Notes From Abroad

We catch up to our hero as he arrives in Prague after a London layover. Prague-Praha-that crazy city of the post-communist bloc- what lessons await our intrepid traveler there?

I arrived in Prague, Czech Republic, after a layover at Heathrow in London. Dreary grayness dampened my views of this statue-laden city, but the rain could do nothing to subdue my excitement. This was my first view of Eastern Europe, and I think the rain fit my preconceived notions as to the drabness of a post-communist country. My prejudice about Eastern Europe was to disappear over the course of the next month and a half, and after I got over the fog, the first pieces of my education were to appear before my eyes. Prague has a dignity that I got only a glimpse of those first few hours before I got on a train for Austria. There are places in Prague (or Praha, as they spell it) that overwhelm you with their austere man-made beauty. More time in Prague was to follow; this was merely a few-hour pause on the longer trip to Salzburg, in Austria.

While I waited for my train, I got lunch in the main tourist shopping area in this crazy art-deco restaurant that had two sides of their menu, the first was all the usual main Czech dishes, laden with heavy sauces and pork. The other side of the menu was a “mirror” of the first, only instead of the animal flesh; tofu had replaced pork in the recipes for all the meat dishes. I have never even seen this amount of vegetarian choice in any restaurants in Vermont, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it in the Czech Republic. This shocked me and was one of the first crucial elements of my Eastern European education.

The first few hours of the trip before I got on my first European train ride also provided another important lesson in communication. I found that the language barrier was completely insurmountable in only about 10% of my interactions, which proved to be true in every country I went too. I mean, I couldn’t have deep philosophical conversations with people, but I could get what I needed with almost no problem, and if I wanted to put the effort into the conversation, real connections could be made with people who knew absolutely no English. The most useful method for inter-language communication was pantomime. It’s amazing how many activities and ideas can be accurately conveyed just by a little creativity and lack of shame. One day I was so desperate to make a taxi driver understand how I needed to get to the train station that I dug so deep as to make the “choo, choo” sound and whirl my arms like the wheels of a train. In essence I was trying to become the train.

The process of buying a train ticket for the first time also forced me to master several useful travel skills. Just finding out that there is an international information window and a domestic information window, and that these are completely separate from the international ticket window and the domestic ticket window, took a while to work out. It was good to find out not just how to get the right ticket, but also to know that I could figure out how to make travel arrangements in a language of which I had no prior knowledge.

After all the arrangements were made and lunch was eaten, it was time for my first European train journey, and this was to be a true trial by fire. I had already been traveling for twenty hours or so, and I was beginning to become aware of just how dirty serious travel can be. Lugging around 80 pounds of luggage through non-air conditioned Europe in the heart of summer can make you rather, um, pungent. My first train journey, from Praha to Salzburg, Austria was about 400 miles and there were no direct trains. Salzburg, while geographically on a good route between the Prague and my final destination, Luzern, Switzerland, was not a major city, and hence required several connections between trains, five to be exact. Some of the connecting trains left only five minutes after the first arrived. There was no room for error or lack of concentration if I actually wanted to get to Salzburg. That day I became very adept at hefting my massive suitcase, duffel bag, and backpack through the very thin aisles of the trains. With every leg and hour of this journey I was getting filthier, but I knew that I could always take a shower when I did finally arrive in Salzburg.