An ode to the hidden spaces only locals know:
I awake and ask myself: ‘Where am I today?’ Salzburg, Austria. Right, okay, I am in a hostel with my friend Rachel and will be singing tunes of the Sound of Music in the hills with Maria this afternoon.
The past four nights I’ve spent in four different countries. Stirling, Scotland – Berlin, Germany – Prague, Czech Republic – Salzburg, Austria. Four different beds—one mine, two a friend of a friend of a friend of mine, and the last paid. Three currencies alongside three languages, only one of which I know. Two American girls traversing in one rental car.
As soon as I’ve seen a place it’s gone and I’m thrown into the borders of the next. But somehow it isn’t jarring. Somehow, between cities are roads alongside villages carved into hillsides. There are conversations about hopes and disappointment and overflowing gratitude for experiences unplanned.
‘Dobrý den’ I say, and I think I’ve emphasized the bree but I am sure it’s not quite right. I continue on, ‘Do you speak English?’
The gas station lady looks at me slightly bewildered and shakes her head no.
My heart sinks but I don’t have time to notice before she’s ushered a man over to us. He’s gargling something in Czech and my eyes are wide. We just need gas. The problem is we are unsure if our automatic rental takes diesel or natural petrol. And the manual is in German. We don’t speak German. This man doesn’t speak English. And I know six words in Czech, none of which will help this situation.
So here we are on the outskirts of a small village in the South-West of Czech Republic— us playing charades with a man gesturing and only able to continue on in Czech. And our German car needing fuel.
He opens the hood, points at the gas cap, puts the gas nozzle inside. He disappears and reappears with four other men. They stand with their arms folded around our car, their postures warm. They point, they shrug, they exchange with each other. I try to connect their gestures with the raspy slurs, whimsical in the chorus of sound, but it’s in vein.
Somehow he decides it’s safe to fill our tank. I try to mutter my gratitude: Dĕkuji I say over and over before we leave. I think he understands. If not the sound, perhaps what lies underneath.
Two damsels in distress rescued. One local with the kindness to meet us at our barriers. Maybe we do not speak the same words but I think our hearts do. It’s a beautiful thing. An awkward one, for sure, but beyond the initial resistance of our discomfort came something almost enchanting. If nothing more, we are sure to be the talk of the village for the next week.
This was thirty minutes outside my flat-mate in Scotland’s childhood home. He comes from a one road village nestled in the woods between the meeting of two rivers. No tourists, no phone signal, just the ruins of a castle. 100% guarantee, he told me when suggesting places off the beaten-track of tourists. You can go meet my dog, he messages me. And we do.
Built in 1234, one tower even rumored to be of 100 B.C. Standing on a peninsula surrounded by rivers and evergreens, the desolated bricks stood in brilliance.
Chasing castles our hearts swoon. It’s raining on the river but not on us, not inside the fortress walls. It’s silent. Not a soul to be seen.
This forgotten gem is my friend’s backyard and I imagine a child running through these walls. I taste wonder. What stories do these walls hold? I imagine they’d speak Czech. Could they mutter something beyond words? Something beautiful that only silence holds. Something only locals know, deep in the soul of a place travelers do not find.
I may not know the stories of these walls. I may not know the words Czech Republic has to say. But I saw spaces many do not go. I saw old walls, rigid and plain in their Communistic style, painted fresh with the rainbow. I saw a village with a road that has no name. Places I’d never be, never know, without the locals pointing the way. Sharing their tale and my heart alights with something brilliant. These are the spaces I desire to be. Find me among the local’s soul.