Europe | Czech Republic | Prague – A Birthday Czech
I heard the warnings: Prague will be swarming with Americans they said. They tried to convince me to go elsewhere, but the pulse of Prague has kept me awake at nights off and on for the last five or so years. I´ve so wanted to see it and even swarms of Americans could´t keep me away. Plus, I figured that this time of year, when the Czech sky is a bleary grey that I would not encounter the tourism overflow, a standing room only of city attractions.
How wrong I was! Prague is awash in tourism. Not just Americans and British coming to take advantage of a good exchange rate, but all sorts of Europeans and even tons of Czechs from the surrounding areas. This place is, indeed, swarming. I imagine that even in the last two years as Czech prepares to take a seat in the esteemed European Union in 2004 that things have changed dramatically. Cheap really isn´t cheap here anymore and I´ve easily spent more money per day in this republic than in Germany.
But cheapness aside, Prague is still something to see. I was a bit disheartened this afternoon as I was pushed aside by other tourists in the Prague Castle. Truthfully, I didn´t care much anymore. I´d had it with Prague by noon. But she was redeemed when I took the two glass elevators to the top of the City Hall for a breathtaking view of the red tiled roofs that make Prague? cityscape so incredible. The outline of the roofs could make you dizzy with their crooked charm. I would never want to own one of those roofs, to be in charge of it, but I could certainly gaze upon those heights all afternoon long.
I arrived in Prague just yesterday afternoon after a short train ride along the Elbe River from Dresden. The Elbe was responsible for the terrible floods in Dresden last year, but yesterday I found no fault in it at all, such a beautiful companion for the journey. Once in the heart of Prague, I asked a young Czech guy for some help transferring into town on the city trams. Despite our complete lack of a common language, he was so helpful and friendly, offering me not only his spare transport ticket but also pointing out the exact street I needed to take when the tram stopped. Somehow through gesture and antics I managed to understand that he was an actor from the outskirts of Prague just in town for his play tomorrow afternoon. Again, the kindness of strangers made the day a bit warmer.
At the hostel, I checked in easily to a ten-bed dorm room, which from the scent that wafted to greet me as I opened the door was obviously a co-ed room. This is not my first pick, but for about 10 US dollars a night, I do not complain. What I could complain about however was that the hostel staff grouped us, apparently, by continent. We are all from North America, only three of us Canadians. I feel for the couple from Montreal amongst all of us English-speaking Americans. I immediately befriended the Canadian girl, Nicole from British Columbia and we took to the streets of Prague before the sun set so early in the afternoon. I stood in the middle of the plaza in shock that here I was in Prague, a place I´d only dreamt about for so long, in fact, a place that had practically haunted my dreams, a place I wanted to exorcise from my blood. But a beautiful and enchanting city nonetheless.
Nicole and I soon found a nice restuarant for dinner. It was my birthday after all, and though I´d just met her hours before, she was adament that we celebrate in style. We chose a place with a pretty typical Czech menu, and in fact, we were the only Americans in the place. How nice! She had beef goulash and dumplings and I had pork schnitzel. The waitress convinced us to order some sort of liguor apertif, which can best be described as a combination of Christmas and mouthwash. We ate and talked and ate and talked. And at one point, I felt we were being watched. Sure enough, I looked over to the table in the corner and it was obvious that the family there were discussing us. What they were saying, I could not guess. I felt embarrassed and exposed. But a few minutes later, the waitress returned with two more of these Christmas shots. We looked confused and she said, these are for you, from the man over there. The man was actually a guy about our age. We smiled, but weren´t so sure what we were to do. So I raised my glass in his direction, said thank you, and enjoyed what I considered my accidental birthday toast.
Later in the evening, Nicole and I went out with plans for a night of dancing. We were sitting in the corner of a bar, me with a pivo or beer, and she with some bitter vodka drink she couldn´t even sip, when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me something in Czech. I turned around to see a slavic-looking girl. I said to her, I don´t speak Czech. Then she switched to English, perfect English and said, Do you know of somewhere more hip to go. This struck me as funny because she was the native Czech and I the visitor. The two groups merged and we quickly ran into the small-world theory…
This girl that had tapped me on the shoulder was born here, but moved to the States as a teenager. She moved to Fairfield, just an hour or so from Sacramento and in fact visited Sacramento often. Her cousin who was with her was a Canadian, from the hometown of Nicole. The world is, indeed, shrinking. It is harder to find something unique but I almost prefer this constant small-world reminder to the need to ingest all things foreign. Our party grew double the size and we were soon on our way out for some dancing.
As you know, I adore dancing. I was thrilled to be heading out to boogie on my birthday. We ended up at the club right next to our hostel, which was a two story techno haven. But try as I might I just find techno uninspiring, or at least this techno. My body, usually so pleased to move to the music, just doesn´t get the techno beat, but tries nonetheless. We finally moved to the drum and bass room where I was at times the only one the dance floor or one of ten. Much better, much easier, more fluid dancing and more akin to the hip hop I prefer. And even better, when the night of dancing was done, we walked just next door and continued to listen to the music deep into our dreams.
26 came alive for me in the streets of Prague, and I am born again into another year, which I believe is off to a beautiful, grey and bohemian start. Prague will continue to grow into something it never intended to be and will be less and less a place I want to return to, but I am ever thankful that I have been here now and that there continues to be so much wonder just outside the door. I hope to continue to grow into more of who I want to be with each coming year.