Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Prague, Czech Republic

Posted on 8/9/03

A chance meeting with two adorable French Canadians in Vienna began my education on what to expect in Prague. They had just arrived from Prague and had a lot to tell me. I already knew that being an up-and-coming Second World country, the Czech Republic would have an odd mix of modern amenities (computers and cell phone abuse) coupled together with unpleasant Third World inconveniences (don’t drink the water and rip-off artists waiting to grift your ass at every juncture). I heard numerous stories of tourist loathing, pick-pockets so stealthy that they could steal your underwear off of you and “tourist prices” that were double what the locals paid. It had been years since I had to cope with tourist predators of this caliber. I knew that it would be frustrating and exhausting to have my guard up 24 hours a day, but I also knew that Prague had a lot of history, culture and general coolness to offer. And when you get right down to it, even the rip-off tourist prices were still cheaper than anywhere else I was planning to visit on this trek, so screw ‘em.

The castle was crawling with tourists

The tourist scene in Prague was easily the worst I’ve seen this summer. The train that I arrived on unloaded tourists into the station like a swarm of over-packed and under-prepared locusts into a corn field. The station went from having three drunks quietly napping in the corner to being totally crammed with people in about 30 seconds. The recent arrivals were staggering around in circles, hauling far too much luggage looking for money exchange booths, cash machines, taxis, buses, trains, accommodations, bottled water and maps. I could only assume that this phenomenon happened with just about all of the 50-some trains that arrive each day, so if you do the math, you start to get the idea of how many tourists were piling into Prague.

Surprisingly, the hustler presence at the train station was very small. There were just a few guys standing around accosting people to see if they needed rides, accommodations or “special” tours. Compared to places like Marrakech or even Cancun, where you can’t pick your nose without being aggressively offered assistance by a fast talking, gold chain wearing, wheeler-dealer guy, arriving in Prague was like arriving in Fargo. I was forced to join the conspicuously long line at the cash machine. To me this winding chain of dupes waiting to withdraw huge sums of money couldn’t have screamed “Please rob me as soon as I leave the station” more thoroughly than if they had posted a neon sign saying the equivalent in Czech, with a series of diagrams on how exactly to perform a successful mugging. My head was spinning around like a weed whacker, keeping an eye on no less than 40 or 50 people that were standing around to see if they looked even remotely interested in this slow moving parade of dazed tourists with fistfuls of cash. Everything seemed copasetic. No one appeared to be monitoring the group for the easy pickin’s. In fact no one seemed interested in anything more than getting the Hell, Norway out of that mob of people. I had locked my bags up while I was on the train and I had my hands in both pockets protecting their contents, but the reputed orgy of theft that I was told about didn’t seem to be an issue at the train station.

By pure accident, the hostel I chose was about four blocks from the train station. I didn’t know this before arriving in Prague, so I had gotten myself into character before getting off the train to face the task of learning a new metro system in a language that had absolutely no commonalities with the languages that I had studied. Up to that point, I had been coping with Scandinavian languages and German, none of which I could speak, but with the dim memories of the few years of study that I had in both German and Norwegian back in high school, I was more or less successful in picking out the roots of words. This remedial knowledge allowed me to order food, do simple transactions and follow directions on ticket dispensers. Czech on the other hand might as well have been Martian. It became immediately clear that I couldn’t decipher a single consonant. As I was heading to the metro, dreading what I knew would be a painful and hopeless exchange with the ticket guy, I happened to look up just in time to see the name of the metro stop that I needed on the marquee of the station. That half second of quick name recognition saved me what would have undoubtedly been about 45 minutes of spirit crushing confusion.

Europe had been in the warm, sweaty butt crack of a heat wave for weeks. The temperatures in Prague were the worst I had dealt with up to that point. Berlin was pretty bad, but this was a whole new level of bad. Not horrible, but worse than bad, whatever that is. “Super bad?” “Bad plus one?” Anyway, in the time it took me to trudge four blocks to the hostel, I was a total mess of sweat and grime. The A & O Hostel (A.K.A. Arena Hostel) was not near the Old Town or any tourists areas or even near a decent restaurant, but that didn’t matter. For the most part, A & O was your typical, forgettable hostel. The rooms were nothing special and the men’s bathroom was notably wretched, but all of that became an afterthought when I discovered “The Underground, ” A & O’s basement bar/restaurant. I fell in love with the place immediately for several reasons. First, it was deep underground (hence the name) with a rock and brick interior and no windows, making it the coolest place in Prague by both definitions of the word. The staff was friendly, though like everywhere else in Europe they were typically lacking the desire to provide prompt, quality service. The drinks were cheap, but the icing was the one man, exhibition-style chef service. Timo was a highly trained German chef and he worked magic every night with the small menu that they offered and the nightly specials. Something as simple as penne pasta was transformed into the equivalent of fillet mignon in his hands. And he made omelets! Not like the poseur “omelet” I was served in Vienna. This was an honest to goodness, freak-out, eye-swimming, orgasmic omelet. I almost burst into tears when I put the first bite in my mouth and I barely fought back the urge to climb up on my chair, scream “Captain, my captain!” and salute him. I had dinner in the Underground nearly every night. My usual desire to move around and sample the various cuisines in each city was totally circumvented when I figured out by the second night that Timo was the best game in town. The one night that I didn’t eat at the Underground was the worst meal I had all summer. By the way, the next time that you are in Prague and you see “tortellini with ketchup sauce,” it’s not a translation goof-up for tomato sauce. They really serve it in ketchup. Yeah, it was effing awful.

I acquired what may have been the best city map of my entire trip in Prague. The front was easy to read and had every street, clearly marked as well as listing all of the tram and metro routes and stops. The best part was the irreverent, hilarious comments on the back describing Prague, highlighting several bars, restaurants and service as well as providing translations for key phrases that you might need during your stay in Prague like “Are those false teeth?” and “Please may I fondle your buttocks?”

The biggest local mind-screw came in the form of an unfortunate Czech vocabulary choice. Turns out that the Czech word for ‘yes’ was “no.” Obviously this caused problems for me all week, i.e. while trying to order a Coke, when the vendor pointed at the Diet Coke, I blurted out “No, no, God no!” and consequently I was served the diet crap.

The heat in Prague never abated during my five days there. Like clockwork, I woke up sweating like a meatloaf at 8:30 each morning and I kept sweating all day until I descended into the Underground each evening. After three days I couldn’t take it anymore. I bought the all-day pass at the public pool and paddled around for hours, submerged from the nose down like an alligator. The water was cold and rejuvenating and the topless women were plentiful. I hate to admit it, but when you consider how much we were suffering in the heat, the pool outing was probably the most brilliant thing I did while I was in Prague.

I was able to pry myself away from the Underground and my laptop on Saturday night for an outing with about 10 Australians at the dance club Roxy. Unfortunately the heat inside the Roxy was even worse than outside which was still like a Russian steam bath at 11:30 PM. We managed to hang in there and dance for nearly an hour before we were all feeling too woozy to even sit and watch other people dance. The DJs in the Roxy were like rock stars. There were several spotlights trained on the prominently displayed DJ booth and the DJs did a fair amount of dancing around, pumping their fists and leading the crowd in clapping and hand waves. The crowd watched them and hung on their every move like it was a Backstreet Boys show and the DJs shamelessly milked the crowd for cheers every few minutes. According to my fabulous map, the Prague nightlife appeared to have endless offerings, but with the heat being unbearable for 22 hours a day and the incredibly close proximity of the wondrous Underground, I ended up sticking close to home in the evening for the rest of my stay.

Prague had the most impressive, far-reaching tram service that I had ever seen. More importantly, it ran with delightful frequency seven days a week, so I was never stranded anywhere in the freakish heat for too long. There was only one huge glaring problem with the system. There only seemed to be about 10 ticket machines in the whole city and half of those were perpetually out of order. I didn’t have the time or patience to scour the city for a functioning ticket dispenser every time I wanted to get on a goddamn tram, so I was forced to ride the tram without paying almost 90% of the time. This is not difficult since the tram driver’s duties did not include checking tickets or even selling them. There were rumors of under-cover tram agents running random checks, but I never witnessed this myself and in the event that I were to get busted, I decided that the comical $8 fine was something I could swallow, especially after enjoying about 20 free rides. The only unnerving part about the tram was that they showered down alarming amounts of sparks as they zoomed by from the over-head electrical lines that powered them. It was very noticeable and disturbing at night and I decided to give them a huge berth when they went by to rule out any chance of having my hair accidentally set ablaze.

The architecture in Prague was a highlight for me. They obviously took their time and made sure to construct buildings with some character. Like the rest of Europe, I was repeatedly stunned to learn that two and three hundred year old buildings, that would have easily been historic monuments in the States, were still used for everyday offices and apartments. I spent a lot of time walking along blindly with my head cocked straight up to admire the buildings which were typically topped off with ornate over-hangs and statues on all four corners of the roofs.

Someone was on acid when they designed this building

The language barrier was definitely a problem. Most people did not speak a word of English. Some could grunt out a few phrases in German, otherwise communication was handle by pointing and acting out little skits to get the gist across. After dealing with people that couldn’t even form a simple sentence at places like the royal palace, restaurants and the tram, I would often find a surprisingly fluent English speaker in the most unexpected places, like the 60-something car salesman that helped me with directions to the pool. In general, much like Berlin, I was forced to sort out things with no help. To their credit, the Czechs would often bend over backwards to try to help me, but with the language barrier anything more complicated than ordering ice cream usually sputtered to a halt of hopeless confusion and I was forced to just thank them and slink away to figure things out on my own.

It was probably just me getting more and more desperate for some romantic action, but the outfits that the women were wearing and the number of people going topless and yes, even buck naked seemed to be inching higher and higher in each city I visited. The Czech women wore outfits for just ever day walking around that were so scandalously small that you could barely blow your nose thoroughly in the amount of fabric that went into their skirts. Every time that I thought I had seen the shortest skirt possible, someone else would waltz by with something even more revealing. Even the female cops were in surprisingly short skits. I didn’t quite understand how they were expected to chase bad guys or beat shackled prisoners with their range of motion being limited from the knees up. Though everything paled in comparison to the outfits that the Czech women wore to go clubbing. Very little was left to the imagination and I was certain that if they wore these outfits in public in the U.S. that they would probably earn public disturbance fines.

I eventually had to grit my teeth and plow through the major tourist sights of the city. These areas were teeming with glassy-eyed, mystified people on Rube Tours (This is not an actual tourist company. I just made the phase up, because I thought it better defined the entire process.) as they tried to take pictures while following their umbrella toting tour guide and periodically haggling for incredibly heinous knick-knack souvenirs. Watching these situations made me physically ill. After coming all the way to Europe and then allowing themselves to be carted everywhere on chartered busses with their totally canned “tours,” never leaving the watchful eye of their tour guide and being lead like cows to the slaughter in the over-priced gift shops, it seemed to me that these people were the hapless victims of one big, fleecing. With the amount of actual unstructured, real-life experiences (or lack thereof) that these people gleaned from the Rube Tours, they might as well have just toured their destination over the internet. It would cost them nothing, they would get the same level of exposure to the country as the physical Rube Tour and they can still have all of those shoddy knick-knacks shipped to them. OK Leif, calm down. Take a Happy Pill. Ah, that’s better.

One afternoon a few hostel companions and I decided to rent a paddle boat and cruise slowly up and down the Vltava River. Being near the water and having a cool breeze made the effort of paddling total worth the work. The only thing we had to worry about was the huge tour boats motoring back and forth with the Rube Tours. These boats were so big and clumsy that it was expected that the little paddle boats would yield to the tour boats, no matter what. I don’t know if you’ve ever navigated a paddle boat on a river before, but your top speed, even going down stream is about 3 miles per hour and they are only slightly more maneuverable than a drunken buffalo. While the time on the boat was nice and comforting, the three of us kept a constant vigil for anything moving in our direction, so we could start evasive maneuvers as early as possible.

Like a moron, early in my stay I decided to walk all the way across the Old Town area, over the river and up the huge hill to get a look at the St. Vitus Cathedral and the royal castle. This hike was much more physically demanding than it appeared to be on the map and the brain damaging mid-day heat roasted me to a crisp medium-well by the time I staggered up last set of steps. I could have gotten most of the way there with the tram, but at that point I was still a little paranoid to about being clipped for riding without paying and spending the night in a Prague prison cell. Once I had reached the top and gulped down a one liter bottle of water, I got a good look at what is easily the largest cathedral I have ever seen. As a rule, European cathedrals are nauseatingly huge, but St. Vitus’ was in a class by itself. I was also shocked by the massive stained glass windows. Each one was more dazzling than the last. I tried in vain to take pictures of the inside and outside of the cathedral that would do it just a slight amount of justice, but even with harsh angles and the photo-stitching magic that I had at my disposal, I could not make the cathedral look even remotely as impressive as it was in person. You’ll just have take my word for it.

One little surprise that I had in Prague was the bathroom ladies. It is quite common in Europe for the bathrooms to be guarded by attendants that are supposed to maintain the bathroom, but they usually do little more than sit there and demand tips. These attendants tend to be older, obese women with few if any teeth. Typically, you pay them for their tireless dedication to sitting on a stool and reading their magazine while you are on the way out. In the Czech Republic, you pay on the way in and if you don’t the attendant will hop off her stool, burst in on you and shriek at you in Czech while you are reliving yourself. The payment cannot wait until you are done peeing or after you wash your hands. They need the money immediately. I discovered that the reason for this is probably so you can’t refuse to pay them for their “work” after you try to wash your hands only to find that the soap dispenser is bone-dry empty.

After sharing the tram with several over-ripe individuals, I started to see a trend in Prague where people weren’t familiar with or chose to ignore the concept of deodorant. This coupled with the endless heat wave made for several overwhelming encounters with the worst B.O. I have ever been subjected to, including France. It baffled me how someone could walk around all day with that smell wafting off their body and not be inspired to do something about it. Even minor, passing exposure to these people was so far beyond normal olfactory tolerance that it could wilt my appetite for hours. Screw the condom campaign, most of these guys will probably never need a condom until they get exposed to some deodorant awareness!

I left the Czech Republic without satisfying my self-appointed task of visiting at least two cities in each country. I had intended to spend a day in Cesky Krumlov which was by all accounts smaller, quieter and had more Czech character than Prague. I blew this trip off for two reasons. One, I had to be in Amsterdam by the weekend and two, the thought of spending a cumulative four hours on a bus in that effing heat, surrounded by the aforementioned Czechs that found deodorant to be a posh, unnecessary extravagance appealed to me about as much as drinking kiddy pool water.

After five days, I hugged Timo goodbye and boarded the bus for Amsterdam.

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