23 November 1999
We got up in the morning and had our Ovaltine while we packed in the nice room. We went down to the World Trade Center and returned the milk bottle (Germany is GREAT!) and then took the tram to the train station. We never did use the tram tickets that Annet had given us, and since she would not take them back we gave them to the hostel desk. We were over an hour early for our train, so while Cheryln wrote in her journal, I took a brisk walk from the train station, up Pragstrasse and through the marketplace and to the river. There was a school group, high school age, heading the same direction as me in this huge, ever changing crowd, and I could not lose them. I spent a moment staring at the "Procession of the Dukes" mosaic -- it is really facinating -- and then went towards the Christmas market, which was still closed at 10 in the morning. I returned to Cheryln at the station just 4 minutes before our train was due to arrive. We walked up to the platform right as the train stopped and hopped on the train.
Since we didn't have reservations we went into our now fimilar seat finding mode. We try to avoid the open seating cars, which are becoming more and more common in Europe. They are loud and cramped and almost always very smokey (the smoking is at one end of the room and the non-smoking at the other. Compartments have much more space, are cozy, comfortable, and generally pretty quiet and the non-smoking compartments are on a different ventilation system from the smoking compartments. As long as you keep the door closed, you are ok.
Also we always look at the reservation signs (an empty compartment might fill up at the next stop!) and at who is in the compartment -- you look for people who are smiling and look friendly. I like to find people who I think might be interested in chatting. Of course, I don't like to admit this, but there is also something of a power situation going on. You look for people who you will feel comfortable with.
Anyway, all of the compartments on this train were taken, but there was a car that had semi-compartments -- very odd, 4 seats instead of 6 or 8, and no door -- so it was open to the rest of the car (and the smoke). We sat in one of these compartments and in the compartment in front of us were an elderly Argentinian couple who spoke a little English and no German. They asked us what the announcements were saying and I wound up not only translating the German announcements for them but playing travel guide as we talked first about Seattle and then about Alaska. They were very interested in Alaska and I basically helped them plan an itinerary!!!! It was very very odd traveling through the Czech Republic talking about Alaska!!!
The Czech republic is a large high elevation basin. No rivers flow INTO the country, only out of it! The train travelled along the Elbe river, which, east of Dresden goes though this amazing gorge. The area is called Sachen Schwiz -- Saxony's Switzerland. (It turns out that it was the one place that we found in the tourist book that Annet gave us that we wanted to go to, but she didn't want to go there!) There are little towns perched along the sides of the gorge and running up the occational side ravine. It looked like a cool place to visit and a fantastic place to bicycle! Hopefully we will get to go back there in the spring.
Beyond the mountains the Bohemian basin leveled out into a high plateau, there was much agriculture, a little nature and quite a bit of big industry. The reputation of old Czechoslovkia is of terrible pollution and massive industrial sites and we certainly saw some of these. There were a few factories that we passed THROUGH on the train where we just held our breath until we were passed, even though the train was closed!!!
We arrived in Praha in early afternoon and oriented ourselves pretty well. Every time we arrive in a new city, especially when it is a new country, we have to spend an hour or two (on bad days it can be much longer) orienting. This involves finding our way around the train station, figuring out the basics of the language, finding the ATM, figuring out the exchange rate and how much money to get, getting a map, getting small change for the phone or a phone card, getting tram tickets, figuring out where we are going to stay and how to get there, getting there and getting checked in. And it all must be done, especially in the larger cities, without looking lost at all. Nothing worse than wandering aimlessly around a train station with a backpack on waving a credit card. So to keep from looking like a target, you walk with purpose, even if you don't really know where you are going. Sometimes we walk from one end of the station to the other several times, striding quickly as if we are very fimilar with the place, until we figure out where we need to be. It can be fun and smooth or very intimidating.
However, there was something strange about this train station. Often you will find, outside of a train station, people offering rooms (or Zimmer auf Deutsch) for rent. Some carry signs, but some just sidle up to you and ask. Generally, so I understand, these people have only one room in their house that they rent, so they stay at the station until it is rented -- meaning they can go home and be done for the day once it is rented. So they can be VERY insistent! I never really know what to make of these people. I'm sure that 95% of them are completely legit and safe, and I am quite certain that it would be VERY interesting to stay with them in their home. But it is a pretty frightening prospect -- and not knowing the city, and therefore where the place might be is difficult. When we first got to Eastern Europe, and in Romania, were were terrified of these people and were really quite rude, but we had grown to realize that they were just offering services and the culture was different from what we were used to. So we became more comfortable with it; nevertheless we have always bypassed these people -- but with more than a little regret.
There is usually a small crowd on the sidewalk outside of the station and sometimes even down the block. In the larger and more touristy areas they might even be inside the station itself! But in Praha they were on the platform, hitting you before your foot was off the train. I had never seen anything like it!! We had about 6 people attack us in just the 20 meters from the door of the train to the steps down to the station, and then more inside. And these people were EXTREMELY insistent. Saying no was not good enough, ignoring them was not good enough, saying you had another place was not good enough, they all had flyers or brochures and they INSISTED that we take one with us! It was not scary, but it was VERY weird. We had already booked a hostel and that made it easier for us, AND we could see that the prices they were offering were not very good.
We did a pretty good job of getting what we needed to do done quckly and easily. The trams were nice and the place we had chosen to stay was easy to get to and get checked into, so within a couple of hours we were settled. We were staying in a hostel, like ones we had seen in Budapest and Vienna, among other places, that was just a few rooms in a typical local apartment building. So we climbed the stairs with the residents in these 150 year old Austro-Hugarian buildings with huge rooms, fine, albeit crumbling detailing and dark, dusty, worn stairwells that were huge and obviously were once very grand!
Once we were settled we went out to wander around the center of the city.
OK, lets get this out of the way. Prague is GROSS. It is an excellent example of how a city can be completely destroyed by foreign invaders. It is, architecturally, a very beautiful city -- tight and compact, with gorgeous buildings from a mix of periods covering half of a millenium. And none of these buildings were destroyed during the 1930 to 1990 period that was so damaging for so much of Europe.
However. What was once a nice functional city is now a fricking Disneyland for German, Austrailan and American tourists. Block after block after block there are no signs in Czech and few if any stores directed at people who actually live there. Everyone on the street is speaking a non-slavic language. Every block has 10 or 15 souvenier shops (can't leave without that Bohemian Crystal!), a couple of American resturants, several German clothing stores and dozens of tourist bars. The entire old town/city center, and I don't mean just 5 or 10 square blocks, but many square kilometers, has been converted into a place for thousands of Americans (and Austrialians!) to come and leave money. (One of the weirdest things was that LONELY PLANET, which was once a budget traveller's guide, mentioned that one must buy Bohemian Crystal. WHAT?!? How do you carry Crystal in a backpack and what kind of traveller can spend several hundred dollars on a piece of glass!? I don't get it.)
I think that the western tourists have flocked to Prague because it had a rich and interesting history, it is a beautiful city, it is exciting to see part of the former Eastern Bloc (even the name invokes a certain cold war mistique!) and it was welcoming and comfortable. Unfortuantly it has changed, it has reacted to the enormous influx and become more like the influx than the history. Everyone we met said they went there because of the EXTREMELY cheap beer. I've heard the beer is good (both the original Budenwiser and Pilsner are based there) but people only talked about the price.
In many ways it IS a beautiful city, but we have seen many of those, not the least of which were Oradea, Romania and Budapest, but Prague is now PAAAAARRTY CENTRAL DOOOOD!!!! Dude. We were very disappointed and very disgusted. We had planned to spend almost a week in Praha, partially to relax and recover from the 'interesting' experience we had in Dresden, and because our hostel was really quite cheap. We thought that in that amount of time we might be able to find the REAL Praha. We found very little. I'm not sure it exists any more.
While I was in Praha, I found, by coincidence, a really amazing piece written by the Romanian-American writer Andrei Codrescu that seemed to apply all too well.
These children, their descendants, are today's tourists. They too are taking pictures for their children: pictures of native peoples in quaint poses before picturesque arrangements arranged for pictures by the Tourism Bureau (the framer of remnants of the real for picture-taking). Well, at least, one might say, tourists aren't killing anybody for a picture. Is that the difference between tourism and terrorism? Tourists are terrorists with cameras, while terrorists are tourists with guns. Tourism is the civilian aspect of imperialism. After the natives have been pacified by force of arms, we finish the job with the cameras. It's no coincidence that both activities are called "shooting." Both tourists and terrorists shoot what they can't quite tame. To finish with the camera what your grandfather started with the gun is both easier and harder. The souls we steal may be our own.
You can find the entire piece at http://www.stare.com/. He is one of my FAVORITE writers, it is a fantastic piece and amazingly appropriate for this part of our journey. I strongly recommend reading it!
We try hard to be TRAVELLERS as opposed to TOURISTS, and often are quite proud
of ourselves for succeeding -- for avoiding the traps and living like the
natives, for seeing the real place for how it IS and not just looking at
history and art as if we were at a zoo. We talk about trying to BLEND IN with
the culture -- but how much can we really do that?!? In places like Romania
it just isn't possible. We can keep our mouth shut and walk down the street
noticing REAL things instead of gaping at statues and buildings, but in places
like that we just ARE NOT part of the culture and cannot blend in. I do think
we do a pretty good job in London and in Germany sometimes, especailly in Bonn,
where we know the place, but I don't think we do as well the rest of the time
as we would like to think.
© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000
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