The train station at Český Krumlov set a new standard for near non-existence. The train stopped in what appeared to be a vacant lot, and our tour director urged us to get off. We climbed down into what looked like weedy dirt, but closer inspection revealed it to be a concrete platform in the final stages of decay. We hauled our bags across a set of railroad tracks, and found a van from our “pension” waiting to take our luggage, and Karel, the short distance into the old town. The rest of us walked down the steep hill so we could get our first view of the city through a break in the forest.
The view that greeted us was straight out of Sleeping Beauty, complete with castle and towers. Český Krumlov was once the home of the Hapsburgs, and they invested some of their vast fortune into making the little city a rustic paradise of beauty, art, and culture. The Hapsburgs are gone, but the city remains a fairytale setting that attracts artists, musicians, writers, and of course, tourists.
The problem for us is that the town is very hilly, every street is narrow and cobbled, there are crowds of people, and there was a light but constant stream of honking taxi cabs and delivery vehicles shouldering their way through the obstacle course. Stephen, our tour director, set a fast pace through the maze of streets and alleys in an attempt to show us all the important sights before dinner. To top it off, we were now well into the European holiday season, and I suppose the endless stream of ignorant tourists was beginning to wear on the patience of the clerks and waiters who have to deal with them. It was a tough environment for Karel’s leg and my nervous system. It should have been utterly charming, but the magic spell left us unaffected.
The next day included one of the few activities of the tour: a mellow raft trip down the Vltava. Fine with me! The weather was a bit cool and sprinkly, but what difference would that make? We were going to get wet, anyway.
It was easy. It was pretty. We saw a wild deer, orchids, birds (no sign of Goldilocks or Red Riding Hood, however). The weather held out nicely for us, and just started to turn for the worse as we pulled out at the designated spot. We waited for the raft company to come and get us.
And waited. And waited.
It started raining harder. We were cold. We were hungry. Karel asked Stephen, did he call the vendor to let them know we were ready.? No, Stephen replied, they’ll be here soon and there’s no use calling. We waited some more. A couple of other guys who had rented from a different company came along. They had gotten out at the wrong spot and were worried their vendor wouldn’t know where to find them. They were shivering.
At last, two vans and a trailer pulled up. We gratefully got in, wondering why we’d been suffering needlessly in the cold and rain for an hour and a half. The two lost rafters asked if they could ride with us, but they were refused by the drivers; they were the responsibility of another company. We exclaimed that we didn’t mind, we’d make room for the 10-minute ride, but the driver was adamant. I can only hope those poor guys were picked up before they died of hypothermia.
Back in town, Karel and I headed right out again in search of a hearty dinner. After a delicious pizza (the universal comfort food), we ducked into the local gingerbread bakery for a quick dessert and a warming cup of hot mead. There was no place to sit, but our hotel was right across the street, so we entered the empty front bar (which doubled as the reception desk) and sat at a table to enjoy the treat. The proprietor emerged from the restaurant and spluttered at us. What!? Did we think we could wander in off the street with beverages from somewhere else? We reminded him we were guests there, and this was, basically, the lobby. Also, there was no one else around, so what difference did it make? Well, this was highly unusual! It was not done! OK. Without further ado, we vacated to our room upstairs.
We weren’t offended or bothered. We even understood—this was a multi-functional space, and right then it was functioning as a bar, not a lobby. Hotel guests were not supposed to be lingering there, unless they were buying drinks from the bar. It just seemed to us that the owner was making a big fuss over nothing.
Next morning we came down at the designated time for breakfast, which was included with our stay. As with just about every other hotel we’d stayed at in Europe, this was a serve-yourself, seat-yourself buffet of assorted hot and cold foods that fit the expectations of what-you’re-supposed-to-eat-for-breakfast from England to Greece.
There was only one table with two seats available in the small dining room; all the others were filled by other members from our group. There was a paper on the table that said something in Czech, which I suspected might say “reserved,” but we really had no option; we were scheduled to leave shortly and had barely enough time to eat. In any case, others in our group would soon finish eating and head up to finish packing, making those tables available as soon as they were cleared.
No sooner had we sat down with our food, than an unfamiliar couple entered the dining room. There was a vacant table, but it was still piled with dirty dishes. The woman gave me a dirty look and stalked out. She returned a moment later with the proprietor in tow. Before he could say a word she snatched up the paper and waved it in my face, scolding me in Czech. The proprietor said, “Not here, not here, this table is reserved for room 6!” “Fine,” I said, “We’re in room 1. Which table is reserved for us?” “This whole room!” he exclaimed. I gestured around; there were very obviously no other available seats. Well, he didn’t have anything to say in response to that. Just then a couple of the staff burst into the room and began clearing dishes in a frenzy. Karel and I started to move our plates, but we were waved back into our seats.
There were so many little incidents like this, all through Poland and Czech Republic, too trivial to recount individually, but revealing of something starkly different about life here versus, say, Sweden or the US. I’m speculating here, based on far too little information, but here’s what I think is going on:
In places such as Sweden or Norway or America, people are empowered to make decisions in order to get things done. If they make a mistake or a misjudgment, the consequences will be in line with the actual scope of the matter, and they can call on their coworkers for fast, competent assistance. If they do well, they’ll be recognized and rewarded, or, at the very least, their good work will be its own reward. This empowers them to be kind and helpful, to care about their work, to improvise, and to do things that may not be specifically spelled out in their job descriptions. They’re well paid, and they’re worth it. In Scandinavia and America, people feel they are masters of their destiny.
In formerly East Block countries, there are lingering symptoms of no good deed going unpunished. People don’t feel they have any incentive, nor perhaps any right, to stray one iota outside the letter of their instructions. If they should work a little harder than strictly mandated—say, by staying two minutes past the official end of their shift to ensure that all the hotel guests that just arrived actually have working keys, bed linens, towels, and lights—it will cause resentment among their coworkers (nor will they be paid for the extra time and effort. Nor can they be reprimanded for not working past the end of their shift). If help is needed, the odds are about 50-50 they’ll either get it, or the entire rest of the staff will suddenly disappear. If you need an extra pillow, that matter will have to be referred to management (they’ll be back next Monday), who will have to submit the request to housekeeping (they’ll see if they have any next time they visit the store room, once a week on Fridays. I’m serious; these are the kind of responses I’ve gotten to such a request). And when you enter the shop or the café or the lobby, mind that you follow the rules and leave everything where it belongs! That clerk, waiter, or receptionist may not control his own destiny, but he sure as hell controls that 100 square feet!This entry was posted in Vacation 2014: Europe