it seemed, but for some megalomaniac dream of industrial power. We continued across the plain and I was beginning to feel insane. It was as though I'd died and been sentenced to forever sitting atop a thudding combustion engine.
          Joe woke up looking refreshed and good-looking and I said so. He said he was often called that. He also sniffed and said he could smell mountains. I was surprised that a city lad could be so aware. He was right though. There was a line in the sky ahead and slowly we began to climb into a pleasanter terrain of meadows, woods, streams and rivers. It was like mid-Wales.
          My despair had become quite deep-set though and deepened again when we stopped at yet another village, which wasn't ours. It felt like I'd been fighting despair all my life and now it seemed that here, in deepest Bohemia, I could fight no more. But just at this moment, we entered a village and I recognised the name. We'd arrived.
          We stepped down onto still earth and into early evening sunshine. A handsome, matronly-looking woman was smiling at us. It was Jana's mother and she led us to her car. We were back on wheels again but only for a few minutes and then we were walking across a lawn with a lone apple tree and past a volleyball court. Beyond the fenceless garden, a clover field stretched to the edge of a forest. And then we entered the large, old farmhouse, which felt like a palatial log cabin.
           Jana, it was explained, was in town and would be back soon. In the mean time, have a beer and would we like a bath and perhaps a bed to lie on, to rest from the journey? Oh yes. Oh yes. Please. The bedroom I was given had been used by Jana as a child. Children's paintings were still on the wall. This was the room then that Jana had told me about, the room where, as a little child, she had once been awoken by invading Russian tanks cramming the country lane outside her window.
           Washed and with clean clothes, I laid on the bed and, although the sleep that had eluded me for so long continued to elude me, it was wonderful nevertheless to simply be fully reclined and wrapped around by country peace and a spirit of hospitality.
           After maybe half an hour, I went down stairs and was greeted afresh by Hannah, Jana's mother. We shared no language but it was sweet communication when she smiled and stroked my forearms. I went outside and joined Joe who was sitting at a wood table underneath the apple tree on the lawn. Hannah brought out to us plates of rye bread, cheese, sausage and some cakes just out of the oven. There were two more bottles of cold, Pilsner beer.
           A car swept up the drive. Jana arrived along with other members of the family, sisters, sons, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Hannah's husband George strode across the lawn carrying four bottles of champagne to the table. More food arrived, slices of beef in gravy and flat, white dumplings.
           Evening turned into night and wine called 'Good Water' from Moravia replaced the empty champagne bottles. There was a roll of thunder and then it was raining heavily. But it didn't matter. It was a hot night and the rain was warm.
I had a good night's sleep at last. Went downstairs and Hannah's 'good morning' was a hug and a kiss. I went outside to a hot day and sat once more at the wood table where I was served honey and bread, sausage, cheese and a pot of filter coffee. Does food always taste better on holiday or does what I'm eating have the flavour of the locality? Does the honey, for example, come from hives just down the road? A cow moos. The grass beneath my bare feet is still moist from last night's downpour or maybe it's dew. Close to me a butterfly flits and about a hundred yards away I see dabs of colour, flowers in front of an old, wooden cottage. A tractor engine comes to life.
          We go for a walk and Jana tells me the clover field belongs to her. The land had been confiscated by the dictatorship but now it had been returned. We walk for hours and see no one. But we're not alone. We hardly see the crickets but we certainly hear them. We're in big country. Mountains in the distance. Little lupins at the edges of the fields.
           At last we come to a road, which soon takes us to a village where we enter a basic cafe, which, in the old communist days was a workers' canteen. There was a serving hatch, oilskin table -cloths, and men eating bread and stew. Jana ordered beer, rye bread, slices of jellied pork, raw onion and tomato. Doors were open to a sun-flooded garden. Geraniums vibrated with colour. At the end of the garden was a rusting, dictatorship-era, Skoda car.
          Resuming the walk, we enter a pine forest. The trees are well spaced so there is plenty of dappled light. We emerge from the forest and into Jana's clover field.
          We travelled by bus to the Krkonose Mountains, the mountains we'd seen on our walk. When we alighted from the bus, we were already above the tree line and the terrain was barren. Nothing moved except the wind. It was a lonely place and quite cold so it was good to walk around a bend and find a cafe. It was there mainly for winter skiers but fortunately it was open and the coffee and hot dogs were timely refreshment. Jana spoke to some German hikers. She was polite and smiled but afterwards she snarled, 'They still think they own these mountains.'
        Back at the farmhouse and resting in my room, Joe came in followed by a little child.
 I took out my harmonica and persuaded her to play, to blow or suck when I told her to. I then picked up the guitar that was in the room and we started to play together. Hannah appeared at the open door, smiled and then said her favourite English word. 'Perfect'.
        It's evening and still hot. There's a cooling breeze outside though. A child is sat at the wood table under the apple tree and she's drawing the cottage. I ask her why she's drawing it upside down and she says she likes drawing that way. 'Well,' I say, 'I like standing on my head so I like an upside down view of things as well.'
        A bottle-opener hangs from the tree and Jana is about to use it to open a bottle of beer. But suddenly she screams, streaks across the lawn and jumps into the children's paddling pool. It was as though she'd been chased and machine-gunned by a Spitfire but actually it was only a hornet. After barbecued chicken and potato salad, Joe and I stroll into the village. Like England, there's a village green and a tavern. Despite the fading light, people are still playing volleyball. Czechs are world champions at this game, I'm told.
        There's a hatch at the tavern to serve people like us who want to sit outside. It takes an age for the glasses to be topped up. Joe couldn't understand it but I told him about my first trip to Ireland and how it took a while for a Guinness to be topped up. Czechs know their volleyball and they know their beer as well.
We visited the nearby town of Jiemnice. The pace was reminiscent of the nineteen fifties. No press of traffic. No big shops. Just family-run businesses, which shut promptly at five and didn't open on Sundays. It seemed an intact Hapsburg era place without gaps caused by the destruction of wars. We went to a grand house, which had been turned, into a museum.
        What was this we were gathered before? It looked like a large, ornately carved, old organ. A woman appeared to be winding it up. It was a giant clockwork toy. Angels appeared sitting on clouds and they began to sing. And then a village surrounded by fields started to wake up. A woman stepped out of her house and started to milk a cow. Sheep started to graze and through an open door a shoe-maker was at work.
         The guide noticed me talking English to Jana and she came over to offer assistance and maybe to practise English. I asked her if there were any bears in Bohemia. She didn't understand so I tried to roar like bear. Her eyes nearly popped and then she said, 'I am so afraid with you.' Jana spoke to her for a little while and later told me the guide thought I was a lumberjack and that she liked the sway of my mint-green silk shirt.'
We were up early for the bus to Prague, a modern, express type of vehicle this time. We topped a rise in the road and there, blazing across green fields, hills and forest was the sun heralding yet another gorgeous day. The villages are well looked after. Sunflowers and gladioli bloom in front of the houses. Tomatoes are beginning to fruit.
               In Prague it feels as though we've almost left the Czech Republic already. Big capital cities hardly seem to belong to their own countries any more. Out in the countryside, if people spoke a second language, it would be German or Russian, reflecting the old powers. In Prague, reflecting a more contemporary reality, it's English. The place was flooded with tourists and hawkers and we joined the stream as we walked across the Charles Bridge.
           And then, late afternoon, it was back to pastries and coffee at the bus station. prior to departure for London.
           Lovely evening. Riding through a fir forest. Half moon riding high. We're in Germany. now. My phone is pinging, a text message from German telecoms. Welcomes me to the country and asks if I need a hotel.
           'Life is suffering but only when you deny it,' said my friend in a mundane kitchen setting. I think of this in the long night of German motorway. I think of the sleepless outward journey and the moment I accept the homeward journey might too be a sleepless ordeal; I fall asleep and don't wake until the sodium lights of Belgium burn through my eyelids with their satanic orange glow. Victoria Coach Station, London and waiting for the south coast connection. Joe says he's lost his ticket and my temper snaps. I know it's more about bottled up tension, financial tension probably, on my part rather than his lost ticket and I feel really bad for snapping the harmony between us. I find the receipt for his ticket and there's no problem boarding the bus for the final leg of the journey.