Thursday, January 26, 2006

Taking the (Yellow) Bus

One undertakes intercity travel in the Czech Republic by train or by bus (well, unless one has a car, but that’s another matter). I have always been fonder of trains than buses, but while the trains here go to a great many places, lower prices and the ability to stop practically anywhere have made the bus more popular among Czechs.
Until recently, taking the bus meant taking a ČSAD bus. These go back and forth from main and subsidiary bus stations in Prague to other large cities and out into the countryside to extremely small villages. For example, while Uterý is considered a village and is the endpoint of a route from Plzeň, it looks like a metropolis in comparison with the village of Frantoly, which is also served by a bus… well, now and then. Let’s just say that when John and I visited Frantoly a couple of years ago to see where his family had come from, we decided that the bus didn’t go often enough and we could walk the 10km from Prachatice. But we got to Prachatice by bus. Small villages like Frantoly tend to be served on weekends by something like an incoming bus on Friday or Saturday and an outgoing bus on Sunday.
The ČSAD buses are not bad. They are utilitarian buses that get you where you are going, as a rule. Often the front of the bus is festooned with the driver’s collection of stickers, photos, and stuffed animals, so that you can immediately see whether he is more interested in his wife and kids, pinup girls, or characters from Warner Brothers cartoons. (To be sure, often he has all three categories, along with some plastic flowers.) People who ride a given bus regularly know the drivers and can tell you that they went to school with him or that he is always in a bad mood. During portions of the drive, the driver will usually play his favorite radio station. I assume it must be illegal to play it during the entire trip.
In Prague, one generally gets a ČSAD bus by going to the Florenc station and either perusing the long and complex schedules or by going up to the window and boldly requesting a ticket. (Usually I like to check the schedule first.) For that matter, often one simply waits for the bus and pays the driver, but this is unwise at busy times.
These days, it’s possible to ignore the posted schedule and go to a computer kiosk with a touch screen. As the touch screen can be rather picky, I find that an even better option is to check the schedules online before leaving home. Czechs who travel certain bus routes often, however, tend to know the exact number of the bus, its departure time, and its stanice number (where it sits in the station).
Despite the fact that everything is really quite well organized, bus travel is rather daunting for the uninitiated. After all, there are all those uncertainties. Knowing whether it is better to get a reserved seat or to pay the driver, where exactly one’s reserved seat is located or if it can be anywhere, and of course the matter of knowing where to get off, are always a bit problematic. There was the time, for instance, when I took the bus to Kutná Hora to visit friends. I had been there before, and I informed the driver in advance that I would be getting off at the Nemocnice stop. Well, this bus stopped numerous times in the middle of nowhere, causing it to take much longer than the schedule indicated, but the driver did not stop at Nemocnice. When I realized we had passed it, and inquired about it, he said it was “pryč.” Gone??? Surely the hospital stop had not been abolished? I had to walk quite a ways uphill in sweltering heat, hoping to recognize the house.
These days, however, ČSAD has a competitor on some of the big routes: Student Agency, which runs luxurious yellow buses with a great many amenities. Buses between Czech cities are only a part of Student Agency’s offerings, but they are perhaps the most noticeable aspect. Travelers going between Prague and Brno, or Prague and Plzeň, and now between Prague and Ostrava, are eager to get reservations on these buses. The seats are comfortable, there are free hot beverages and newspapers, there are movies and TV shows to watch, and the price is low.
What sort of entertainment is shown? Well, on the Prague-Plzeň line one usually gets the American sitcom “Friends” with Czech subtitles. This seems to be very popular, although I confess that a few episodes of it were more than enough for me. The buses between Prague and Brno have time to show actual movies, usually Czech films with English subtitles, and I have concluded that this is an excellent thing. The first one I saw, which I didn’t listen to but became somewhat interested in, was a comedy from the 1970s about two families at a ski resort. While it didn’t look like something I would bother to buy on DVD, I would watch it again on the bus and pay closer attention.
The next film I recall seeing on the bus was a comedy set around 1900 and involving a pair of policemen. I was enjoying this when traffic came to a standstill and for some reason so did the film. The audio continued to function, but the picture never really fully returned, so I gave up, as much of the humor involved visual things like a mechanical replica of the elder policeman.
A third film, another seventies offering, was all about three families whose men always take a vacation from domesticity, and how this time their wives got them to take all six of the kids. While this movie certainly had many individual comic moments, and I did laugh a fair amount, I found the pervasive gender stereotypes oppressive to watch. I can usually tolerate quite a bit of that kind of thing without getting annoyed, but perhaps only in either more subtle forms or when less of the humor depends on finding these stereotypes natural. I suppose I also don’t have a great interest in films that use children as a comic device in themselves. If there are going to be children in a film, I prefer to see things more from their own point of view, rather than having a cavalcade of adult-directed jokes about their stinky diapers, their inability to change their own shoes or bathe themselves, their juvenile love stories, and so on. The children in this film were individualized only in terms of which ones were regarded as stupidest, smelliest, or most inept by the three fathers, while at the same time the viewer was clearly expected to find the children adorable simply because they were little. Yuck.
I have not been good at getting the titles of these films, as while they are starting up, I am usually trying to get my headphones plugged in and the sound adjusted properly. Fortunately, I did find out the titles to the two best films I have seen on the bus.
Což takhle dát si špenát was another seventies-era comedy, which involves a couple of minor crooks who get involved with a rejuvenating machine meant for cattle. While I don’t know that I would call this a cinematic great, I enjoyed it thoroughly from start to finish. It’s really silly in the good sense. Or perhaps it was just what I was in the mood for that day. Unfortunately the DVD is currently 549Kč at Bonton, which is more than I am willing to pay.
Kdo chce zabít Jessii? (1966) is more of a new wave film. As one source says, “One of the first ‘pop’ 60s movies to appropriate comic-strip imagery and dialogue balloons, [Who Wants to Kill Jessie?] is a buoyant, sometimes bawdy exercise in fantasy farce. Two dully married, middle-aged scientists create havoc when her experimental device releases figures from his dreams into the real world. Thus a musclebound superman, bodacious damsel-in-distress and laconic cowboy are suddenly running around Prague, wreaking havoc with their indestructible nature and archetypical fantasy behaviors. It's a hilarious novelty and sci-fi screwball comedy.” What this summary doesn’t mention is how far this film goes in its criticism of Czechoslovak communism. The dream-researcher scientist is an ambitious bitch who hopes to get a Nobel prize for her efforts to excise bad dreams but doesn’t care at all about the subjects of her research; she’s all in favor of mind control. Thus, when her husband happens to have a nightmare after reading a comic book left in his lab (his mistake is to have this nightmare on Thursday, the night his wife schedules for sex), she’s not about to put up with another woman appearing in one of his dreams. Okay, I have a few complaints about gender roles here too, but the film is really innovative and funny. And despite the use of pop elements, I’d say it’s closer to surrealism than pop art. (Read about the production details here)
So, if you travel between Prague and Brno, the yellow bus with the movies is usually a great way to go. (History of the company here)

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Blogger P'tit-Loup said...

Those films sound great and I really enjoyed the story on the Student Agency! Unfortunately the films only come in a format that I don't believe my DVD player can use. I hear the weather is particularly cold in Praha these days! Stay warm!

January 29, 2006 5:31 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

I doubt you can play the films on your American DVD player, but you should be able to play them on a computer. I did a little research on this and there are two issues involved: first is which part of the world the DVD is zoned for (Czech videos vary somewhat on this), while the second is that American and European TV screens are different, so that even if you have the correct zone, there's a screen problem.

I play Czech DVDs on my laptop with no problems in either respect. We have actually managed to get five people watching the laptop at once, although I don't suppose everyone got an equally good image.

January 29, 2006 11:41 AM  
Blogger P'tit-Loup said...

Ah! Finally the light bulb goes on in my mind! This must be why I have had some issues with a dvd that a friend from Svitavy gave me. It plays fine on the computer, but not on the tv, and I have not been able to upload it on my computer, probably for the same reason. Thanks for letting me clarify that. I do watch some films on my computer already when my hubby wants to watch something else on the tube, so I certainly can do that.

January 30, 2006 1:24 AM  
Blogger Karla said...

There are also DVD players that will play European, but that means getting a second one and I don't know how common they are in the US (though I know they're available). I don't know if there are dual machines.

January 30, 2006 12:13 PM  

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