Twenty minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive from Hamburg I knew there was going to be a problem. Piles and piles of young backpackers with Eurail Passes were already crowding the platform. This was not good. I did not have a reserved seat and there were many, many more people than there were going to be seats, but I figured since I was traveling solo it would be easier for me to find a seat than most. When the train pulled up and a few people exited, the mob climbed aboard the train like we were attacking a castle fortress. My plan was to look on a car near the back and if nothing opened up, jump off the train and head toward the front looking for a less crowded car. Most of the kids were clustered around the middle of where the train would arrive and I wanted to avoid that mess if at all possible. I jumped on the trailing car, looked for a moment, almost all the seats were reserved, I jumped off the train and kept going until I could hop directly onto a car. I jumped, moved my way around a few folks, looking for any seat that did not have a reserved marker near the window, it did not look good, but suddenly I noticed an open spot that everyone was passing right by. I looked closely and asked the old man next to the open seat if it was taken. He moved his bag and I sat down. I scored a reasonable seat, and began to enjoy my new found home. There was no space to put my bag anywhere so I did my best to shove it under the seat.
I relaxed and for about 10 minutes, enjoyed my luck, then…I heard Aussies. I like Aussies. Aussies are great. Australians are fun to be with, informal, open, and generally great company. There is one caveat to enjoying Aussies…groups of Aussies fall back on their prison boat past. Groups of any nationality can be annoying because mob mentality is real. I can be a very quiet and reserved person, but put me in a foreign land with a handful of my countrymen and suddenly I’m every American stereotype in the Book of Stereotypes (available at Amazon in the Reference Section.) These 10, young (between 20-25, I figured) Aussie blokes (not gentlemen) were loud, obnoxious, and had only seven seats. They talked loudly about their sexual encounters, their drunken exploits, and their embarrassing moments. (I doubt the train ride from Berlin to Prague will become part of their repertoire because they were suffering under the impression that English is a strange tribal language only spoken by a few surviving people. If you speak only English, assume people near you will understand what you are saying and act accordingly. Just because you don’t understand them doesn’t mean they don’t understand you.) There was a young lady stuck in the corner with her reserved seat amidst the sea of “AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE!” I felt terrible for her. She sat there the whole trip. It was a long five hour ride.
When I arrived in Prague I took the underground (one of the easiest systems to understand as long as you know how to buy a ticket) to my hotel and was pleased to find out that I was no longer staying in a total dive. I had to work out a problem with my bike tour for the next day so I went back to the center of the city and talked to the bike shop owner. I was the only person who had reserved the full-day tour. (What? People don’t want to spend 7 hours on a bike?) He refunded 200 CK and I decided to do a morning tour and an evening tour, it was a good choice and I got ten bucks back. I took my new-found wealth and had dinner. I went to bed wondering if I had a scratchy throat or if I was catching something.
In the morning I knew I was coming down with a cold, so I did all the right things to prevent the cold from getting worse: took six hours worth of bike rides, drank three beers, and stayed out well past midnight. In my defense the evening bike tour finished around 11 and I had not eaten since I purchased very bad sandwich from a store the size of a walk-in closet next to my underground stop, so when our group asked if I wanted to join them for dinner I accepted. (For the record a sandwich that is labeled as “Mexican Flavored” does not mean the same thing in Prague as it does in the US.)
The first bike tour was centered around the historic downtown. I ate an entire bag of Halls fruit flavored throat lozenges during the ride so I was taking in something nutritional. The actual bike ride was very informative, but I don’t remember much about it, my mind was preoccupied with: 1. Not being killed by a car, 2. Not being killed by a fix object, 3. Not crashing into a pedestrian, 4. Not crashing and getting a bad case of road rash, 5. Wondering if anyone had died on this tour, 6. Wondering if it was a fever I was feeling or the heat of the day, 7. Thinking about what I was going to do if I got really sick, 8. Wondering if the bike company had ever been sued by Americans who had lost their ability to reproduce because of the cobblestones, 9. Wondering whether I should have a beer during lunch, 10. Thinking about whether I should go to bed or do the second tour later in the day.
When the tour was finished I had three hours to rest up for the next tour. I thought I would walk back to my hotel, take a two hour nap and be fresh as a daisy for the second tour. This was a good plan, unfortunately I got lost, really lost. How lost, you ask? Lost enough that I ended up walking through what I will call a “needle park” filled with homeless people and prostitutes. Lost enough that by the time I found my hotel I had enough time to take a 30 minute nap. 30 minute naps are like getting a bite of dessert, you pretend it is enough but it isn’t. I was not a fresh daisy when I started back to the bike shop, I was a wilted avalanche lily. Along the way I picked up more lozenges, the bad Mexican chicken sandwich, and an orange juice. I did my best enjoy my tour. It was beautiful and strenuous. We climbed hills, looked at the panoramas and took pictures. We were a small group: an American dude from Tennessee, an older couple from Israel, an Aussie lady, our guide from Mexico, and a younger Aussie guy who wore a shirt that read, “Pull the trigger Bitch!” I’m not sure where you get a shirt like that, but maybe there are “Misogynist R Us” stores in Australia. When I heard Tennessee and “Pull the Trigger” guy talking about signing up to do a Prague tour where you get to shoot machine guns I decided to spend most of my time talking to the Aussie lady and our guide. The climb to the top of the ridge was okay, but it was difficult for the older couple and for Tennessee since he had just lit his second cigarette of the tour. This was not what I will call good planning. Having a smoke in Prague is perfectly okay, but smoking while riding is questionable, toss into the equation that you are going uphill and that the smoke you are blowing out is coming right back into your face and you have made a series of bad choices, but Tennessee would become the touchstone of bad choices on our tour in my opinion.
(This paragraph is dedicated to the things Tennessee said during the tour: “I want to retire in Chechnya.” “I am the bad things that happen in Chechnya.” “I work security.” “I haven’t fired a AK in at least a month.” “That’s why I’m still single.” “That sounded like a 45 being shot.” “That usually scares the women away.” “I like your shirt.” “Let’s go fire some guns tomorrow.” “I’m an adrenaline junky.” “I doubt I’ll ever get married.”)
The rest breaks did give us lots of time to wait and gave me the chance to shove lozenge after lozenge into my pie hole. Prague from the hillside, looking across the river was beautiful. From where we stood on the ridge, the downtown area looked untouched since 1700. Prague is a strikingly beautiful city covered in two inches of historical grime. The Charles Bridge, the two remaining city towers, the Old Town Square, the Jewish quarter, and the organically-grown twisting cobblestone streets cannot be described without taking another 2,000 words, but let me just sum it up by saying, Prague is lovely.
I almost crashed once on the ride down the hill, there were lots of switchbacks and I tried to cut one to sharp and nearly ended up gathering a collection of small rocks under my skin, but my half-asleep-cat-like reflexes saved me at the last moment. We took a longer break waiting for the older couple on the way down the hill and this is where I made a mistake in judgment. “The Pull the Trigger” dude asked the Aussie lady if she wanted to have dinner after the tour, she looked at me and said, “Dinner sounds good, let’s all go.” Now I took this as, “I don’t want to be alone with this guy, please come along so that I don’t end up being a story told loudly on a train some day.” I said that I could do a short meal, what I should have said was, “I don’t feel well, I think I need to get some sleep. You kids have a good time.” Anyway, this is how I ended up eating dinner at 11:30 in the evening in a smoke filled restaurant in Prague pretending;I was having a good time. (The term “smoke filled” is really redundant when it comes to Prague restaurants, but for those of you who have not been there it might not be apparent.)
If I were at home, I would have taken some NyQuil, drank ten gallons of OJ, and taken a hot bath. Instead I drank a liter of beer, ate some little pieces of mystery meat and spinach (not fresh tasty spinach, but frozen and reheated), and then I took a shower before hitting the old hay. I slept for about four hours before the sun was up.
Here is the great thing about being sick on vacation, you spend very little money. I ate nothing all day, watched Django Unchained again, watched Inglorious Bastards, watched No Country for Old Men, and moved in and out of consciousness for about 12 hours. I killed the cold by drowning it in sweat. My room on the top floor was a combination sauna/heat collector for the rest of the guests downstairs. For some mysterious reason my AC was not working, I turned the little knob toward the number 15 but nothing happened. It was the only hotel on my entire trip that had the luxury of cooling air, but it was not working. Had I been in a coherent state of mind I would have called downstairs and asked why my room was 115 degrees, but instead I thought about writing a short note about how I had died in Prague from the Black Plague. “Dear Loved Ones, I’m sorry I died during TSOJ. Thanks for letting me go. I had fun until I died in Prague. Love, Jon…PS. Isn’t it odd that Prague and Plague are almost the same word…”
I found out as I was checking out the next day that if you want the AC on you have to request it downstairs. This is good information to have after you leave.
Anyway, around 5PM I started to think that I could sneak out and see the Mucha Museum that I very much wanted to see. I got up, showered, and went outside and decided to eat something instead. Choosing to eat verses going to a museum is something I never do, so this was a real moment of weakness for me, but in the end I decided that I will have to return to Prague and see what I missed.