Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dear Prague: Don't Be Depressed, You Look Fabulous [1]

The first Czech I met was on the plane from Seoul to Prague. I first saw him in the airport and felt a hard-to-pin-down sense of affinity. He was clearly used to being alone, and yet he had a travel partner. He was hard on himself, but rich in inner wealth. Something about his pain mirrored my pain, and though we ended up seated next to each other (him sharing his stories of how the Czech were very relaxed about homosexuality, and how the Swedes he had studied with were initially cordial, but their friendship was unattainable compared to the social scene of the Czechs), I felt something was missing. He seemed like an interesting, well-educated and open-minded individual, but at the time I felt like I knew enough of those and I was looking for someone from a different region to broaden my mind further. I missed out on making a new friend through my lack of receptivity to his offers of further online communication, and I think back on it with a little regret. I am not, however, going to lose sleep over it. I will, on the whole remember him fondly. He had graduated with a degree in law, but had no reason to work because his family owned properties and were collecting rent from them. The seated passenger next to him was his wife, and fairly well into her pregnancy.

My first two flights with Korean Airlines were armrest-gripping, anxiety-fueled affairs. Luckily I managed to find an equilibrium somewhere between Stockholm and Prague on Czech Airlines and now I feel much more positive about flying. But more on my psychological development on that leg of the journey later.

"Don't worry, there's lots to see in Prague. It's a big city, and it's called The Heart of Europe," offered my new-found high-flying comrade. He had read my face well: I was prepared to be annoyed, disappointed and irked. I even wondered, mid-flight, why I had made Prague my first stop, considering my overarching disgruntlement with Eastern Europe. Had I gone too far in embracing the counter-intuitive?

The international airport was bright, clean and shiny, and offered an advantage to me not shared by most visitors from outside Eastern Europe: I could pick out distinct similarities between Czech and Bulgarian. I scoured the signs and advertising for words and phrases I could understand, a fun game while walking from one section of the airport to another. Far from boring, uniform texts, the airport was full of eye-catching and elegant designs mounted up upon the walls and counters. It reminded me of a much more savoury version of the Sofia airport - the standard here was much higher than in the little corner of the Balkans my parents had once called home.

Absolutely exhausted from the stress of the flight, the sleeplessness and the jetlag, not to mention feeling slightly under the weather, I paused outside in the general waiting area to catch my bearings. Looking around revealed unhelpful signs declaring a McDonalds within 50 metres and ads for Czech alcohol. Finally I spied upon a small booth offering discount transportation to the city by chartered van. The lady was helpful enough and in about 14 minutes a tall man with a far-away expression walked up to me, gave me a big, cheery smile, and seized on my bag with little other formal introduction. I followed him out into the parking lot where the van was already stuffed full of first-time arrivals. The engine got turned on, and so did a soundtrack of 80s feel-good hits, as a group of Asians chattered away behind me.

My first impression of Prague was greenery, then bursts of four-storey buildings, a post office which advertised itself as the CzechPoint, and a quaint, vaguely run-down look to the city. It was simultaneously part of the Eastern Europe I knew, and yet a much glossier, wealthier, more spirited and prouder one than I could have imagined prior to finding myself circling its contours.

About 25 mins after boarding, it was time for me to discover what kind of pleasant torture my hostel consisted of. Sir Toby's turned out to be one of the most pleasant accommodation experiences ever, with no bunk beds, my upgrade into an all-female room with slanted ceilings and an annexed shower and toilet, friendly and well-trained staff, a straight-forward internet connection, a buffet breakfast at little extra cost and tram connections just around the corner. The area even had plenty of restaurants to choose from, including several Czech and one Italian.

It was already about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, so even if I had been feeling ready to hit the town it would have been time to 'call it a day' and sleep off the jetlag.

I made the mistake of not asking for a towel, and using my nightgown to dry myself off, which I then put on. I just wasn't thinking, I guess. When the English lady in the bed next to the window expressed a desire to leave said window slightly open I didn't look out for my self-interest but humoured her and... lo and behold... I woke up the next day with my head throbbing and thinking "Great. Just great. I've managed to get myself seriously sick on the fifth day out of Sydney."

All through Prague, Berlin and most of Copenhagen, my condition worsened... it wasn't until I left Stockholm early to get treatment in Bulgaria that I finally got the anti-biotic I needed to eradicate the infection in my chest, and the anti-biotic I took was very strong. As a friend said, "such is life." And while feeling unwell certainly led me to be less adventurous in approaching people, and saw me spending a few days just recouperating from the heavy duty sight-seeing, I wouldn't trade the experience for any other...

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