Long story short: When life gives you strangers, make puns

“Aha! I think to myself, I see you. My fellow punsters, I have found you at last! I am on a roll, and the sotto voce puns keep coming.”

Image credit Tiffany Chan

By: Melanie Hiepler 

Making friends takes effort — that’s one of the first life lessons I learned on exchange a few summers ago. I was in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, for Charles University’s Central and Eastern European Studies program. It was to be four weeks of cultural immersion, quality European beer, and endless inaccurate attempts at pronouncing the Czech letter “ř.”

But I digress. The second life lesson I learned that summer is that puns are a great way to sift through the crowd and find your people. Yes, puns. The worse the pun, the better.

Acquiring this wisdom went something like this.

On the second day of orientation, our program coordinators gathered our jet-lagged, culture-shocked cohort together and took us on a tour of Prague’s castle (side note: if you’re travelling to Prague soon, a tour of the castle is well worth your pennies). The tour included St. Vitus Cathedral, the massive gothic structure that dominates the castle grounds and that is arguably one of the most beautiful churches in all Europe.

Who was St. Vitus? I have to confess that I don’t know much about him, but at some point in antiquity, his arm bones became a highly prized relic in the Catholic Church. In 925 CE, Wenceslas I, Duke of Bohemia, acquired the saint’s appendage from Henry I of Germany. The arrival of Vitus’ arm in Prague was evidently a big deal, because it later featured in one of the bas-relief panels that decorates the doors to the cathedral’s west entrance. The panel in question shows Vitas’ arm resting on top of a large wooden chest, on either side of which stand Wenceslas I and Henry I.

Now, you have to remember that at this point, my soon-to-be friends and I are jet-lagged out of our minds. Hailing from Vancouver, Singapore, and all over the USA, we’re adjusting to Central European Time at different rates. Factor in Europe’s general disdain towards takeout coffee, and some folks are in really rough shape.

So we’re standing in front of St. Vitus Cathedral, listening as our tour guide shares the story behind these ornate doors, clumped together. The awkward, new-kid-in-the-room feeling persists, but though we fear each other, we are each other’s safeguard against getting lost or left behind, so we throw personal space out the wind and cozy up.

It’s at this point that I am seized by the sudden urge to crack a pun.

“These relics sure cost an arm and a leg,” I said. I whispered it just under my breath, just loud enough for the people around me to hear. I wait a beat, then go in for round two.

“Look, they’re handing over Vitus’ arm.”

The girl to my left stifles a snicker.

“That’s what you call ‘extending the hand of friendship,’” I continue.

In front of me, a guy’s shoulders are twitching in suppressed laughter.

“It must have been handy to have friends in high places.”

Several nearby mouths twist upwards in wry smiles.

Aha! I think to myself, I see you. My fellow punsters, I have found you at last! I am on a roll, and the sotto voce puns keep coming.

“Anybody need a hand?”

“Relics were quite rare, so I bet you couldn’t find one in a second-hand store.”

By now, I have the full attention of the people around me. They continue to face our tour guide politely, but I can tell by the slight smiles and tilts of heads that I have a rapt audience.

As the tour guide wraps up his story about St. Vitus and we move on to the next site, the girl next to me turns and introduces herself, still laughing. Within 10 minutes, I’ve met every person who cracked up at my puns, and I can tell we’re going to get along just fine. Anyone who can handle my rapid-fire tirade of puns must be a kindred spirit.

Indeed, for the next four weeks, these pun-loving people would be my community. Together, we slogged through culture shock and language barriers. We banded together for late-night study sessions and last-minute group presentations. We were bound by our mutual and shameless love of bad puns and dad jokes. The awkwardness of the first few days was gone; I had found my tribe.

A little piece of life wisdom: never underestimate the power of a good pun. It might just come in handy someday.