Pague by Calvin Lennox

Sam, an old college friend and travelling partner, and I turned up at the huge ornate and dark Prague rail station, resembling a sort of Victorian Bat-Cave, sometime before midnight. 

Straightaway, desperate, I sprinted for the train station toilet and met my first local: a 7ft foot tall, big boned man who resembled Chunk's buddy from 'The Goonies' (his head approximately the size of a small oven). He was sat on a stool in a tiny, filthy, dark alcove in the annex to the toilets. 

He wailed something at me in Czech I vaugely understood as 'you have to pay'. I pitched a coin into the bucket he kept between his legs and he - literally - let me pass, lifting his huge arm from barring the entrance to the urinals.  

I undid my fly and prepared to let rip into the metal basin when, casually turning to my right, I realised that (owing to the open toilet door) my engagement with nature was on full display to the swilling cosmopolitan masses that filled the train station platforms. 

I tucked myself back in and squeezed myself and my backpack into one of the cubicles for a little privacy.  

I had, fortunately, finished when I suddenly heard a familar growl and was dragged - with alarming strength and lack of consideration - by my backpack out of the cubicle. I turned around, furious, to see Chunk's buddy standing over me. He regaled me angrily, pointing to a roughly scrawled sign on the wall (marker pen on a roughly torn rectangle of corrugated cardboard) that suggested I had to pay more to use a cubicle. 

I let loose. I was tired, hungry. This was my first experience of the natives. 

As I wandered back into the train station feeling like a cat that's just been kicked up the arse while taking a crap, I yelled 'YEAH, THANKS A LOT MATE' (note the italics to indicate bitter sarcasm) and span around, my arms in the air, 'WELCOME TO FUCKING PRAGUE!' 

Fortunately, he did not kick the shit out of me. For that, at the very least, I am grateful. 

2751514.527755I found Sam and we shuffled through dark, imposing underground corridors. Imagine lost or collapsed tunnels in the London underground: this was what this place looked like. Thin, wild looking men in trousers up to their shins and dirty white socks, filthy oversized old school nikes, shuffled in dark corners seeming to fight over bottles of fortified wine and measley heroin deals. 

Sam and I hastily took a taxi to our hostel. 

The Taxi driver was fantastic, by contrast: a sincere and honest man who charged us the going rate, had a broad white smile, and enjoyed conversing with us in his adhoc English while we, in return, tried our rudimentary Czech that we'd learned while on the train from Austria. 

Thereafter, everything was on the up. 

We arrived at the hostel and, after checking in, were immediately admitted to the underground bar. This place was perfect: a real hideaway. All kinds of talented freaks and geniuses from all over the world: writers, poets, amazing pianists and songwriters that played every other night. Of course it had its fair share of dickheads (we, to our suprise, actually came across some anti-British sentiments among the non-Americans: i.e. mostly Danes and Canadians. Weird.). It was like the bar in Star Wars: the kind of place you'd imagine Jim Morrison dying anonymously in a corner under a leather jacket after a lethal cocktail of opium, acid, and absinthe. You got the feeling this was where Aleister Crowley and Boris Johnsons Grandfather might have met. It immediately became home to Sam and I, though after a while the lack of good old British cynicism and black humour began to wane on us: the place mostly comprising of American's laughing at 'foot jokes' (don't ask me) and jumping about and screaming (yes, the men too) like pissed girl-scouts after they'd locked Brown Owl in the chair-store cupboard under the stairs. Fortunately after a few days some Irish folks turned up and while things got really hairy on the drinking front, the humour and bat'n'ball routine got spicier. 

There's a restaurant that's famous for its chicken and peaches dish in the old part of town, some great bars and cafes and an intriguingly bloody history to boot. Apparently, the cellar where the restraunt now is was found full of monk's bones and religious paraphenalia. So they said anyway (you wonder how much is liberal artistic licence). Hiding from the Roman's these monks allegedly found themselves unable to get out and died in there. I thought about it while I munched my chicken and peaches. I suppose it wasn't necessarily something you'd want to shout about if you owned a restaurant but Prague does have this eerie obsession with the macabre: it's sort of like a Mexican 'Day of the Dead' parade dancing along echoey cobble-stone streets in the rain. 

Beware 'blind' opera singers. You're bound to find one or two during you're time there. They stand in corners like sedate banshees wailing beautifully into the night air. I unfurled a note of generous proportions (having spent five minutes wondering where the astonishingly beautiful sound was coming from) and you should have seen the smile on her face: one I hadn't seen on approach as other tourists flipped the usual coin fare into her hat. 

I'd recommend a walking tour. You'll get some idea of Prague's intriguing history: for instance, the revolutions. Unhappy with the way things were being run, men would rush the government offices and throw the old civil servantry out of the windows (known as defenestration). They would then take over the building and re-build the government. There's something I believe that we Brits could learn from that today (figuratively speaking, of course).  

I remember getting my haircut by the manager of some place on the upper floor of an old shopping mall (that looked like a set straight out of The Terminator). He told me how he and his wife, a well-connected artist (her Father allegedly a minister of the newly democratised city), used to be followed constantly by the KGB. He kept making me tea, had some really interesting stories, and was really friendly. I wanted to go back but I didn't have any hair left. 

Take an ipod, wear a trilby and a crisp suit, and wander around the underground system and you'll feel like some neo-Kafka bladerunner character. The underground train system is just stunningly modern in a nice tarnished, slightly dented and dusty kind of a way. 

Beware the absinthe. It is cheap. I've never personally remembered much, if anything, after my fourth glass. The old ritual is to soak a teaspoon of sugar in the stuff and set it alight: let the sugar melt and then stir it into the glass. This takes the edge of what otherwise feels like a hotrod wheel spinning down the back of your throat. I made a lot of friends drinking that stuff. I'd make my way down to the bar for breakfast holding my head and I'd meet very friendly people on the stairs and on the street who all seemed to know my name. To this day I still have no idea what I did or how I came to make so many friends. 

The difference between most drinks and absinthe is simple. Drink a bottle of whiskey: you'll think you're superman but bump into some furniture and you'll take a nasty tumble. After four or five generous tumblers of absinthe you'll also think you're superman: bump into some furniture (like a piano, the bar, or a heavy table) and watch it fly across the room with a puzzled expression on your face, then go and sit down and carry on drinking. Other than that the rest of the experience is available only in the eternal now: come the morning, like I said, you'll vaguely remember faces if you're lucky – just don't slap anyone if they kiss or hug you. They're probably someone you made a very grand impression on the previous night. 

Prague has many sides: some of which I'll leave to your imagination rather than write about them here. You can do the tourist thing or you can do otherwise. Personally, I'd recommend the latter.  

There are so many great things about the place (for me anyway) I just can't be arsed to go through them all. Just go. 

To end on I'll just say I had a bit of an odd experience on the Charles Bridge at dawn. It's something they all tell you to do: that the statues are supposed to come alive and fly around or something. Of course, that didn't happen. But something did: and I'm still not sure exactly what it was. Then again, it was probably just the after-effects of my nth absinthe hangover.


by Calvin Lennox

Posted on Tuesday, June 13, 2006 at 14:43 by Registered CommenterJam | CommentsPost a Comment