Friday, April 03, 2009

Prague (Pt. VII)

Note to readers: This is the seventh part of a recounting of my Grand European Tour, taken in the fall of 1999. You can read Part VI here.

No recollection whatsoever of where and how and under what circumstances Scotty (a drinker, he) and I caught the train from Berlin to Prague. None. Blank tape. Well, after all, Berlin was a rough couple of days, alternating between Prussian diurnal discipline and nocturnal depravity.

But the train ride, itself—that I remember.  A train full of international travelers: Aaron, (agreeable, mellow) , from California, beautiful Danielle (warmth, simplicity) from Brazil, and Dr. C. (swarthy, suspicious) professing to be a professor at Oxford. Scotty and I shared a compartment with this assortment of intriguing personalities until we stopped at the Czech border where armed guards checked our passports and hauled Scotty away because Australians need a visa to enter the Czech republic. Oops.

"Get us sorted in Prague, mate," said he, as the guards led him off the train. "I'll be on the next train in." Not a care in the world.

Train ride jam session... Danielle looks on
Onward! By the time the train was winding along the banks of the Elbe River our car was in fine fettle. Aaron and I played a little blue-grass jam. Made the train ride pass like backyard barbecue.

Prague. Even with her castle and opera houses and timeless architecture, the city has a certain quiet humility, as if unaware of her own beauty. After all, the Iron Curtain had only just been lifted; the Red Army had only just left. Heavy-handed Russians did all they could to suppress Czech pride and identity.

Danielle knew a place we could go. We negotiated the subway lines to end up at a hostel in the outer hub of the city. The hostel managers were Africans, an Eritrean and an Ethiopian. A hopeful, if somewhat puzzling circumstance, given the war raging between Eritrea and Ethiopia at the time. Got a room, unpacked, relaxed for a bit, then back on the subway for me. Back to the train station, hoping to find Scotty.

He was there, on the platform. Told a tale of sitting in a dark room, facing a Czech border guard, being compelled to buy a Visa. Neither of us was sure it wasn't just a shakedown. But Scotty was in Prague now so let it go, let it go.

Back to the hostel where Scotty dropped his pack. "Let's go get a beer," says Scotty (a drinker, he).

World-class brewers in Prague. Czechs laugh about American beer. They call it lemonade. We found a place. Knocked back a few. Locals were smoking dope in the corner. We went to have a look at the Charles Bridge.

The Charles Bridge, built in 1357, named for Charles IV who was not only King of Bohemia, but Holy Roman Emperor as well.  The bridge was lined on either side with Baroque statues. Buskers played for coin all along the length. Gawking tourists took it all in.

Along the Charles Bridge
We met two English girls, Jo (no nonsense) and Robyn (prim, friendly) that night. University holiday for them, and had come to Prague for a lark. They led us to the big fortress on the hill that predates even the Tower of London. The Prague Castle: it served as the home for Bohemian kings that the Swedes looted in 1648 during the Thirty Years War in that god-awful bit of business between Papists and Reformists. Jo and Robyn had their guidebook and kept us informed about everything we were seeing. In short order we became friends, Jo and Robyn and Scotty and I. Scotty was sweet on Jo.

Gates of Prague Castle
Next day we agreed to meet in Prague's Old Town—Scotty,  Danielle, Jo, Robyn, and me.  Our group also included Ben (carefree, open-minded) from Atlanta, whom the English girls had met at their hostel, and Carlos (tragically proud) from Chile, whom Danielle knew from school back in South America.  We formed a clique, our own little family of Prague visitors. One of those magical spontaneous communities that occur on the Eurail network.

The Prague gang: Ben, Jo, Robyn, me, Danielle, Carlos, and Scotty
 A bistro table that looked out on the stone-paved square near the Astronomical Clock served as our point of rendezvous, from which we would go off in twos and threes to see the various sites.

Astronomical clock
Jo, Robyn, and I went to Wenceslas Square in the New Town. Named for Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia, subject of the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas." Czechs say that Wenceslas is not gone, merely sleeping in Mount Blaník with his army, awaiting the day when he will be called forth to save the Motherland. Sleep well, Wenceslaus! If you slept through 1939, when the Nazis marched into Prague castle, if you slept through the Prague Spring of 1968, when Soviets tanks rolled through the streets and crushed independent-minded Czechs, I can't imagine what you're waiting for.

Wenceslas Square
That night, we all went to a thing. Dr. C., the  alleged Oxford professor from the train, was having a soirée at a local public house. Socializing with Czechs who wanted to practice their English. Drinking. Lots of heavy conversation. Among many topics, a discussion of the various Latin-based languages.

Robyn (prim, friendly) said, "I think Spanish is a beautiful language."

"Bah!" spat Dr. C. "It is the language of slaves." Dr. C.,  (swarthy, suspicious) decidedly not of Anglo-Saxon descent, was an Anglophile in the worst sense. In the Rudyard Kipling sense. Carlos (tragically proud) was offended.

Dr. C. tried to mend fences. He pulled a quote from someone, some king: "When I speak to my accountants, I speak English. When I speak to my lovers, I speak French. When I speak to my soldiers, I speak German. But when I speak to God, I speak Spanish." Too little too late, I'm afraid. Carlos left in tears.

Scotty, well into his cups, says to Dr. C., "The thing is, you're just a bloody wog."

Danielle and I followed Carlos out.

Dr. C.'s soireé. (Dr. C. is in the back row, wearing a necktie.)
Danielle (warmth, simplicity) was drawn, out of kindness, to Carlos' hurt feelings. I was drawn, out of rakishness, to Danielle's beauty and warmth. We took Carlos back to the hostel. Then Danielle came to my room and I played her a couple tunes. Then I asked "¿Puedo besarte?" She looked mildly shocked, asked "Is that how it is done in your country?" I shrugged. She declined. But she was gentle about it. No hard feelings.

Next day. Our gang gathered again at the bistro near the Astronomical Clock. Ben and Scotty had not been to bed. Both stank of beer and cigarettes. They had decided to go on to Vienna that afternoon. Ben tilted his head toward Scotty, and said to me, "I'm not sure I can keep up with this guy."

Remembering Berlin, I said, "I'm telling you right now, Ben, you can't." Scotty smirked (a drinker, he).

So, Scotty and I said goodbye. It had been a long, hard road together. All the way from Stockholm to Prague. And now he was on to Vienna with Ben. Good luck, guys! Have fun!

So long, Scotty!
Danielle and I went shopping near the Charles Bridge. I got gifts for people back home and found myself a Soviet Air Force Officer's cap. But it was the last day for our little family in Prague. Carlos was going back home to Chile. Danielle was on to Frankfurt. Jo and Robyn back to school in London.

Jo and Robyn urged me to go see the Jewish Quarter and the John Lennon wall as they climbed in the taxi for the airport. "Take care, Dade," they said.

Then I was alone in Prague and feeling a little lonely. They were a lovely group of people. Scotty, Ben, Danielle, Jo, Robyn, and Carlos. All of us brought together by the most random of chances, to form a little community of friends from five different countries.

Next day I walked through the Jewish Quarter that the Jews abandoned when the Nazis came.  I visited the John Lennon wall, covered with graffiti and lyrics from Beatles songs. Some Czech graffiti artist had painted John Lennon's visage on a wall in the Grand Priory Square in the '80s, spawning a movement of Czech students, which they called "Lennonism" to irritate the Communists. Unlike the monstrosity that fell in Berlin, this wall endures.

Lennon Wall
But then it was time to catch the train. Time to go to Budapest.

To be continued...


kate said...

that was a wonderful read dade. of all the european sites to see, it is prague -- well the whole country really -- i want to see most. i would like to see warsaw too. for historical reasons.

Shus li said...

Internet connection: $30/mo.
Reading glasses: $3
Homemade coffee: $1
Escaping to Prague from the
comfort of my own kitchen: Priceless

Ridwan said...

Dade I like travelling through your writing here ... nice read fo' sure!

Still trying to figure out what exactly you asked Danielle ;)


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