I’ve been reading a lot of personal essays on blogs lately, so I thought I’d try my hand at it. First up: my true-life story about why Prague sucks.*
In February 2007, I left my then-home of France to go backpacking around Eastern and Western Europe with two of my teaching-assistant friends, despite our (severely) limited funds. We had a grand old time in Berlin, Budapest, Vienna, and Bratislava, before arriving at our final destination: Prague.
Getting pickpocketed was only the beginning. But I didn’t know that at the time.
After a frantic run to the corner store to buy a phone card, and an even more frantic phone call to the US to cancel my credit cards, I walked up to two police officers in Prague’s Old Town Square.
“Anglicky?” I asked desperately, the Czech word for English being the only one I remembered. They sort of nodded. In a rush, I explained what had happened—that two men had taken my wallet out of my bag on the metro that morning, and can they help me find it, please?
They laughed. And shrugged. Welcome to Prague, they seemed to be saying.
I wasn’t crying anymore, but I was definitely not in the best of moods when I returned to the hostel to check in with my friends. I walked in the door and looked up at their consternated faces. “The police can’t help, but I canceled my cards. I lost the crown equivalent of a hundred euro, which sucks, but it’s okay,” I told them, trying to be positive.
“Except we now have no money,” my friend said.
One of my friends had already withdrawn all the money in her bank account and was surviving on only her credit card. The other had no money and no credit left. I was the only one of us with access to actual cash. I had been singlehandedly funding our trip since Vienna.
“Also, this hostel doesn’t have a kitchen,” my other friend added.
This was bad news. As broke teaching assistants, we had been eating mainly noodles cooked in hostel kitchens, drinking wine bought at grocery stores, saving our money for things like bus tickets and sightseeing.
But on the website it said you had a kitchen, we said to the elegantly-dressed lady behind the desk.
She shrugged. “We do not.”
And that was that.
She showed us to our room: a drab dorm room that was most definitely built with the communist aesthetic in mind. In the corner was a shower spigot over a little square of tile. There was no wall around it, no curtains, nothing to separate the shower from the rest of the room.
That’s the shower? Where’s the curtain? we asked.
Our hostess shrugged.
This doesn’t look like the pictures on the website, we said.
She shrugged again. “We use nicer pictures on website.”
But you can’t do that, we protested.
Another shrug. Welcome to Prague, that shrug seemed to say.
My friends kindly agreed to look away as I took my shower. As the lukewarm water trickled weakly over my shoulders, I looked out at my friends’ turned backs, and told myself that just because our hostel sucked and we were out of money, it didn’t mean the rest of the trip had to suck, too. I was determined to make these last three days as amazing as our first twelve had been.
Having successfully (mostly) avoided seeing each other naked, we headed out of our hostel in search of something to eat, our options limited given we could only buy on credit. We were immediately accosted by a beggar. “I don’t have any money,” I grumbled at him. “Someone else took it.”
We had to try three places before finding one that took credit cards. The food was pale-imitation Greek, and overpriced at that.
That afternoon, we decided to go on a walking tour, since we’d had such great experiences with walking tours in both Berlin and Budapest. The only tour that took credit cards was way pricier than the cash-only ones we’d taken previously, but we shelled out for it.
We proceeded to go on the oddest, least-satisfying tour ever.
Our tour guide–who was far too soft-spoken than a tour guide should ever be–was fond of pointing out the various crosses on the ground in Prague’s Old Town Square, where people had committed suicide by jumping out of windows. Then she showed us the other crosses around town where different people had committed suicide by setting themselves on fire in protest of communism.
To complete our creep-factor, she brought us to the severed, rotting human arm hanging above the door to a church, where apparently a statue of a saint had come to life and caught the arm of a thief, tearing it out of its socket and leaving it hanging there as a warning against future burglary. (So where are the arms of the guys who stole my wallet in the metro? I thought grumpily.)
The rest of the sights of the town we simply walked past, with our tour guide’s helpful advice of, “This place is nice. You should really come back and check it out later.”
We ended the tour with two thoughts: 1. That was creepy, and 2. so not worth it.
We then went in search of more food, and again had to settle for a less-than-stellar place because so few spots took cards. After dinner, where we were charged an exorbitant amount of money for water, I was finally ready to declare what we all were thinking:
Glumly, we headed back to our not-as-pictured hostel to sleep in beds with mattresses so thin they were most definitely used to punish defectors during communism.
“Wait,” my friend said. “Our tour came with this ticket for a ghost tour later tonight.”
We were exhausted and depressed and annoyed and did not want to go on the ghost tour, which would be sure to be a disappointment, just like the rest of the day. But we were still pissed about paying so much for a mediocre tour, we decided we had to go to get our money’s worth.
So late that night, we met our tour guide—dressed like one of the witches from Hocus Pocus, with an accent that was Czech by way of Ireland—under the creepy astronomical clock in the creepy town square of this creepy, creepy city. She proceeded to lead us around the city telling us a number of tales that all ended with something macabre happening to the protagonist. The last story ended with our tour guide waving her hands maniacally in the air and shouting, “And then he cut her head off, ya!”
Silence. And then suddenly, a headless figure leapt out from behind the nearest stone building, shrieking like a banshee and scaring the absolute shit out of us all.
And then we began to laugh.
And we didn’t stop for the rest of the trip.
We laughed our way through the subpar, overpriced food. We laughed at the number of things we couldn’t do because we had no actual money. We laughed about (and took advantage of) the fact that the beer was cheaper than the water. We laughed at the gray skies and frigid air that rendered the city even creepier than it already was.
The lesson I learned is this:
When life gives you lemons (or when Prague gives you pickpockets) you have two choices: you can stew grumpily in the corner of your communism-themed hostel room designed for exhibitionists, or you can waste your friend’s credit on cheesy ghost tours and beer, and have a laugh in the process.
Also: bad travel experiences make for good stories.
*In case it’s not clear by the end of the story, I don’t actually think Prague sucks.
Image of Prague taken by me, February 2007.