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My last visit to Prague

Dick Gustafson

Four strangers waited in the hotel’s small conference room. They stood as we entered. It was 6 in the evening. A portly gentleman with thinning gray hair introduced himself as our interpreter. He was a Ph.D who alternately resided in New Jersey and Prague. To his right was an empty chair.Next to the empty chair was a short round woman wearing a New York USA sweatshirt that made her look even wider. I assumed the sweat shirt was a subtle effort to put us at ease during the interrogation. She had short unruly dishwater blond hair and spoke no English, but smiled a lot. The interpreter introduced her as an investigator from the criminal police. She offered her hand and gave mine a firm shake. A tailored short, well groomed, stoic looking woman with short dark hair stood next to the investigator. She was the presiding judge. She neither smiled nor spoke. She nodded gently as she was introduced. I thought there was the hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth as her name was spoken, but I couldn’t be sure. Her job was to see that the interrogation of witnesses went according to the law and that the information was accurately transferred into the official records. She spoke no English so I found it difficult to understand the value of her presence.Across the table was a tall, man with sharp good looking features, casually dressed. His coal black hair was short and un-combed on top but long enough in back to touch the collar of his jacket. He smiled, offered his hand, and said something that I didn’t understand. He was the lead investigator of the criminal police team. Another empty chair completed the circle. My son, who had been balancing on his crutches and holding up his broken leg, was finally offered that seat.The interpreter and I exchanged a few pleasantries as the woman, next to me, pulled a black case from the floor. I assumed that it must be her laptop, but to my surprise it was an old manual “Rapit” portable typewriter. She stacked a pile of paper beside the machine, carefully selected two pages and inserted a piece of carbon paper between them. She lined up the pages by tapping them on the table, placed them behind the carriage and, with great precision, spun the knob to bring the paper precisely into the proper position. She asked the interpreter for our passports after she typed the information onto the page she looked up proudly and smiled. She asked questions to the interpreter who translated them into English for me. She then typed the translated answers.I was amused as she pounded the poor defenseless instrument with two stubby index fingers, ignoring the warning bell, and overtyping onto the carriage at the end of each line. This required several “strike overs” and corrections. The amazing thing was she did the same thing at the end of each line and finally it became a ritual to watch the carriage come to its end, hear the bell, listen to the inevitable type-over and watch the resulting corrections. I offered to send her an IBM laptop that I no longer used but the interpreter explained that the keyboard characters were too different to make the transition. The tall man laughed, betraying his understanding of English.The questions continued, first to the interpreter and finally directly to me. I guess she thought I had learned Czech during the four-hour interview. Even the interpreter would occasionally repeat the question to me in Czech. We all laughed, he’d correct himself, and we’d carry on. At the end of my interrogation, the woman pulled the papers out of the typewriter, separated the two copies, saved the carbon, and offered the copies for my signature. I had no idea what I was signing, but the interpreter assured me it was what I had said. Reluctantly, I signed the papers, knowing full well that nothing would be done if I didn’t; and nothing would probably be done if I did.That Saturday morning, I had been the target of three thugs who had attempted to relieve me of my wallet by roughly jostling and squeezing me between them as we entered the number 23 tram to the Cathedral. My son was assaulted by two of the three thieves as he tried to protect me.His interrogation was next, shifting the “official witness chair” from mine to his. The typewriter was reloaded and we again watched the correction ceremony repeated at the end of each line, trying not to laugh. The questions were repeated with similar responses with a few variations. His assault was several feet away from me. One of the thieves had disappeared into the crowd, then suddenly reappeared when he apparently thought his accomplice was being threatened. He broke my son’s femur with a kick as the other thief hit him in the face. The third pickpocket, an older man, vanished down the stairs to the underground.Copies were offered to him for the ritual signing. Amazingly, the applicable regulations were in English, which leads me to believe that assaults and thefts against Americans are more common than the tourist brochures caution.We had spent most of the day in a 1940 vintage, communist style, hospital with plugged toilets, and tiles falling off the walls. Patients meander about, inside and out, in their pajamas. For foreigners, it is a pay-as-you-go system. First we paid cash for the ambulance; then the x-rays and accompanying CD’s; the ace bandage, crutches, and even the advice was all itemized. There was no charge for latex gloves because none were used. The rest of the day and evening was spent in a crowded, chaotic, police station, and our hotel conference room.My son was exhausted and retired to our room. I stayed for the pleasant goodbyes, handshakes and smiles. The four melted into the night, probably never to be heard from again. I went to the hotel next door for a beer, or two.In our one half day in Prague, we had been the target of two prior attempts by pickpockets, the third was the assault. A fourth attempt also failed as we left the hospital. That thief circled me three times but was discouraged by my threatening gesture and vanished into the park.April 1st is the beginning of open season on the tourists in Prague. Our forty-eight hour stay included five hours of sight seeing, two sleepless nights in a noisy hotel and you know the rest. We gladly left Prague early the next morning, having to change trains four times between Prague and Munich. It was a lousy way to start a vacation.Dick Gustafson is a former Eagle County commissioner.


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