Tourist guides state that Mozart's spirit lives today in Prague, like Dvorak's in the Bohemian countryside. That other son of the country - Kafka... his spirit's alive and well too.
Before the summer ended I decided to take a train trip to two great spas: Marianske Lazne and Frantiskove Lazne. I could do both in a day. I'd only have two hours in Frantiskove, enough to see the principal sites, and the rest of the day in Marianske - old Marienbad. Since I would be going on a Saturday, I took the precaution of getting an itinerary at the Czech Railways office. The staff was most helpful, and I left with a print-out of the following day's travel. I'd be leaving from Beroun, just west of Prague, on the rail route. At Beroun I bought two return tickets, showing my printed itinerary, being told there was a special discount if you bought two journeys on one actual ticket. Good. My friend and I looked forward to a relaxing car-free day.
The train was late arriving from Prague, so I asked someone if this would affect the arrival at Frantiskove. He shook his head: didn't I know there were engineering works on the line, and that we'd be at least two hours late - having transferred to and from a bus at somewhere and somewhere else? No, I didn't know. I phoned my contact in Marianske, who was expecting to show us the spa. 'Get off the train at Pilsen. By the time you get there, I'll be there to pick you up.' So when the guard came round, and having explained the situation, it seemed best if I kept my original ticket for a refund and bought new ones to Pilsen. So Frantiskove had to be abandoned.
Eventually, leaving Marianske, I asked at the station for my refund. 'No,' I was told, 'you have to do that in Beroun.' I said the ticket office wouldn't be open at the time we returned - and anyway, why didn't they say about the delays? 'That's your fault,' she said, 'you should have asked!' Love 15. 'Anyway,' she said, handing back the ticket, 'This is not a return.' What! Some mistake? Nope. Love 30. More tickets bought.
Some days later I did find myself in Beroun in regular hours. 'You can't have a refund as you must get the ticket stamped on the parts of the journey you didn't use to say you didn't use them.' But that's impossible, I pointed out - if I wasn't on the train, then I couldn't get it stamped. For that matter, why hadn't the guard I did see or Marianske station stamp the ticket? 'Otherwise,' she finally said to get rid of me, 'you have to do it in Prague.' 1st Match Point.
In Prague they told me that I could have got a refund on the day I didn't use the ticket - I mean, I should have come back from Marianske Lazne just to ensure I got this 348 Kc refund - minus, I was told, 75 Kc for the refund itself. Another Match Point. 'Try Beroun,' they said. Game, set and match.
The art of the Kafka Catch is to put your victim into an endless cycle, a slow-churning vortex from which there is no escape. 300 years under the Austrians, 6 years under the Nazis and 41 years of Communism have perfected the technique. No wonder there's a statue to Kafka... and it's of a hollow suit, an empty man, on whose shoulders perches the poor little guy: the refundless!