Sharing Our Journeys: Phyllis Benjamin, Brno, Czech Republic

 Phyllis Benjamin

Adventures with Mozart: A Journey through Eastern and Western Europe in 1985

After a night on the lumpy, swaybacked mattress at the dreary railroad hotel in Brno, I was open to the possibility of a change. The young librarian at the town archive was friendly and solicitous—a welcome contrast to the bruising treatment I had endured at the State Library in Vienna. He didn’t speak English and I had only phrasebook Czech, but we each spoke enough German to manage. He brought me the manuscripts I needed to examine and asked about my research. Over lunch, we talked about the Mozart opera manuscripts I’d been studying in Poland and Berlin.

When the sleepy archive prepared to close at the end of the day, my new friend Martin wouldn’t hear of my going back to the dumpy hotel. “You’re coming home with me,” he insisted. “We have plenty of room. In fact, you can help me with a little errand. I just have to call my wife to let her know to expect a guest.”

Finding a working phone and getting a call to go through in Czechoslovakia in 1985 was not a trivial task. After half an hour of trying, we gave up and went to meet Martin’s father, who was to help us with our task.

The “little errand” turned out to be a 20-­foot-­long carpet that the family had been awaiting for several months. Luckily, I had checked my bags at the train station, so I had a hand free to help carry. The three of us shouldered the carpet, which felt like a battering ram, and tottered down the narrow street to the bus stop, where we attracted a number of suspicious stares from the crowd of commuters waiting to board.

The bus driver was no more thrilled than the passengers to see us show up with our exotic cargo. He stood by disapprovingly as we wrangled the carpet aboard amid curses, grunts, and mutterings. There was no place for the rug other than smack in the middle of the aisle, so it lay there like a dead elephant while the passengers, with a surreptitious kick or two, climbed over it, sat on it, and piled their own bundles on top of it. Martin’s father took his leave, and I began to wonder how Martin and I were going to unload this beast at the other end.

The bus chugged out of town and started laboring up the winding road to the suburb where Martin’s family lived. I noticed that the bus was articulated, which made perfect sense for going around hairpin turns. Unfortunately, the carpet was not articulated, and it did not want to bend in the middle. Every time the bus whipped around a turn, the ends of the carpet banged against the seats, straining to resist the bus’s V­shape, while the central part snarled and groaned along the developing crease at the bend. By the time we got to the last stop, the rug was hunkered down for dear life, and Martin and I sweated despite the November chill as we pried it loose under the bus driver’s stony glare.

Now it was just the two of us carrying the carpet. Uphill. I plodded along, thinking I must be out of my mind. What was I doing here with a perfect stranger in a remote Slovakian suburb whose name I couldn’t even pronounce, climbing up a small mountain, carrying a rug that was obviously woven out of lead fibers and sized to cover a football field? And what was Martin’s wife going to say when she opened the door and saw the other surprise he had brought home?

“Well, this is it,” Martin announced, lifting his eyes to a square building at the top of another forbidding hill.

“Martin?” I puffed as I struggled to keep my end of the carpet on my shoulder. “What would you have done if I hadn’t stumbled into your library?”

Martin’s words drifted over his shoulder and slid down the carpet back to me. “Why do you think I insisted you come spend the night with us?”

Brno Czech Republic