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Thursday, April 10, 2008

My good deed for the day...

Returning from a visit to our new building yesterday (see previous post) I came to the top of the escalator at the Muzeum metro station and saw one of the metro police with a young woman. At first I thought that the young woman was trying to get help in working the automated ticket machines, since they were standing next to a bank of them and they are not that easy to decipher. So I decided to stop to see if I could help.

As I approached I could see that the young woman was sobbing and I heard her say "I don't understand" to the unmoved female policewoman. I suppose I could have bailed but she looked so distressed that I thought I would at least see what the problem was.

Apparently, the girl had just arrived from the airport. She had purchased a transportation ticket at the airport but when she was spot checked (the metro police often check riders of the metro for valid tickets since the honor system is used, i.e. no turnstiles) the policewoman said that there was a problem. She would have to wait for the regular city police an dbe dealt with accordingly.

You can buy tickets that are valid for 24 hours anywhere within Prague, but there are also tickets where the validity is based on either time or distance (in zones). I listened to the young girl and explained that I didn't speak Czech but that perhaps the ticket she bought at the airport might, indeed, be expired. Not to worry, I said, they usually just want you to pay the fine and then you can be on your way.

I asked her if they told her the amount of the fine. 700 crowns, she said (about $44). That seemed a bit steep to me - I had expected around 400 crowns. I turned to the policewoman and asked if the fine could be smaller - and for effect I placed the thumb and forefinger of my right hand close together. I expected some answer in Czech that I wouldn't understand. But she said, in perfect English. "That is impossible". I didn't dare ask what was impossible about it since I didnt want to get arrested myself.

Hmmm. I asked the girl if she had any crowns and of course she didn't. She was just coming from the airport. Hmmm. I had another thought. "Do you have friends in Prague?" I asked. Yes, her boyfriend was here in Prague. Great - I would lend her my cell phone and she could call him to come and help her out. Then she quickly went on - "but his mobile phone is off, I can't reach him".

Hmmm. I knew I only had 300 crowns on me, well short of the 700 needed. If I wanted to trust her I could leave and find an ATM (there was one at my building just a few minutes away), get some money and come back. But that would take some time and the police might show up by then and take her somewhere else. Then one of those strange occurences - occured. I looked up and there in the station was an ATM, not 30 feet from where I was standing.*** I had never noticed it before. But I took it as some kind of sign and told her to wait and I would be right back. I walked over to the ATM and put in my card. While it was reading my card I began to worry "what if I can only get 1,000 crowns out of this thing. I don't think the metro police will make change".

Just then I heard the girl's voice behind. I turned to see the policewoman leading her away and the girl pleading "they are taking me somewhere else". They vanished around the corner.

I typed my PIN and, as luck would have it, while the machine didn't offer a 700 crown amount it did offer to spit out 600. I withdrew that and added 100 crowns from my wallet. I grabbed one of my business cards from my wallet and went to see if I could find them. Luckily, I turned the first corner and there was the girl and the policewoman - they had been joined by two Prague policeman.

I folded the bills so that they were smaller than my business card and walked up to her. I tapped her on the shoulder and handed her my business card, but in a way so that the others wouldn't see the money behind it. "Here is my card", I said, and then whispered that there was also 700 crowns if she needed it. And I turned and walked away. Her look as I turned was a mix of gratitude, relief and a little disbelief.

I didn't think much more about it the rest of the day and even forgot to tell Kathy about it when I got home (maybe because it would sound like a crazy thing to do). I had just cleaned up the dishes from dinner when my cell phone rang. That doesn't happen very often and so I wondered who it was. It was the girl from the metro. She had to use the 700 crowns for the fine and wanted to meet me the next day to pay me back. We agreed to meet in from of the National Muzeum right across from my office at 12 noon today.

She was right on time, and had her boyfriend and another girlfriend with her. She explained that the ticket she had bought at the airpotrt was indeed for a set time and that she had exceeded the time on the ticket by 3 minutes! All of this hassle for 3 minutes. The police had threatened to hold her for 24 hours if she hadn't paid the fine. All three of them were very nice and very grateful.

It was nice to act as a good samaritan, especially as an American. Also, I can't believe that Prague would allow this kind of treatment of tourists by it's police. It's not like tourism is important to the city or anything (//sarcasm//).

*** There was also an ATM even closer, just right around the corner, not 10 feet from where we were standing. I passed this one every day but only remembered it later.

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