We took the A6 again toward Nürnberg, only a few hours to the Czech border, but after stopping to buy a vignette and reset the navigator we realized the rear brakes were going, making a sound like bone on bone.
Mom had the German equivalent of AAA roadside assistance but when we tried to call, we got strange error messages in different languages and couldn’t reach Eberhard either; he was probably working in the garden outside his mom’s house, or taking a nap.
So mom and I resigned ourselves to our situation, parked outside a gas station a half an hour from Prague, unable to speak any Czech beyond what we had on a piece of paper with some common expressions, with no local currency or ATM, and many places still not on the euro.
I had a feeling the brakes were going but when I asked Eberhard (because that’s what we do, we ask Eberhard) he thought it could be rust on the pads with the car sitting as long as it had, which is what I wanted to believe so we could feel good taking my car instead of mom’s since the stereo is better, it has a four-CD changer.
We sat for about an hour in the gas station people-watching, waiting for the tow truck, and had to find someone who could speak English and most people didn’t, relying on hand gestures to explain what happened, mom remarking on the Czech women smoking and chatting with their friends, colleagues, dates: all the make-up, tight jeans, spiky hair, concert announcements for bands like Slade and Nazareth that just won’t die in towns like this, where pop culture’s stuck in a Peter Pan timelessness and The Smurfs still seem like something new.
Mom and I have been bickering some lately because we’re too much alike; we get bothered by irregularities like crooked pictures on walls or small crumbs that are unseen by most, an eye for detail that allows people like us in a middle management profession to either flourish or snap from the never-ending imperfection and stupidity of life, like two project managers having to share the same turf, we’ll start correcting each other’s grammar or pronunciation even if we don’t know it ourselves, optimizing each step of the plan even if the plan is to not have a plan and reminding ourselves of that more than necessary until it becomes such a chore to not have a plan, so foreign an idea, we’ll drift back to concocting one anyway, and can’t conceal it it’s so good, we need to talk about it, until after a few days of trying to relax outside our comfort zone we’re exhausted by the strange normalcy of it and yearn to get back to the known, and all that needs tending to.
It took about an hour in the tow truck to the south end of Prague before we got out and tried to decide what to do, now that we didn’t have a car or any local currency for a cab — and when the mechanics hoisted the car up to get underneath and lubed up their hands they made me think of a doctor, and would probably get paid the same.
We followed the river north and didn’t talk for a while. Mom commented that it looked like the bridge was taking us in the wrong direction. Once we were in the thick of things in town, mom suggested we ask someone for help which I couldn’t agree to but she insisted, and we got some nice guy in his 20s with off-centered eyes who used his phone to illustrate where we were but we couldn’t make it out, and he said it was like the equivalent of a dollar for a tram ticket but when we asked the tow truck driver before he didn’t know where you could buy one because he always does it on his phone — and even sensible choices seemed far away from us, unviable, so we carried on thinking it would be just a bit farther but overshot our turn somehow and had to double-back, and by the time we got to our room we’d walked for two hours and I was starting to imagine the cobblestones looked like broken teeth.
I then felt entitled to a Thai massage treatment where you put your feet in a water tank and let the little fish eat the dead skin cells there. I never did it before but it sounded good, so I asked for the feet in the fish package for 25 minutes, hung my legs in the tank like two hams, and sat there in the window while people stopped and pointed at me and took pictures with their phones.
They had to move me to another tank though because the fish weren’t as active in the first one — they were better in the second tank, angrier — and I imagined them peeling me away like I was made out of paper maché, layer by layer, and for a time it started to hurt but I told myself it didn’t, it must be my nerves misfiring, but when I looked down they were knotted together in a brown clump burrowing into me and I had to shake my leg to get them off and realized I was bleeding, and thought maybe I should do something and wondered if that was normal, but it started to gross me out so I lifted my leg and gestured to the Thai women in their robes who were giving massages and they all cried out in a kind of alert that must have meant ‘blood in the tank!,’ and the lead woman came back and taped me off, and made reassuring faces because she was Cuban and didn’t speak English, and after a few more minutes I couldn’t relax and had to go, and didn’t leave a tip.
Once you see the imperfection in things it’s hard not to, but you’ll be a lot happier if you can learn to shut it off. Mom and I have this thing about letting go, I guess. If life is like a chess game it’s hard for us to just sit on our squares and not keep looking forward two or three moves, but even though you see the board better that way, you risk not seeing what’s right in front of you.
And that’s how it is here, writing about our time, what should be such a fantastic and exotic walkabout for me and my family. It’s hard to know what we’ll get out of it while we’re still in it.