Of fines and frogs: An ode to the Prague metro

29-10-2006

The story of my relationship with the Prague metro begins with a fine and ends with a frog. First, the fine.... After buying a ticket for the metro here you are required to swipe it through a validation machine. On the afternoon of my very first day in Prague I had the bad fortune to cross paths with a transit cop who chose to inspect my ticket among the dozens of passengers streaming out of a train. When I explained I had just arrived in the country that morning and wasn't familiar with the system, he replied that a warning about validation was printed clearly in English on the back of the ticket and therefore I must fork over 500 crowns—or more than $22 American bucks—right then and there. Welcome to the Czech Republic, where your ignorance will be sharply and swiftly rebuked with a fat fine.

According to some Czech newspapers, the chances of getting caught riding without a ticket are less than one percent. And I wasn't even trying to cheat the system!

But despite our stormy beginning, I have come to love the Prague metro. The platform windstorm that portends an approaching train, the giant escalators like stairways to heaven, the cleanliness and the convenience...

More than one million passengers use the system each day, a river of travelers flowing beneath the city streets--families, seniors, teenagers, tourists, dogs. Yes, that's right. Dogs of all types commute in Prague. The teacup varieties ride in laps or bags, and the bigger ones just splay out on the floor, like the hulking German Shepherd who used my foot as a pillow on a recent crosstown ride.

And maybe it's not fair to be pick favorites, but I have come to love the green, or A, line the best.

In my hometown of Chicago, I'm partial to the loud and dirty red line, but in Prague, it's go-go green for me. With all due respect to the pre-recorded man who announces the stops on the red, or C, line here, I just prefer the intonations of the pre-recorded goddess of the green.

And I also have a retrophile's appreciation for the décor in stations like Starometske. The colored panels with raised metal bubbles along the track look like somebody's vision of the future circa 1974 - it's shades of Philip K. Dick or Virgil Finlay.

And strange, magical things happen underground. On the last green line train toward home at midnight one evening, I saw a man bathing a frog. He was washing his little green friend in a clear plastic bucket filled with water, whispering sweet nothings to it all the while. I have no explanation for this, but witnessing an unexpected, tender moment between man and amphibian somehow encapsulated the strange beauty of the metro for me. And it almost - but not quite - washed away my lingering resentment over those 500 crowns.

29-10-2006

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