24 July, 2007

"Mluvite anglicky?"

The flight arrived at Ruzyne airport at around 530am, even earlier than the advertised 620am. Minutes before, I had eagerly taken my pen out in anticipation of the handing out of the landing cards and customs declaration forms. However, mystifyingly enough, none came. The flight attendants merrily went about handing out drinks, but no paperwork. The immigration dude just looked at my passport and stamped it forcefully without asking any questions. Weird. First country this has happened to me. Must be an experimental anti-terrorist screening system based on no screening at all.

Instead of spending 650CZK (Czech korunas, or crowns; US$1=20CZK) on a taxicab to the center of Praha, I decided to take the public Bus #119 and then the free transfer to the metro at Dejvicka. Total cost: $1 (20CZk). I obviously wasn't the only cheapskate tourist, as there were 20 or so of us lined up at the stop, almost all clutching 500CZK and 1000CZK bills dispensed by the ATMs inside the terminal. As my turn came in boarding the bus, I sheepishly handed my 500CZK bill to the driver and greeted him a bright and happy "Dobry den". I couldn't quite understand what the phrases he grunted meant, but genius that I am, I inferred that he said "Gee, thanks for not having exact change, you dumb tourist. Go take a seat, ride's on me", so I took a seat beside the other sheepish-looking tourists, and we all got off at Dejvicka after a 20-minute ride along the colorless suburbs of Praha.

I practically ran down the steps of Dejvicka metro station to be the first to buy my metro ticket. Praha's metro wowed me no end, from the modern design of the platforms, brightly-lit signs, cleanliness, and fast-moving steep escalators. It operated on an honor system - you buy the ticket (20CZK or 14CZK, depending on the type of trip), validate the bottom portion at the machine, and get on the train. No turnstiles, no gates, only random inspectors who politely ask to see your ticket. So I could've just waited for line A to arrive without paying and if caught claim newbie tourist ignorance, but somehow I felt guilty so I approached the ticket window. After greeting the elderly clerk the usual, "Dobry den", I tentatively asked, "Mluvite anglicky?" (Do you speak English?), hoping to myself "Please, please...say yes". Alas, she shook her head emphatically. Uh oh. I had already used my two stock Czech phrases (Oh wait, I also learned "Kde te toalety?" or "Where's the toilet?" but that was somewhat irrelevant at this stage of the journey).

Holding aloft my 500CZK bill, I mustered "Jedno" (one) while simultaneously pointing to a replica of the metro ticket pasted on the window. I might've used the wrong form of "one" which is dependent on the gender of the noun ticket, and could be either "jedno", "jedna" or "jeden". Ah, the subtleties of a foreign language I don't speak...such fun!!! The clerk made the thumbs-up sign and said something I didn't quite catch. For a few seconds I just stood there, unsure if I was required to respond, and then I realized she had made the Czech sign for "one". (Many thanks to the Lonely Planet phrasebook!). Yes, by using her thumb, whereas we would normally raise our index finger. To indicate "two", they raise both index and thumb fingers, thus forming a gun, similar to how kids pretend to shoot each other while playing. So after that little cultural exchange (we're off to a great start already!), she handed back 480CZ in change and I was on my way to the hostel. "Change at Mustek, get off at Karlovo Namesti", I kept muttering like a madman.

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