Europe 1987

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan 2018

Europe 1987

Today began with the realisation that when Mr Blaha left to stay at his grandchildren’s place early in the morning, he had left the door to the bathroom locked.  We therefore had no access to water or washing facilities.  Moreover, he had not left any contact details for us.

Therefore, we decided to go back to Pragotours to see if anything could be done.  Then, to make matters worse, we found that we could not get back into the front door – Czech locks are VERY secure and they have three latches that require multiple turns.  We managed to jump a queue of 12 people at Pragotours to tell them about our troubles which resulted in the husband (a taxi driver) of one of the employees taking us back to the flat, opening the front door for us, and then jemmying open the bathroom door – causing some damage but providing a huge relief for us.

One of the requirements of leasing a Citroën is that the driver arranges the initial service at the correct distance of 1,500 kilometres.  For our car, the requisite distance meant that we had to get the car serviced in Prague.  Fortunately, Citroën was the only Western car manufacturer with a service agent in Prague.  Unfortunately, it was not easy to find.

We had been given the address of Prague’s sole licensed Citroën service centre when I collected the car in Paris.  However, suspicions were aroused when we went to that address to find it was a magazine shop in a pedestrian plaza in central Prague with a window display of magazine covers showing swimsuit-clad women with very hairy armpits.  Needless to say, a pedestrian plaza is never a great location to try and get a car serviced, and the window display confirmed that the address was unlikely to house many Citroën-approved mechanics.

However, as we didn’t have any alternative address, we went inside and engaged in some very broken conversations using minimal English and lots of expressive sign language with the elderly ladies behind a shop counter.  Eventually I was convinced that it was worth driving to the western outskirts of Prague near the airport where a Citroën service facility named Autodružstvo Praha was allegedly situated.  It took a bit of searching as it was beyond the limits of any map of Prague we had or could obtain, but we did eventually find it.

I went inside to book in the car for its initial service the next day.  The attendant spoke good English, and was happy to book in the car for the following day.  Then he uttered the words that I heard quite often in Eastern Europe: “But there’s a problem”.  He continued “The Citroën must use Castrol oil.  The Soviet oil is rubbish.  We have only Soviet oil.  We have no Castrol oil.  The regulations say you must use Castrol oil.  You must buy Castrol oil and bring it tomorrow.  You must pay dollars or pounds or marks”.

I asked him where I needed to buy the oil.  “There is only one place”, and he gave me the address of the shop in Na Přikopě, the same street in central Prague not far from the magazine shop we had visited earlier that day.  So we drove back into central Prague and parked the car.  Thinking we had plenty of time to get to the shop selling the oil, and not wanting to be carrying 5 litres of engine oil around the city with us all afternoon while we did some sightseeing, we decided to do a little exploring in the Old Town before buying the oil.

We began our walk at Charles Bridge (Karlův Most), which is one of Prague’s most beautiful landmarks.  Built in the 14th century, Charles Bridge spans the Vltava River, joining the elevated western bank that houses Prague Castle (Hradčany) and St Vitus’ Cathedral (Chrám sv. Vita) with the flatter eastern bank that accommodates the main city centre that includes the Old Town (Staré Město) and the so-called (but still old) New Town (Nové Město).  We climbed the tower at the western end of the bridge, which provided exquisite views of the castle, the cathedral, the narrow laneways of the “Lesser Side” (Malá Strana) around the foot of the hill, and expansive views across the river of the main city.  Upon descending from the tower, we were all very hungry and thirsty, so we bought some food and sat down on the steps of the bridge to eat it.

Having finished our late lunch, we crossed the 520-metre long Charles Bridge, taking the time to admire 30 statues of saints as we did so, before walking on to the motor accessories shop that sold the Castrol oil.

Fortunately, they had the oil in stock, and brought it out from the back of the shop, placing it on the counter.  I knew I would have to pay in hard currency, but I wasn’t expecting the answer I received.  “We cannot accept money.  You must pay in Tuzex coupons”  I didn’t have any of these “hard currency vouchers”, so I asked where I could get some.  “There is only one place”, and he directed me to the large grim-looking central bank on the corner of Na Přikopě and Hybernská, about half a kilometre away.  “But you must get back here before 5:00pm as we close then”.

It was 4:15pm, so I knew time was getting tight.  I ran along the street to the bank, but found I had to go to three different windows, each with a long queue – one window to order the Tuzex coupons, a second window to pay the hard currency and receive a receipt, and then a third window to present the receipt and receive the coupons.

To cut a long story short, I finally had the Tuzex coupons in my hand at 4:55pm, so ran back to the motor accessories shop, getting there just on 5:00pm.  As I approached the store, Di was out the front with the three children shaking her head; the store had already closed.  I peered in through the window and I could see “my” oil still sitting on the counter of the locked store.  What to do?

I knocked on the door of the shop, and knocked again, and then knocked yet again.  Miracle of miracles, the store operator came out from the back of the shop, unlocked the door, and exchanged the oil for the Tuzex coupons.  We had the precious oil in our possession, without which our road trip would have had to stop because a failure to service the car properly would have invalidated the lease.  It was worth a photo with Liesl standing in the plaza near the store holding our precious oil!

It had been an exhausting afternoon.  Having secured the oil, we had dinner in the city at a fast-food restaurant before returning to the flat to give the children a bath, wash clothes and think about the next day’s itinerary.

Day 9


Tuesday 21 July 1987