We have been searching for our hotel for over an hour. Clutching a travel guide in one hand and a map in the other, Jessica and I huddle under a small umbrella squinting up at the unintelligible street signs.
We are in Prague just for that one weekend, a weekend escape from our studies in Vienna. We are there just to be somewhere new, but our lack of planning as we grabbed a guidebook and a change of clothes and ran to catch the last train has caught up to us once we are unloaded one cold and rainy evening in Prague. Somehow we had expected Prague to be more like Vienna, with
The night is getting darker as the rain lashes around us in the wind, somehow evading our umbrella and aiming straight for our eyes. It has gotten so dark that we have to stand right below the street signs to make out the Czech script and compare it to that on our map. For a long while we stand on that corner, staring blindly into the night through our dripping eye-glasses and debating whether we should go back near the tourist area and splurge on a hotel-room that is out of our price range but easier to find.
I hear the shuffle of footsteps nearby and turn to see an umbrella approaching, its owner hidden by the dark. My heart starts to beat as I considered our position, two young girls in a strange city alone in the dark.
“Is that a man?” I ask Jessica. She wipes her glasses and squints towards the figure and shakes her head.
“I don’t know. I don’t care, lets ask for directions,” she begins to wave, “Hello! Hello!” The umbrella spots us and changes directions, coming towards us. I hold my breath until I can make out the hunched body of a small elderly woman shuffling towards us. The tiny figure embodies all of the images in my head of old Europe. Her gray hair is pushed up underneath a brown scarf, framing a face defined by deep wrinkles. She wears a gray sweater that looks itchy but warm over a black skirt that goes down past her stockinged knees. Her shoes resemble little brown buckled boxes. She has a look of being left in the dryer too long that reminds me of Sophia from Golden Girls. As she gets closer she breaks out into an almost toothless smile. “Hello! Thank you! Can you speak English?” Jessica asks.
The woman cocks her head, “Blaho vecer.” Jessica tries again, hello, can you understand English… The old woman just smiles at us and begins to laugh, her solo tooth shining in the streetlight. “Ah, foriegners. Tebe ar odešlý?”
“Foreigners, yes! We are foreigners! Can you help us?” I ask as the wind begins to pick up, ripping at the map in my hand and spraying us all with cold water. Jessica and I begin an intricate dance of charades, indicating the motel’s name in the book and pointing to the map, doing the universal confused shrug. The old woman watches us for a minute, clapping her hands and chuckling. She takes a quick glance at the book and begins to laugh more, shaking her head.
She takes my hand, still laughing, and we begin to walk. We go a slow turtle’s speed through the wet streets of Prague. The old woman begins talking to us in a slow slurred voice. We cannot understand a word she is saying, but her tone is soothing. She may have been talking about a million things, but her words wrap around me as we pick our way in the dark and I imagine she is telling me of her life, of years filled with children and strife, love and wisdom.
After a half an hour I turn to Jessica, “Where do you think she is taking us?”
Jessica jumps as my words interrupt the rhythm of our stately pace against the woman’s voice. “I don’t know,” she answers as we continue on. The old woman lets out a girlish giggle at the sound of our strange words, and then she continues to speak. Her voice rises as she emphasizes some point, falls to an occasional whisper as she grips my hand. I can’t tell if she is talking to me anymore or if she is talking to the night, using her words to fill the dark. Then she falls silent, and looks at Jessica and I with expectation.
I feel it is my turn to talk, and I begin to tell the old woman about my life in Vienna. How I am there to learn about the turning point in Austria before the world wars. I tell her about how I love Europe, how my whole self tingles with the discovery of a new café or while watching small children play in flower laden courtyards. I speak of a lost love who I had wanted to share my travels with, and about how the beauty of light and rain dancing along cobbled roads makes me wish that I could explore new places forever. The old woman listens carefully as if she can understand every word. She smiles when my voice laughs and nods slowly when I turn morose.
Jessica goes next, talking about what she wants when we graduate from college. She tells about her mother and her boyfriend, and as I walk along with the woman’s fragile hand within my own I stop listening to Jessica’s words and turn my ears towards her sounds. We cross streets and alleys, the rain falls harder and softer and stops. I’m wrapped up in Jessica’s voice and the old woman’s shuffle, forgetting all about the map soaking in the puddle in my purse and the lost motel and the fear of the dark in a foreign city.
Then the old woman stops. Still smiling she points across the street to a small building, our hotel. She pats my hand and turns to touch Jessica’s. Then with another beautiful smile she waves and walks away. She becomes just an umbrella and then fades away into the night.