Thursday, November 6, 2008

Postcards from the Edge

The weather had turned as we headed for the State Castle of Český Krumlov. I braced myself against a bitter cold that was as foreign to me as the country I was travelling through. We had left our bus parked on the edge of the historical centre, and set out on foot toward the castle. We trudged across a stone bridge,  the Vltava River rushing beside us. The cold had kept the crowds away and I felt for the tour guides who ventured out for a pittance. As we crossed the bridge, I spied an old man, his threadbare coat huddled around him. He looked to be in his seventies, at least, with a weathered face that mapped the hardships of a long life that had navigated difficult times. He stood at the end of the bridge and as I neared him, he opened one side of his coat, like a novice flasher, exposing his wares beneath. Inside his coat he wore piles of postcards that were strapped to the coat's lining. He tipped his cap with his free hand as I passed, pointed to the cards and then lay his hand palm upward. A small sign pinned inside his coat indicated the price per card. They worked out at about 10 for a U.S dollar. I watched hope fill his face as his eyebrows raised and his brow furrowed into a silent plea. 
"After the Castle," I explained to him. He dropped his head and nodded, his hope washing into the river beside us.

We toured the castle for the day, and I was glad to be indoors for the most part. The temperature had dropped further as we made our way back to the bus in the afternoon. As we approached the stone bridge, I saw him still standing there, his coat still huddled about him and the afternoon shadows growing long beside him. He looked tired and defeated but unwilling to leave. Selling postcards from the edge was, I imagined, his only source of income -given his age. As I walked toward him, I unzipped my money belt and reached in and grabbed $20.00. As promised, I stopped and enquired about his cards, the money still hidden in my hand. He smiled at me, drew his hands together in a gesture of prayer and then bowed his head. He raised his head and gave me a price. I asked for two cards and slipped him the note. 

He opened his coat, I pointed and he dealt my chosen cards and then began fossicking in his money belt for my change. I grabbed his hands and closed them around the note and nodded my head in protest.
"No change," I said to him. His brow furrowed and he pushed back his cap, clearly confused by the transaction taking place. I repeated my gesture and slowly my intention dawned on him. Our eyes met in mutual respect. We bowed to each other and I felt good knowing that at least there'd be food on his table that night - it may not be milk and honey but it came courtesy of a land by the same name. I never missed the 20 bucks.

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