stories >> 1999 - 04 - 24
|| I think I've lost Alan
He must've gone for jog
He's not answering my emails
Might as well be in Prague
-- Jordan Weeks, et al
Even though I shouldn't, I can't help but compare
this trip to Prague with the one to Paris. The only real similarity is that
they are both trans-Atlantic flights - and even I, who consider myself well-enough
traveled, have only taken three of these monsters in my life, so I suppose that
I can be somewhat forgiven for linking the trips in my mind. Other than that,
the trips couldn't be more different: I'm spending a week in the Czech republic
as opposed to the three nights in Paris, I'm traveling by myself this time,
it's a gorgeous Spring instead of a dreary November, and I am consciously slowing
down my pace. I still blame my heinous French malady on lost sleep and exhaustion,
and I am in no hurry to repeat my struggles with that evil
I leave on a Monday afternoon to take advantage of a reasonably cheap flight ($565, I believe). Jong insists, to my annoyance, that I get to the airport 2 hours early. Since she's dropping me off, I comply begrudgingly, and it turns out to be a great idea. My original flight plan is Austin - Memphis - Amsterdam, then on to Prague; for whatever reason, the plane flying in from Tennessee doesn't make it to Austin. Northwest Airlines makes a mad scramble and they manage to route me up to Minneapolis. I'm a hair late in leaving Austin, but with a silent prayer that my bag's going to make it to Prague and one of thanks to the Jonger, I'm on the plane and headed out.
Minneapolis is a numbing two hours crushed against the rear bulkhead. It's a window seat, in so far as it's not an aisle seat, but where the window should be is a blank sheet of white plastic, hiding your view of the internals of the jet engine a foot away from your head. The noise is astonishing. I sit next to a Polish woman who is going to France to work on some of scientific fellowship. I don't know too much more about her, since the majority of our conversation centers around variations of "Quite loud, isn't it?"
Touch down in Minneapolis, and I can quietly mark one more state off of my "visited" list (as of this writing, that leaves six still to get to. Luckily, one of them is Iowa, and we've got an office in Des Moines, so I have a good shot of getting there before too long). The Minneapolis airport has some sort of baroque symmetry that is beyond my feeble powers to comprehend, but thankfully our connection is just a few gates away. The Polish Scientist and I hoof it over to the next plane, and when we come up to the gate there are an astounding number of people waiting. We're heading across the water in a fat bellied 747, and a plane that big holds a heckuva lot of people.
And for some reason I think of an old random Led Zeppelin song:
I received a message
From my brother across the water
He sat laughing as he wrote,
"The end's in site."
Night flight, indeed. They have some sort of
tag team ticket checking going on here: the person who'll take my ticket is
way down by the jetway, but up here there is another person looking over our
tickets. This first person just glances at your ticket and reminds you to fill
out an "in case of emergency" section on the back: name, address, etc. of someone
to contact in case of catastrophe. Slightly annoyed, I ask her if I can just
write her name onto the back. Surprisingly, she says, "No."
Ticket filled out and deposited, I help the woman behind me in line carry her (extraordinarily heavy) bag onto the plane. I get her settled in and find that I have lucked out into an aisle seat. I'm sitting next to an elderly couple that's heading off to Nice for a few days and then over to Rome to visit their daughter. We chat a while through the takeoff and then they bed down for the night and I settle in for the eight hour flight.
By the time dinner come around, I'm famished. I had wisely eaten a bowl of pasta (read: mac and cheese) before leaving my apartment at 2:00, and now it's well after midnight and I'm extremely hungry and tired. I had requested a vegetarian meal, but since I've been switched around on these planes, I'm pretty sure I won't get it. They come by offering either a lasagna or a steak. I take the lasagna reasoning that at least I can dextrously scrape around the meat. To my surprise, though, it's a vege-lasagna, nothing but good old ricotta and spinach in here. I happily peel the thing apart, eating it a layer at a time (I don't usually do this, folks) and drinking the mini-bottle of cabernet they've brought along. After I finish dinner, I'm full, mildly buzzed, and very, very tired. As soon as I close my eyes, I am asleep.
We land in the Amsterdam airport, and it's a huge, cavernous affair that looks like it's only one-tenth full (it will look nothing like this on the way back to the States). I've got two hours lay over here, and good thing, because the gate seems to be on the other side of Holland. I spend the long walk talking to a grandmother from Minnesota. She's a retired farmer with nine (!) kids in various parts of the world. She's off to see her daughter in Prague. Her son-in-law works for Microsoft here in Eastern Europe, but he is fixing to go back to the States, so my grandmother here figured that she had better come out and visit while she could.
Two hours later we get on to the KLM flight down to Prague proper, and the Road Gods have kept smiling and giving me the aisle seat once more. I'm sitting next to two dark, striking women who are bubbling along in some language that I can barely understand. It sounds like Spanish, but it isn't. Basque? Who knows.
As the plane takes off, I fall asleep again. I wake up to see the Dutch stewardess leaning over me, straight out of Heidi with her blonde hair, blue eyes, and squeaky accent. She offers me some water, and as I settle back into the chair, it's obvious that the Basque speaking women are now talking about me. The one in the middle seat turns to me and asks, "Hablo Italiano?" or something close enough to make it clear what they're really speaking
Ah, brilliant world traveler. They're speaking Italian.
So I tell them, no, but I speak Spanish and can vaguely understand what they're saying. My weak grasp of Italian beats her non-existent grasp of English, since the only English she knows is "Okay!"
So we spend the rest of the flight trying to talk, me in my long buried Spanish and she in her rapid fire Italian. Our conversations tend to go like:
Her: (something incomprehensible in
Me: Uh.... Uh....
Her: (something else incomprehensible in Italian)
Me: What? Your grandmother and your head?
Her: (gales of laughter)
She does tell me that I have pretty eyes and
she asks why I'm traveling alone. I tell her that my girlfriend is back in the
States working. "Ah, tu novia" she says.
She tells me her name, which is so long and fast that I'm can never remember it, and she tells me that she's 24 and is going to the States next year to study English. She asks me if she can study with me while she's there. I'm pretty sure that she's making this up, but I tell her, "Seguro, seguro." We're landing in Prague now, so I ask her, "Como se llama esta ciudad en Italiano?"
"Praga" she tells me.
Bueno, bueno. Bienvenido a Praga.
Me: Vltava? (said as we cross over the
Vltava river, which runs through the middle of Prague).
Him: (grunting) Vltava.
I'm let off in the center of town at the "Nam.
Republiky" (which I think is "Repbulic Square"). I try to navigate to my hotel
and I keep going past it, getting lost, and getting turned around. One forgets
that cities in the US, even really old cities in the US, are only 200 years
old and most had the benefit of some sort of central planning. Not to mention
street signs. Prague, of course, is nearly a millenia old (the castle was first
settled in 967 or some similarly barbarically early date), and the streets twist
and twine together. One grace is that there are no back alleys; but this is
only because every freaking street is a back alley,
I finally find the Little Bear and push inside. The receptionist tells me that my room is number 35 and up on the "third" floor. As I huff up the stairs, another cultural lesson is learned: "third" floor in Europe is "fourth floor" in the US. After 3 1/2 flights of intricate steps, I'm pushing my key in to the lock of an unmarked door in a darkened hallway.
But what a great room! Tourism in the Czech Republic has been privatized for less than ten years, and one of the benefits is that all of the rooms are newly furnished. One of the odd side effects, however, is that there are lot of rooms squeezed into odd places, and this is one of them: the brochure makes note that "the pension is exceptional thanks to preserved Gothic rafters", and one of these rafters is preserved two feet above my bed with an ancient, but perfectly functional, iron hook wedged into the wood for holding wet towels, etc. The room is wedged into the eaves of the place, and it severely slopes on one side since it's, well, it's the roof over there. But I've got three sky lights, and the bed is adequately firm with a very warm comforter. The paint's sparkling new, and all of the fixtures in the bathroom are up to date and functional. The walls are a little thin, but since I'm stuck up and away in such an odd place, I don't have any problems with noise.
I fall into a good deep nap, then wake up to go back down and settle up with the woman at the front desk. I drink a beer sitting in the lobby, listening to some poor guy who got his pocket picked on the subway. He's talking to Visa in four different languages. The beer (a Budvar, since, I believe, this whole hotel was at one time the Budvar brewery) is clean and strong, and it's starting to get dark. I want to fall asleep at a normal hour to deal with the jet lag. I go back upstairs, eat a muffin I saved from the plane trip, and stare out the skylight. While I try to sleep, I hum a Claymores song through my head ("Back Roads", for those interested), and I smile to myself to think that somehow I'm giving the Czech Republic its first exposure to Gregg's band.
Fast forward to Friday, a few days later, and
it's early morning in Prague. Doug's wedding, the raison d'être of this whole
trip, isn't actually in Prague itself but rather in a town to the west called
Pisek. So Friday morning finds me checking out of the Little Bear without incident
- in the Czech Republic you pay for you room when you check in, so check out
is the relatively uncomplicated matter of returning your key with an accented
"Na skledano!" as you trip out the door. My handy travel guides tell
me that the buses leave from the Florenc subway station, and I've heard from
Doug that the bus is the way to go, so I descend into the subway for my first
trip on the Metro in Prague.
The Lonely Planet book cautions about the ticket machines, "Read the directions carefully, as they are not straightforward." I puzzle at the thing for several minutes trying to figure it out, and I'm not the only one: I end up helping a surly Czech business man get his tickets before I'm through. And the tickets themselves are as confusing as the machine you get them from: a metro ticket is good on subways, buses, and trams, but there are two kinds. One type is good for an unlimited number of rides for 60 to 90 minutes after you first stamp the ticket. The other is a sprint distance/fifteen minute affair, good for up to four stations of transport. It's not obvious, at least to me, which kind of ticket is which. Add into the mix that the machine will dispense a ticket good for some number of "pasms" (which one assumes means "uses"), and getting onto the damn subway can be devilishly tricky. It's all ameliorated by the price: at a mere twelve cents a ticket, I can tolerate a whole lot of irritation.
And once you're actually under way , it's a great subway. They're a trophy from the Soviet days, and apparently the Soviets were very good at building great subways. It's arguably easier to use than even Paris's fine metro, but it does have fewer metro lines and that wickedly complex ticketing procedure. Still, if you can read Roman letters, you can navigate the Prague metro without incident. The trains come every three to seven minutes, they say, and once I got my ticket worked out, it was a cinch to get to Florenc.
At the Florenc station, I find an "Autobus" window and hold up the immensely useful map of Pisek that Doug's fiancee, Petra, has sent me.
"Pisek!" I say brightly to the woman in the ticket window.
She sizes me up, figures out I'm American, and tells me "Eleven thirty."
"Okay," I think, digging into my wallet.
"No, no," she laughs, seeing my take out my cash. "Time! Time? Ok?"
Oh, sure, yes, it's leaving at 11:30, and it's 10:00 right now, that gives me an hour and a half, so how much is the ticket? Turns out to be 77 Kr, which is an unbelievable $2.20. For a 100K ride, not a bad price at all. She hands me the ticket which says on it, "Metro. Andel." She points at the ticket and helpfully repeats, "Metro. Andel."
Andel? Metro? This is Florenc, right? She seems to be pointing down. So I point down. "Andel?" Down?
"Yes, andel!" she says happily.
Hmmm, I reason, andel means down... but this is a subway station... how can a bus leave from down there...
But I walk down to make sure, and yup, there's no bus, so I walk back up, find the Florenc bus terminal and wonder what that old lady was on about with all her "andel" nonsense. I match the platform number of my ticket to the bus platform (number 14), I sit down, and I idly read the signs.
Hmm. This here bus doesn't go to Pisek.
Back up, I wander around the bus station for an entire hour, cursing and sweating. Having to ask directions normally just annoys me, but having to ask directions in a language that I can't speak a stick of down right pisses me off. But I finally ask someone at an information desk. Amazingly, she doesn't speak andy English, but like an idiot I ask her, in English, "Am I in the right place?"
The most extraordinary thing happens. She gets this stricken look on her face, like I just thrust a handful of wriggling cockroaches into the ticket window and asked her in perfect Czech, "My, my, would you like a bite of these?" and she starts to lean as far back in her seat as possible without tipping it over. With extreme reluctance, she takes my ticket at it's outermost edge, takes a cursory glance at it, and shakes her head.
"No, no. Andel," she says, underlining the word.
Goddammit, I know about this freaking andel already. I've been freaking andel-ing around for a freaking hour. Again idiotically, I say, "Not here?"
"Andel. Andel" she repeats emphatically. "Station." She then starts avoiding my gaze altogether and starts rearranging her desk. Since she won't look at me, I lamely thank her in English just to be spiteful;, and I miserably drag myself outside. I stew in abject self pity, since I've got a ticket in my hand that leaves in forty minutes from somewhere in this city and I'm as lost as can be. I stand in the shadow of the Florenc bus station and I'm afraid I'm going to cry in front of all these miserable, American hating, bus riding Praguers.
Andel. Station. Yeesh...
Hey, wait a minute. Station. What other metro stations are on this line?
I flip open my subway map, and five stops down I see it : Andel! Station! Woo hoo!
Forty minutes later, I'm on my way to Pisek,
riding through the gorgeous Czech countryside. For whatever reason, I'm surprised
at how much the Czech Republic looks like the US. Kind of like Pennsylvania,
but with no trash on the roads.
I'm reading a book called The Ordinary Seaman by Francisco Goldman, and it requires a bit of Spanish to understand exactly what all of these Nicaraguan sailors are talking about. Qué extraña, I think to myself, lonely Golden Tortoise in a foreign land, armed with two different locally unintelligible languages. Se habla español aquí? Lo siento, amigo.
When I was getting on the bus, some nice Czech kid had pushed me to the front of the line since I had already bought a ticket and had a seat assignment, whereas everyone left on the platform was going to stand for the 90 minute trip to Pisek. I had found the last open seat and plopped down. The seat wasn't the one I was assigned, so I turned to the woman next to me and said, "Close enough, eyh?"
I'm sure she didn't understand English, so she replies in Czech, and I'm sure that it's something like "It doesn't matter, these buses fill up anyway." It's embarrassing, but I'm taking a cue from an old Maxine Hong Kingston book called Tripmaster Monkey, where she advocates exactly this kind of discourse, talking to people as if they understood what you were saying, and they talk back to you as if you understood what they were saying, and amazingly you can actually communicate some what like this. I also smile and nod enthusiastically, which is a surprisingly effective way to navigate your way through a foreign country.
The Road Gods have given me a dose of good luck to atone for my miserable Andel experience, so the bus turns out to be an express and it's exactly ninety minutes later that we make our first stop. I pulled the by now famous Pisek map out again and turn to my seat mate, asking "Pisek?"
|The Road Goes on Forever and the Party Never Ends: Sunday morning in Pisek.|
A few hours later, Doug finds me in the room.
Turns out I've been given the wrong key, but we straighten it out and head out
for a walk. Pisek is a small town of about 30,000 people located 100 kilometers
west of Prague (you're on your own to convert that to miles, you Imperial measuring
cretin). The main claims to fame of Pisek are 1) it has the "oldest bridge in
Central Europe" (though exactly what "old" and "Central" denote I'll never find
out) and 2) it's only five or ten kilometers from Petra's parents' house. We
trot around the town, catching up on our disparate trips, looking at the recently
renovated housing, looking at this old bridge they've got, and eventually ending
up on the square drinking a beer. One quickly learns that everyone drinks beer
here, and everyone drinks beer all the time.
We head back to the hotel just as it's starting to rain. Doug's friends from Austria, Andreas and Geralt (that's "Ger-ALT" with a hard G) have just driven in. Doug's folks are also there; they've spent the day out at the future in-laws'. Doug's dad has learned the "Rocks, Paper, Scissors" game in Czech, which is "Komen, Papier, Nooshki," from one of Petra's little nephews. For some reason, the name "nooshki" is hilarious to Bob and I, so for the rest of the trip we holler "nooshki" at each other like a couple of dopes.
Doug mentions food, and I realize that I haven't eaten since 8:00 that morning at the Little Bear. Growl!
So we all troop out around the town of Pisek, and try several different places, including a traditional Czech restaurant which has decided to, no kidding, try serving a Chinese menu for the week. We (probably wisely) skip this one and settle on a "wine bar" that Doug and I had passed earlier. The waiter turns out to be extremely patient and attentive. Doug pores over the Czech menu for the benefit of myself and his parents, while Geralt and Andreas luck out and get a German language menu.
"Okay, Alan," Doug says to me. "Vegetarian options are... fried cheese, fried mushrooms... uhm, a salad... another kind of fried cheese... and... that's about it." I elect for the fried mushrooms, and I get my first inkling of another cultrual lesson that I am getting: "vegetarian," in the Czech republic, means either "fried" or "salad" (the next day I will end up eating two enormous hunks of fried cheese and three different salads). To underscore the lesson, the fried mushrooms come with a side of, what else, but french fries.
"What a country!" I tell Doug as I raise the glass of beer I had proudly ordered myself, "I could never look myself in the eye in the States and tell myself that I was really eating this for dinner!"
We finish up, send Doug's folks off to bed, and the four us wander down to the City Hotel bar for an impromptu bachelor party.
"Pivo, prosim!" we cheerfully holler into the crowded bar. Doug keeps telling us that he has to stay sober for the next day, but Geralt is scolding him. "Nonono! You have to drink as much as Andreas here!" Andreas has an established reputation of being able to drink limitlessly and still sit nonchalantly, listening to the conversation, listlessly and endlessly smoking his Gauloises. I try to remember all of the German drinking toasts I've come across and I finally degrade to singing Trio: "Ich dich liebe nicht, du mich liebst nicht." Unh hunh. At some point in the night, four shots of becherovka, the local cinamonny pipe cleaning swill that passes for hard booze, appear at our table. I look over my shoulder and see the owner of the hotel toasting us and Doug's good fortune.
Absolutely no one else in the bar understands English, but the three waitresses keep laughing good naturedly at me when I get up to the bar and order "four pivos!". A dozen drunken Germans are hollering next to us and routinely trip over my leg in the aisle. Doug keeps quoting Kant to them, auf Deutsche natürlische. Doug also tells Geralt that the owner's brother is some sort of NHL big shot. Turns out that Geralt is a rabid hockey fan, and he stumbles over the bar and starts an animated conversation.
Many, many pivos later and the waitresses are chasing us out of the bar. Doug and I make it back upstairs to our room, where they've got the radiators blowing full blast and it's wickedly hot. I fall asleep on the bathroom floor and Doug will end up muttering Czech to me in his sleep all night long.
Geralt and Andreas, on the other hand, clean out the minibar in their room. I don't know if it's true, but Geralt tells me he drops off first, watching Andreas look out the window as he lights one more Gauloise.
|Petra, her father, and her two scampy nephews|
|Doug's dad hoists a pivo in Pisek|
A day later, and I've managed to make my way
back to Prague. The Little Bear was filled up for the night, so I'm staying
at some other place down the block. The woman tries to convince me to pay with
cash instead of credit, but come on. She's brand new at her job and doesn't
at first recognize my reservation, secured so many days ago at the Prague airport.
She calls up the airport and my little bit of Czech is good enough to hear her
say, "Dobre, dobre, ok." In any language "good, good, ok" means that you've
gotten what you wanted, so I relax a little as she figures out my room situation.
She gives me one on the fifth floor (which, of course, is the sixth floor).
"It's a lot of walking," she says while sizing me up, "but you are young, it
will be no problem." As we huff up the flights, I think, "Thanks, missy."
The view out my window isn't justified by the lousy picture I took. I had a reasonably nice view, but I found out that if I opened the window and crawled out onto the drain pipe, I got an even better view. And I reasoned that another six feet to the left would be even better, but that drain pipe didn't look like it was going to support my full weight. So I stuck my arm out and tried to aim the camera at where I thought things would be... it of course got some pointless picture of a bunch of rooftops. C'est la via.
It's not even lunch time yet, so I head on out to recap some of my favorite sites of the trip. I'm already gassing on too long, so I won't mention the late rainy night at Radost FX, or standing at the end of the Charles Bridge and looking up at the gashes in the wall where axe wielding guards sharpened their weapons over the centuries, or the Hare Krishna buffet they've got cooking in downtown Prague,or how you can drop down into the subway and see the 700 year old foundations of the bridges around town.
I head back over to the Mala Strana, which is on the other side of the river from where I'm staying, and I look for some place to eat. I've spent almost nothing here in Prague: excluding rooms, I've spent a measly seventy five bucks for a week's worth of the Czech Republic. And the fact that it's 33 or 34 crowns to the dollar means that I've got some 500 and one thousand crown notes in my pocket. Of course it's not exactly the same as having a $500 bill burning in your wallet, but just looking down and seeing five centuries worth of cash lets me trip down the street with an unfamiliar thought in my head: "Damn, but I've got a lot of money."
I pass by Little Glen's, the finest place for a Bass on this side of the Danube, and I angle towards "Bohemia Bagel," a little cheezy shop who's there just for the teen-aged expat types who come to Prague to hang out and be cool. Unlike, say, me of course. Inside, I get a bagel and a cup of coffee and hunker down to write up the story of Doug's wedding. There's U2 playing on the radio, and the only non-English speakers in the joint are behind the counter. Cantone will tell me when I get back, "Oh yeah, I was going to tell you to stay away from that place."
After the bagel, I hop outside and notice that I'm across the street from Petrin Hill, what boasts to be one of the town's best parks (though Kampa Park gives it a pretty good run for the money). There's a weird little train that goes to the top of the hill, but I decide to hoof it up the winding paths. It's well past noon now, and the sun is getting behind a few clouds and it's decidedly cooler. As I get up the hill and above the city a little, I'm stunned to see that the park is laid out in rows of flowering fruit trees. Going from the hyper-urbanization of a thousand year old city into this forest is astonishing to me, and I keep gaping back over my shoulder at the city laid out below me.
|Petrin Hill, the most peaceful place in all of Prague.|