On Sunday 10 September at about 11 o'clock in the morning, I was waiting for a train in the Staroměstská underground station in the centre of Prague. A sudden commotion lured me back from the platform into the main body of the station-noise, loud arguments, excited voices. I discovered that a ticket inspector—one of many characters who carry out spot-checks of passengers on the Prague underground—had managed to catch yet another victim.
A clash of cultures
A somewhat rough-looking man with a black moustache, perhaps in his late thirties, whose mouth stank of stale cigarette smoke was shouting at a dainty-looking, fragile, French couple, a husband and wife, both pensioners. "You could easily travel all day, using a single ticket like this," yelled the inspector.
The old lady burst into tears. As the inspector continued shouting, the French lady collapsed onto the floor of the station and, weeping helplessly, sat on the edge of one of the columns that lined the hall. Her husband was standing beside her, not knowing what to do.
"Stop making stupid scenes," said the inspector firmly. "If our people can pay these fines, why can't you!" he continued yelling at the old couple. "La Police! La Police!" exclaimed the old man helplessly. "Just go ahead, call the police," said the ticket inspector. "It will cost you CZK 2500 (USD 60), if you call the police. Now, you are only liable to pay CZK 400."
The weeping old lady on the floor leafed frantically through her French-German dictionary, pointing to various words to no avail.
Apart from me, the noisy scene attracted the attention of a young Czech lady. Gradually we found out what had happened. I cannot speak much French, but I did understand the weepy explanations of the old lady. She was wearing a loose cardigan with pockets. In them, she had two underground tickets, one which she had used the day before and one unused.
It's obvious that old people often cannot see small print very well without glasses. When entering the underground, the old lady had probably mixed up the two tickets. She marked the used ticket from the day before in the stamping machine for a second time-the new ticket was left unstamped. She had showed both tickets to the ticket inspector and that's what had produced all the shouting.
Money's not the issue
CZK 400 is about USD ten—I do not think that the smartly dressed French couple could have regarded this as an exorbitant amount to pay. However, money was not the problem, something else was the matter. They were standing there helpless, facing a crude assault on their human dignity. They did not know how to defend themselves in the face of such aggressive vulgarity, which they obviously had not experienced before.
I am not saying that they could not have got into a similar situation elsewhere, but I think that in the West this would probably not happen.
Maybe I am wrong, but I have the feeling that people in the West—if we discount racists, extremists and government bureaucrats—do tend to prefer a more human approach to a nationalistic one. We were in the middle of Prague, in the Czech Republic, the French couple were tourists in a country which was undoubtedly exotic for them—superficially, the city is very attractive. But what impression were they going to take away from their visit here?
I tried to explain this to the ticket inspector: "This is a cultural misunderstanding. In the country where these people live, the authorities would have given them the benefit of the doubt, they would believe that the old lady had made a mistake because she does not have her glasses on. Or do you think that these people have really conspired in order to travel without payment?"
The ticket inspector was unmoved: "If you were caught without a ticket on the Paris metro, you would have to pay a huge fine, or they might even put you in a cage." Fair enough, but what had these fragile French tourists to do with this? Did I perhaps find myself in the middle of a ferocious nationalistic war in which the Prague Transport Authority pits itself against French old-age pensioners because fines on the Paris Underground are strictly enforced?
Subsidising the Prague Transport Authority
What is CZK 400 compared to human dignity? I pulled out a CZK 500 note and said I was going to pay the fine. The ticket inspector immediately stopped being aggressive. Evidently, his victims were not human beings, they were just a source of cash. Once cash was produced, he was happy. "I hope you will give me CZK 100 change," I said, startled to see how eagerly the ticket inspector seized my note. He quickly and politely gave me my change and issued me a receipt.
The French man suddenly realised what I was doing. He started protesting: " Non! Non! Non! Monsieur! Monsieur! Non!" He said to his wife something like: "Quickly, give me quatre-vingt francs." It was obvious he was not worried about the money; it was human dignity that was the issue here.
I probably made the situation even worse. Possibly further offending the old man, because I had paid on behalf of his wife.
I ran away, leaving the conflict unresolved.
But I am happy to have been able to subsidise the Prague Transport Authority to the tune of CZK 400, and I hope they will use the money to good effect.
Jan Čulík, 17 September 2000
Jan Čulík is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.
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