by Chris Noonan Sturm
A humble Skoda looks like a limousine when your shoes are soaked and your family's still blocks away from the metro station.
Our family has shed itself of automobiles, car insurance and booster seats. We don't wonder when our inspection sticker expires, how the tires are holding up or whether the car needs antifreeze.
We're an expat family of four, carless in Prague. In two months we've taken more trips on more forms of public transport than we had in our combined 80-plus years before coming to Prague.
To Czechs, however, we're still novices easy to spot -- losing our balance when the bus flies around a curve and grasping at air when the metro lurches to a stop or start. We've yet to master that 1,000-meter stare worn by virtually all travelers, or to learn enough Czech to be able to skim a woman's magazine over the shoulder of a seated reader. (What does that ad with the lingerie say?)
But the most obvious clue that we're new to the Prague metro is our children.
They're 6 and 8. They're great kids. But they're American: exuberant, curious, boisterous, inquiring, active. Do Czech kids act like monkeys, make goofy sounds and snort at each other like buffaloes? Those kids don't use the same metro stop ours do...
Our kids have taken to public transport as if it's the latest ride at Disney World. Look down the tunnel to see the light coming -- cool! Feel the blast of air as the train approaches -- neato! Stick the ticket into the punch machine -- can I do it again? Check out the ad on that tram -- I want a Tic-Tac! See the little stuffed bear on the bus driver's seat -- I forgot my show and tell toy!
A crowded metro car doesn't absorb their energy -- it makes it combustible. Like little Houdinis, these kids have amazing body control. They find ways to needle each other without moving a muscle.
How's a parent to rein in testy children when everyone in sight can watch and hear you? As discreetly as possible. Those hissing sounds you hear on public transportation are not pneumatics or doors opening and closing -- they come from expat parents hissing through clenched teeth at their kids: "Be quiet" "Stop it" "Do you want to get off at this station?"
All in all, though, kids learn great lessons for life. How romantic a metro station can be -- we've lost count of the kissing couples of all ages. Why it's important to give your seat to an older person. How much of the world passes by while you wait for your ride. That skinheads can be stopped from taunting a person of color if people just stand in their way. How escalators can be fun -- as long as you always, always stay to the right.
But most of all, once they're at ground level, they learn the value of a reliable, internal combustion engine on four wheels.
Know any Czech used car dealers we can trust?
(Originally appeared in the Prague Post English-language weekly.)