2017: A Central Europe Odyssey
I look at the watch securely strapped to my wrist and see that it's 4am, which means I haven't slept in about 48 hours. The heat in the hostel room is palpable and the open window doesn't so much provide a breeze as it provides a constant stream of drunken German conversation and the sound of bottles breaking. I took 10mg of Melatonin a couple hours ago but it hasn't had any effect.
Daigo, my friend and frequent traveling buddy, is sick in the bathroom, and from the sounds of it he's being turned inside out. Two other people are in this room with us as well, though from the lack of snoring and the occasional light blue glow of a cellphone screen, it's pretty obvious that nobody in this room is asleep.
I'm thirsty but I forgot to take my water bottle out of my backpack. I'm on one of the top bunks and my bag is locked up below the lower bunk and I don't want to be that guy who walks down the creaky ladder and fumbles with a lock while everyone is quietly fantasizing about sleeping. Hostels are a nice way to travel on the cheap but they come with the risk that someone steals your stuff or wakes you up.
My heartbeat is still racing from earlier. I was sitting in the corner of the dimly lit Hostel bar while drinking a beer and writing an article. Someone tried squeezing through a side door exit which was awkwardly nestled against my table in the corner. The person was in a rush and hit my beer with their bag, though I was able to catch it and prevent a spill. Much to my chagrin this fellow decided to sit down next to me and start talking, a young man with a baseball cap and a floppy backpack.
This man speaks very little English but through some awkward conversation I'm able to get a few words out of him. He is Polski (Polish) and he wants money. When I tell him that I don't have any he gets upset. He tells me that he was a professional fighter and that he was fired for hurting people and that he has a problem with me. I tell him that my money is in my room and that I won't be able to help him out. At this point he slams his bag onto the table and starts to sit down, never breaking eye contact and with an ever-increasing impatience in his voice. While he's awkwardly straddling the bench and holding onto the table I figure this is a good time to make my exit. I quickly stand up, tell him “It was nice meeting you but I have to go”, and scurry away to the lobby where some employees and my elevator await.
Was I being mugged? Would he have pulled a knife? Was this typical delivery for Polish conversation? Would the whole trip be this way? I didn't have a clue, but by now it's almost 4am and the ideas are tumbling through the mind of an introvert. Introverts experience things but aren't capable of interpreting them or extracting knowledge while the situation happens. It's not until later, when it's quiet and we're alone, that we're able to process and learn and form conclusions. And on this hot, jet-lagged night, there would be plenty more time to process events that had passed by.
Berlin (Germany, German, Euro)
I land in Berlin after a late, several hour flight from San Francisco, a bump while in the air and another bump after I land in Heathrow, and another late flight after that. Everything in the Airport is labeled in German, everything important is also labeled in English. I speak enough German to ask “Wo ist die Bier?”, “Hast du Bier?”, and “Kann ich ein Bier haben?”, but only through good old fashioned awkwardly asking strangers “Sprichst du Englisch?” am I able to find the right bus.
I meet up with Daigo but it's still too early to check in to the Airbnb we rented so we hunt for food. Our first meal in Berlin is at a Chinese restaurant called “Ming Dynastie”. I'm not able to make heads or tails of the German names for Chinese dishes so I ask the waiter for my favorite dish by its Chinese name, Ma Po Tofu. I luck out and they have it.
About this time the sky lets out a torrential downpour which would last for the rest of the week. Someone later tells us that this is the most rain Berlin has had in 100 years, though they might have been exaggerating so we don't permanently think of Berlin as a giant mud puddle. We head for the Airbnb while walking alongside a choppy river, occasionally waiting under trees when the rain gets too bad, watching the prepared locales stroll by with their umbrellas.
Houses in Germany are different than houses in the USA. They're usually a bit smaller, and this one is no exception. Another notable difference is that the American “Bathroom” is often represented as two different rooms (and this is the same in Japan); there's a “Bathroom” with a bath and a “Toilet” or “Water Closet” with a toilet. Both rooms have a sink. This is so that someone can take a dump while someone else takes a shower.
Power plugs are different too, of course. Luckily for me I come prepared with an adapter. The voltage and wattage and A/C frequency is also different but any modern device with a transformer is able to handle the differences without a problem. Another unfortunate difference is that most homes in Europe do not have Air Conditioning, and so this first night begins a trend of me lying on top of blankets while only wearing shorts.
The next day we check out the city. The residents of Berlin like their refugees and put up signs everywhere saying “Refugees Welcome”. These are pretty common around various camps. One such camp is along a river, crouched below trees, with many decrepit buildings and well-trodden sandy outdoor areas. It's almost hard to tell where the outside ends and the inside begins with some of the buildings. Another encampment we find is situated in the corner of a large Church property. The walls of the encampment are made out of old army vehicles, army camouflage canopies, woven grass walls, and signs that say “No Pictures, No Tourists”.
We meet up with one of Daigo's friends name Rie (Ree Ey) at a cafe named “Katz&Maus”. She's working in Berlin as a freelancer, doing Japanese translations for different companies and mostly working remote. I approach the counter and produce a coin from my pocket which is enough to purchase a Club Mate, an energy drink with an acquired taste which is popular amongst hackers. They're a little hard to get in the States though, I've only had a few of them before now. Rie tells us what it's like in Berlin, some cool places to checkout, some Visa issues she's been having and what it is going to take to get the issues sorted out. Traveling and working remotely is nice but there's no end to the paperwork one has to deal with.
Daigo and I check out an area on the south side of Berlin called Kreuzberg. On the way we pass by a bit of ominous graffiti that says “Fuck Tourists”, though depending on how you read it maybe it's a good thing. As we walk down the streets we start to hear the sound of my people; Classic Rock from the 70s and 80s. We discover a desolate bar called the “Rock'n'Roll Herberge”, just in time to avoid another downpour. I consider this a sign from above and we enter the dimly lit bar and claim two barstools.
A handwritten list of beers placard the uppermost part of the wall. Below that are metal shelves lined with alcohol, many familiar to me such as Glenlivet and Macallan and Aperol, along with several I've never seen before. And below those are postcards of Bali and other exotic locations intermixed with pictures of tattoos and anti-Neo-Nazi signs. The wall is dimly bathed in green light from below. A woman sits not too far from us in the corner of the room. She might have been there the whole time but I didn't really notice her until a baby she is holding starts to cry. She gets up and takes the baby into a back room behind the bar through a sliding metal door before returning to take our orders.
Daigo gets a light beer and I order a dark. We then start to talk about our careers, advancement, incomes and remote work and how cheap it is here in Europe. We talk about investments and freelance and side jobs and outsourcing. The bartender catches our conversation and asks where we're from. We tell her that we're visiting from San Francisco. She has a friend there, and went to visit that friend for a while. She can't imagine ever living there, people are so “posh”, everything is so rich and fancy and expensive, everything is so fake. By now I've had a second beer and can't help but agree. I point out the bar counter as an example; here in Berlin this counter top is very old and worn. It's seen some things, it has character. The bar tops in SF, I muse, are all fancy, has a half inch of lacquer, and are replaced every year or two. SF is in a bubble, a special world all of it's own, where only the rich can survive comfortably, a world which would collapse as soon as the investors realize how overvalued those startups really are… We pay our bill, say goodbye to our new bartender friend (whose name we forget to ask), and checkout a bit more of Kreuzberg.
Around the corner from the bar is a beautiful indoor market named “Markthalle Neun”. Inside we find tons of people sitting and eating and ordering foods and drinks from fun looking vendors. There's ice cream, beer, sausages, spices, cooking equipment, more sausages, cheeses, groceries. Old-school tungsten filament low-hanging lights give the market an orange tint. The market used to be some sort of station years ago and dim light let in through windows in the ceiling from the cloudy sky mixes more color to the ambient lighting. Fancy decor and displays are scattered throughout the market. People are talking and laughing and enjoying their meals and the dry sanctuary from the storm. I settle for some homemade chocolate Cannoli's and people-watch in the corner for a bit. I'd love to see a place like this where I live, but it would inevitably decay into shit. In SF, if there's something nice within arms reach, someone will destroy it.
Later that evening Daigo and I check out a place recommended to us by Rie called “Holzmarkt”. She had described it as a place where people hang out, pool their money to pay for beer and food. We show up, throw some money into the bin, and order drinks. The party is very hard to connect to, however. Everyone is talking and having a good time but it's almost like they all know each other. I try to order another round from a different bartender and she asks me who I'm here with. I tell her I don't understand and she tells me that this is a private party and that we need to leave. That explains that, though I wish I hadn't thrown two rounds of money into the bucket…
Afterwards we head to another bar called “Zosch”. Upstairs is more of a restaurant so we head downstairs into a darker bar area. We order drinks from a bartender who wasn't pleased to be speaking English and take a seat. A few minutes later a woman comes over to us, tells us this is a private party, and tells us to leave. Daigo and the woman go back and forth for a minute but I'm not one for arguments so I walk upstairs.
Daigo fumes for a few minutes while we sit at a table finishing our drinks. Are these places giving us shit because we're tourists? Do they only allow German speakers to show up? Daigo asks one of the waitresses what's going on downstairs and she tells us it's a private party. We head back to the hostel and work on our laptops in the bar at the base of the building for a while. Eventually Daigo leaves and I'm left here by myself. A couple minutes later I meet a Polish guy.
Amsterdam (Netherlands, Dutch, Euro)
Amsterdam has bikes. More bikes than you'll ever see in your life. It's home to the largest bike garage in the world, housing over 5,000 spaces. I'm not big on renting bikes though so instead I walk everywhere. The “Centraal” region of Amsterdam is centered around the train station where I get off after a trip from Berlin.
Upon exiting the train station the first thing I notice about Amsterdam is that they love their water channels. Most of the streets in this part of town are one way with a channel running down the center. The larger of the channels even have house boats which are essentially permanent homes floating in the water. San Francisco has a few but it doesn't even come close to what Amsterdam has.
You might not have heard, but marijuana and magic mushrooms are legal in Amsterdam. I walk down many streets with headshops selling seeds and starter kits for growing both types of drug. The shops also sell various forms of edible marijuana, typically packaged up in a brownie or a cookie or a sucker. Marijuana is also legal in San Francisco but it's certainly not celebrated as much as it is in Amsterdam. I over conversations of those around me who have traveled here from all around the world just to get some of the action.
Another interesting thing about Amsterdam is that prostitution is legal. It's legal in most of Europe as well but in Amsterdam it's taken to a whole new level. There's a corner of the Centraal region called the “Red Light District”. In most cities this phrase is used to describe seedy areas where prostitutes gather and fellows named John come to meet with them. However, in Amsterdam, there's literally a city-acknowledged place called the Red Light District, a place which appears on each tour guide map. Prostitution is regulated, monthly screenings occur, it is taxed, and it is certainly not taboo amongst the locals.
The residences of Amsterdam all lean one way or another. Some lean forward, some lean back, and some lean into their neighbors and even have special brickwork when two buildings touch each other and aren't parallel. Homes are very tall and thin, always three stories tall. Windows are huge and seldom have their curtains drawn. Each home has a “furniture hook” at the top of the building; if someone ever moves furniture it gets hoisted up with a pulley and brought in through a window. If someone orders a package it too will get hoisted up.
People here are very laid back. Maybe it's all the weed. I'm not a smoker and I'm not a fan of mushrooms, but the gentle nature of this city quickly makes it one of my favorite places in the world.
The sun is setting so I look for a place to write out some plot-points for a story I'm working on. I come across a cafe on the precipice where the tourists end and the locals begin, a place called “Café De Eland”. It's a dark building on a corner, adjacent to a channel and in a quiet neighborhood. A red and green striped awning protects the outdoor drinkers from the elements, though on this beautiful evening there's nothing for them to worry about.
I dip inside and am immediately confronted with the bar; this cafe is very long and thin, the bar is impossible to miss. Locals sit at the bar talking about their days while speaking Dutch. To my delight they sell Affligem Blond (a strong and delicious beer imported to the US) by the half liter and out of a tap. I happily relinquish a few Euro's and take a seat at a table near the bar. An experience I had in Berlin inspires an entire chapter, and I begin transcribing previous experiences. I don't speak Dutch but I overhear a conversation between the bartender and a patron which is obviously about “Video Cards” and building a gaming computer.
The next day I visit a movie theater called the EYE. It's a free ferry ride away from the Centraal region. Apparently someone recently discovered some original 70mm film for one of my favorite movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I order another Blond and go in to watch the movie. I love seeing cult classic movies at the cinema. I think the first one I saw was Rocky Horror Picture Show in Ann Arbor, MI, which a girlfriend who was obsessed with it. I'd also seen Metropolis after they discovered some lost film. That one was a silent film and was accompanied with a live pianist and was absolutely amazing. 2001 was also pretty great, the projectionist even had to switch projectors between a couple scenes when the corner blips happen. The movie even had an intermission for those of us who need to take a leak and grab another Blond. I think this is the only time I've seen a movie with an intermission.
I hop on a boat tour to get a better look at the city and learn more about it's history. One of the houses we float by is only one meter wide yet still three stories tall. I smile at some ladies drinking next to the channel and one of them blows me a kiss. I catch it. More bikes, more bridges, more house boats. Cool old buildings, some with porches lower than the water levels. Beautiful sunshine and a cool summer breeze accompany me on this trip.
Time to meet Daijiro (Dye Zhee Do'h), a friend of Daigo's. He's waiting for me at a place called the Beer Temple, which has one of the largest selections of beers in Amsterdam. The wall is lined with names of beers and their rather affordable prices. Almost all of the beers from the US are made either in San Francisco or in Michigan, where I grew up. I've drank most of them or visited the brewer before. There are plenty of European beers available so I start ordering in order of descending ABV.
Daijiro and I talk about what it's like for him to work in Amsterdam. He reassures me that it is, in fact, very chill. Perhaps a bit too chill. We have a few drinks and then head down the street to a place called Brabant Monkey for snacks.
The Brabant Monkey is located next to a small square and is adjacent to an old church, a book store, a few shops, and a calm stream of people. I people watch and enjoy another beer paired with some sort of deep friend meat goo which is dipped in brown mustard. I really have no idea what it's made of, perhaps fat and flour, but it sure is delicious. Daijiro takes a drag from a cigarette and I relax and people watch, the humming of Dutch and English passing by, a nice beer buzz to help keep the unfamiliar from becoming daunting.
Meißen / Dresden (Germany, German, Euro)
Ants only fly for a few days. The potential queen ants (princess ants?) grow wings, hook up with a dude ant, and then fly off into the wild to make new nests. Across a very large region all the different ants in their different ant nests, all spread out and unable to talk to each other, somehow figure out that they need to fly on the same day. Perhaps it's due to temperature, or it happens after the first big storm, or even ant telepathy, but at any rate it's happening right now in Meißen. Daigo and I sit in a small courtyard drinking beers and our table and shirts are covered in them.
We visit a few small museums, each similar to the one before it. This area has less tourists and English is spoken less. The museums only have text in German, and since I only know how to order beer, I'm at a loss.
The Ice Cream (literally just Eis in German) is delicious and cheap and plentiful. The sun is hot and the air is tepid so I hang out in the shade whenever possible. We take a tour of a giant church/castle thing, but really all of the churches and castles in Europe look the same; massive and beautiful and full of bleeding Jesus statues. The streets wind and end and are paved in cobblestone. Buildings are always old, some of them look Bohemian and others just look generic medieval.
There's a large palace which was once completely surrounded by a moat and a drawbridge, but now it only has half of a moat and a normal bridge. The once-moat region was filled in with dirt and replaced with shops selling tourist items and fidget spinners. The area that still has a moat has been converted to a park with a fountain. Moats just aren't an effective defensive tactic in the world of bomb-dropping-jets.
Warsaw (Poland, Polish, Złoty)
According to a recent conversation with grandpa I'm 25% Polish. This comprises the largest amount of my heritage. My father always called my sister and I a Polack while we were growing up so he must have known this for a long time. After walking around and looking at the faces of the locals I start to realize that I, my father, and Grandpa, all look a lot like Polish people. I guess that means I'm home!
Pierogis are small dumplings which contain cheese or meat or potato or various combinations of these items. There are even dessert pierogis containing cherries or blueberries. You can dip them in meat juice or sour cream or submerge them in ketchup. Pierogis are available everywhere in Warsaw, there are even shops that basically serve just Pierogi's called Pierogarnia's. They just might be my new favorite food. Another amazing Polish dish I eat I try is a gnocchi goulash. Definitely try these if you ever come to Poland.
Daigo has a friend in Warsaw named Poe (Poh Ey), she's half Japanese and half Polish and speaks Japanese, Polish, and English. We meet up with her, a couple hops away from the hotel via train, with plans to go on a picnic for the day. Drinking in public is technically illegal but police will look the other way if you do it in a semi-private area like the riverside we're heading to. We stop at a convenience store to buy a few beers for our adventure.
We meet up with Poe's boyfriend and start to set things up. Her BF and I gather firewood, knocking down dead trees, taking long logs and propping them up on stumps to stomp. You know, really manly lumberjack stuff. He's wearing camouflage military-issue cargo pants, has a knife for food and a knife for murdering branches, and a flint kit which he uses to start the fire.
Slowly, more and more friends of Poe's comes to the event. In total there are 11 of us. About half of the people at this gathering speak Japanese, everyone speaks at least some English, and everyone but Daigo and I speak Polish. Throughout the evening different clusters of people join and split, combining with others, ebbing and flowing like a tide. At any point in time you can hear a conversation with one of the three languages. Yours truly is the weakest link since I only know English.
We're pretty close to a place called the Boogaloo Beach Bar, and anytime we run low on beer or water a few of us makes another beer run. The smell of smoke is constantly in the air, and occasionally in our faces as the wind blows. For the entire day the only thing I eat is sausages cooked over the fire, bread, or one of the homemade salads. The food is delicious, the fire is hot, and the people are warm.
One of the people at this party is a beautiful woman named Marta. She's a high school teacher who teaches Polish literature and Japanese. She's been to Japan before and has plans to travel there again. She's very knowledgeable about the area and easy to talk to. Marta and I sit on the picnic blanket for a long time talking about life in Poland, different books we've read, where we've been and where we're going. Later in the evening she mentions a free outdoor concert happening the next day and offers to take us there.
The next day, Daigo and I go with Marta to Łazienki park, a place where every Sunday for the past 58 years a famous pianist will play music composed by Chopin. Marta would normally be in church at this time but skips for the day just to take us on a tour. The park is packed with blankets to protect from grass stains and umbrellas to protect from sunburns. I don't have an umbrella but Marta loans me one of her massive scarfs to save my porcelain skin. The music is beautiful, the sun is warm, and the company is friendly.
After a few songs we take a walk around the rest of the park. There's a palace and a small lake and paths and courtyards situated under carefully planted shade trees. Swans and ducks intermingle in the lake, kids play, a small group of violinists produce vaguely familiar classical music. We walk and talk and eat ice cream and hide in shaded areas when possible. A small shaded boat with a handful of tourists floats by while we admire the lake.
Later we meet up with some of Marta's friends at a Georgian restaurant. Of course this is a restaurant serving food from the country of Georgia, not a restaurant serving corn bread and corn on the cob and crawfish. One of Marta's friends is Gosia who has a strong passion for traveling and only recently came back to Warsaw from Finland.
The food is good, exotic yet familiar. The soups have strong flavor and are very hearty. One of the dishes is a bread covered with butter and egg, very heavy and filling. We order a few beers, sit and chat, and eventually depart.
Marta accompanies us back to the hotel which is near the station she needs to take home. We hug, say goodbye, and we all promise to let each other know if we ever travel to Poland or the US or Japan. But knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. This weekend was the most fun I would end up having this trip. I made some new friends and I connected with people on a deeper level than I had in years.
Kraków (Poland, Polish, Złoty)
Kraków is a tourist stop between Warsaw and Prague. Outside of the city are two places that you need to check out if you ever find yourself here. The first place is the Wieliczka Salt Mine, a couple train stops from the city. The second is the Auschwitz concentration camp, an hour and a half van ride from the city. Daigo and I head to the salt mine first.
It's hot as hell and on-and-off raining contributes to the stickiness in the town above the salt mine. Luckily for us we'll soon be below ground where air is pumped in from the surface and chilled by the natural sun blocker that is 130 meters (420 feet) of dirt and stone above us. Getting down into the mine means descending a very long stairwell. This mine was created several hundred years ago. It's insane to think something this deep was dug by such primitive tools. Certainly the stairs must have come later, the original mine was probably entered via a hand-cranked pulley. Air couldn't have been pumped in from the world above, it would have been stuffy and hot.
Being in the mine feels like being indoors. The corridors are lined with wood to prevent collapse. The larger chambers are carved from the stone and salt. Decorative patterns and artwork adorn the walls of many of the chambers, especially the two dedicated to being chapels / churches. The most popular room, the larger of the two churches, even has a chandelier with crystals made of carved salt. Statues made of salt are spread throughout the chambers as well. There are a few underground lakes with wooden bridges and higher concentrations of salt than the dead sea, lakes which require divers to wear special lead belts otherwise they'd be stuck on the surface.
Of course the more interesting part of this part of the journey is Auschwitz. It begins raining again, casting a dreary darkness over an already dark and dreary part of the world. The Auschwitz camps are the primary concentration camps from World War 2. This is where the highest amount of genocide for that time period occurred (though, Daigo interjects, larger genocides have been committed even more recently in China).
One of the most interesting parts about the tour through the concentration camps is how much of an emphasis is placed on explaining and providing evidence that the atrocities committed here actually did occur. In the US, and certainly amongst the more educated population, we're taught that this all did happen and that it is all fact. However enough people in the world must believe the entire thing was a hoax given the amount of emphasis given during this tour.
I'm choked up a few times during this trip. I had a more intense experience a week earlier in Berlin at the Jewish memorial where I had to hide in the corner for a few minutes until I could return to normal, particularly the parts where we could read letter written from children and thrown out of train windows on their way to the concentration camps. That experience softened the blow a bit for this Auschwitz tour.
There are rows after rows of shoddy buildings meant to cheaply house many people. There are the gas chamber showers, suspiciously semi-buried underground as if to diminish their exposure from aerial photography. There's a large bathroom in one of the buildings with a bullshit drawing of two cute kittens licking each other to keep clean. Can you imagine that? Being imprisoned for your race or religion, having to bathe and shit and sleep in overly crowded rooms full of strangers, and looking up on the wall and seeing some cartoon cats?
The walls in one of the buildings are lined with many photos from the Auschwitz records that were saved. Each picture has a name, DOB and date of death (if known), some information about the persons background and where they lived before being captured. Most of the children and old people were killed and didn't even get a photo taken, so I'm literally walking down a hall containing pictures of men and women my age who were killed here. Apparently near the end of the genocide when shit was going down and the Nazi's were losing they started destroying records, but luckily people were able to smuggle some out.
Daigo wonders why this is all still here. Surely, if you somehow survived or are related to someone who was killed here, why would you want such a horrible place to still exist? Our scars remind us that the past is real. Keeping these buildings around, giving tours, spreading information about these events is the most important thing we can do to prevent them from ever happening again. You'd have to be a real heartless bastard to have walked these halls and then to one day contribute to another such event.
Prague (Czech Republic, Czech, Koruna+Euro)
Daigo and I take a sleeper train to Prague from Kraków. These are special cars with a bunch of quiet rooms, each room contains three bunk beds and a sink. We spend about $160 for the two of us, which is about the same price for a normal train and a hostel, but with the added bonus that the time spent sleeping and the time spent stuck in a train overlap, preventing limited daylight from being wasted.
Prague has an old town, with a square in it full of tourists and little tourist shops. After a while though each of these old town squares start to look the same. They all have statues, cool large old buildings, cathedrals, overpriced restaurants targeted at tourists with tents out front for drinking beer beneath, and specialty dessert shops. Not far from the square is a place called Café Kafka, so named because Franz Kafka was born there. Daigo and I stop here for a Budweiser (but not one of those fake Budweisers from USA) and I pen some more story notes.
A large road named Rašínovo nábř, which I'll never be able to pronounce either, runs north and south alongside the Vltava river, which in turn winds through the city of Prague. Bridges span this river connecting the various parts of Prague, the most famous of the bridges being the Charles Bridge. This bridge only allows for foot traffic and will take a person from the center of Prague to an area near the main attraction, the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral.
We look for things to do on the Meetup website and come across the perfect thing, “International Social Networking on the Boat”. Certainly we're international, and who doesn't love boats? We drop off our stuff at the Airbnb and hop on a train to get ourselves some boat action. The boat is a 25 minute walk south of the Charles Bridge.
The boat, which is named Gott My Life, and I can only assume is some sort of pun, seems to be permanently moored to land. Spanish music flows from the lower deck where people much cooler than I can be seen dancing Salsa. Daigo and I ascend the ramp to the lower deck and produce some money to pay for the admission. The guy manning the admissions eyes us suspiciously and asks if we're here to dance or for the meetup. We tell him the latter and are sent to the upper deck with the rest of the wallflowers without having to pay.
There's about 50 people at this Meetup with small clusters of people talking throughout the upper deck in groups as small as two and as large as ten. The secret with these events is to find a small group, weasel your way into an ongoing conversation, and then slowly get to know more people and make more friends. I approach two guys having a chat about life in Prague and do just that; step 1 I stand there awkwardly for a minute, step 2 I wait for one of them to mention a topic I'm familiar with, and step 3 I swoop in with something witty while they're taking a breath.
That's exactly how I end up befriending David the Canadian Graphic Designer. And then Nick the Londoner. And of course Franz from Costa Rica, Kanika from India, and Alexandra from Russia. We all hang out on the boat, get to know each other, then go inside of the boat when the rain comes, have a few more beers, then eventually leave the boat after the bar has been closed for 30 minutes and the employees look bored. We wander the slick cobblestone roads, with Kanika linking arms with me and telling me how I'm the only nice guy in the group. We turn left and right down various side streets, take a small detour at some crazy place with giant mushrooms and insect statues, before finding solace at another bar.
This new bar is mostly underground with a series of basement corridors and mini bars tied together in a labyrinth which I can only assume formed after an owner kept buying basements from neighboring restaurants and knocking the walls down. Floors are uneven with steps between each corridor. Walls are mismatched, sporting stucco in this room and brick in that room. A heavy nicotine-laced smoke looms in the air, sticking to my shirt and letting me reminisce about when it was legal in USA several years ago.
The group hangs out a bit more, two people tell me that tonight is the most fun they've had since going to Prague. Another round of drinks is ordered but the constant wear of travel and a particularly long day results in me ordered a couple of waters instead (which cost about as much as beer). Despite a stoic demeanor my anxiety starts to jump through the roof. The introverted half of me really just wants to be left alone. Daigo and I exchange information with everyone in the group and take our exit.
The next day we head out to the bridge and the castle and the cathedral. I stop by an ATM to withdraw some Koruna's before we get too far. Next to the ATM is one of the many “Zero Commission Currency Exchange” buildings. These places can convert currency for you but of course they take a decent cut. Zero Commission equals something like a 5% loss over what the ATM can offer you. A bunch of pictures of fake money and warnings about people trying to rip you off are posted everywhere. Right on cue a man approaches me and asks if I'd like to convert any money. I tell him “No, thank you.” which is Thomas for “Fuck off, you thief!”
The castle is neat, the cathedral is large. We pay a few bucks to climb to the top of the tower, which is something like a billion steps. I'm still fatigued from the day before and out of nowhere I get a panic attack, perhaps triggered by claustrophobia or from the height, but I'm really not sure. The important thing about panic attacks is to never reveal that you're having one, but instead keep it bottled up inside, or even try to convince yourself that it isn't happening. Or blog about it later, same thing. By the time I get to the top of the steps I'm just fine and am running around taking pictures of a Prague skyline.
That night we hang out with another one of Daigo's friends named Ondřej (Andre). Daigo knows a person in every country. Alexandra from the Meetup joins as well; her and Daigo are on a date. We get some really good burgers, better than any burger I've had in SF. We follow it up with a trip to a bar where I try some Absinthe. I can't tell if the Absinthe here is any more real or less real than the kind we can get in the states. It's no more special than any other alcohol I've had, it is but another tourist attraction.
Daigo and Alexandra are supposed to go on a date the next day and through some turn of events it ends up being Alexandra, Daigo, Alexandra's sister Elena, and myself hanging out for a few hours. We start off on a mission to feed their aunts cat which takes us to the north side of the city, over the river. This part of the city is called Prague 7. The main part is Prague 1. Elena explains to me that this system has something to do with the way various smaller neighboring cities were consolidated into a larger Prague over time. Elena has a degree in Power Engineering and is getting a Masters at a local university. Alexandra is a teacher visiting Elena with their mother. They all come from a small town outside of Moscow.
We make our way back to the city, walking alongside the river, taking a small ferry to a small island, before taking a bridge back to the main part of the city. We eventually run out of sidewalk and have to skirt along a busy off ramp, but it's funny and we're goofy. I pick Elena's brain about her engineering career and life in Prague; she's not comfortable with her English but communication is easy and fluid nonetheless. Along the way we buy a snack with is famous in Prague called the Trdelník. Elena tells me how to pronounce it but the best I can do is call it a “turtleneck” but with a really long rolling R.
Elena asks me if I'll ever be back to Prague. Alexandra is also wondering if Daigo will ever be back to Prague or even if he will visit her in Moscow. I really don't know if I'll ever come back. It's nice here, the people are great. I love to travel, I could see myself taking a long trip to far away places every year for the rest of my life. At least I know that if I ever do come back I'll have some friends waiting.
While the events in this story are all true, the timing and order of events are not.