I was riding the tram. I was without a ticket. I was broke. I was foolish. I should have walked. The inevitable happened.
A man approached with a golden metal badge. My heart sank. I knew better than to dismiss him with an airy wave of the hand, saying, “No, no, no, and I don’t want any of your Bohemian glass, Russian hats…” I’d made the mistake of thinking they were trying to sell me something before.
The inspection of tickets, or ‘controlling’ is curious in Prague, as it must be one of the few transport networks that still relies upon the honor system. There is a healthy relationship between the fact that it is up to the individual to take responsibility to buy a ticket, and, if caught without one, pay up quietly. Such a system could only be feasible here. If a man with the fashion sense of a taxi-driver came up and demanded money from you in London, for example, he’d get punched.
Call me an armchair anthropologist, but this system, which is implicitly based on generating the fear that one could be pounced upon by a plain-clothes controller and the assumption that a man with a badge of authority is to be taken seriously (rather than punched) is sustainable because of the previous regime. In London, for example, authoritarian figures are generally there solely for amusement. Ever see a policeman? Ever see a Beefeater? Ever take them seriously?
In many ways it is the perfect scheme:
Low on manpower and expensive technology, high on fear. Perfektni!
Well, not entirely perfect, as there are, of course, those stalwart fellows who devise exhaustive plots to outwit the controllers.
Tactics include using tickets only before 6 PM during the week and not at all on weekends, scanning the cars for likely inspectors, standing at the back at all times, and bailing out the minute the controller comes along.
However, the nervous system can only take so much, and after two near coronaries, and sweating kneecaps by the time you reach I.P. Pavlova (from Náměstí Míru) grown men have been spotted forsaking lunch at Radost to plow their money into a stack of tickets. And so they should. Prague’s transportation system is doubtlessly one of the best in the world: efficient, clean, punctual, and cheap. So why do so many of us lack the foresight to buy a pass or stock up on tickets?
An unanswerable question, it would seem; but controllers have the last laugh, as personal experience has shown.
For any masochists out there, being controlled is an extended lesson in ritual humiliation. Firstly, everyone on the tram hates you for fare dodging and is clearly gloating, having proudly pasted their monthly passes to their foreheads.
Then you issue a pathetic noise from somewhere inside. You fail to recognize it as your own, but realize it must be because you’re a journalist, not a ventriloquist. The noise mumbles something about the fact that your pass is at home and you are penniless.
At this point the entire tram realizes that you’re not from ’round these parts, and leans forward to catch an earful of dreadful Czech.
If you ever thought that ordering rolls in a bakery with a queue 12 deep was embarrassing, this is far worse. Under such circumstances, it may be worth bearing in mind a diversion a friend used to employ when in trouble with the headmaster at school: Whatever he’s saying, remember, it’s only words. Fine and dandy if the crime is sliding down the corridors in your socks, but the words “600 Kč, passport, police” are enough to jar you from your self-induced reverie.
I was once accosted by a superb controller, who not only spoke excellent English, but also was sarcastic to boot. After mocking my pitiful excuses, he demanded, “Where are you from?” I squeaked, “England.” He threw his head back, raised his eyebrows at all the other passengers, returned his glare to me, and bellowed “Oh. So you ride for free in London, do you? Hmm?” Another mouse-like sound escaped: “No.”
Owing to the fact that I had not a single korunna, I was hauled off the tram by the controller and his less voluble colleague and frog marched to the police station. I noticed we had walked past the station, when the controller pointed to a nearby restaurant.
In a flash of madness I thought he felt sorry for me and was taking me for lunch. Sadly, he was merely trying to imply I was moments away from a brush with the law, thus giving me one last chance to produce the6200 Kč he was convinced I had sequestered about my person. The fact that I was wearing what amounted to a bikini and carrying no bags at the time did not deter him from this belief.
We stopped. I made a great show of miming the emptying of non-existent pockets in the manner of a Dickensian orphan to underline my abject poverty, while he looked on in disbelief.
With more venom than a cobra, he slithered down to my level and hissed: “Walking is free. Go walk!” Needless to say, I bolted.
Of course, it’s Murphy’s Law that ever since that memorable day, I’ve always bought tickets and have never been controlled. Believe me, I’ve tried. My controlling experience is so vast that I actually recognize some of the buggers, so I make a point of standing next to them, furnished with a backpack and a map, asking where Wenceslas Square is. They won’t come near me.
I have a theory: as dogs smell fear, controllers smell the absence of a ticket. It’s a sixth sense; the force is with them, so buy a ticket.
Radha Burgess is a native of London and was an editor at the Central European Business Weekly. She now has a monthly pass. Originally published in Velvet Magazine, archived here. Photo by Sean Gallup.