I guess it was inevitable. At some point Blanchard and I would have a fight. I guess it’s a testament to how well we mesh that we only had one major conflict on our 18 day trip together.
The day started normal enough with us taking the U-Bahn (U2) from our terrible Schonhauser Allee apartment to Alexanderplatz then transferring onto the S-Bahn (S7) bound for Berlin Hauptbahnhof. We grabbed a snack, a rather plain and expensive ham and cheese sandwich for myself, and made our way down to the platform. We were boarding the Hamburg-Budapest Express for a “brisk” five hour leg of its 14 hour total journey (8am to 10pm). On the platform I saw the cutest little lady. She couldn’t have been over 5’ 4” but she had a subtle spunk and spirit to her that I loved. She confirmed this when she flashed a broad smile to me as our train arrived and she hopped on board.
Once on the train it really hit me that we were in the former Soviet satellite natons. The car looked to be a relic of some bygone Soviet Express from the 1960s complete with the frayed drapes, weathered orange seats, and decaying brown paneling. It made for a great background for the journey down to Prague.
After two hours we got off at Dresden for a two hour stop to see the city. I didn’t have Czech Republic on my RailPass so I had to buy a ticket from Dresden to Prague (cheaper than Berlin to Prague). As a result we had two hours until the train I booked arrived. And then things started to boil.
I had lost my voice a few days earlier and as a result I didn’t really want to speak unless absolutely necessary as it was still rather painful to talk. So I suggested to Blanchard, “We could take turns, one hour each, going into the city while the other watches the luggage.” I had a large amount of luggage compared to him and I didn’t want to drag it around the city, but he saw this as me trying to unload my burden on him. Unfortunately, mostly from a long past of being ignored in group settings, I tend to say these things rather presumptuously and it grated on Blanchard. When he disagreed I got angry and we split up for the entire time in Dresden with me saying just meet back here at 3, which was another miscommunication of mine since I met the platform for the train but Blanchard thought I meant the area in front of the station in which we had the fight.
Irritated, I blustered off into Dresden. It is a remarkable and gorgeous. I guess it’s because of the restoration efforts since Germany reunified, but I hadn’t expected it to be so seemingly intact. The old quarter still had gorgeous gothic and baroque architecture, most notably the three churches, Saxon Palace, and opera house. I got a mediocre bratwurst and marveled at the gothic carvings and murals lining the old quarter, especially the history of the Saxon dynasty. Of course the most beautiful part of Dresden is from the bridge over the Elbe. It gives one the distance with which to see the entire old quarter with a radiant azul river running alongside its banks. I quite liked Dresden. I don’t know how much more there really was to see, and after experiencing so much German culture, food, and history in Berlin I don’t see a point in ever going back to Dresden. However, I’m glad I was able to see it as it is surely one of Germany’s most stunning provincial cities.
Now back at the train station I waited for Blanchard. And waited. And waited. To the point that the train had 5 minutes until it departed, and unlike him I didn’t have a global rail pass so I couldn’t miss this train. I put my luggage in the doorway and stood at the door desperately searching for him. Luckily he popped up the stairs at 15:04, 4 minutes before departure, and we got on board. We didn’t speak much and hastened into a compartment that was regrettably occupied by a very smelly Czech man (so far the Czechs are the first people in Europe that, en masse, do not bathe regularly). Luckily he got off at the next stop and the smell lifted.
But then things boiled over. Blanchard said that we needed to talk, I said about what, honestly clueless. He then layed into me, and I don’t blame him. Had he done the things that he perceived that I had done to him then I probably would have been just as angry with him. He said that I was dismissive of his ideas, that I didn’t help clean the apartments before we left and just assumed he would do it, that I made this noise that seemed to emit both disgust and haughtiness, and that I didn’t respect him. I tried my best to explain, he grew angrier and said I was making bullshit excuses. Though I truly wasn’t. I stayed calm and did not get angry and tried to make him understand. First, I would never be such good friends with someone that I thought was stupid or beneath me, and I would never want him to think that I thought that of him. Second, I have acquired both of my parents’ worst traits: my father’s quick temper and my mother’s defensive, a terrible combination. So, especially because I take loyalty so personally due to a lot of formative experiences in middle and high school, when someone close to me disagrees with me I get flustered and irritated. It’s probably my worst personality trait and something I really do need to work on. Moreover, and I didn’t realize I did this, in the moments when this happens I make some sort of noise that sounds like it must be extremely offensive. I instinctively make it when I am flustered and don’t know what to do about a situation, but Blanchard thought it was a personal attack. And once again I cannot blame him. I need to stop making it, though it is so inadvertent that I don’t really know how to condition it out of me. We kept talking for a little bit longer and everything just kind of worked out. I didn’t escalate it, I didn’t try to turn it back on him, and I didn’t deny it. I think it might have been the best conflict resolution I’ve ever done, especially since I didn’t get a temper or defensive.
And then we arrived in Prague, after ALL of that.
Honestly, there really isn’t much to say about Prague. It is the quintessential Central European city. Absolutely radiant in the sunshine and somber in overcast clouds that so plague this region, Prague is a gem of a city. However, there isn’t really much to do. I’ve never read Kafka so the Kafka Museum seemed rather pointless. Prague Castle wasn’t a castle, more of a compound. The Charles Bridge is gorgeous but in the end all you can do with it is take pictures and walk across it. The Old Square was the most disappointing. After seeing Brussel’s old square this one just doesn’t compare. I may hate Brussels, but its Grand Place is truly a wonder of the world.
My favorite thing about Prague was how it merried so many architectural styles into one beautiful Habsburg mosaic. The Italian influences were palpable in almost every building, but one still felt the echos of Vienna and the shadows of Budapest as far as the eye could see. The best thing about Prague is Prague. It is just a wonder to behold and walk about. Otherwise all there really is to do is eat and drink. And this we did a lot of.
To backtrack a bit we stayed at Yana’s wonderful apartment in Praha 5, across the Vltava River from the old city (Praha 1), so we had quite a long tram ride/walk whenever we wanted to get home. Of course since the best part about Prague is walking it I never complained. Plus the apartment was just great. Very cheap at $60/day, $30 per person, and with a great shower (if tiny water heater), helpful fridge, great couch, and decent beds. It was so Eastern European that if you cut the walls they would probably bleed Soviet Red paint. This only added to the charm and I quite liked our time there. With some of the old 70s-style trams, remnants of Russian writing on the walls, bright red street signs in the Soviet style, rundown train stations with their original early 1900s paint, and demolished Stalin monuments Prague was truly a step back into time. Not too far back, it felt like the 1980s I’d say, but still, it was a cool experience.
Now I mentioned that we ate and drank a lot. The drinking unfortunately had to be curtailed because I was pretty sick for most of Berlin and Prague, but I still tried some true Cesky drinks such as Czech Budweiser (not related to the American mega-brewer headquartered twenty minutes from my childhood home). I also have a Duff Beer that we bought at Czech Tesco that I can’t wait to drink in Paris.
The food though, that I dived into headfirst. One important thing about Prague that any American visitor must understand before they come is that this place is crazy cheap. Like 3 course meal with wine for $15 cheap. You can easily get a full entrée for $6 at a good casual dining restaurant. Hence Blanchard and I LOVED Czech Republic (never “the” Czech Republic, always just “Czech Republic”). For the first time during the trip we could actually eat like normal human beings (remember, in the other cities we subsisted on groceries, sandwiches, and kebap/other cheap middle eastern foods that are like the McDonald’s of Europe). Our first meal was at JetSet, this restaurant/bar that was a 5 minute walk from our apartment. I had a delicious carrot puree with lentils and then roasted angus beef medallions (rather small, definitely not real angus because they were kind of tough) with divine roasted vegetables. I haven’t had vegetables like those in ages. They were a welcome respite from the starch/fried food diet that I had been subsisting on for the last two weeks. Other notable dishes that I had over the next two days: spinach gnocchi with chicken in a garlic cream sauce, weiner schnitzel (so good!), spinach and garlic stuffed chicken (absolutely delectable, also accompanied by great veges), goulash (fatty, low-grade meat in a stew, not very good unfortunately…), dumplings (nothing like Asian or Polish dumplings, basically like American stuffing but without all the spices… bland). We ate very well.
I talked to a few cute guys on Grindr, just like in Berlin, but honestly I just didn’t really care so they all fizzled out. Blanchard, poor guy, got very ill on the second day but luckily cleared up by the next day, so we didn’t really do anything on the third day, which was kind of nice. The fourth day we split up and I had a lovely lunch in downtown Prague while reading my absolute favorite history book In Europe by Geert Mak (Go amazon that shit right now!). I then explored the city and Prague Castle. Afterwards I meandered back to the apartment, and Blanchard and I spent our last night of the trip together. It was great fun and I’m glad I had the opportunity to share it with him. It would have gotten quite lonely and dreary otherwise.
Prague was great because it helped me relax and refocus on Paris. I’m on the train to Berlin then Paris now and I must say I feel extremely ready. In part it is because I am sick of traveling and extremely desirous of a routine life again. However, I’m also ready to seize this opportunity and I feel prepared to really dive head first into Paris, French, and La Culture Francaise.
To close my Eurotrip travelogue I must recount my final morning… Oh lord what a morning it was. I woke up at 9am, 2 hours before my 10:56am train. I showered, shaved, and packed all of those last minute things that one must leave unpacked until the last minute. Gazing out the window of our apartment for the last time I chatted with Blanchard about that nothing, in that wonderful early morning kind of way. At 9:50am I headed out the door, happy with the trip and ready to get to Paris.
And then everything fell apart.
The first bad sign was that I arrived at Bertramka (our tram stop) only to watch the #9 pullaway. Literally 10 seconds too late… Whatever, I still have plenty of time. Bored at the stop I pull out my phone to check the timetable I had sent to Nic the night before. 10:29. My train leaves at 10:29. It was then 10:03. Fuck. I started praying, to whatever Eastern European gods may have heard me, to please let the next tram come quickly. Apparently they were off that day because the next one didn’t slug in until 10:07, a full 8 minutes after the last one had left. They are supposed to run every 4 minutes… Normally this wouldn’t matter but… Then on the way to the train station a tow truck dislodging an illegally parked interloper from his perch blocked our path for 4 minutes… We arrived at the station at 10:26… I sprinted, 110lbs of baggage and all, into the station, checked the board, glanced about quickly and then dashed to platform three. Nothing. 10:30 and the train wasn’t even in sight. Not only had it left on time, but it had probably had even left ahead of schedule. Now I had two hours on my hands…
Luckily I found wifi and messaged Nic, a friend from Duke that I failed to rendez-vous with in Berlin, saying that I had missed my train. I also told Blanchard my harrowing tale of unfortunate events. I just really wasn’t meant to make that train… After talking with them I ate the cheap sandwich I had snagged from Tesco the day before, some odd combination of ham, salami, tasteless white cheese, and cream cheese with chives in it. Yep, I was in Eastern Europe.
Dying to leave I looked up at the boards around 11:40 and guess what? My 12:29 train was 15 minutes late. Yeah… The first train had been perfectly on time but my back-up train was now a full 2 hours and 15 minutes later… At that point I just wanted to walk to Berlin.
And so here I am. On the train to Berlin sitting with some nerdy dude in a chequered shirt with 1970s glasses and block phone that only someone from 1997 would envy.
All the best from East Germany,