Stranger on the Bus

Americans in the Czech Republic are often critical of Czechs on public transportation, the way they all stare blankly at nothing at all and do not make eye contact, or smile, or engage in conversation, which is kind of a ridiculous complaint, really, because it is the case on public transport every where in the world. Who tries to talk to strangers on public transport? I generally find that when someone does, they are either crazy or up to no good.
Also, what do Americans know about it? Their visit to Europe is probably the only time they’ve even used public transport.
It was a routine ride, just 7 minutes long according to the schedule. I got on and sat down in the first available seat. I got the impression that the lady sitting opposite was irritated at someone sitting there, but that was not my problem so I opened my book (Lord of the Rings. Haven’t read it for years, and it’s every bit as good as I remembered.) and started reading.
“I was in the library yesterday.” She had a very soft, timid voice. At first I thought I was hearing something, in my head, like a disembodied voice. I looked around and then back at her and she was smiling and repeated it.
“I was in the library yesterday.” Did I know this woman? Former student, possibly? That happens, occasionally, out and about in Prague, after 18 years of teaching, and it can be awkward because I am notoriously bad about remembering faces, and names. Her English was good. Or was it just a conversational gambit, based on the fact that I was reading a book?
“Oh,” I said, not wanting to appear rude and, to tell the truth, I am all in favor of people engaging in conversation with strangers on public transportation. We have too little communication in this world.
I guess there was enough of a question in my statement to encourage her to continue. “I read a book on astronomy and a book on biology.” Well, that could be interesting. I’m interested in astronomy. I’m interested in biology.
I still didn’t know what to say, so I held up my slightly battered copy of the repository of Tolkien’s genius and asked “Have you read this book?”
“Oh no, I only read science books. No fantasy.”
The conversation lapsed after that, I decided to get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way. I was early so it didn’t matter and, despite the freezing temperature and ice on the sidewalks, there wasn’t much breeze so it was a reasonably pleasant day.
So, I said goodbye and as I was getting off the bus she called after me “Would you like a cigarette?”

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