While interviewing an overly neurotic potential roommate yesterday who just came back from living two soul-searching years in Prague, it made me think of my own experience in the charming capital—chock full of fun with Absinthe and commie border police.
Perhaps the greatest thing about living in the Netherlands was indeed its centrality within Europe. In just a few, short hours, you can take a train to Paris, hop a plane to Barcelona or even bus it over to Germany. At the time, I had vowed to save my travel funds for the spring when I was required to travel for two months for class, but when one of the various travel companies I subscribe to e-mailed me about promotional deals from Amsterdam to Praha, I couldn’t pass it up. It took a bit of coaxing to talk Megan into missing class and coming with me (she being the studious one of the duo, at the time!), but my powers of persuasion worked, and before I knew it, we had in our possession round-trip bus tickets to Prague.
Due to our lax class schedule, we were able to book our trip from Friday to Wednesday and only miss one class. And even that one was excused, after we invited our 27-year-old Argentinean economics professor out for a beer and some smooth talking (despite what you might think, my Southern charm rarely fails, even on the other side of the pond!). After awhile of chit-chat and all-around brown-nosing, I coyly said, “So, Max, how would you feel about us missing a class and studying the economy of Prague instead?”
And that was that.
So the next Friday we found ourselves on an overnight bus from Utrecht, after almost missing it because we couldn’t quite locate the bus station, Jaarbeursplein. I guess we were naive to think that not many people would be on a 10:45 p.m. overnight bus from Utrecht to Prague. True maybe; however, a lot of people were on an overnight bus from Amsterdam to Prague. Utrecht just happened to be the next stop after that, meaning the bus was packed by the time we boarded.
Megan and I located two seats separate from each other but still close by, and I was stuck beside a large man who took up his seat and half of mine and listened to “My Girl” loudly on his mp3 player (seriously?), while Meg had a social Malaysian as a seat buddy who blasted Nirvana during the brief time he wasn’t trying to pick her up. Not exactly how I envisioned spending a 14-hour overnight bus ride. Lucky for us, somewhere around Frankfurt (approximately 3:30 a.m.), both of them got off, so we were able to stretch out and semi-enjoy the remainder of the bus ride. Then we reached the German-Czech border and the real fun began.
I have now explored more than 40 countries, and the only time I have been checked at the border on a bus or train ride was the time I successfully smuggled two Austrian refugees into Italy. That was one stressful evening I don’t care to relive (another story for another time). But this time around, the bus attendant had collected our passports in Germany. Apparently, there was a problem with someone’s green card, though I’m still a little unsure as to what actually happened, after all my German/Czech (we still have no clue which language they were even speaking) is a tad bit rusty.
Three stone-faced German/Czech police officers came through to hand us all back our passports. When they reached me, they looked at my passport, then stared at me, then looked at my passport again. This probably lasted a solid two minutes, and I seriously thought they were going to kick me out of the country. I mean, it’s not my fault my passport picture is hideous, looks nothing like me, and was taken when I was 16, having a bad hair day and my eyebrows resembled slightly unruly catterpillars (I have since discovered the beauty of waxing and highlights).
Instead of simply handing my passport back to me, they made us all get off the bus (note: it’s nearly filled to capacity) and gather our luggage. Luckily, Megan and I packed light for once and only had our daypacks with us, you know the L.L. Bean types complete with monogramming (I was only slightly cooler than Meg as mine was actually North Face). The border police went through each of our bags item-by-item, took out every little possession we owned, and even went as far as to unscrew the lids of our contact cases.
Oh, and they did this one-by-one in front of the entire bus, which could be quite embarrassing depending on what you packed. The only time any of the officers so much as cracked a smile was when they unpacked my inflatable friend, Steve the parrot (a gift from a frien
d in Scotland – he traveled everywhere with us for the duration of our year abroad; much like that famed little Travelocity gnome, we’d take pictures of him in front of the Eiffel Tower, on the nude beaches in Greece, etc.), from my bag and held him up for all to see. I’m sure they thought I was using him to smuggle drugs or engage in some other illegal activity. I wasn’t, you’ll be glad to know. And after two hours or so the police seemed to believe this as well, and handed over our passports.
After that, our trip was anti-climactic – well, as anti-climactic as a country full of Absinthe and Pilsner can be. We basically spent four days just exploring the city and taking lots of pictures in typical, happy, snappy, jappy, American, touristy fashion. We visited the castle, took a historic boat tour of the city and enjoyed the cheap Czech cuisine. Not a rough life.
I wasn’t quite prepared to re-enter the world of traveling hostel-style, though, after so much time back in the States and staying in condos or four-star hotels. Sharing a room with 13 other internationals who snore, cry out in the middle of the night in their respective foreign languages and have other odd sleeping habits; using communal showers that lack dividers and are not designed for the modest soul (I had never showred nakey with so many women in one room before!); and dealing with one bathroom stall for 40 people per floor – not exactly luxurious travel accommodation, but it works.
My favorite part about hostel life is the people I meet. By the first night, we had accumulated a group that consisted of the two of us, six laid-back Aussies (including Carla and Han who later visited us in Holland), three suave Englishmen, two crazy Swedes, a quiet Californian, two nonchalant Oregonians, a rather self-involved Kansas City dude (who we later found out was dating his stepsister, EW) and a couple of random Norwegians we picked up along the way.
We were quite the eclectic bunch. We reverted back to our frosh college days of liquid diets – only this time by way of Absinthe – an experience completely new to me and Meg (see our pics for facial expression reactions to the potent potion). Our days began almost at noon and were spent recovering from staying out till 6am and planning where to begin our Absinthe crawls that night. We were all united under the power of the romance of the city mixed with the mysterious liquor we were pumping into our bodies at alarming rates, and by the time we departed on Wednesday, I felt as if I’d known these people for years and have kept in touch with the majority of them. Odd how traveling can do that to you – after a mere long weekend of hanging out, many of us still e-mail two years later.
After such a fun few days with our new friends, it was hard to returning to Utrecht (and to find our bikes, for once, left unstolen, at that), where all was calm and relatively quiet on the home front. Not to worry, though, Miss Lucia (our crazy landlady) insured that things didn’t stay that way too long…