EVERY day shortly before noon, I boarded the gently swaying No. 18 tram and glided toward the center of Prague, then got out to wander on foot.
During one of those midday strolls, I fell in with three Czech pensioners taking their own constitutional. They were reminiscing about Paris. Places that caught my ear: Palais Royal Theatre, Montmartre, and Ile St. Louis. We got to talking - in English - and they invited me to lunch in a steamy basement restaurant. For once I did not have to point mutely to some item on the blackboard and hope for the best. My companions ordered for me. (The dish turned out to be pork and dumplings anyway.)
We spoke about cities - Paris and Dallas - where one of the men had lived for a while; and mostly, Prague. I told them that I felt showered here with music. On a typical weekday, I could attend a piano recital in a hall after lunch; whisk off on a tram to late-afternoon trumpets in a church; and at 7 - again on a tram - arrive at the Opera House for a performance of ``The Bartered Bride.''
Prague is a walker's paradise. I informed these natives, though, one must wear rubber soles because of the cobblestones. They had heard that New York, and perhaps also Chicago, had a more 20th-century silhouette. I allowed it was so. We parted agreeably on the sidewalk, everybody shaking hands with everybody else. Each of us started off toward a different destination. I shared a short walk with the whitest-haired person of my new friends. We stopped to admire a baroque doorway.
``Some day,'' he said, ``Paris will be called the Prague of the West.''
We chuckled together. Then he climbed onto the No. 16 tram. We both knew that Paris's glories cannot be matched in Prague. But Prague has a melancholy softness that cannot be matched in the City of Light. I reflected on this as I swung aboard No. 148. And Prague has something else that Paris lacks: It has trams.
Electric railway systems in European cities, supplanting the old horse tramways, were constructed during the last years of the 19th century. They quietly revolutionized urban life. They were cheap, frequent, fast, and safe. They made suburbs possible; working people could now live several miles from their inner-city jobs. Trams allowed different classes to mix, or at least to look at one another. They created Sundays in the country. By the 1920s, there were extensive street railways in almost every sizeable city in the British Isles and on the Continent.
But by 1994, trams had vanished from many cities and were greatly reduced in others. Their rails were torn up in the losing battle with the automobile.
Prague - charmingly obstinate, a lovable great aunt of a town - kept its streetcars. Untouched by bombs during World War II, the city did not need to reconstruct itself, to lay down acres of asphalt. Then for 40 years, state socialism gripped Czechoslovakia. Though living skimpily, the city's residents understood public transportation to be their right.
Today, seized by capitalism, Czechs scramble to catch up with the West and keep up with the people next door. Some citizens confess to a yearning for the old gray socialist days, when life was restricted but undemanding; when their jobs, boring but secure, left them time to play with the kids, and to dream of reform. Trams were good places to dream on.
They still are. There are 340 kilometers of tracks, and scores of routes; convenient transfer points and shelters to wait under. Sometimes a tram runs swiftly along a dedicated space - the center of a boulevard, say. Sometimes it shares the road with automobiles. Most tram cars are the standard orange and yellow, but a few have been painted by advertisers. The Coke tram is the red of the classic can. The Benetton one flaunts kindergarten colors. These painted cars are merry and ridiculous; the Prague cityscape graciously absorbs them.
Prague tram cars swerve around corners, sweep along avenues, and shimmy into old narrow streets. A special car with no chairs spends its days climbing and descending wooded Petrin Hill. Everybody calls it a funicular because it once hung from a cable. This elevator-on-a-slant hoisted me to a park where I visited a church, a museum, and a house of mirrors. Then the funicular swooshed me to the bottom.
This morning I set off aboard No. 3, headed for a monument in a southern borough. I spotted through my window a tiny park with a steeple poking through the grass. A buried church! I hopped off the tram without a moment's thought for thrift (my five-day transport ticket allowed me to ride anywhere, any time), and discovered a recently brushed-up pocket park. The protruding steeple turned out to be sculpture decorated with statues of the Crusaders. That reminded me to visit the Knights of Malta exhibit at the National Museum, so I walked half a block and boarded No. 9. And sometime later, peering into a glass case at a cruelly heavy Maltese Cross, I recalled my original destination. No problem; there's always another tram.
Sometimes on trams I looked out of my window. Sometimes I looked inward - into the car, that is. I watched a pair of women engaged in intimate and wicked conversation: two friends tearing a third to bits with their words. I watched an old man in a three-piece suit -
not a usual outfit in this city of hand-me-downs - take everything out of his pockets: keys, notebook, handkerchief, wallet, and ticket stubs.
One mid-afternoon on No. 22, I lost myself entirely in admiration of a talkative group of schoolchildren who boarded at a square. Each child carried a bright backpack, as useful and modest as the tram.
I had seen those backpacks before - in the Tokyo underground, in dusty rural Greece, and even in Managua barrios. Is it the backpack that will finally unite the world? I silently inquired; and does unite mean to live in harmony or to blend into sameness?
The riddle was still unsolved when I noticed that the students had vanished, along with everyone else.
We had reached the eastern limit of the route, where apartment blocks grimly rise. Flowers bloom on some balconies and laundry flaps on others. I got out and crossed the tracks and climbed onto the returning tram.
Back toward the center of town we now trundled, adding people at every stop. Although it was too late for grade-school children, we did pick up a slim woman with a five-year-old girl.
In her other hand the woman held a paper cone of chrysanthemums, upside down. How peaceably they sat, those two beauties, on their way home or perhaps to a friend's for dinner. They were using the tram not to poke their noses into other people's business, but to live their lives.
We rattled through downtown, crossed the river, and glided into a neighborhood of semidetached houses.
Near a clutch of stores the woman got out, her hand again holding the child's.
I found myself wondering whether the new, awakening Prague, as it widened her choices and those of her daughter, would also equip them with a bright blue sports car, or whether the tram I was riding on would end up inside a glass case at the National Museum, its passengers recast in papier-mache; their dream expressions transformed into wistful, painted smiles.