Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Herbie the Love Bug
From Walt Disney’s “Herbie” to Stephen King’s “Christine”, the big screen has always had a soft spot for the automobile. Come up with your own magical means of transport, give it a name, some personality, and take it for a spin around the block.
The Central European Species of Tram
By Connie Phlipot
A genus or species of street cars (trams) inhabits Central Europe — their habitat extends from Helsinki and St. Petersburg in the north to Budapest and Belgrade in the south. They are related to the similarly shaped vehicles in the West and Mediterranean countries, but bear distinctive differences. The Central European variety, for example, tends to grumble and wheeze as it roams its city. Shaking is another feature, though I have not found that noted in the typology. The Western cousins glide smoothly, noiselessly. You don’t notice their presence. You can sit and read a book, entranced until you miss your stop. No so, for example, in a Warsaw tram. You never forget to get off after having been thrust forward into the railing every time the vehicle stops.
The Central European types have quite distinctive personalities. Let’s take the first one I knew well — the twins 13 A and B in Helsinki. Like Finns in general, the 13s were outwardly shy, staring down at their wheels when stopping at a light rather than exchanging glances with other street cars. But they had a playful side as human Finns do as well. Their course was a figure eight; two entwined figure eights. Confusing in itself but made more so by their habit of switching directions. Some days A would go clockwise and B counterclockwise; somedays the opposite. Usually it made no difference as it was a short run and you could get to your destination either way. It produced a moment of panic though as you looked out and saw a different side of the peninsula than you were expecting. The 13 would make a soft little sound like a snicker as the confused passenger jumped from his seat in surprise.
I asked a woman at the tram stop whom I was sure was Finnish, which tram went in which direction. She looked down at her shoes for inspiration, then shook her head. “I have no idea. Thirty years I’ve ridden this tram and I have no idea.”
The Number 10 that ran down Puławska in Warsaw did not deviate its path on its own volition. However, city planners were always changing the routes. As if they could find a new logic that would make up for the lack of adequate tracking. Number 10 and its brothers nine and 62 would protest the changes in good Polish tradition. The first tram along the line would disengage its boom from the power line overhead, demobilizing itself. The tram operator had no radio or telephone contact with the trams behind, so very quickly, especially at rush hour, the trams would be stuck in a line from the center of Warsaw to the new part of Motowska, their freed booms waving merrily like butterfly antenna enjoying the spring flowers.
Despite this rebellious tendency, the Warsaw trams are homey creatures, frequently talking to their patrons. Drunks would lean their faces close to the ticket validator to have a conversation. I could not hear the tram’s end of the talk, but the drunks always seemed satisfied with the response.
As anyone in a city crisscrossed with tram tracks knows, the tram poses some risk for other forms of transportation. The two-way tram traffic on the Ringstrasse being a prime danger to the unknowing tourist who only glances to the right. St. Petersburg trams are notoriously aggressive to cars — apparently revenging the automobiles entry into the transport system they were rightfully in control of. In the case of car meets tram, the tram always wins. This phenomenon motivated the kind-hearted Warsaw trams to provide warnings. Video monitors like the ones that show charming cartoons or news in some cities in Warsaw roll a short film about the dangers drivers face turning into the path of a tram. The show is not any less gruesome for having mannequins play the lead roles. I wondered watching this scaring scene for the 100th time how this being shown to the tram passengers was an effective message to drivers.
I’ve noted that I’m particularly attracted to the Central Eastern tram species, but I have a warm spot for a particular tram in Rome. Trams don’t dominate the public transportation system of the eternal city. The trolley bus is more flexible for a city of narrow winding, cobblestone streets, but trams did figure into the transit from the Vatican City to my apartment in Parioli. A friend and I were coming home in the early hours of the morning from Christmas mass at St. Peters my first winter in Rome. Jazzed by the wonder of celebrating Christmas in such a venue, we got on the tram not realizing it was not going where we wanted to go. Ours didn’t run at night, it turns out, and the “nocturnal” trams have different routes. Worried about finding our way in the pitch darkness, we asked the tram driver for advice. He shrugged and made that non-committal sound that Romans make. We looked out the window in despair. The dimly streets looked familiar— we were in our neighborhood. Our Christmas tram had deviated from his route to bring us safely home.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus. She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe.