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Prague's Old Town Sqare (author photo)

Welcome to the Czech Republic.
by Joe Wiebe
posted October 1, 2004

Frankfurt is hot, 27ºC and it's only 11:00 a.m. It was snowing in Calgary yesterday, even though it's mid-May. Our bodies think it's the middle of the night, but three trains and a border crossing await us before we can sleep.

Ever since the Berlin Wall came down, I've been intrigued with Eastern Europe. On my whirlwind backpacking trip around Europe in 1991, I spent two days in Prague and fell in love with the city - its beautiful architecture, alluring women, and delicious beer, best in the world on all three counts as far as I'm concerned. When I left, I promised I'd return soon. Back in Canada, when Allison and I first got together a couple years later, one of my first promises was that I'd take her to Prague.
     It has taken us almost ten years to get to Europe because we were never able to put together the cash. We can't really afford it even now, but we've decided that if we don't just go, we never will.

We activate our Eurail passes in the Frankfurt Bahnhof, and buy some Czech currency. Our flight from Calgary was forty-five minutes late, so we've missed our first train already. That's OK, we can still make it to the Czech Republic; we'll just have to wait two hours for the next train east. I suggest we celebrate our arrival in the true German style, and Allison agrees. At the Deutsche Bahn Lounge, I enjoy a delicious Bavarian Hefeweizen. Beer is a big part of the trip for me - our first destination en route to Prague is Plzen, birthplace of the Pilsener style of beer.
     We try to relax, but the combination of sleep deprivation and excitement leaves us jittery. We're alone in the bar, which only adds to our sense of surreal displacement. After I finish my beer, we go back to the platform. An hour later, I reach for my Eurail Pass to check something ... and can't find it. I search all my pockets. Nothing. Allison's eyes widen as she realizes I've lost my train pass. Then I remember that I looked at it in the lounge. I race back to the bar. It's still empty. There, on our table, beside my foam-ringed beer glass, sits the train pass.
     "Can you believe," I say to Allison upon my return, holding up the pass, "I almost lost this on our first day?" To her credit, she only smiles. I give her a kiss and thank her for not freaking out.
     Our first train departs twenty minutes late (and I thought trains always ran on time in Germany), which means we get to our first transfer point with only one minute to spare. If we miss this connection, we're in for an unplanned night here in Nürnberg. Shouldering our overstuffed backpacks, we trot between platforms as quickly as we can. Seconds after we board our new train, it leaves.
     As we approach Schwandorf, our transfer point for Plzen, our train stops without warning at a tiny rural station. The driver strolls over to a small building, where he chats casually with the station-master. After a few minutes, he waves auf wiedersehen and ambles down the length of our train. Finally, we begin to move again - but in reverse! We stop a few hundred metres back … and sit there. Eventually, a freight train rattles by towards Nürnberg. I guess we were in its way. Once the freight passes, we start up again - only now, we are definitely behind schedule.
     Luckily, our train for the Czech Republic waits for us. It is identical to the Soviet-style train I rode on my 1991 trip, right down to the Russian signs above the doors. The seats in our compartment are so dusty it may not have been used since my last visit. We don't care. We're going to be in Plzen in a few hours!
     Two border guards come by, sweaty and tired - we're the last train of the day for them. Allison smiles prettily and tries out her much-practiced Czech on them. "Dobry den," she says. Hello. Their severe faces don't crack, and when they spot the maple leaf on our passports, they grimace. It means extra work for them to process our entry visas. I feel guilty, but fight my Canadian urge to apologize - after all, we paid $80 each for those visas.
     They stamp our passports brusquely and leave us alone in our compartment. We give a little cheer and kiss. We've made it! We're in the Czech Republic! Verdant farm fields roll by outside the window, shaded green with early shoots of barley that will eventually end up in the incomparable Czech beer. I can taste it already, and can't wait to get to Plzen so we can find a pub and celebrate our arrival.
     The train rumbles east and we fight the urge to sleep, even though we've been awake for more than twenty-four hours straight. I didn't think to check my watch when we left Schwandorf, so I'm not sure when we should arrive in Plzen. It's getting late, and I'm worried it might be dark when we get there. We still have to find our hotel, the Penzion Plzen. According to its website, it should be just a ten or fifteen minute walk from the train station.
     The sun is getting low on the horizon when the train enters a station and begins slowing down. I spot a sign with Plzen on it. "This is it," I announce. We grab our packs and head for the door. When the train creaks to a stop, Allison wrestles with the handle for a bit, but it proves too heavy for her. I reach past her and manage to wrench it open. She steps down to the platform, I hand her pack down to her ... and the train starts moving again!
     It is one of those split-second moments where time slows down. My urge is to jump off before the train picks up too much speed, but I also realize that I have to toss my pack down first or risk tripping over it, or even leaving it on the train. So I step back, throw it down next to Allison - now wide-eyed as she watches the train pulling away with me still on it. Then, I jump off myself. I land fine, and look back down the length of the train to see the conductor waving at us from an open doorway. I wave back politely to reassure him that we're fine, and then reprimand myself. I should have given him the finger instead. Why did they give us so little time?
     The station is dark and decrepit, apparently closed down for the night. An old woman sweeps the dirty floors, but otherwise it's deserted. Not at all what I expected - after all, Plzen is a small but substantial city. The few other passengers melt out of the station's various exits into the waning evening light while we attempt to get our bearings.
     I give Allison a reassuring smile, sensing she isn't impressed with the station's crumbling state. Neither am I. The urban vista outside isn't much better. We are surrounded by buildings reminiscent of drab Soviet tenements. There are no pretty art nouveau façades, as our guidebook describes Plzen's architecture, just crumbling walls and shuttered windows. I pull out our map, a smudgy printout from the Penzion Plzen's website. Why didn't I notice that the street names are illegible before? After a moment, I lead Allison in what I think is the correct direction.
     But after a few blocks, I stop. The map just isn't matching up with the city's geography. She looks at the map with me, but can't see anything different there. I marvel at how calm she remains. I try to stay calm too, but inside I'm full of anxiety. Where the hell are we?
     The sun is setting. There are other people out, all of whom clearly know where they're going. A middle-aged man walks down the sidewalk towards us, and before I can change my mind, I step in front of him and thrust my printout under his nose. I try English on him; he responds in Czech. I know enough to order beer in Czech, but that's about it. He speaks German, but my minimal German skills don't help.
     Sign language then. I point back at the train station, then at the printout, trying to get him to show us where we are on the map. He stares at the useless map, stares at me, stares at the buildings around him. I glance nervously at Allison, but she has nothing to offer but an equally nervous smile.
     After a few minutes of this, the man walks away, but motions for us to follow. Allison shrugs in response to my raised eyebrows - and we fall in step behind him. (She tells me later she hoped he was taking us home to enjoy a traditional Czech meal, drink vodka until the wee hours, and then sleep in his guest room. She might have been delirious from lack of sleep.)
     He opens the doors of a tiny Skoda, and waves us in. Allison squeezes into the back seat with both our big packs. At first, I'm not sure I will even fit in the front passenger seat, but I manage to squeeze my knees under the dashboard, and off we go into the Plzen twilight. I try to follow our route on the stupid, useless map, but quickly give up.
     After a few minutes, he pulls over - rather decisively, I think. I look around. We're on the side of a mini-freeway next to rows of modern apartment buildings with no hotels in sight. He gets out of the car without a word and approaches a young man on the sidewalk.
     Allison taps my shoulder. "Isn't there a map in the Lonely Planet?" Of course! She hands the book to me, and I find the page. Ah, the detail! Street names, train station, hotels - all clearly marked. I open the car door, reassuring Allison that I will return. She smiles wanly and feigns going to sleep, stuffed in the cocoon of our backpacks in the back of the tiny Skoda.
     To my relief, the young guy speaks English. He's an American who lives there, and he can speak some Czech. Our driver has the internet map in his hands, but neither of them can figure it out. I show them the Lonely Planet map, proud of its clear lines and legible type, but my heart rate doubles as a look of obvious confusion grows on the American's face. Why is it a mystery to him, too? He and our driver talk in Czech, pointing at various symbols on the map, but clearly not making much sense of it.
     By now, I've figured out that we must have gotten off the train at a suburban stop outside Plzen. I ask the American to see if our driver knows how to get to the city centre. I remember the name of a big, old hotel right in the heart of the city - the Slovan. Does he know it? Our driver nods, so I thank the young American, and off we go again.
     Back in the car, there is an air of confidence. Our driver smiles. I smile back. Allison smiles, too, relief clear on her face. We drive in silence, no shared language to fill the time. Soon, we see a sign: "Plzen Centrum." Patched and worn pavement transforms into touristy cobblestones, and the old buildings suddenly develop the lustre I've been expecting. Then, there it is, the Hotel Slovan. We thank our friend in German, English, and Czech. He smiles and says, "Bitte, bitte," - you're welcome, in German, the only language we almost share.
     He leaves us at the hotel's steps, and I kick myself for never asking his name. I know enough German for that, and could have filled the car's silence with our names, our nationality, our home city, all those interesting facts that would flesh out the stories we would each have to tell. I imagine him going home to tell his family about the crazy young couple who got off the train too soon. A good laugh to go along with a shot of Slivovice, fiery plum brandy that is the Czech national liquor.
     We are too exhausted and gun-shy to try to find the Penzion Plzen in the dark, so we decide to stay at the Hotel Slovan that night. It's more expensive than we budgeted, but worth every halér. After dropping our bags on our beds, we find we still have the energy to walk across the street to a little pub. When our pints of Gambrius Pilsener arrive, I raise my glass in a toast.

Welcome to the Czech Republic.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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