The Czech Republic from the Train
by Miriam Gordis, Czech and French:-
My fondest memory of the Czech Republic will be the endless train journeys. The first Czech film to win an Academy Award, Closely Watched Trains (1966), solidly cemented their iconic place in the culture. In one famous scene from the film, the protagonist, who works on a railroad, waits for his train conductor girlfriend to kiss him with pursed lips and eyes squeezed shut. When the whistle blows and the train abruptly pulls away, he is left standing there, while the train clatters off into the distance.
Czech trains haven’t changed all that much since 1966 either. It still takes a long time to get anywhere and most of them still have compartment coaches. These seem extremely glamorous at first, straight out of an old Agatha Christie novel, with their sliding glass doors and little mirrors above the seats. A few hours later, when too many people have crammed into your car with all their belongings and are having loud phone conversations, you have to close your eyes and cling to that idea of glamour. After all, people probably suffered on the Orient Express too.
I arrived in Brno by train, coming through the rolling snow-covered Moravian countryside. It is a slightly unusual destination for year abroad students. Halfway between Prague and Vienna, Brno is ideally located, but not very well known. In his introductory speech, the Rector at Masaryk University thanked us Erasmus students for choosing a city that we probably hadn’t heard of before. The Old Town is picturesquely Central European, though; a Gothic cathedral stands on one hill across from a medieval Austrian fortress and gorgeous Baroque churches mark every square. By contrast, my Soviet-era twelve-story dorm on the former Lenin street highlighted the conflicts that shape Czech history. In the past hundred years, no less than five different regimes have been in control of Brno.
Czech history was obviously crucial to the development of its extremely well-connected railway system, which has stations in every little town. During a summer language course I took in Bohemia, we had a field trip to a neighbouring town that took about fifteen minutes by train and cost all of one pound. At these tiny stations, you leap down onto the tracks and look both ways before crossing. In some of them, the station seems to stand on the edge of fields or forests, with no village in sight. Children crossing one of these fields stopped to wave at our passing train, somewhere in Silesia, close to the mountains.
The Czechs are proud of their omnipresent railroad, just like their omnipresent beer. A kitschy Brno pub, Vytopna on Hlinky Street, has a model train, which delivers pints to your table. But the odd fact remains that buses tend to be a faster mode of transport in this part of the world than the ancient and reliable railways. On the ubiquitous yellow ‘Student Agency’ buses, which also go as far as London and Paris apparently, there’s the added perk of hot drinks and Friends reruns, subtitled in Czech.
Outside of Prague, or even outside of the Prague city centre, there are few tourists in the Czech Republic. It is a very beautiful country and incredibly cheap, a lush landscape dotted with UNESCO heritage towns. It is probably only a matter of time. The dour Czechs, who fulfil the Slavic stereotype of not smiling during the wintertime, tend to lighten up in the summer. They are very fond of sports, specifically mountain biking in flat areas, roller-skating, and alpine walking, preferably with breaks at the pub. In Brno, the young hip student population hangs out at vegetarian punk restaurants and Scandinavian style fair trade cafes. But for some reason, they all dress like they’ve stepped out of some disastrous ‘80s teen show. It seems to be some general feeling of nostalgia for trends that never made it behind the Iron Curtain.
My longest train journey in Central Europe took an epic six hours to go some three hundred kilometres. My destination was the provincial Polish city of Wrocław, due to a misplaced devotion to Icelandic electronic folk pop concerts. I had to wait in the little railway town of Ústí nad Orlicí for a train to take me ten twenty minutes to my next connection in the slightly bigger town of Ceská Třebová. Through the walls of the glass station, you could see all the trains coming and going, a grid across Central Europe, where borders are crossed so easily.
It seems socially awkward to try and talk to strangers on trains in the Czech Republic. Friendly busybodies will offer advice if you seem lost or complain about the heating but it’s hard to become too friendly. Everyone’s going somewhere different, what’s the point in making friends? Coming back to Brno late one night, though, the little old woman sitting across from me felt bound to point out that I needed a new scarf. It’s almost summer, she told me firmly, you can’t wear a winter scarf in summer.
She kept chatting as we approached Brno and all the little local stations flew past. Once she realised that I was a foreigner, she very kindly shouted everything at me to make sure that I understood. “I’ve lived in Brno for sixty years,” she yelled in my ear as the train slowed. “Sixty years.” She heaved a sigh. At least, the railway has stayed the same.
For more of our transportation tales, try Mary Maschio’s On the Metro (Paris).