Wednesday, February 25, 2015

In-flight reading can bear strange fruit

Memo to self: consider your selection of in-flight reading very carefully, especially when it involves fantastic or darkly comic tales from Eastern Europe. You may find you are scripting corresponding travel experiences. This happened to me again last night, towards the end of a long trip home from two weeks of teaching in the Czech Republic and Estonia.
    At a news stand at Prague's Vaclav Havel airport, I was surprised and delighted to find a bilingual edition of the folktales of Karel Jaromir Erben. The title, Kytice, can be rendered as "Bouquet" or "Posy" in English. Erben's stories, written in verse, have held a special place in the Czech imagination since first publication in 1853, influencing Dvořák  and many other creative minds, but have been largely unavailable in English until now.The new edition, with translations by Susan Reynolds, had only just been published. I snatched it up with excitement. Not only am I trying to learn more about Czech culture, but reading bilingual editions of poetry is one of my favorite ways of studying a new language.
    I found myself embarked, in Erben's pages, on a strange and dark journey as I flew to Frankfurt and then, on another plane, to Newark airport.The atmosphere was deepened by the oddly compelling rhythms of Erben's verse, with its sorcerous repetitions.

Sviť měsíčku sviť,
ať mi šije niť

Glow, moon, glow,
That my thread may sow

sings Vodnik, the Water Goblin.
   One of the eeriest of the tales is "Willow" (Vrba). A man is happily married except that he notices that his wife literally sleeps like the dead. He can find no sign of life in her when she is lying in bed. Worried, he asks her to seek healing or try "words of power" (m
ocné slovo). 
She assures him she is fine; it is God's will she should be this way in the night. Doesn't he notice she is whole and well in the morning? Still worried, the husband goes to consult a crone (babka). She tells him that his wife's soul is held captive in a yellow branch of a willow tree. He goes to the tree and chops it down - and his wife falls dead "like a tree."
   I'm building my Czech word power a little (I love the verses about mocné slovo). This is not the cheeriest stuff, but it casts a curious spell, even partly filtered by translation. My first two flights are on time and I enjoy conversation with a woman historian whose theme is displaced persons in the twentieth century, a huge issue in the countries where I have been teaching, casting long shadows across the generations. I am fascinated to learn that she wrote a B.A. thesis on Gabriele d'Annunzio and Trieste; I read D'Annunzio when I was an undergraduate and have tentative plans to visit Trieste for the first time next year.
    Newark airport. I am held up at passport control for five minutes by a friendly agent who becomes very animated when I tell him I am a writer. "Can you help people get their stories together?" "Certainly. That's one of the main things I teach." He has a family story to tell, involving the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Yes, I have a card.
    My final connecting flight is not announced on the first screen on the other side of Customs. I check online and see it is supposedly on time. So I board the Air Train to the A concourse where a larger Departures board says my flight has been cancelled. I check online again; "maintenance" problems. I see there is an earlier flight to my home airport which has been delayed. Maybe I have time to catch that. I run back to the Air Train and head for the C concourse, where I have to stand in an immense line at security, but still get to the boarding gate before the earlier flight has taken off. Nothing is moving here, and nothing is opening. The flight is oversold and there are many passengers standing by already. I get on the frequent flier hotline I have used successfully before but they can't help here; no alternative flights home for me tonight. They do not want to talk about helping with ground transportation.
    I head for the frequent fliers' lounge, and say to a couple of airline agents, "I know that at least one of you is a magician." This produces smiles and eager endeavors to help. Would I be willing to fly to Dulles the next day and catch a plane home from there? I don't think so. How about ground transportation? How about a train?
   One of the agents discovers I have time to get to New York Penn station and catch a train that will get me home before midnight. They will arrange a coupon to pay the Amtrak charge. This takes several phone calls. Finally it is agreed that someone named Alexandra will be at the Amtrak Tickets desk, "next to Dunkin Donuts" at the Newark airport station to exchange my coupon for an actual ticket. They are supposed to close at 7:00 p.m., but she'll wait until 7:30.
    "Thanks for the magic," I tell the lady who suggested the train.
    "I love talking to you. It feels like you are collecting stories for a book."
    "If you only knew." I tell her about The Three "Only" Things, which opens with five amazing adventures that begin with screwed-up flight plans. She writes down the title and whoops with delight when I add that I have just finished a book entirely about playing games with the signs and symbols and synchronicity of everyday life, with more of my air travel stories. Sidewalk Oracles. Coming in October.
     I get to Alexandra's desk next to Dunkin Donuts at 7:10 p.m. The desk is closed. An airport customer service attendant can't let me through to the platform without a ticket, but she does try to help me get my ticket from a kiosk. The machine refuses to acknowledge my coupon or concede that I have a reservation. We get an Amtrak agent on the phone who tells me that I do have a reservation and should try to get to NY Penn station. I'll be taking two trains - local transit to Newark Penn station, and then Amtrak to New York Penn station - and the conductors will "probably" let me through if I show my itinerary.
    I notice the strange rhyming of station names. My little odyssey now takes me up and down an uncountable number of broken escalators and an underground scramble between platforms, to a scene at Newark Penn where a train is just leaving. I call to a black woman conductor hanging from a door, "Is this the train to New York Penn?" She yells to the driver to stop the train. I show her my airline coupon. She shakes her head. "I have no idea what that is." She looks at my travel-worn face and says, "You better get on the train."
    New York Penn. Broken escalators, To the Amtrak ticket window where a stony-faced agent looks at my coupon and says, "We don't take none of those." I explain I was present when an airline representative arranged everything with an Amtrak agent (though not that she did a vanishing act from the desk beside Dunkin Donuts). He is not interested. If I want to get home, I have to pay for a train ticket.
    Fine. After five thousand miles and well over a thousand dollars in airfares, what is a train ticket?
    The trials of getting home are not over, however. I have twenty minutes before my train leaves and I join the line that has formed at Door 6, the usual portal for this Amtrak service. A man in a sports team windbreaker tells us, "You can't wait there. The line starts back there." He vanishes down the stairs that lead to New Jersey transit trains. The regulars in the line think he is kidding. "He's going to New Jersey. He's just jerking us around." They are not going to move. This is where they always wait for the train.
    The man who told us to move reappears, in some version of Amtrak uniform, and tells us again that we have to move. The regulars ignore him. Now a short, angry Amtrak woman agent appears and tells us to move. "Go to the back of the line," she adds. We look back. There is now a very long line behind us, with a gap between our positions and a sign - unreadable until we are close to it - that says that this is where lines for our platform are supposed to form.
    The people in my group are not willing to go to the back of the line. "We were here first." "We've been waiting for longer than anybody else." I gently lead us back to the larger group, on the officially sanctioned side of the unreadable sign. The passengers in the larger group move back to make space for us at the head of the line. They know we were there first.
    "That's no good," says the Amtrak woman. "You gotta do what you're told. You are going to the back of the line."
    I gently point out what is obvious; we were here first and the other passengers accept that. "You are going to the back of the line," the Amtrak woman repeats.
    Others in my group are now angry and defiant. "We are not going to the back of the line. "Hey, listen, ma'am, I'm an attorney -" That does it. The Amtrak woman calls a police officer. "They're not doing it," she says with an air of pure menace.
     Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, I am not going to miss my last chance of getting home tonight.
     I lead the retreat to the back of the line. "Welcome to New York," I comment.
     On board the train, our tickets are inspected by a conductor of the old school, 6'4'', 260 pounds, white hair and mustache. He booms a warm welcome to us all. Asked how he is, he responds, "I am grateful I'm still on this side of the grass."

There's a story in this little sequence, which is so often the gift of misadventures in travel. There is a delicious phrase in Czech that applies, since the story begins with reading poetry. "That touches my poetic intestine (básnické střevo)." I hope to retrieve my suitcase today; it went on its own odyssey, without me. I will continue to reflect on the possible influence of where in-flight reading can take me.     
    A couple of years ago, I boarded a plane in Bucharest, bound for Warsaw, with Mircea Eliade's novelette  "With the Gypsy Girls" (LaȚigănci) as my flight companion. In Eliade's story, a man is drawn into a house of gypsies and never manages to return to ordinary reality. A bizarre series of flight cancellations and delays and missed communications followed, leaving me stranded overnight at Warsaw's Chopin airport, surrounded by the sprawled bodies of East Europeans without Schengen visas, draped over airport seats and even the display platforms for automobiles, like the victims of a mass disaster. On that strange night I wondered if I had been transported into one of Eliade's alternate realities.   
    I love new stories, but I confess that there are days - especially when 20 hours of travel is required - where I can probably live without a fresh one. However, my adventures with Czech literary companions are not over. I am planning to travel next time with Bohumil Hrabal. The film version of 
Postřižiny, his fictional memoir of growing up in a brewery town had me laughing till it hurt.  


Unknown said...

Hi Robert, thanks for the lovely story. Don't get me wrong, but your Czech reading Odyssey from Svejk through Kytice to Postriziny is a wild card ;-) we Czechs are more than a bit weird and that includes our humor which is a shade of black. I look forward to you finding out the meaning of Pábení and Pábitelé when you enter the bitter-sweet world of Hrabal's novels. Anyways, I really appreciate your efforts to catch "básnické střevo" and tune into the culture you are about to meet! ;-)

Robert Moss said...

Děkuji, Jana. Yes, you are quite right - moving from Kytice to Hrabal is not such a safe trip. I look forward to learning more of the wandering ways of the pábitelé, a word for which we do not (yet) have a satisfactory translation in English. In view of my odyssey on unexpected trains, it is interesting to note that the first Hrabal book (among those I ordered while in Bohemia) to arrive at my home is "Closely Observed Trains".

Many Flowers said...

This is hilarious~~I am so glad to read this~~it is good to know that this stuff happens to other people!! And it is so nice to have a sense of humor about it, thanks for the reminder~~

James Wilson said...

That must have been an exhausting day for you, Robert. Every time I read one of your chaotic traveling stories, it reminds me of the movie: Planes, Trains & Automobiles. A great movie.

When I see this movie I always think, thanks God this can't happen in real life. But apparently it can.
I hope you will be spared from this kind of chaotic traveling in the future. Maybe you should have asked the heirs of the meadows if they wanted to bring you home ;-)