Let’s not talk about Prague. We spent a lover’s weekend there, Madeleine and I, around Easter, in an almost windowless attic room which gave the impression of being in some tawdry flophouse, with its mezzanine floor and half-closed blinds, dark, dusty, a bit smelly (we left an envelope with a couple of deutsche marks on the coffee table for the little racketeer who’d sublet it to us when we left).
And yet the trip had started off well enough. In Berlin, full of hope and using my German, which got better by the hour, I’d reserved two very promising train tickets for Prague in a travel agency on Kurfürstendamm, one of those large and prosperous travel agencies whose bay windows carry an ever-changing array of yellow and white banners with mouthwatering travel suggestions, listing prices and destinations with unbeatable offers for trips to the Balearic Islands, Florida, or Tunisia. I’d bought two train tickets for Prague, two first-class seats on the morning train that passes through Prague once a day on its way to Budapest, one of those old-fashioned trains that makes you drool just looking at it, all decked out with velvet upholstery with small nets for newspapers on the seats, pillow headrests, and lovely velvet footrests as soft as cushions and as round as prayer benches. No sooner had we left—our bodies reclining in our adjustable seats, our shoes already off—than we started to unfold our newspapers and flip through them leisurely, Madeleine and I, softly rubbing our stockinged feet; at first every man for himself in the unreflecting comfort of solitary reading, then, little by little, together, mingling our feet and arms to the unbridled delight of our senses, uniting our mouths in the euphoria of the voyage we were commencing, our legs, our hands, what do I know, our thighs, our hips. You don’t know how to make love in a train, she said with a smile.
We’d gone back to the restaurant car and, after a studious browse through the greasy old menus wrapped in wine-colored plastic proposing in Czech and German different types of sausage and pork embellished with an unavoidable side of potatoes, we ordered the most expensive dishes on the menu, pork and sausages, it was either that or fried eggs, asking our waiter to throw in two bottles of cold Czech beer. We’d already drunk a few sips of fresh Budweiser and were calmly eating our meal, now and then giving each other a bit of pork across the table, more like an attentive couple than enflamed and suicidal Bohemian lovers ladling sizzling drops of zabaglione into each others’ mouths with long silver spoons (as Madeleine and I used to do when we were young), when, in this almost deserted restaurant car whose touching old-fashioned decorations we found endlessly delightful, the sun suddenly shone through the clouds and lit up the Saxony countryside. That is the image I will remember from this trip, Madeleine and I sitting face to face in the sunny restaurant car on our way to Prague. The winding shores of the Elbe flashed by the compartment window as the train hugged its curves, chugging along beside the river, accompanying its bends and meanders. I’d finished my beer a few moments earlier and my whole being was bathed in the feather-light beginnings of drunkenness, massaging my temples like an aura of honey. Rocked by the imminent promise of Prague (which no reality, however small, had yet tarnished), I looked at Madeleine who smiled across from me in the fullness of our intact hopes while the air shimmered around us, wafting softly and lightly along the stitched lace curtains of the compartment window, above our plates, over the knives and forks, over our glasses, over our hands entwined on the table, over the flies.
From Self-Portait Abroad. Copyright 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.