East vs West

I’ve gotta say, comparing Milan and Paris to Prague, I much prefer Prague. You get into western Europe and people get a little faster, a little louder, a little harder. I was told the people of the Czech Republic would not think twice about seizing an opportunity to take advantage of you, but I found in Italy a bunch of people seemed to brazenly create those opportunities for themselves.

At the Muse concert:

“How much is beer?”
“Five euro.”
“Here is ten.”
“Give me one more euro.”
“What? Why?”
“You give me eleven. I give you five back.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand???”
“Give me one more euro. One more euro.”

I’d bought a beer twice its size outside the stadium for 5 euros. I can’t imagine that I misheard “six” as “five”, but seeing as there is a language barrier, and there is the possibility I was wrong, I gave him his extra euro. Except things like this kept piling up and piling up throughout the whole time I was there, until I got to the point where I felt like I was an instant, easy target. “You speak English? You are from America? That will cost you extra. One more euro, please. One more euro.”

The people of Prague may simply wish to be left alone, but they extend the courtesy of leaving you alone as well. Even the beggars on the street assume a position of humility, quietly letting you know who they are and what they need, not bothering you any more than to prick your conscience. I almost felt like they were performance artists of a sort, assuming the same posture for hours, days on end. I couldn’t sit like that every day. It looks like really hard work. And worth every coin they get, in my opinion.

Prague beggar

Prague beggar

My first day in Milan I spent an enormous amount of time puzzling out the routes I would be taking to get to the concert that evening and back to the train station for my journey out of the city. I came across a man on the Metro who walked along shaking a coin cup into people’s faces. He too was working hard, but somehow I felt a little less pity for him. Is it because blatantly asking for money is more offensive than quietly indicating need? Over the two days I was there, I observed the clothing and posture of the coin shaker on the subway. His clothes seemed clean and changed from day to day, his infirmity something that could easily be put on and off. I did give a coin to a woman quietly sitting in the corner of a remote station. She didn’t seem like she was trying to con anyone. I felt luxuriously excessive in my own privilege, and whether she had a valid need or not, I needed to share a small token of my wealth.

The next day, having a solid working idea of where I was in time and space, I went out and rode the M3 metro from end to end, and the #4 bus in both directions, and eventually found my way to a museum. I was getting tired, tired of walking, of eating, of thinking, of seeing. I just wanted to sit for awhile. I took a table on the corner overlooking the museum. An obvious tourist cafe, but it was quiet and shaded and provided a good vantage point for people-watching.

My waiter approached me after I’d been sitting awhile, and struck up a conversation.

“Where are you from?”
“America. Chicago.”
“Chicago! Ahh, nice. I am from Morocco. What is your name?”
“Kelly.”
“I am (Shmumblemumble). You are Kelly, I am (Shmumblemumble). I am from Morocco. Nice name.”
“Thank you.”

He left my table, but not before looking back with a wink. Soon he returned again, and pointed at the ring on my left hand.
“Are you, uh … ?”
“Yes.”
“Awwwwww. Are you … ? (foreign words, pointing at my finger, is he asking if I’m happy?)
“I don’t understand … ?”
(more foreign words, finally) … We are friends?”
“Pardon?”
He pointed at himself and at me. “We are friends?”

The tone of his voice set off alarms in my head. I’d heard such a tone before, and it had been a setup to a trap. Usually leading to, “I need money, why won’t you give it to me, you said we were friends?”

So, with as much of a smile and an “I don’t understand what you’re asking” look as I could muster, I said “no.” He stuck out his bottom lip and walked away. I felt a little bad, but as a woman traveling alone I need to set my boundaries very wide. I sat some more, and contemplated the heat and the sky and the profile of the modern day Roman Emperor waiting for his bus in a business suit and tie.

My waiter came back again. “I stop work soon. Can you and I go someplace then?”

I looked at him with pity. What did he want from me? I felt extremely unattractive and dirty, a fat American woman in a t-shirt and jogging pants (the last clean clothes I had), hot and sweaty, and quite obviously unavailable. He wasn’t sincerely interested in me. (And in any case, I wasn’t interested in him.)

“No, I’m sorry, I go to Paris tonight.”
“You go to Paris tonight?”
“Yes, sorry.”

He turned away, dejected. I decided to take my leave and end this little episode. He would surely not give up if I stayed.

I wish I could have said “no” just as easily to some of the people I encountered after that. I was met at my train by a little man in an official-looking blue polo shirt, which I noticed only too late was emblazoned with what looked like Arabic writing, offering to carry my bag to the #88 coach “very far away, (you give me just a little money).” My train was TrenItalia, he was obviously not with the company. Too late. He already had my bag on a dolly and was sprinting down the platform before I could voice an objection. I followed. I didn’t need his services, but I tried to look at the bright side: a few minutes of freedom from my bag in exchange for a coin or two wasn’t that terrible of a deal.

We got to my car and he hoisted the bag on board, then got on with it and ushered us to my cabin. Once inside he offered to lift the bag to the uppermost shelf. I objected. “I’ll never get it down again!” But I looked around the crowded cabin and realized I was in an impossible situation. I had to let him put it up for everyone’s sake, and since I was paying him anyway I figured I may as well let him work a bit harder than pulling a wheeled bag down a flat paved surface. I had figured I’d give him two euros, lifting the bag was worth another two. I pulled out two coins.

“No. Five.”

Oh geez, here it was again. “One more euro.”

That night train was the most uncomfortable experience of my entire trip. I shared a cabin with French and Italian bunkmates who spoke no English, and at least two other big burly men tried to claim the cabin as their own. The air in the cabin was stiflingly hot, and the whole car stunk by morning. I unwittingly bought breakfast, a small plate of dry breads and a yogurt that cost 9.5 euros (approx $12).

It was raining in Paris. The luggage locker ate my 10 euros after which the door spontaneously opened again. The ticket I bought for the Metro didn’t work. A beggar at the train station caught me with “Excuse me, do you speak English?” and when I said yes, thinking she needed directions, she presented me with a written plea for money. Another man approached me while I was looking at a map, demanding something. “NO!” I snapped and ran off into the rain. I needed time to myself. A little time just to be left alone.

A little more time in Prague, perhaps.

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