I’m 13 days into a 16-day trip to the Czech Republic, my second trip here in 2 years, and although my racing season is done, I thought I would at least make a small effort to maintain some swim fitness while I’m here.
At the recommendation of an associate, I’ve swam several times now at a Soviet-era swimming complex at the edge of Prague. I’ve had a few adventures, and I thought you might enjoy hearing about some of them.
It’s important that you understand that in the Czech Republic, no one over 35 speaks English. European countries that fell to US occupational control and influence after World War II implemented an aggressive English-speaking program, which is why much of Western Europe has a solid English-speaking environment. The Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia at the time) fell to Soviet oversight, and as a result there was almost no Western influence. Therefore, I find it tough to communicate. This is important for you to know so that you understand the cause of the following situations is not exclusively because I’m an idiot.
Adventure #1: Language Barrier
A small retail shop serves the pool complex. I decided I wanted a kick board for the duration of my trip, and wound my way to the back of the swim complex. In front of me was a couple who were buying a kickboard, which was not on display but hidden in the back.
“Perfect!” I thought as the clerk retrieved the board for the couple and rang them up, “I’ll just indicate that I want what they just bought.” The couple left, and I gestured that I wanted the same item, in a way I thought was obvious. The clerk clearly did not know what I was talking about.
“Kick board?” I said hopefully.
Nope. No connection.
Alright. Forming my index and middle finger into a “peace” sign, I oscillated the two fingers quickly in the universal sign for “flutter kick.”
“Ahhh!” She says, goes into the back, and brings me fins. Oh boy.
In desperation, I take my two arms and begin a swimming motion. Seriously, David? What’s that supposed to mean? “Hello. I would like to swim, please.” Of course you want to swim, you moron! This is a swim shop for crying out loud. I quickly abandon that form of communication (by the way, even when doing this swim motion “dry”, I notice my left arm dropping too early. Must fix this).
Next attempt. I hold my two arms straight out in front of me, and rock them up and down at the shoulders in what is supposed to be a pantomime of me holding a kickboard and kicking. The actual result is that I look like Frankenstein, my arms straight out and shaking. I’m definitely communicating something at this point, but she’s reaching for the Security phone…
All dignity aside, I make one more stab at it. If Kruschev and Nixon could meet and discuss kitchens, I could buy a kickboard from a Czech.
I lay completely on the floor, arms straight out, forehead on the ground, and kick my legs furiously behind me.
She brings out a yellow kickboard. I wanted the black one. Oh boy.
Adventure #2: Culture Shock
On a different day, I’m undressing in the locker room. You know, the normal progression starting from the top down.
As I become more and more exposed, I begin to feel strange. Something is not quite right. My “spidey-sense” is tingling. My keen instincts are telling me something is wrong. Like a wild animal, I search my environment for the source of danger.
I see what I see when I swim at my local fitness center back home. Lockers, other swimmers, janitor mopping the floor, showers. Everything looks normal.
By now, I’m completely naked, but something is still nagging at me.
One more time I review: lockers, other swimmers, janitor mopping the floor, showers, janitor mopping the floor…janitor mopping the floor…janitor mopping the floor IS A WOMAN!
No, I’m not in the women’s locker room. But this is just the way they roll in Prague. Granted, the woman is elderly, but still I found this situation disturbing and insulting because:
a) It’s just plain disturbing, and
b) She didn’t seem the least bit impressed.
Adventure #3: Process Control
I’ve been swimming a few times by now, I feel like I know the ropes. I can say “One swim pass, please,” in Czech. The old ladies in the locker room don’t phase me anymore, and I’m even enjoying the European tradition of the sauna after a swim.
I’ve been skipping past the locker rental counter, because the cost of 100 Czeck crowns (about $5 dollars) seems ridiculous to rent the padlock for one of the lockers. I have a Pollyanna view of the world, and can’t imagine that anyone would ever steal my stuff from a locker. I may be a cheapskate but I’m not paranoid. I do bring my cell and wallet with me in a small bag to the pool to be safe.
After a swim, I throw my suit into the locker with all my other clothes and the bag with my wallet and cell, and head to the sauna for a few minutes.
Emerging from the sauna, I approach my locker…and find it empty.
Thinking I must be remembering wrong, I open several other lockers. Nothing. Now in a panic, I’m going locker-to-locker, opening every one without a padlock. My stuff is gone.
Sitting on a bench, I review my current assets to assist me getting home:
1 pair of goggles still on my forehead
The towel is from the hotel. It barely wraps around my waist, leaving my massive, hairy right thigh quite exposed. It is, unfortunately, very, very small. (To be clear here, when I say “it” is very, very small, I’m referring to the towel.)
The goggles could be used by wrapping them around my chest and covering my nipples with the lenses, giving me some sense of modesty. I realize this is ridiculous. These are clear lenses, so they wouldn’t do any good. Had they been tinted lenses this idea would have some merit.
Buy a suit from the swim shop? No wallet. Run as fast as I can all the way to the hotel? Hmmm, possible. It’s only 5 miles, I know the way, and it will be dark in a few hours. But I’m barefoot. Ask for help?
I hate asking for help. I’m particularly aware that I can’t communicate, and no one in this part of town speaks English. Frankly, I’m just embarrassed to walk out to the front desk in a small towel and ask for help. “Hello, I seem to be missing my clothes. Please do not think all Americans are like me.” I’m leaning toward running back to the hotel in the dark after all.
As I’m sitting on the bench, near where I thought my locker was, one of the elderly ladies approaches me asks a question. She seems to have recognized my plight, and appears to have a solution. She beckons me to follow her to a back room, apparently the break room for the cleaning ladies. Two other ladies are there. She leaves me alone with the two women, and goes into another closet. Leaving me standing in a very small towel.
“Hello.” I say to the ladies. They smile and nod back. Again, clearly not impressed.
Seconds later, the first woman appear…with my clothes!
Apparently, the facility staff does a sweep of open lockers as a pre-emptive approach to theft. Finding my stuff vulnerable, they placed in a safe place until my return. It turns out that it does not cost 100 Czech crowns to rent a locker, it costs that much for a deposit for a locker, and you get it back when you are done.
Fortunately, running and cycling have been done in a much more cosmopolitan environment downtown, and the staff at IM-FIT.cz have been very hospitable to me, and kind enough to work out a temporary membership for my stay. I’m looking forward to coming home in a few days, and swimming with my buddies at masters at my familiar fitness center. And if I see any confused, foreign-looking, towel-clad swimmers wandering the fitness center with goggles over their nipples, they’re on their own.