My Fellow Passengers

seatAs I look forward to another day of travel tomorrow – Prague to Philadelphia – I again wonder who I’ll be sitting next to.

Anyone who has ever traveled knows the extreme difference one’s neighbors en route can make to their journey. This is why people eye up babies in the airport – is it on my plane, my row, the row in front? The departure lounge has one casting glances around at others – is that goddess sitting next to me? Oh please be 29B! Or is that guy who’s sweating audibly (me) next to me? Please don’t be 29B!

Perhaps we are most conscious of this on airplanes, but one’s next door passengers on ground transport can also make or break your journey. This can be on buses, trains, or chunnels.

I have been reflecting on this since returning from a journey to London, Paris, and Lyon, and had the opportunity to consider my fellow passengers, as well as their opinions of me.

20D

…was a nice young woman with two children who drove those in front of them insane by kicking the back of their seats. The flight was a quickie from Prague to London. She caught my attention by being very attractive and reading an article I’d written in a Czech newspaper. Did I care that her kids continued to kick their front riders while I flirted with their mom and showed off my knowledge of Czech culture.

Not

In

Any

Way

Gatwick Express

I have no idea what their seat numbers were, since I was too busy sweating through my glasses, but the three gentlemen I sat next to on the trip from the airport to London were Ukrainians who clearly didn’t think anyone near them spoke a Slavic language.

These guys ironically made me miss Prague in tourist season, when Americans ride transport and speak in such a manner and at such volumes that is clear they think nobody around them speaks English.

I didn’t pick up everything they said, but if others had understood the vulgarity-laced discussion they were having, they’d have stared at them in horror and not, well, hatred.

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The Accidental Photobomber

Photobombed by Ben

Photobombed by Ben

I’m standing in front of Big Ben. The clock in London, not the football player in Pittsburgh. My sister Julia is taking pictures of Ben and I am standing in a flock of tourists who are all taking pictures.

I am not one of them, having relegated all of the photographic duties to my sister. The camera and I have never, ever gotten along. I am as photogenic as a “before” picture, never having understood what to do when a camera is pointed at me. I smile too much or too self-consciously, don’t know what to do with my hands, and always end up looking as though I am either constipated or on angel dust.

Moreover, I am the single worst photographer in the history of shutter and exposure. I am never able to capture the scene I want. My pictures always turn out to look like postmodernist interpretations of random body parts or a sideways road view of an accidental pocket shot. Architecture is my active foe.

Despite all of this, I have somehow always had a talent for accidentally ending up in strangers’ pictures. I am the accidental photobomber. And I am magnificent. I surely grace dozens, hundreds of strangers’ photos in the background scratching my crotch, picking my nose, doing the post-bite of pizza mouth cool down, or laughing like a hyena. Complete strangers have given me Polaroid snaps that I have unwittingly ruined by somehow becoming its central focal point.

Accidental photobombing is my weird talent.

In fact, while checking my watch against Ben, I notice that I am standing directly in front of a woman who has a phone in her outstretched hand, obviously snapping a picture. A picture that will no doubt include me if I don’t move. I do the embarrassed “I’m in your picture” shuffle that I have done 20,000 times – hands up, apologetic smile/wince, dance out of her line of sight.

She looks from the screen up at me and gives me a look which mixes confusion and irritation. Then she brushes her hair back a little, puckers her lips, makes a sexy face, and looks back into her screen.

Julia grabs me and she aims the camera at our faces. Big Ben is in the background.

Aha.

It dawns on me.

They’re taking selfies.

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The Longest Day

delayDeparture Board: 2 hour Delay  

Noticing this is accompanied by the scattered groans and epithets of what are surely my future co-passengers. I shouldn’t have looked up at it. No good comes from looking at a Departure Board.

I let out a batch of vulgarities tailor-made for this occasion (and which would make Hunter S. Thompson reach for his thesaurus and wince) and continue walking.

I can’t read in airports. Everyone I know gets to the airport, checks in, sits his or her ass in a cozy spot, or on a cozy barstool if they have the scratch, and reads. They read or do Sudoku or play Angry Birds or, I guess, search for Pokemons. Or eat them, or serenade them, or do whatever the hell someone does to a Pokemon.

In any event, as an avid reader, people assume that I eagerly use this time to settle into a good book. After all, airport time is usually a couple hours of dead time. If you’re not wearing a jacket with wings on it, there’s almost literally nothing you can do to prepare for what you’re about to do. You are most probably not going to be asked to refuel the plane or check its tires or tick items off a list on a clipboard.

But still, I can’t read.

All I can do is walk. For me, preflight time is a buildup of nervous energy. It starts the day before when I tap my toes and bounce my feet underneath the table. Then I can’t sit still and clean the flat to put that energy to use. Then I toss and turn in bed imagining the plane leaving terra firma or bumping around in thick clouds.

By the time I am in the airport, I am channeling so much nervous energy that the only thing I feel comfortable doing is walking the airport in a tracked loop. I create a beaten path of my steps, passing the various stores and shops – duty free, relay, Blue Praha – whose employees at first smile at me, then cock their heads at my consistent appearance, then eye me with suspicion, then ignore me completely.

So I walk. My fitbit steps add up. I stop occasionally to watch a plane do the incomprehensible by vaulting into their air as if it were nothing, then I walk again, shaking my head in disbelief.

And every now and then I look up at the Departures board.

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Random People Who Hate Me

angry old ladyI am standing two people back in line.

I am watching with awe as the man in line goes through this transaction as though it is the first time he has ever purchased goods in a shop. He seems amazed when the cashier asks him for money, digs through his bag for a few long seconds until he finds his wallet. Then he digs through that for a few long seconds until he finds the money. Then he digs through the coin purse until he finds the right change.

This kind of thing no longer surprises me, since it happens every single time I stand behind someone in line at a shop. For some reason, when Czech people buy goods in a shop, they appear surprised and confused to the point that it would suggest that they are actually aliens in borrowed human bodies.

I have no idea why.

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Bad Role Model

My Cat the Lush

My Cat the Lush

While I have met probably 5% of my friends’ kids, I have seen thousands of pictures of them. For I have Facebook, and Facebook is child land. It’s summer time, so the pictures are of kids eating, swimming, posing with their Little League teams.

This is not a complaint, just an observation.

Some of those pictures make me smile, some make me wax nostalgic for childhood. And some make me so mind-bogglingly happy to be childless that I can’t even see straight.

There are so many benefits of not having kids. Travel. Sleep. Sex. Social life. Impromptu naps. Money. To list more would only make me unpopular. And, by the way, I am very well aware of the fact that there’s a huge huge list of benefits and rewards of having kids, so don’t think I’m ignorant of that fact. It’s all about personal choices.

One of the benefits of not having kids is that I am nobody’s immediate live-in role model. I know that an enormous aspect of kid’s developmental behavior is watching what their parents do. What they eat, smoke, drink, how they talk, react to stress, everything. And since I can be an idiot at times, I am glad nobody is watching me and mimicking me.

Nobody is watching me scratch my body in two spots at once. Nobody is listening to the knitted Afghan of vulgarities that my mouth creates when the internet drops off. Nobody is watching me sip a late night whiskey or chew tobacco, or pick my nose.

Nobody.

Except my cat.

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Off the Language Hook

Here We Come

Here We Come

I fly to London tomorrow afternoon, where I’m meeting my sister. Then to Paris, and then Lyon. It is the day before my holiday. So if you know me, you know I am eagerly preparing by packing and making lists.

My To-Do list is in sections (special occasion). There’s things to do, things to clean, things to buy, things to download, things to email, and things to write in my notebook before I leave.

Yes, I am a dork.

One of those things to download is a basic French phrase guide. Just some basic phrases that will relate to the French my need for directions, a toilet, or inquire about how much that baguette will cost to shove in my face.

But in general, I am not terribly concerned about learning the language. It’s sort of language free travel for me.

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A mid-80s Fourth

happy4thSchool has let out and I’ve celebrated by wearing the same pair of shorts for the last five days. I don’t really seem to wear shoes these days, and I lounge and eat a lot of watermelon in front of my fan. My shower is a dry basin in a distant land. I crave baseball. I have exactly no idea what day it is today.

Summer is here.

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for my summers as a kid. I’m talking something like 1985 or so, when at eleven years old, I spent a great deal of my time in no shoes, no shirt, and no air conditioning. My mother brought my siblings and I to the community pool a lot, we ate peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and drank Capri-suns. We got ticks and poison ivy and stitches. I watched the Phillies get slaughtered by anyone they shared a diamond with, and was as brown as a ferret from July until September.

With the Fourth of July today (I looked at a calendar), this nostalgia has been exacerbated. And I wondered if perhaps a good old mid-80s Fourth of July picnic celebration might help me scratch that nostalgia spot.

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5 Things that Happen after You Live in a Foreign Language for a Long Time

Mňau

Mňau

I recently read an article on the 7 things that will happen after living in another country for 10 years. The writer made some very funny and very accurate observations in terms of national identity, loyalty, and even language.

I commiserated with some of her points, especially when relates to eventually feeling like a foreigner in my own homeland.

While it was an interesting article, it was written by a woman who moved from the U.S. to the U.K. So, aside from tricky northern dialects, occasionally differing lexicon (boot of a car, lift, flat), idioms that make no sense (Bob’s your fucking uncle?), and prepositions, there was no linguistic difference.

So I put together my own list of things that happen after you live in a different language for a long time. If you have experience with this, please feel free to add your thoughts and points in the comments.

You become a language chameleon

By this, I mean that you become very versatile in terms of using your native language. At the first hint of linguistic misunderstanding, you can instantly grade your language, describe complex concepts and things with basic adjectives, and get your point across using 1 syllable words.

Additionally, you are far more aware of what kinds of words, phrases, and grammar pose difficulty for non-native speakers of your language and you avoid them or take steps to make sure they are understood.

You speak Pidgin

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Pizza No Go

Lies!

Lies!

It’s very late on a Saturday night. OK, very late by Czech terms. Around 10:30 pm. The pubs are closing, the city’s doorways are dark. It’s Prague.

We make a fundamental Saturday decision: let’s order a pizza.

If you are American, you are saying to yourself: uh, yeah, so?

If you are Czech you are saying to yourself: who in his right mind would order pizza? And after 6 pm?

If you are an American who understands how things work in the Czech Republic and the various issues involved with this seemingly simple transaction, then you saying to yourself: oh man, this is gonna go downhill fast!

We go onto a delivery website where you can order food from dozens of restaurants aggregated for convenience. But if you know the Czech Republic, you know that the road to the lavender-scented oasis of convenience is almost always laden with insurmountable inconveniences.

The troubles start immediately in various slapstick comedy ways. The card isn’t accepted at this place. That place is only take-out after 9 p.m. (even though it says delivery and it’s on a, you know, delivery site), this place deletes all of our information and order after we forget to check the box saying “no utensils,” we try again, but by then (14 seconds later) it’s closed.

All the while the featured restaurants on the site literally disappear one by one. They are closing, because it is so (Czech) late. We scan the site now with growing unease, this was such a good idea a mere half hour ago, when we were leaving the pub. The pub that had a menu filled with edible delicacies that we eschewed in lieu of pizza. And now we just want someone to bring us pizza on a Saturday night. Simple pizza. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Trouble with Czechia

czechiaOne night, eleven years ago, I was bartending in Pittsburgh. It was after I had decided to move to Prague. Three guys came into my bar, friendly, dialect and fashion choices suggested they were local and rural. After a passing comment from a waitress about my imminent departure, the guys inquired as to where I was moving.

“Prague.”

Crickets.

I added: “In the Czech Republic.”

Head nods.

The first said, “Dude, are you crazy? There’s some serious shit going on over in China these days.” While I was trying to piece together how Chinese unrest would affect the Czech Republic, the second chimed in. “Prague ain’t in China, moron. It’s in Russia.”

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