Travels into Bohemia: Drawing Maps with a Stranger

You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do
and it’s breaking my heart in two
because I never wanna see you sad girl.

Don’t be a bad girl.


The Czech man and I shared the train car in silence for about an hour. I am not sure what prompted him to break the silence but he began to speak to me even though I could not understand him. He knew I was going to Cesky Krumluv because I had shown him my ticket before I sat down. I handed him the ticket said, “prosim?” And then pointed to the seats. “Ano, ano,” he replied. I sat down and we smiled those strange tight smiles that you smile when you know that you can not communicate. There is a holding back in the smile because the next instant behind a genuine smile is the impulse to speak. The smile is lost and stuck in a sort of limbo. It doesn’t know if it should stop smiling. There is no where else for it to go. There we were stuck in awkward silence with these lost grins. There was a moment in China when I had first experienced this lost smile. I stood waiting for an elevator in my apartment where the school had housed me, and as the doors slowly parted I saw the kind face of one of the Chinese head teachers at my school. We both greeted each other with a surprised, “ni hao,” and behind this simple hello brimmed the communication, “Hey, what are you doing here? So surprised to run into you here.” Our smiles were bright and open, but just as quickly as the elevator doors slide open and then closed we remembered that we could not speak the same language and our smiles fell into the same tight smiles as the one I shared with the Czech man on the train. That silence of inability is strong. The desire to communicate is visceral and real. There is a poignant moment of realization that the moment is lost like  our smiles.

“Cesky Krumluv?” He said.
“Yes. Ano.”
“Ceske Budejovice…”

…And he began to pantomime instructions to me. “Smer”, he said. I had seen this word many times in the train station and metro and I had guessed that the word meant exit. “Ceske Budejovice smer…” and somehow out of only recognizing one or maybe two words I figured out that I needed to get off the train in Cseke Budejovice and transfer to another train. The beauty of all of my understanding of the word smer is that I was incorrect in my translation. The word means direction, but my guess of exit is what saved me from missing my transfer. To clarify my understanding of what the man was telling me I handed him my journal and had him draw his communication. I needed to transfer in Budejovice, but where was I to find my connecting train? I decided to worry about it once I arrived.

Clear enough instructions.

Once the man knew that I understood him he began speaking to me more freely as if I could clearly understand the Czech language. I realized at that moment that I didn’t even know how to say, “I don’t speak Czech.” I continued to smile at him and nod my head, and in truth, I was straining to understand. In retrospect it is amusing that I would attempt to understand words that attached no meaning to my native language, yet I still tried.

“Cesky Krumluv…Ceske… Historicky.”

Any word that I slightly recognized caused me to jump with a small jolt of excitement.

“History? Ano. Ano.”

He grabbed a magazine from his bag. The cover had an image of what looked like a viking and the title ‘Historike Ceske’. He leafed through the pages and showed me a picture of a castle, and then he began naming off places. Then an amazing thing happened. I understood that this man was telling me of all the historic places in Bohemia that I should visit. He also told me how many kilometers by train or walking it would take to get from one place to another. Again, I had him draw me a picture. In my journal he made a scratch pad map of where I should visit and what places to stop to transfer to the next place. We spoke in this manner with drawings, and his use of one or two English words and my understanding of one or two Czech words for thirty minutes. Once we had exhausted our abilities to communicate we both returned to our silence and watched the sky and the trees quickly stream past our window.


I felt free as I often do on trains. There is a magic to traveling by train that I never experience or feel when I’m on a plane or traveling by car. Although, all forms of transportation delivers you to a place it is on a train where I feel like I am truly traveling. It is on the train when I feel truly free. It breaths life into the saying, “It is not the destination, but the journey,” for me. I’ve had the experience more than once in my life that it isn’t the moment when I am in a new place or the moment when I am leaving a familiar place that brings me happiness. It is when I am in-between. I am nowhere. I am leaving and going simultaneously. Time is crossing paths with the future and the past and it is in this moment where I am present. Now. Now I am going. I don’t dream of the next place or long for the place I had left. I am only here on the train listening to the wheels singing against the rails, and watching the trees and the life outside, the entire world, flow by like a river. I flow with it into nothingness and everything, and that is when I am free. My home is the train.

We are familiar with the notion that the reality of travel is not what we anticipate.

The Art of Travel- Alain De Botton

Botton, Alain De. The Art of Travel. New York:Pantheon Books,2002. Print.

P.S. A tip on traveling:  The best thing to take when traveling from Prague to Cesky Krumluv is the student agency bus. It is cheaper and faster than the train, and it takes you directly to the city center. Still, there was a personal advantage to my making the mistake of taking the train. I just happen to love trains.

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