Paris of the East

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
Trip End Oct 18, 2006

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Wednesday, October 4, 2006

October 4-7

The train lurched forward to make its way out of Munich's Hauptbahnhof. I then spent the next nine and a half hours contorting my body into various positions never before attempted, trying in vain to string together a couple of solid hours of sleep. I faced forward with my shins wedged against the seat in front of me. I turned sideways, resting my head against the window with the backs of my knees atop the armrest and my feet in the empty seat next to me. Invariably though, I would awake every few hours to, if I was lucky, shift a bit and then fall back asleep. At one point I awoke to find the train at a standstill. It took me a minute to put together that we were at a station. Augsburg to be exact. I have no idea how long we'd been sitting there and this time it took me a while to fall back asleep. I'd wake up periodically to find the train still in the same position. "Please, move this train Lord."
Eventually we got underway again and I drifted off only to be awakened sharply. As I opened my eyes there were two men standing in front of me, one in a military uniform and the other in official looking, yet more relaxed brown leather bomber jacket and stiff brown trousers. These were some scary looking dudes. They demanded my passport, so I dug quickly through my backpack and furnished it to them with all haste. The one in uniform studied it for what seemed an interminable amount of time while the other one glowered at me. Welcome to the eastern block, eh? Finally, Lenin's great-grand-nephew returned my documents and they went on their way.
By now my knee felt like it was gonna give out and my lower vertebrae were most certainly fused together. Oh well. I saved a day and another night's hotel fee by traveling this way. What's a little paralysis for the bargain? I wished that I had reserved a couchette instead of being stuck in a seat. I knew better by this point and had been at the Hauptbahnhof, what?, four or five times while in Munich to switch trains. Stupid.
It was worth it though. The days were becoming precious few now. As I pulled into Prague, there were exactly two weeks left before I had to head home. Where had the time gone? I pried myself out of the seat, reacquainted my joints with the act of bending and disembarked to find an altogether novel scene. Let's just say the rail station in Prague does not make a real great first impression for the town.
Bare concrete along with chipped black and white linoleum tiles from the Brezhnev era are the main decorating motifs in this hulking shell that encapsulates at least a half dozen competing money changers, several purveyors of questionable looking sausages and assorted other snacks, a couple of hotel booking windows (conveniently not open yet at 9:00am) and hordes of people ranging in countenance from the merely shiftless to the criminally inclined. "We're not in Western Europe anymore, Toto."
I didn't have a place to stay yet and with the booking windows closed I began to inquire, with little hope, if there was an internet point at the station. To my surprise there was one on  the lower level. I descended to the basement, past bare wires strung through the hallway, then around a dimly lit corner and through a doorway marked "Video Rental and Internet." I think they also took in laundry. I was shown to a station that looked like it belong in a college rooming house. But the computer worked fine. As I surfed around I remembered that Pippi had told me that there were lots of apartments available for rent in Prague at very reasonable prices. I found a great deal on a one bedroom place with separate living and dining areas and a kitchen to boot. Quite a luxury for me and at €240 for all three nights I would be there, a real bargain. I felt there had to be a catch, but booked it anyway.
I went to the taxi stand and got a ride to the center where the apartment was located. Not knowing the local rates or currency exchange real well, I trusted the amount shown to me on a price list which the cabby produced upon arrival at my destination. After all, it was laminated and everything; very official looking. It wasn't until a day or so later that I learned the extent to which I had just been ripped-off. Whatever.
There was a slight hiccup securing the keys to the apartment since I had just booked it that morning and their systems didn't update that quickly, but it was soon rectified and I stepped into what turned out to be a spacious pad right in the middle of town. My fears had been unfounded it seemed. What a deal! It was maybe 11:00 by now and I was beat from my fitful night's sleep on the train, so I decided to take a nap.
I awoke in the early afternoon and went to have a shower before heading out to explore. I turned on the water and it ran cold. "Aha! I knew it was all too good to be true." But the water soon warmed and everything was fine. The apartment turned out to be the best deal of the trip I think. I did have to switch locations for the third night, but that turned out to be an even bigger two bedroom place at no additional charge.
Now that I had satisfied my need for sleep in an actual bed and cleaned myself up, I required sustenance. I found a little place down the road that looked like it probably served authentic Czech fare, so I went in. I was seated in the corner, near the tiny bar at a wooden table and chairs that looked as though they'd been hewn by hand some 30 or 40 years ago. There were maybe six other tables in the joint, two of which were occupied. I immediately secured a Pilsner Urquell, which is easier to find than water in this town (and often cheaper) and then settled on the goulasch and dumplings for my late lunch. The goulasch turned out to be essentially like fajitas with out the spice or tortillas, but it was serviceable.
I don't know if I was still tired from the overnight train ordeal or what, but I found myself less eager than normal after lunch to begin exploring the city. Nothing I'd seen so far had really impressed me. In fact, the train station had been downright depressing. And the neighborhood I was staying in was alright, but nothing like I expected given the rave reviews of this town from friends who had visited. "It's early," I told myself. "You've hardly seen anything yet." Still, I wondered if my lack of enthusiasm was an indication that I was beginning to tire of traveling, or at least the sight seeing. There is a difference. So I decided to take care of some business instead.
I walked up Wenceslas Square looking for an internet point. There were some nice old-world style buildings lining the broad avenue, but too much neon distended from many of them as well. "This is what everyone was raving about?" I thought to myself.
Finally I found a connection so I could pay bills and make arrangements for my next stop, as well as doing some work on this Travelogue. It's easy to lose touch with the what's going on back home, so I took some time to exchange e-mails and, of course, set my fantasy football line-up for the coming weekend. Once I'd finished all that, I walked back towards the apartment.
I decided that instead of going out for dinner, I'd take advantage of my living quarters and eat in for a change. I stopped off at the little open air market in the courtyard outside the building to gather some fresh vegetables. Then I headed to a butcher shop just around the corner where I did fairly well by just pointing at sausages that looked good to me. Next door there was a wine shop where I procured a bottle of local red at a decent price. And so I spent the night grazing on my sundries and reading. It was a surprisingly nice change of pace. Besides, I had to be up early the next morning as I had decided to participate in a rather grand walking tour, which began at 8:30.
I thought that the apartment should be fairly close to the main square given the little map I had with me. I made a conscious decision the day before not to venture in that direction though, knowing that the walking tour started there. So that morning as I made my way through what turned out to be two and a half blocks of vastly more interesting streets than I'd seen the entire day before, I began to wonder if maybe I'd just been walking around the less exotic parts of town. Just then I turned a corner and found myself confronted with what is perhaps the single most majestic town square in the whole of Europe. Although the omniety of Paris may prove more enchanting, the scale of Rome more awe-inspiring, the anatomy of Venice more beguiling, I can't think of a single place in any of these locales that holds one as rapt in sheer beauty as does the architecture and spirit of this place.
"Wow! This is what everyone was talking about." The meeting place for the tour was underneath the astronomical clock, one of Prague's de-facto symbols. I had definitely strapped on my walking shoes that morning as the tour I was about to embark on was scheduled to last until around 4:30, with a break for a traditional Czech lunch.
We began by circling clock square, as I learned the locals called it, and getting the history of the old town. We then proceeded to St. James Cathedral, which turned out to be the most ridiculously cool Baroque style church I saw on the whole trip. You may recall when I said I was getting a little weary of touring so many churches, but this one certainly bucked the trend. The ornate detail in the statues and relief carvings that covered nearly every inch of the place was simply stunning.
We then made our way up to the Powder Tower, past the Music House, and back through the old town past clock square and the Jewish quarter (more on that later). We arrived at the river where the 20 or so of us boarded a boat for a little cruise. The morning air hadn't been bad for walking around, but on the top deck of the boat with the wind whipping us in the face, it got a little chilly. We were, however, rewarded with great views of the Castle on the hill in the distance and the Charles Bridge as we sailed underneath it and then turned around again to head back to the dock.
It was during this river cruise that I met some of my fellow tour companions. I was seated at a table topside with Heather and Leah who subsequently introduced me to four of their classmates, T.J. Carline, Kelly and Kim. They were all part of a study abroad program located in a small town in the north of Italy - just above Venice I believe. T.J. is from Libertyville, IL and so he noticed my Cubs cap right away and we started chatting about baseball and then Chicago in general. I got the feeling that traveling with a group of girls , as he was, had left him a bit starved for guy-talk. They were all really cool kids and we ended up hanging out together for the rest of the tour.
Once back on dry land, we made our way through the Jewish quarter. Our guide gave us a history of this section of town and showed us several points of interest, including a cemetery that must have been built-up at least 20 feet above the ground. Because of the limited space afforded to the inhabitants, over the years as they ran out of space in the cemetery, they simply added a layer and moved the gravestones from the previous layer to the top. The resulting effect is a jumble of gravestones jammed together, pointing every which way on the uppermost level. They're packed together so tightly, I doubt you could fit one more in there.
On our way to the restaurant for lunch, we passed the birth place of Franz Kafka. I didn't see any giant bugs or anything, although I did have my eyes peeled. Our "traditional Czech lunch" consisted of mediocre beef goulasch and a weird salad, but the Budweiser (the real Budwieser-Budwar, not that stuff from St. Louis) was excellent.
After lunch we ambled over to the famed Charles Bridge, another landmark of Praha. I'm not sure about it's engineering pedigree, but I do know it's one of the most artistic bridges around. It is lined on both sides with beautiful statues and affords magnificent views of the Castle in one direction and of the old town in the other. Up and down it's length there were myriad artists; caricaturists, puppeteers, a jazz band, glass workers, etc. There was a real festival atmosphere as we traversed the bridge.
Once across, we caught a tram and headed up to the Castle. The morning chill had passed and it had become just a remarkable day. So much so, in fact, that like an idiot, I remarked on it. Not ten minutes later if clouded over and began to rain. I'm not makin' this up. Luckily, it cleared relatively quickly. We made our way around the exterior of the Castle and saw the changing of the guard. Except for a quick look at one of the grand reception halls, we didn't see the interior. That was fine with me because although it had been a spectacular and fairly comprehensive tour, I'd had about all I could take. I needed a break.
The study abroad girls wanted to go shopping so, naturally T.J. and I did the sensible thing and went for a drink, promising to meet up with them later. That was our first chance to sit down since lunch and after walking for the better part of the day, it felt good to relax a little.
The same tour company we'd been with all day also offers a nighttime ghost tour. Since we'd been on the "deluxe" tour, or whatever, they gave us tickets to this other extravaganza gratis. T.J., Kim and I were up for it while the others demurred. So after a quick shower, we rendezvoused at the atomic clock. Our guide did her best to make the hokey stories spooky, but even with the aide of planted "ghosts" jumping out from behind corners, dripping fake blood and wielding plastic knives, the tour was decidedly less than scary.
The three of us went back to the hostel where they were all staying to meet the other girls. As expected, they weren't ready, so T.J. and I had a couple of beers in the lounge while we waited for them to finish primping. Finally they came down at about 10:00 and we all headed out. We were on our way to what was billed all over town as, "Middle Europe's largest dance club," or as I preferred to call, "Middle Earth."
The place was huge - 5 levels, each operating like a mini-club unto itself, with it's own theme, featuring a different style of music. We started out on the first floor (imagine that), which featured techno music. Or was it house? I don't know. That crap all sounds the same to me. Oh my God - I've become my father. "Turn down that damn rock n' roll music!" I was told this would happen. Come to think of it, the music was kinda loud in there too. But I digress.
The girls were a couple of drinks behind T.J. and me, so when we had all settled into a corner table above the dance floor I wasn't too concerned that Caroline and Kelly began by ordering shots. I, however, declined to join them. There was no way I was going to try to keep up with a bunch of college kids doing a semester abroad. Uh-uh. Not happenin'. I'm sure they go out five nights a week. Not fallin' for that one. Three shots later (did I mention they were on special too), all the girls felt ready to get their groove on. Being one of the 10 whitest men on the planet (in the under 40 division) I needed a bit more liquid courage before I was going to near a dance floor. So T.J. and I left the ladies downstairs and decided to go exploring.
I think he was glad to make a break with them for a little while. Check that. I know he was glad to. The top levels of the place didn't open, you heard me, didn't open until 1:00am. The fact that I found this so amazing was proof-point 927 that I no longer had any business in a joint like this. I should have told them they weren't so hot - that there was a place in Granada I had refused to wait up for that didn't open until 2:00. That would've...done what? I dunno. Anyway, T.J. and I found ourselves in the rock n' roll room, which was much more my speed. I recall hearing some Tom Petty and perhaps a Bob Seger tune. Not sure. What I do remember is the smokin' hot bartender and T.J.'s little quest.
After acquiring a couple of beers from said wait staff professional and noticing her, um, assets, T.J. dragged me around the side of the bar towards a staircase that  led to a landing overlooking the room below. We sat down at one of the half dozen tables that was near the railing and had a good view of the bar. Our friend below wasn't terribly busy, only serving the occasional drink now and then. After all, it was still early. Only 12:30. She mostly spent her time conversing with a scuzy looking busboy or bar-back who appeared to be shirking duties of his own. T.J. leaned over and said to me in a hushed tone, "Look at that."
I peered over the edge and could see our bartendress bending over to fill a cooler with beer bottles. Her tight fitting, low-rise, leather shorts didn't exactly require one to exercise the imagination vigorously.
"I'm gonna get a picture of her ass," he informed me. Ah, youthful exuberance. This'll be a great way to get kicked out of here, I thought. As crass as it sounds here, he really wasn't a bad kid and I couldn't really blame him. Testosterone is a powerful drug.
"Ok, ok. Just let me tell you when the coast is clear," I warned. As silly and juvenile as the whole affair was, something about the conspiratorial nature of it got me a little juiced up too. And after all, it was harmless. I think he tried about 17 times but, given the distance and the darkness and the covert nature of our operation, I don't believe he was ever really successful. In any case, I know I bored with it after a while, so we set out to find Carline, Kelly and Kim.
We stumbled upon them in the Reggae room where we all finally hit the dance floor. We hopped around from there over the next couple of hours checking out all the floors (at least the ones that were open). On one of the upper floors they were playing house music. Or was it techno? Whatever they weren't playing downstairs, I guess. The dance floor was constructed to look like some post-apocalyptic junkyard straight out of The Terminator. The main area was sunken with ledges all around on which people would climb up and show their stuff. Dance-wise, that is. It was also ringed with these spooky bluish-metallic, robot figures and the whole room was bathed in an eerie blue light. When a song would really get going, the robot's eyes would fire red laser lights that crisscrossed the dance floor and flickered in time with the music to create a very trippy effect.
Around 4:00 we ended up back on the first floor (techno/house?) where we had begun the evening. I'd had enough and told them all that I was shoving off. Surprisingly, T.J. said he was tired as well. But the girls wanted to keep on dancin', so we let them.
As we exited the largest club in middle earth we were accosted, ok maybe that's not a good word for it, um...heartily greeted by four tremendous looking Norwegian blondes. They were a bit tipsy and very friendly, so we struck up a conversation, which lasted approximately 47 seconds until the four not-so-friendly Norwegian dudes showed up.
It wasn't a terribly long walk to the apartment and with only one or two wrong turns I managed to make it back in about 15 minutes. I bid adieu to T.J. at clock square where I wished him well and warned him against advertising as a vocation. "Study finance," I think I told him. "You'll make more money." I doubt he'll listen though.
The next morning - or more accurately, later that morning - upon waking I decided that I needed some lounging time. I'd been moving around at a pretty fast clip since Vienna, so it was nice to take advantage of the comforts of my very own apartment. The satellite TV was a bonus. By noon, however, I managed to loose myself from the couch. There was too much to see out there no matter how tired I was.
I set out with the two goals; get some good black and white photos of the Charles Bridge and find a wedding gift for my friends Harold and Earth. Other than that, I had no real goals for the day.
A few years ago my good friend John Buuck came to Prague and returned with the most amazing set of photos. I wanted to see if I could replicate a few of those shots, especially on the bridge. But he studied film in USC's graduate program and has just a fantastic eye. So I'm afraid I fell short. But I did get a few cool snaps which I've posted here.
I made my way across the bridge focusing on the statues and the people. I spent a long time trying to get one particular shot just right. It was composed of the architecture on the bank of the river to my left, a bridge in the distance and the massing clouds above. I was shooting in sepia tone and I think I must have taken 30 or 40 snaps before I felt like I had it.
I moved on, but after crossing the bridge I really had no idea where to go. Off to the right and up the hill was the Castle where I'd been the day before, so instead I went left not knowing what I would find. I figured, if nothing else, I could just follow the bank of the river and shoot the entirety of the bridge from a distance. I had seen all of the major tourist sights the day before, so I was perfectly content to just wander and see what I could find off the beaten path. I soon found there was much more to this city than I'd first thought; more than I would be able to cover in the time I had. In fact, it occurred to me this whole trip was really more of an overview - a scouting trip for future returns.
I headed-off down some decidedly less touristy street. It was quiet away from the throngs of the bridge. I passed an old water wheel that was turning slowly as if it always had and always would. The image lent a timeless quality to a city that already appeared to me to largely exist outside the normal constraints of time and progress. The street I was following led me onto Kampa Island where I stumbled upon a wall covered in graffiti.
The wall ran for nearly a city block and every inch of it was covered in DIY art (see pic.) I'm not sure if it was the designated graffiti wall of the ciyty, or what, but it did strike me then that I had seen very little graffiti elsewhere in town as compared to many of the other urban centers I had visited. Good idea if that's what it was.
Did you know that baseball is only the 2nd most practiced sport in the world? (at 150 million practitioners). Do you know what number one is? Soccer? Nope. Golf? Nope. Shuffleboard? Is that even a sport? Nope (on both counts). Get this, it's volleyball, with 180 million players around the world. "How do you know this?" you might ask. "And why should I care?" Well, if ever you try to make it onto a televised trivia show (you know who you are) this may be the bit that puts you over the top. Just trying to help. I learned this, and many other pieces of otherwise wholly useless knowledge, while passing by, "Earth from Above," an outdoor photography exhibition. Each of the photographs, as you might guess, had been taken aerially or from space and included a sidebar explaining the image. The one that included the tidbit about volleyball was attached to a photo of Derek Jeter about to catch a fly-ball as he ran across the diamond-cut grass in the shallow outfield of Yankee Stadium. It made for a very cool shot from directly above him. There were photos of all kinds of interesting land masses and patterns occurring in nature that could only be discovered from high above.
Suddenly I had a very strange feeling. Just for an instant, I couldn't recall where I was. I had become so totally engrossed with these huge photographs, moving from one to another, that I was just completely in the moment. Everything else dropped away to the point that when I recognized what was happening I couldn't recall how I had come to this place, where I was going, what time it was - nothing but these giant images in front of me that had absorbed me.
I took that as a great sign. I was nearing the end of the trip (just five stops left) and I felt like I had been remaining fully present more and more in the things I was doing. And this really confirmed it for me. I felt like for the first time I really was beginning to understand this business of living in the moment. It was a lot harder to do than I had anticipated, but at the same time, once you start to do it, the effort becomes less and less. I thought about what they call the wu wei in Taoism or, action through in-action. The aim or end result is to obtain an irresistible form of "soft and invisible power" over things (the self, others, a country). Pretty trippy, I know.
As I came to the end of the exhibit I noticed the path I'd been following had taken me back to the river's edge. I got those shots of the bridge I had contemplated earlier in the day and then just followed the path to see where it would lead. A bit further on, the city looked inviting again, so I left the river.
To this point, all I had eaten for the day was an apple that I had stashed in my pack. By now it was well into the afternoon, so I headed toward a café I saw from a distance. It turned out to be a grand old place which reminded me of the elegant coffee houses of Vienna. On my way to a table in the corner I passed the pastry case and ogled the exquisite looking cakes and torts. I ordered a café au lait and a slice of chocolate cake with layers of sweet plums, chocolate mouse and pistachio nuts. I felt very fancy at that moment and sat there soaking in the atmosphere as I did a bit of writing.
I decided to get a move-on after an hour or so in the café. I was mulling over the idea of taking in some music that night and thought I'd go see what they were playing at the grand Music House.
All day I had been keeping an eye out for the wedding gift too. Each shop I passed by was considered and rejected for one reason or another. I had seen a very unique crystal decanter the day before in the window of a shop that I thought was near where I'd been walking today. The piece was low and wide at the bottom with a tall thin neck. In addition, it had a bulbous protrusion on the underside which meant when one set it down, it would invariably lean to one side or the other - kind of like a Weeble-Wobble. Very unusual. Very cool. I was sure they would love it. If only I could find it again.
Problem was, there are only about 15,000 crystal shops in Prague. As I neared the main tourist thoroughfare leading back to the bridge, I stopped at several shops looking for the piece. Just before I turned to go back over the bridge, a shop caught my eye and I decided to backtrack and give it a shot. As I approached I could see it sitting there in the window. The exact piece I had been looking for. I looked around and, sure enough, this was the road we had walked to get to the Castle the day before. I was excited to have found it, but now I had to cart around a delicate piece of glassware for the rest of the trip and try to avoid breaking it. Should be interesting.
It took me a half hour to walk over to the Music House. When I arrived I learned the evening's program was Vivaldi's Four Season's. It's a fine piece, but at that point I just wasn't in the mood. I'd been on my feet for most of the day and was feeling a little tired. I remembered a jazz club I had seen over by the apartment and thought maybe I'd just catch a late set there.
So I went home and flopped on the couch for a while, enjoying a glass of wine and some of the cheese I had left over from earlier in the week. The BBC News Hour proved itself difficult to pull away from. More difficult than I had anticipated. But finally I got up and headed out again to find a place to dine. I was definitely slowing down now, but I didn't mind all that much. I was feeling more relaxed and at peace with myself than ever before. I looked at my watch and hurried off.
I was trying to catch the "show" at the astronomical clock. Every hour as the bells chime, little figurines appear from within the clock and do a little dance or some such thing. It's one of those things you're supposed to see when in Prague, but I missed it again. The third time I had tried. I never did see it. Oh well, I'm not too broken up about it.
The local cuisine had failed to impress so, on this my last night in Prague, I opted for an Italian restaurant. It was a good meal, but I think I induced a food coma and so decided to skip the music altogether and headed home to turn in for the night.
The next morning I walked over to the apartment rental office to drop off the keys and settle up my bill. Well, it turns out that Citibank had decided to put a hold on my MasterCard as "unusual activity" had tripped the security parameters that issuers set-up to prevent fraudulent charges. Bang-up job boys! I've only been over here for, what?, two months now? Way to be on top of things. I asked the rental agent if they would accept American Express. No such luck. He then told me there was an ATM just down the way where I could secure some cash. Sure. Sure thing. Just let me put on my backpacks here and I'll be riiiii-ght back. He told me I could leave my things. It would be ok. But I demurred and told him again that I'd be right back.
Whatever. They've got the MasterCard number on file. They can run it again once I get the crack team in Sioux Falls to straighten things out (no offense Becky - not your division though, right?). I'll call them later. Right now, I've got a train to catch.
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