Heading Out

I leave for my trip a few weeks later than planned, just as the weather takes a turn for the worse. In Munich, driving rain. As I head east, it clears, but remains grey. Every car on the Autobahn overtakes me.

Near Deggendorf the road takes a sharp turn and begins to head steeply up the mountain. I look for a place to park and take one last look down at Germany, but there’s too much fog.

Želená Ruda is the Czech border town. Hand painted signs advertise cigarettes. There are two gas stations and two casinos. There are four nail salons with pink, blinking signs, and blue wood smoke rising from muddy houses. To the left and right of the only street, shacks are propped up like theater sets. Outside of them ornaments, bird houses and woven baskets dangle. From the car it’s impossible to see into the shacks but given the amount of stuff out on the street, it’s easy to imagine that inside they are empty. Their owners sit outside, as immobile as their wares, wrapped from head to toe against the damp cold.

I drive through Harmanice, past wet fields ringed with birches. The road follows the black, narrow Otava river through Střelské Hoštice, Předotice, Zvíkovské Podhradi. Towns pass by in an instant and are gone forever. Apple trees heavy with fruit line the roads. Apples roll into the street and under my tires.

I stop to eat in Jistebnice. It’s evening now, and Jistebnice is tiny and all dark, except for the bluish light of a bank machine, and the small yellow windows of a tavern. A group of teenagers lean against a wall near my car. One of them sees my foreign license plate, and asks with a smile, what the hell I’m doing in Jistebnice. I’m on vacation, I say. Sorry, he says, my English very few. I ask him what he recommends at the tavern and he tells me to order the fish.

The tavern is a small room with six tables and an unlit fireplace in the corner. Five tables are full. People shout and laugh and play cards. Children swing between the tables and run behind the bar. I sit down and order a small beer and fish. The waitress laughs and tenderly tells me that at this tavern they serve only fish, so I’ll have to be more specific. She leaves me a menu, all in Czech, and fetches her son to translate. When I’ve finished my meal, fried trout with potato salad and mayonnaise, I leave. Voices and laughter follow me out into the street, then the door swings shut and they are gone. The teenagers have left and the night is cold and quiet. I drive through the dark, and turn on the radio to keep from nodding off. The sky is as black as the Otava. No moon, no stars.

Somewhere between Munich and Elbančice. A windy day. Many people flying kites.
Leaving Prague, heading towards the Tatras.
Many country roads in the Czech Republic are lined with apple trees, and in late September, almost every roadside looks like this.
A barn, somewhere near the border.