The plane arrived in Frankfort on time and without any terrible turbulence to speak of. My connection from Frankfort to Prague was on Lufthansa, an airline for which my uncle worked for years. I felt a little nostalgic boarding, as if I had finally realized a childhood dream. The one little difference in the dream being, perhaps, the absence of an Atari 2600 and no six pound pyramids of Toblerone around (like the kind my Aunt and Uncle used to bring back from their trips abroad).
A quick forty-five minutes later and I landed in Prague. The 9:30 a.m. sun slapped me in the face continuously, as I was unable to shut the blinds on my window. Everything smelled like yogurt, and I was starting to get really, really irritated as the German couple in front of me refused to move any faster when getting out of the plane. Finally, free of that coffin-that-flies, the anticipation to see Jim and Vivian was fully realized in the form of an intense urge to urinate. Free of the curse-of-the-man-who-refuses-to-get-up-on-the-flight, I turned my attention to finding my bags. Surprisingly they were waiting for me. The guitar? Fine. My bulbous travelling bag? Bulbous.
I declared nothing on my way out of the luggage area and had a brief, panicked moment when I realized I had no idea where Jim or Vivian lived, and, if something had happened to them on the way to the airport there was no way I would know since I don’t have a European cell phone. Then I remembered that it was 2009 and things like this are no longer a problem thanks to the Internet and the exchange of money for goods and services.
Panic over, I walked out of the international arrivals hall. I fully expected a sign and the signs I saw were, instead, full of Czech symbols and none of them resembled anything in my name (nor did the people holding them look like Jim or Vivian). I wandered up and down with my three bags and guitar and, yeah, no sign. Had it been 1999 (or 1989 for that matter) I would have broken out in hives, started praying to multiple entities, began some sort of bargaining process with fate, etc. Instead I decided to wait. And, boy, did waiting work out for me! Ambling down the hallway was a sign that said “Beach Dawg.” I don’t think The Coke Dares have many Czech fans, so I knew it was Jim. He thought I’d be coming out from the other doorway down the hall. Humorous situations!
I could tell Jim had a plan, and it involved a bus and a subway and then a restaurant. He also had sketched out various activities for us over the next four days and a half. He also demanded to carry my guitar so he could look like the travelling musician. The Metro stopped at Ludmilla, right around the corner from Jim and Vivian’s apartment, and we schlepped all of my crap past Cheers (a popular and mysteriously closed bar), an organic coffee shop which called to me like a sweet siren, and the new organic grocery that, just a week prior, had opened in the basement of their building. Eight flights of stairs stared us down – we took the lift. Vivian greeted us and I realized I hadn’t seen these people for more than two years. They had both been roommates, we had had fun, fights, food, and plenty of tacos together in the past. Now it was time to catch up.
First order of business? A shower. Yes. Make me human, shower. And then? Lunch. We went back past the abandoned cheer of Cheers and found ourselves in a restaurant that boasted “Typical Czech Cuisine.” I assumed meat and potatoes and I was right, but, damn, those things, when swimming in sauce, are delicious. My first Czech meal was Prague goulash. It featured two familiar flavors, those of brown sauce with some sort of protein (I think it was probably pork) and potato pancakes, and a new sensation: Czech dumplings. When the plate arrived I expected the dumplings to be like the dumplings I had experienced in the past, but no! Four thick slices of something that resembled French toast, or at least small, dense bread, doused in the rich, brown gravy. The Midwesterner that is me rejoiced. Two beers, then, and, all of a sudden, the intense desire to sleep. It was afternoon Prague time and I had a whole day in front of me. If I slept now it would be ruined. I knew what would help: Organic coffee, and wireless internet to satisfy my urge to keep a job at home.
Jim and Vivian are English tutors for intermediate to advanced Czech English speakers, which means their lives are based around appointments, like music teachers or really, really old doctors who don’t have many patients. I was told that some doctors in Prague make less of a living than they do, so they probably chose the right path (that being the one that didn’t involve medical school and did involve moving to Europe and getting flexible jobs). Jim was at an appointment and Vivian was leaving, so I hopped across the street and acquainted myself with my new office. A double espresso was served in the tiniest glass of water I’ve ever seen served, anywhere, even to children. I soon found out that I could have as much of this water as I wanted. Then, an hour into working, I fell asleep sitting at my computer. The young woman who owns the shop woke me up inadvertently by clearing my dishes and then told me that I “didn’t look so good.” I responded by buying a bottle of carrot beet ginger juice and thanking her for waking me up.
Jim showed to pick me up and my memory gets a bit foggy, but here’s what I know we did, absolutely: We found out Vivian was going to make dinner for us, and she’s really good at it and comes from a rich, Southern tradition of liking a lot of butter on things. I was excited. We did have some business to attend to, however: I needed to buy a train ticket to Vienna, and, having never done such a thing, I thought getting it done soon would be the way to go. We were also charged with the task of wine-buying. This allowed some tourism to take place. Jim walked me past the casinos, Einstein Pizzeria, more casinos, KFC, McDonalds, banks, through the scary, scary, dark park outside of the museum, and then up to the museum. The dirty, Gothic structure looms over Wenceslaus square, the Anglo name applied to the greatest ruler Prague ever had (apparently), who was killed (for some reason) by his brother, who then became the greatest ruler Prague ever had (or, at least, a very successful and effective ruler). The thing is amazing. In front of is a memorial to Jan Palach who burned himself to death as a political demonstration in 1969. Jim explained all of this to me and I can’t remember a bit of it, but I’d like to, at least, plead jetlag. It was somewhat overwhelming, to be honest – old beauty, political anguish, filthy, hundreds-of-years-old structures, and a sea of tourists. We embarked upon that sea, admiring the street sausages, the weird, plaid Czech pants, the pantyhose (nude, mostly) on females of all ages (this is a mystery to Jim and Vivian, and something they have never asked their students directly – apparently some Czech women will wear pantyhose beneath their workout pants at the gym, for example. Do they know something the rest of the women of the world doesn’t?), the lavender and bright orange hair of the old women, and the amazing old buildings looming over us in spite of it all.
We found our way to the train station and I purchased my ticket to Vienna for an astonishing $58. Ah, Europe – I’d love to live within your grasp, with your trains and pastries and social liberalism, your beers and herbal liquors and your poop-filled streets, your espresso and chocolate and baristas who know how to make coffee drinks appropriately. But, yeah, I thought it would be a lot more expensive. Hell, it costs $120 to get to Chicago from Indianapolis on a train. My mind blown we walked back to the apartment. Upon entering we remembered that we had forgotten to buy wine. Out the door again and to their local non-stop, where a bottle of Mondavi cabernet and Stonehenge cabernet set us back a whole $10. I like the Czechs for this – they refuse to raise food and drink prices, and the bills at the restaurants we would soon be patronizing almost seemed like jokes to me. Anyway, wine attained and it was back to the apartment. Over the next four hours we ate Vivian’s delicious meal (which included a lettuce I had never had – rabbit ears, I believe it’s called – and an Amaretto soufflé, which featured the perfect mix of sweet and salty), we drank three bottles of wine, we broke out the Czech herbal liquor (Becherovka), and we caught up, excited to spend the next days together. The air mattress was produced, expanded, and made especially for me. Contacts out, teeth brushed, drunk, and delirious, I don’t think I even had a chance to get comfortable in the mattress before the sleep I had been neglecting punched me in the face and told me to shut the fuck up for the next eight hours.