The intellectual equivalent of a ham sandwich.

December 30

Having learned from the walk from the train station to the hotel, we decided to take a taxi to the train station. I’ll admit, it was a trifle easier than walking with our massive bags.

Our train trip was uneventful except for one thing – we had not bought our tickets in advance, and so we sat in random seats. Apparently the way it works is that there are seat numbers and at a future stop someone might get on the train who has the seat you happen to be sitting on. This caused a bit of worry every time we stopped, because getting our massive bags down to move to another area was no small effort. Thankfully, we were able to stay put.

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During the journey I wandered to the food cart and experienced one of my attempts at German. The woman spoke ONLY German, Czech, and probably French (how dare she) so I ordered in German. The problem with ordering in German, for me, is the follow up questions. I asked for two coffees and a water and then she responded with something more elaborate than, “ok.” She quickly understood that I was not one for small talk based on my wide eyes and look of confusion.

We arrived in Prague about 1 or 1:30 and immediately went to buy our tickets to Munich. My wife had the smart idea of buying in advance to avoid the worry of switching seats. There were a couple trains that would be going to Munich on the second and I chose a 1 pm train, I knew we would be going straight to our hotel at the airport and so I wanted as much time in Prague as possible. This turned out to be a noteworthy mistake.

The Prague station had a beautiful area, but overall felt more hectic and busy than the previous main stations. It could be that a lot of tourists were heading into Prague for New Year’s Eve, but the business and the new language, the business, and the less English-only-speakers friendliness made us feel a little more out of place than usual.

We took a cab to our hotel, which worked out not only for the sake of our bags, but also because our hotel would’ve taken an act of God to find. It was a lovely hotel, RIGHT next to Charles Bridge (which was amazing) but it had a big wooden door and a small sign with the hotel name on it. The door was in an alley right off the main drag that comes from Charles Bridge, and it was across from an Asian restaurant where you could dip your feet in an aquarium and have fish eat dead skin off your feet while you ate whatever you wanted (fish, if you’ve got an odd sense of humor).

Our room had a sort of spartan feel to it (decorations – we eastern Europeans laugh at decorations). The sound of the language and the look of people made me think of Russia. The hotel was one part of this large building, with an elevator that seemed to bounce every time you got to a floor, and a short-ceilinged basement where we had breakfast and they served delicious beer and meals for all times of day.

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The Prague opera house

Inspired by the Viennese opera, and the fact that Don Giovanni was playing that night, we asked the guy at the front desk about buying tickets. He looked it up and said they were sold out. We said we understood, but what about paying extra for a third party vendor or an official scalper of sorts? Here we had not a language barrier, but a cultural barrier. After a bit of back and forth he finally understood and seemed almost amused. “Why would you pay more to go see a sold out show? You just go see something else, or wait for when the show will happen again.” According to him, scalping doesn’t happen there. They have enough culture and patience that if you can’t see THAT show, there’s certainly something else good or you just tap your fingers til it comes around again. I was sad to not get to see Don Giovanni, but wow!, how awesome is that to not have to deal with people buying up tickets and selling them for extra?

We did see that there was an opera on the first, the Bartered Bride, so we decided to walk to the opera to buy tickets for that.

First, though, was food. We went to a little restaurant near our hotel and had … something delicious. I can’t recall what. I just remember thinking, sadly, how soon we would be leaving and the trip would be over. In the area of the restaurant where we were seated there was a table of English ladies, a table of Italians, and us. It’s so fun to get to be surrounded by such different people, and the beauty of other languages. Also, our waiter was one mean looking dude. He looked like a super hero who’s only weakness is an inability to smile. I both feared and liked him.

After lunch we walked across the absolutely beautiful, and insanely packed with tourists and sales people. (Folks selling jewelry, paintings, and people doing little things for money. My favorite was a person turning a crank to play music and just sitting beside it … Staring at tourists, waiting for money, because of her musical crank machine. Second place was a woman who was lip synching with the least amount of care possible, it was like she was full of disdain for the tourists and yet here she was pretending to sing for them for money. I could sit and people watch those folks all day.)

Eventually we managed to make it across the bridge, and then we quickly made our way down to the opera house. The tickets were so cheap! Actually, most everything there was very cheap. The dollar goes far in the Czech Republic. One dollar was about equal to 30 Koruna. That was not the easiest math in my head, so I would like at a price, think, “AHH! SO EXPENSIVE! … Wait … Oh! So cheap!”

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Looking from around the opera house back to the Charles Bridge and the castle.

It was quite dark by this point, so we made our way back to our hotel to find dinner around there and then call it a night. Although the city was beautiful (possibly our favorite), the lady was not in the best possible shape, so we thought a good nights rest would help.

Near our hotel we popped in a little restaurant and had incredibly delicious food. Oh man, so good. I had some sort of kielbasa and a beer, both so cheap and tasty. A lot of places were shocking because they looked as though they’d have standard bar food, but the food that came out instead was magnificent. Places that have a comparable look and feel in the States usually serve delicious but greasy bar food, so I tended to be pleasantly surprised. The lady’s food was a roast beef with garlic creamed spinach and very delicious potato dumplings. After dinner we went to a gelato shop that was DELICIOUS. Oh so good. I should’ve gone back there a second time. Mistakes were made.

December 31

This was a sad day.

The lady woke up feeling worse. The cold had started a week ago and we had been scaling back on what we were doing to help fight the cold, but apparently it wasn’t enough. We decided that we’d head to the castle and then she would nap while I would continue to explore. We had already bought tickets for a burlesque show that night, and we were looking forward to ringing in the new year in an odd way.

We headed to the basement and had breakfast, ducking under the short ceiling and guessing at everyone’s country of origin. The breakfast was enjoyable and relaxing, and then we were out the door toward the castle.

The castle sat overlooking Charles Bridge and a lot of the city. The haze that seemed to always sit over the city created a beautiful and mystical feel, especially with those spires watching over everything and everyone. As part of the castle there was a large church, and I think that’s what I tended to see from other areas in the city. Unfortunately, because the castle looked out over the city, that meant it was an uphill walk to get there.

The lady and I started our walk and soon one of her coughing fits began. I don’t know how to describe those brutal coughing fits except to say that I was honestly surprised every time one stopped that she was still alive, they were awful sounding. I looked over and my wife was tearing up a little, overcome by sadness with having the trip robbed from her due to the cold. She knew it was best for her to head back to the room and continue to rest and avoid movement, because whenever she was out the cold air, the smoke from cigarettes, and the effort of walking prompted another nasty round of coughs. I walked her back to the hotel and she urged me to leave and see the castle. I felt bad for her leaving, but I did as she said.

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At the castle I stood in a very long line of tourists waiting to get in. There was extra security because of the state of the world these days, and every person was going through a metal detector before they could go to the spot to buy tickets (which was another incredibly confusing swarm of people). In line I ended up chatting with some Aussies who were in front of me. One of them was working in Italy, and so her sister, her sister’s husband, her mom, and a random guy from some other country were on a little trip together (the random guy was maybe the first girl’s boyfriend?). The place where the girl lived and worked in Italy was beautiful and amazing, and we swapped a European travel story or two before the mom asked, “what happened in America? Why … Trump?” I felt like the daughters had heard this tale before because they tried to change the subject a time or two but the mom and I expressed confusion, disbelief, and horror over Trump.

(And that was before he was inaugurated, mind you.)

We got through the lines together with our friendly chatter and soon I was rushing through the castle, trying to see everything as quickly as possible. The sun was rising, creating the stain glass to cast a beautiful glow inside the church. I could’ve stayed and stared at that for a full hour except: 1, the tourists were in the way and 2, I had told the Mrs. I’d be back 2.5 hours after I’d left, and I spent maybe close to an hour of that walking to the castle and standing in line.

After rushing around taking pictures of this, that, and whatever that is, I hurried back down to the hotel. I saw the wife, and went down to the lobby to ask where I might be able to get some soup for take away (as they called it) nearby. The guy at the desk and another man thought for a while, stumped by the idea of take away soup when one of them said, “why don’t you just go to the restaurant downstairs? You could take a tray up to your room.”

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The beautiful church on the outside (Friday I’ll have a stain glass photo!)

Downstairs I ordered soup from the one person working as the waitstaff and then she expressed shock and dismay at my not ordering a beer. I said, “well, my wife is sick and I just wanted to take some soup up to her.” And she said, “and while you wait for the soup you’ll just sit there. Why not sit there and drink beer?” She had a good point.

I felt a little guilty when I went back into our room with soup for my painfully sick wife and a half finished beer, telling her about my Aussie pals and the beauty of the castle. Ok, a lot guilty. But not guilty enough to keep me indoors.

I had a goal before we left for the trip – to buy a chandelier in Prague made of crystal (they are famous for crystal). This was a big ticket item we had saved up for and we were both excited about the idea of having such a beautiful decoration in our home. Unfortunately, a LOT of places sold chandeliers and they also sold postcards and random junk. If you walk into a place looking for something fancy and you also see a milk crate, it makes the fancy stuff a little questionable. I had looked up one store that a person wrote very positive reviews of and … it no longer existed. Shoot.

I headed out and got a quick lunch, then continued across the bridge and around a shopping area. I wanted to find some possible ones for the lady and I to come back and visit to hopefully pick out a fancy souvenir. With a few places scouted out I went back and the lady bundled up and against my, “are you sure? This seems like a bad idea … You’re sure you want to do this?” we headed out to look at STUFF.

We popped in a shop near our hotel then continued to walk, and walk, and walk. It really wasn’t that far, but when one person is sick and there are oodles of tourists it takes a while to get anywhere. A department store, oddly enough, was also highly recommended for a chandelier. The department store had everything. A little restaurant, clothes, toys, cheap trinkets, a section apparently under renovation, dishes, holiday decorations, and chandeliers. The fact that there were a few boxes scattered around and a section under renovation next to the chandeliers made the chandeliers a little less desirable … Neither of us knew enough to say concretely that something is fake or real, but it felt possible that we might end up with something not that great. And, helping the decision, we didn’t happen to like any of the chandeliers.

The walk back was going to be long, so we instead oriented ourselves to a nearby subway stop. Great. We’ll go to … something something, probably a station that ended in y or i (namesti means square – the station map seemed to be a word scramble with namesti the only word that stuck out to me), and then we’ll transfer and have a short walk to the hotel. Very doable!

We headed downstairs into the station and there was no person selling tickets, but they did have machines. Unfortunately, these mentions were not quite the modern wonder of technology like we experienced in others places had visited. They only took coins (this took me a while to figure out), they were all buttons, and one button said, “English” which when you pushed would sometimes translate something to English. Great. A man was standing right next to the machine we were trying to use and he was telling us all kinds of information about the machine, telling us to do this, not do that, we could pay him this and he’d get us a ticket, and no you can’t do this, and it’ll cost that much, and at the same time a line started to form behind us. The lady and I were getting flustered and scatterbrained from all of the confusing inputs. Well, I was. I think the lady was just trying not to have a coughing fit. It was not ideal.

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My nemesis

We walked away and I read an English sign for a while before I realized we could get a day pass for some amount, we just need more coins. We headed to Starbucks and I asked to get a water, then asked for the change in all coins for train tickets. The guy looked at me and said, “why don’t you just go buy tickets from there? That’s where everyone buys tickets.” Aha. Of course. The Starbucks guy was more helpful than any sign there! Apparently you can get train tickets at a little shop which was like a gas station convenience store inside the station.

Crisis averted. Phew. We made our way back to the hotel room and my wife probably took her 5th bath of the day (the steam helped her breathe better). It was just approaching dark when we got to the hotel, so I took off to take more photos of the madness. And it really was madness. Random people set off fireworks, anywhere. Holy cow was that terrifying. I was walking along a crowded street, then suddenly I’m in a less crowded area, and BOOM! someone has just launched something twenty feet to my left. What a rush.

I didn’t end up wandering for as long as I wanted because the random fireworks terrified me. I wish they hadn’t, but they did. I was still in a ‘I must be extra alert’ mode because of the terror attack at the Berlin Christmas market, and this night, all the people and the madness, it seemed like an easy opportunity.

I got sandwiches to go for the lady and I, and we ate our sandwiches and prepared for the burlesque show. Ah, the burlesque show. This was one of the highlights of the trip for all the wrong reasons.

 

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