8:30 Sunday morning on the train to Prague. Although yesterday was hot and sunny, it’s pouring down rain right now. Actually, that’s just fine by me. So long as my body can tolerate the ‘sweating in a tank top’ one day, ‘wearing three sweaters and a scarf and still feeling cold’ weather the next day without getting sick, I kind of like traveling in the rain.
The last couple nights have been loud – very, very loud – and I have my own room at Aparthotel Davids the next couple days. I should be able to catch up on my sleep (hopefully without anyone coming in the room at 4:00 a.m. yelling about how f-ing drunk they are), and presuming the free wifi is working, get some pictures posted to the blog and Flickr. However, I’m not going to get my hopes up too soon. I’ve had more places promise wifi in the rooms…and then it turns out there’s no wifi or internet anywhere. The most expensive and time-consuming element of the blog is actually finding the resources (web cafes, bars that offer free wifi for food + drink purchase, etc.) to post it!
Meanwhile, in addition to keeping upon the blog, with any luck I’ll actually take a look around too! The last time I was in Prague, things didn’t turn out so well. I had been living in Switzerland for five or six weeks, and decided to do some more traveling. Prague had only been a democracy for a couple years, and it was still very exotic and cheap, although (as is still its claim to fame), it had some of the only architecture in Europe that hadn’t been destroyed in WWII, and was purported to be a spectacularly beautiful.
If you’ve been following this blog all along (or are the thorough type that has gone backwards), then you probably recall some of what I’m about to tell you. If so, my apologies as I catch everyone else up: Before leaving on my trip in 1992, I had met a man who was staying at the Howard Johnsons (at a five star joint like that, you can tell he was the real high roller) while I was a lifeguard there. He was older than I am now, but full of stories about how he was going to move to Prague and make movies for HBO or start his own CNN and how everything was so cheap there and opportunity was down every alley and anything was possible. He was the one who suggested I should backpack Europe.
So he went on his way and a couple weeks later, one of his colleagues shows up at the same motel, and by then I’d decided to make the trip. The colleague gave me his number to call him collect with anecdotes from the road. I remember so well that I had no idea what anecdotes meant. I thought it was like antidotes. On the one occasion I called, he asked me to tell him an anecdote, and I had to admit I had no idea what he was talking about!
Anyway, I only called one time – and I’m not even sure why, probably just homesickness or wanting to speak English with someone – and he gave me the phone number of the first guy (Eric) who was now in Prague. So when I found myself there in late November and realized this was not a city easily navigated or where anyone spoke English, I decided to call him.
I had a bed at a hostel and after getting settled in there, I went to meet Eric…I think at the train station. Right away he was creepy and strange, even though we hadn’t really known each other very well previously. If I were then who I am now, I would have walked right out. However, I imagine I felt intimidated and out of place in this town, so for reasons unknown, I went along.
As I’ve mentioned before, I was vegan (so not just vegetarian – no meat, poultry, or fish – but no eggs or milk products either), so eating was a continual hassle. We went into some restaurant and the only thing they could come up with was a plate of peas, carrots, and turnips all cut to the same size (a typical side dish in Europe). Anyway, he knew a number of expatriates who had settled there, and wanted to go visit them. At this point, he needed to stop by his place, and I left my day pack safely in his apartment. It had some personal things – most importantly my passport – as well as my German books, as I’d been living in Switzerland and studying earnestly.
We left and went to a dark apartment on the other side of town, and all sorts of people were running around. I was introduced to several American and British citizens now living in Prague, and most not much older than I was. There was some sort of fuss occurring in the kitchen, and it was then that I realized that (in the US, anyway) it was Thanksgiving. One of the American women was preparing a chicken or a turkey or the like. I remember being pretty impressed with the whole situation and how well they seemed to have settled in (especially when compared to my isolated life in Switzerland), which is why I think I was particularly unprepared for how the next few days played out.
There was an English man named Paul, who kind of looked like a young Sting, but with longer hair. He was working on a screenplay or some such thing with Eric. He proceeded to entertain me with insane stories from his own travels – although his were more Hunter S. Thompson-esque than mine (not something I lament!!!). We had the unusual shared trait that we had both developed kidney stones on the road and become violently ill as a result.
However, he had also dabbled in hard drugs, so he had some truly horrifying stories. I remember one was that he had gone to Eastern Germany and run out of money, and took a job at a fast food place there. Everyone working in the restaurant was an opium addict (I hadn’t known opium even existed any more. It seemed like something from history or movies like ‘Big Trouble in Little China’), so he would smoke it with them until one day he realized he was an addict too.
At that point, he moved on to heroin, and went to Africa to get it cheaply. (If you’re squeamish about gross drug things or rodents, skip the rest of this paragraph). The heroin was cheap and he and another man stayed in a horrible little room and would do nothing but shoot up. One day he woke up, and rats had eaten portion of his legs down to the bone. The other guy was dead, and part of his face was gone. They had both overdosed, and he had been unconscious (or dead, in the case of his colleague) for so long that the rats had started in on them. At that point, he went to the British embassy and they got him home. From there, he got help and got clean. He showed me the scars on his legs, and I was both horrified and amazed that someone so young (I feel like he was only 25 or 26 – I know at one point he showed me his ID, although I can no longer remember the context) had inflicted so much agony on themselves.
At this point, the girl who had been fixing the meal came in and was slamming dishes and pans around and was clearly upset. She took Paul out in the hall, and they had a big fight. According to Eric, the woman had a crush on Paul (or they had previously been involved, he wasn’t sure), and she was jealous because he liked me or she thought he did or something. I was involved with the guy in Switzerland, so that wasn’t of interest (not to mention I was completely spooked by what he’d told me about his past).
Anyway, this fight progressed and the three of us left. We wound up in an old-style Eastern European bar with the big wooden tables that filled the whole room. I remember talking to some Australian opal miners who were fascinated with the ring I wore (a fire opal my grandmother gave me for my 16th birthday. Those guys were the reason I still don’t wear it much – they pressed upon me how fragile large opals are). We talked for a while, and when I looked over, Eric (the American) had a girl that couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen in his lap. And he wasn’t exactly being fatherly with her.
Admittedly, I was one naive little girl myself. Although I had just turned 20, I didn’t realize how things ‘were’ (and to some extent ‘are’) in much of the undeveloped world, and I as far as I was concerned, he was molesting a child. I remember I went and talked to Paul and expressed my outrage, and he seemed to agree.
Eric (and remember, this guy was pushing 40) noticed me looking and tried to call me over, but I kept ignoring him. Eventually he came over, and wanted to know what was going on. I wouldn’t talk to him, but convinced me to leave the main bar area in order to speak in private. I very tentatively shared that I thought that girl was way too young. It was wrong.
Somehow Eric took this that I was jealous of this little girl, and interested in him. He became a total sleaze bag, and I rejected him. Events escalated, he drug me by the arm and hair into a closet, and when it became clear he was going to force himself on me, I pulled the little canister out of my pocket and maced him. Actually, I maced both of us (in a small enclosed space, the stuff gets everywhere, even when you point it away from you) and ran back out into the bar. I was both crying for real and crying from the pain of the mace, and Paul stopped me and wanted to know what was happening.
I ran out of the bar, and he followed me. At this point, i realized I had no idea where I was, where my hostel was, where anything was. I told Paul what had happened, and as I was calculating plans to get out of Prague that very night, I realized Eric had my passport!!!!! I was completely stricken. Paul thought he could help me, and suggested we leave. We ended up going out to his apartment in the Prague suburbs. He was renting it and it had come pre-furnished and was full of crazy knicknacks. That was the first time I heard the word tchockes.
Anyway, by now it was the middle of the night, so he suggested I just stay there. Plus, I was very worried about my passport and other belongings, and he was going to try to get them back for me the next day. He had a large bed, and I slept way over on one side and him on the other. I remember the last thing he said before we went to sleep was, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to bugger you.” Again, I had no idea what that meant…but I could make an educated guess. Thankfully, he was telling the truth.
The next morning he took me to a supermarket and bought all kinds of things so I could make a tofu scramble (the vegan equivalent of scrambled eggs), and let me use the kitchen. It was possibly the best meal I had the entire time I was in Europe. I recall Eric kept calling, and they had a number of hushed phone calls. I felt nervous.
We went back to my hostel and I got my backpack, and by the mid-afternoon, Paul had arranged to meet with Eric. I stayed back and walked along the Charles bridge (pretty much all I saw of Prague beyond what I’ve already described. Eric brought the passport, but he wouldn’t give my day bag up. I have no idea what he wanted with a bunch of German language books and the world’s largest copy of Ulysses. It was probably just to spite me. I never could afford to replace them, so I suppose he got the last laugh in the end.
Or maybe not? I never got beyond page 25 of Ulysses despite dragging it around for five or six months, and in the end I was better off without the weight. I couldn’t afford to replace the German textbooks and never learned the language, but life goes on. Moreover, after the shock of all this wore off, it was a little bit funny to me that the only person I ever had to mace in Europe (or ever!) was an American I already knew.
If you ask me, if you can’t laugh at life’s troubles, you’re just not trying hard enough…