Travis Cebula is the Pavel Šrut Fellow from 2011. He worked with both Linda Gregerson and Jan Pohribny. He wrote to us with this Creative Non-fiction piece he wrote while attending the Prague Summer Program!
My Arrival in Prague
At 6 AM on a cold June morning and with a ridiculously over-packed suitcase jouncing along behind me, I crossed the street to the lobby of the Hotel Residence des Arts for a cup of café créme. And this was where I waited for the taxi I’d arranged to come pick me up for the airport. All went smoothly, with both the coffee and the arranged pick-up (which is not my normal luck) and the driver was just fast enough and skilled enough that I wanted to send him home to provide my wife with a chauffeur to and from work. He also looked a bit like Ashton Kutcher, which I figured would go a short way toward an apology for my wandering Europe, writing, while she was working her face off in a Family Medicine clinic back in Colorado. The taxi driver asked me where I was flying out of, and I told him, “Charles de Gaulle Terminal 3. Smart Wings.” That’s what I thought it was, anyway. “Smart Wings?” “Yes, Smart Wings. Terminal 3.” “Okayyyyy.” And the doubtful pause after this word, a word that should have been an unequivocal assent, said a lot. Anyone who’s ever heard this before would agree—it was unlikely that any of the news that followed a pause like that was going to be good.
We pulled up outside Terminal 3 of CDG, which has all of the charm of my father-in-law’s World War II-era army-surplus Quonset hut in rural Wyoming, and is roughly the same size… The driver stopped the car and ratcheted the transmission to park. When he turned around he slid his sunglasses down his nose at me dubiously. “You sure this is the terminal?” “Well. I think so.”
“Yes.” I said this with exaggerated confidence, even though I was becoming less and less sure by the moment.
“Hmmmmmmm.” Another one of those pauses, this time appraising me for reliability. Once up, once down. He turned back around, jabbed on the hazard blinkers, and started dialing manically on his cell phone—I assumed to find out if anyone trustworthy could verify the existence of an airline called “Smart Wings?” …and its location, if any. I didn’t consider this an auspicious beginning to my journey. Eventually he replaced his sunglasses on their previous perch atop his nose, which was the closest Gallic to approval I hoped to get. He climbed out of the car and struggled quietly with my bags, professional and dignified to the end. It was the correct terminal, and France, after all.
I wandered inside, taking it easy because I’ve allowed over two hours to navigate a building that seemed to be narrower than the average football pitch at its widest point. Which meant there was more than enough time to get over to the black rubber conveyor belt that represented the customer service presence of Smart Wings Airlines, Paris. On the plus side, there was no queue. A young lady gestured for me to deposit my bag on the belt, but with a unconscious grace that let me know she had no idea how heavy my bag was. But I did, and it became clear to her when a vein started to pulse on my forehead when I heaved the bag onto the belt—at which point her eyebrows shot up and she started TSK-TSKing at me. “Monsieur, your bag is too heavy. 10 kilos.” As I said, I was expecting this. I had my credit card ready along with my best “sorry-neighbor-my-dog-crapped-in-your-yard-but-what-can-I do-I’m-all-out-of-plastic-sacks” smile, just for her, figuring this might smooth over any problems.
She immediately pulled my boarding pass away, making it disappear somewhere inside her stainless steel podium. “No. No, you must go over there. Number 11. Pay them 80 euro. Come back and I give you this.” I was thinking, “Eighty? The ticket for my body was only 35 euro before taxes and fees… what kind of luxury is my bag going to be traveling in?” Or, conversely, what would my squalor be like?
I followed her extended finger to the sign that says, “11,” below which was a poster of the Swiss flag and a fair amount of language in French that seemed to proclaim this to be the Official Baggage Handling Agent of the King of Denmark, or some such thing. Probably Swiss though, judging from the patriotic size of the flag. But Smart Wings was (and is) proudly Czech, and the name wasn’t evident anywhere on the signage. Oh, well. I paid the toll and took a small slip of carbon paper back with me, which did at least mention the airline my baggage would hypothetically be traveling with. Upon my return, my bag and boarding pass (a seat number and my name printed in block letters on cardstock—no gate, flight, or airline information) were released from custody. I proceeded through security, which was blissfully normal, and sat in a plastic bucket-chair to read and to wait for my flight.
Eventually the Smart Wings attendant, having abandoned her conveyor belt, called the flight. Everyone stepped through a sliding glass door and onto a large bus—one plane? One bus. We pulled away from what I’ve come to think of as The Terminal, and started circling the airfield. We drove from one parked plane to another parked plane, mostly jets, stopping occasionally for the driver to get out so he could ask around if that particular aircraft was ours. It wasn’t, and wasn’t. But then it was, suddenly—which was not necessarily comforting. But we couldn’t really blame the guy, because I’m sure somewhere he had a clipboard that said “Smart Wings” on it, maybe in purple crayon, and most likely didn’t say “Canarias—The Best Airline to the Canary Islands!” all over the place in jaunty orange letters. But the aircraft was solid in a reassuring and substantial way—I guess one doesn’t realize how big an Airbus is until you’re standing right beneath one. At the very least, it looked like something that might survive the trip before biodegrading, anyway. As it turned out, this one was also mostly yellow underneath the dirt, and cheery, so we all climbed on board.
The flight after that was uneventful, as far as I know. Or at least nothing bad happened to me while I slept.
According to my watch, two somnolent hours had passed by the time the plane landed in Prague. I collected my bags and walked through the wide automatic door that stood in for a customs agent on weekdays, and started looking for the driver my travel agent had requested for me through an apartment rental agency. After a few moments lamenting the fact that I didn’t get to collect a stamp in my passport, and why that should matter other than the urge to collect for collecting sake, I took a good look around. Low sunlight streamed in through the windows of the airport and bounced off the tile. I was smack-dab in the middle of the line-up area for the ubiquitous “welcome wagon,” where the limo drivers would traditionally line up with their laminated name cards. In this case, there was one skeezy-looking guy with a little note that said “DEAF GIRL” on it, but that was it. Nothing with my name, or Prague Stay (the rental agency), or Susie (my travel agent), or anything else, anywhere in sight.
Like the proverbial kitten in the absurd motivational poster, I hung in there, figuring the guy probably just stepped out for a smoke. It was Prague, after all, and I told myself I should just relax. He would be back any minute. Or any 5 minutes, or ten, or 15… Just as I started fishing through the email in my iPhone looking for the number of any authority figure I could think of, my guy walked through the door. And my guy was SPECTACULAR.
He was about 50 years old and had hair like the Canadian guy who blows things up with dynamite for a living on the Red Green show. He was wearing skin-tight jean shorts (not cut-offs), hiked-up tube socks, sneakers, and a sweater/windbreaker apparatus that boldly advertised a local soccer team in red block letters, plush on acid-green nylon. He had a cigarette in one hand, lit, and in the other hand he was sort of vaguely waving a slip of notebook paper with “travis” scribbled on it in magic marker.
As soon as he spotted a hint of recognition on my face he wadded the paper into a little ball, threw it into a bin, swiveled, and left the terminal without saying a word. I grabbed hold of my suitcase and took off after him… He was walking, and walking, and walking. I figured we’d been going for about twenty minutes—but I didn’t really have a chance to pause to check my watch. It looked like we were about to leave the actual airport grounds when he veered right and pointed our course towards a multi-story parking garage. A big blue neon sign announced, “GARAGE C,” and a smaller one below that proclaimed, “BEST PARKING,” this time in red. I thought the guy must have been roped in by this dubious word, “best”—you know, mistakenly?—because I counted at least six parking lots that we walked right by on the way there that I would have considered better. Significantly. In any case, I was relieved because I could finally take a breath, and I figured we’d hop in his car (hopefully a Soviet-era Skoda for atmosphere) and be off to the city center.
On the contrary, once inside the building he dismissed the rows of cars and started towards an auto rental counter that claimed to have “the cheapest rates in Prague.” Then he started filling out A RENTAL AGREEMENT. The clerk gave him a set of keys and a limp high-five, then pointed toward the parking area and wished us both a good day. Or maybe good luck, my Czech was awful. I followed my guy (at a little more respectful distance now) to a nondescript black sedan, and weighed my options. Some vague memories from childhood about not climbing into cars with strangers surfaced, along with xenophobic and probably unfair images taken out of context from European movies, images consisting mainly of bathtubs full of ice, grey torsos, and rows of black nylon stitches where kidneys were supposed to be. Nevertheless, I loaded my stuff in the trunk, piece by piece, while he sat and smoked in the driver’s seat (the guy was clearly Slavic on that score, at least).
Then I strapped in for the ride.
Once we were bombing down a motorway at 160 kilometers per hour with a techno version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” blaring from the radio I started to really ponder the fact that I just might not survive the day. My fears of organ farming might have been absurd, but I knew I had once again entrusted my life to the unproven driving skills and good will of a perfect stranger—and that was something I could really sink my neurotic teeth into. I had no idea where we were going, or why it was so damn imperative that we get there in a hurry. He jumped lanes, passed on the right, crossed into oncoming traffic, etc., just to maintain speed—really, really fast. I got to be eye to eye with tram divers heading the opposite direction before they vanished in our wake.
I admit I’m not the calmest passenger under normal circumstances. My wife is always glaring at me for pumping an imaginary brake pedal. But this was special.
To distract myself from abject terror I took a few moments to deduce that I was not exaggerating, and that he was using a very simple algorithm to determine how fast he/we should go: just add 70 to the posted limit. Seriously. Within the system, 90=160, 30=100, etc. And a stop sign? Well, that’s zero, plus seventy… so the math was consistent.
I didn’t have much of a chance to enjoy the scenery into town, and the pre-advertised Easter egg house colors all kind of blurred together, but a view of the Castle was bouncing around just underneath the Oh-Shit handle once when I made a grab for it—and that vista was like every description I’d read in every guide book, if a little shakier. And briefer. In the end he pulled to a stop, turned off the car, opened the trunk, and shrugged at a building (which actually did turn out to be mine). He waited, patient all of a sudden, for me to pull out my luggage. And left, still without saying a word.
Four weeks later he was standing outside the apartment wearing a suit, waiting to take my wife (who had joined me later) and me back to the airport, and home. I squeezed her hand. There was comfort there.
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