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E-Mailing Through Europe >> Prague August 20, 1998


30 Years of Courage

Date: Thu, 20 Aug 1998 05:55:55 -0700 (PDT)
From: k p ken@kpny.com
Subject: That'll be 2 Crowns, please

I'm on my second day in Prague after reserving a couchette to sleep on the train from Munich. The train was filled mostly with Americans, including a couple of rooms full of Frat boys intent on replacing sleep with beer. They finally seemed to fall asleep sometime after three German soldiers woke us all up demanding passports. In my 6 bed cabin they carefully checked the passport of the Japanese woman and a Canadian student of Vietnamese descent, but didn't even bother to look at mine when they saw it was American.

I slept badly, waking every time the train stopped or the fat, balding Czech guy on the train began snoring. Which was most of the time. As my family knows, we have a rule that if anyone snores too loudly, that person deserves a swift kick and a push to roll him or her over. It was all I could do to stop myself from kicking the Snore Guy, as we English-speaking passengers called him. Either that or gently place a pillow over his face and pushing with all my strength.

Anyway, I arrived at the Prage Train Station, Praha-hlavni nadrazi, (literally: "Do you need a room?") and was beseiged by overly friendly yet sleazy Czechs asking me if I needed a room. Lucky enough to have gotten the scoop in Paris on a hostel named the Clown and Bard, I walked around the streets trying to find the place. 45 minutes later in what should have been a ten minute walk, I found the hostel. Greeted at about 9:30 a.m. by a number of drinking Irishmen in the lobby who's only vocabulary words seemed to be "For Fuck's Sake!", I walked up to the front desk.

"Sorry. We're booked" said the Irishman behind the counter. He then turned and screamed "For Fuck's sake!" at his countrymen.

The guy at the front desk was kind enough to suggest the Strawberry Hostel just up the street. I booked a room there, but vowed tomorrow to try again at the Clown and Bard. It's a fun place, very social, with live music every night. Oh, and did I mention when I went there last night and ordered a beer, he said "16 Crowns." That's about US $.50.

Everything in Prague is criminally cheap. It's fun to make the conversion in your head and realize "I'm only paying four dollars for this huge steak dinner, two liters of beer and a nice dessert?" I was thinking about buying an entire Czech family for fourteen US dollars, but I just don't have the space in my apartment.

After checking into my room, Matt from England walked in. He was off to do his laundry and asked if I'd like to join him. I did, not really having plans for the day, and we walked our dirty clothes to a local laundrymat. Once there we looked hopelessly around when all the directions were in Czech. Fortunately, a woman who knows tourists and how to gouge them walked up to us, and asked us if we wanted self-service or full-service. You could see the gleam in her eye when she said full-service. It would probably be enough for her to purchase a new car. "How much for full-service?" I asked. She went through a number of prices for the soap, water, washing machine and dryer, then added "35 Crowns more for full service." A buck to let her do my laundry? Done, and done.

Matt and I combined our washes to save an extra dollar, and then walked in search of lunch. Some ham and cheese, a loaf a bread, yogurt, chips (or crisps as everyone else calls them; "Chips" are fries in Europe), a soda and a chocolate croissant for about two dollars. I threw in a whole jar of mustard just for my sandwhich because it was only 50 cents more.

After lunch Matt and I split up and I wandered aimlessly around the Lech Walensa square, which is the Champs d'elysee of Prague, to find a pair of shoes. I got some Czechinstocks for 800 Crowns, about $35 US. Its a charming city, of course, but the neigborhood I'm staying in is a bit too graffitied and run down to be considered charming. Much like the U Street/Cordoza neighborhood in DC. Just a few more years, some luck, and it'll be gentrified or at least cleaned up of trash and grafitti.

Lech Walensa square was equally dirty and disappointing. Mcdonalds at the top and bottom of the square, of course, and a mixed lot of shops. Some high scale jewelery and Polo boutiques with either construction or older small Czech shops that must have long-term leases.

Tired from walking up and down the hills, I went back to the hostel and dove into bed. My landing was a bit painful as I hadn't noticed that the matress springs had broken, and my entire torso sunk into the middle of the bed. I extracted myself from the hole, and then fell asleep anyway. About an hour later Matt and some guy from Norway returned from sightseeing and we engaged in the usual hostler conversation:

1. Where are you coming from?
1a. Did you like it?
2. Where are you going?
2b. Offer helpful suggestions if you've already been there.
3. Where are you from? (it's okay to hazard a guess if you can tell from their language and accent where they are probably from. Note to Europeans: Don't guess "American" because apparently the Canadians put up a bit of a fuss if they are mislabled.)
4. If the person is interesting enough: What are you doing tonight?

The answer to number four was uncertain, so I suggested the Clown and Bard bar. We went, drank some beers (I generously offered to buy the first round, which set me back about $1.50) and then I sloughed off to bed about 10:30.

Woke up this morning, and walked down two flights of stairs to the breakfast room. I needed coffee. But instead I encountered a number of old, hair-netted, fat and ugly lunchladies with hair growing out of warts (aparently an international phenomenon) One of them behind the counter proceeded to scream something at me in Czech. Obviously not understanding her, she tried screamed "ticket!!!!" I didn't have one, and tried to ask where I could purchase one. But that just encouraged her to scream "TICKETS!!!" even louder.

A nice group of three Americans, amused at a repeat of what happened to them, explained that I had to buy them at the front desk downstairs. They cautioned me, however, that the coffee was some sort of soybean extract and the meats were questionably fresh. They suggested I move on.

I grabbed my sack from my room, and ventured outside in search of some caffene, and perhaps some eggs. Finding a small restaurant with a huge Cocacola sign, I walked in and looked at their fare. Either greasy meats or equally greasy cole-slaw looking dishes. At 9:30 in the morning, slightly hungover, I couldn't quite stomach that. So I asked for coffee, and after some pointing and nodding, she pulled out a bottle of instant coffee. I cringed a bit at the thought of instant, but figured if it was bad I could part with four cents and go find another. She unceremoniously dumped a heaping tablespoon of grounds in a glass, poured in hot water, and charged me an extra four crowns for a cream.

I suffered through the coffee, and finally came across a bakery that offered bread in addition to the same greasy meats and cabbage as the last place. A croissant and a fanta to settle my stomach (they don't have orange juice here, alas), and I was on my way to the main square.

praguehorse 
No horsin' around in the main square.  

It is a charming square of cobblestones, statues and large buildings surrounding the perimiter. It was the sight of the Prague Spring demonstrations in 1968 when the Czech people tried to loosen up their flavor of communism. Alas, the Soviets only knew one strain of communism in 1968, so despite a popular uprising, they sent in the tanks and crushed the spontaneous demonstrations exactly 30 years ago tomorrow. You'd think there would be all sorts of commemorations of those events here, but the young Czechs don't appreciate that their baby boomer parents were fighting Soviet tanks with peaceful protests and the occasional firebomb while ours were smoking weed and experimenting with Free Love.

I went to the only commemoration of the event, a photo exhibit of the protests and Soviet reaction. According to the Prague Post, an English-language newspaper I picked up for 45 crowns, the Prague Spring fell into disfavor with the Velvet Revolutionaries in 1989, who split with the Soviets once and for all.

The reason, it seems, is that the brave students and workers who fought Soviet tanks were only trying to reform communism, not end it. And therefore they are still communist sympathizers. Besides, most of the revolutionaries--70,000 total people--left Czechoslovakia after 1969 and those that remain resent them as carpetbaggers or just old people who talk incessantly about the good old days of civic action.

So much for resisting totalitarianism. The Rolling Stones will be here on Saturday night, but I'll be moving on to Berlin probably on Friday night. I was told that Berlin is pretty much one big piece of scaffolding now, as they rebuild the entire city to move the government from Bonn to Berlin. Imagine if they moved the goverment from Washington DC to New York City. I think I'll have to see that, and the Wall, before the city changes completely in the next 5 years.

The Prague Castle today and some more sightseeing if I don't get blisters from my new shoes. Thanks again for your replies. It's very nice to hear from each of you. If you haven't replied yet, there is still time. That's it for now. Adios, as they say in Prague.

--Ken

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