Czeching in from Prague

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: On how my preconceived notions of Prague (which were formed mostly by Euro bros and the movie Hostel) and the Remote Year program matched up to the reality when I arrived. Apparently I can’t go two days without having an altercation with a creepy weirdo. 

PRAGUE, Czech Republic —  I didn’t know much about Prague before I decided to accept the offer to join Remote Year. Last time I was in Europe, a few people recommended it to me as a destination—mainly Euro bros making small talk during one-off bar conversations. They’d nostalgically reference a wild weekend with a glassy eyed look halfway between a smile and a cringe.

I was skeptical, as I always am, of the organizers’ decision to bypass Western Europe and begin the journey from the Czech Republic, especially when they refused to disclose where we’d be staying until after we put down the $3k deposit for the program. Brushing aside thoughts of the opening scene of Hostel (2005) where the optimistic tourists step off the train platform into a post-communist wasteland, I was happy to escape my own increasingly embarrassing police state to be anywhere in Europe.

The day I arrived, my imagination’s portrait of Prague (frat boys vomiting onto the side of a Gothic church as Gargoyles looked on helplessly) was painted over by cheerful pastel buildings, quaint European coffee shops, and tired old grannies shuffling around. My room, located in the attic of a hotel on the edge of the Vyšehrad castle and burial ground, was the perfect vision of European literary solitude.

Kafka and Einstein were rumored to have stayed here.

I took a bubble bath, wondering if Einstein’s rump had once touched the same tub as mine, and went to bed. In the morning I picked through the standard European breakfast assortment of sandwich meats, cheeses, and hard-boiled eggs, passing over a tray of pickles and other vinegar-soaked things. A cheerful Remote Year organizer popped in to greet me and hand over a packet of information about public transport, a SIM card, and the keys to a co-working space.

So, everything was fine. I was here, I was comfortable, this whole thing wasn’t a ploy by the Russian mafia to sell videos of my torture to European businessmen. I walked over to the co-working space where more hungover Remote Year staffers came in and greeted me with a full-on summer camp vibe that drove me to immediately bond with the next New Yorker I met.

Exhausted, I went back to my attic sanctuary to nap, but was greeted by the insanity dreams of REM rebound. I knew them well from my college insomnia days of Ambien experimentation. When you don’t sleep soundly for a while, as one tends not to do while in a metal box careening thousands of miles through the sky, your brain makes up for the lack of REM sleep by cramming all the dreams you’d been deprived of for days into a burst of grotesque chaos from the moment your eyes close. I woke up in a cold sweat with searing menstrual cramps and wandered downstairs in a haze where some of the other people in my program were waiting for me to go to dinner.

I wanted be jovial during the meal, but the guy sitting across from me was anxiously tapping his foot. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t focus on anything else, and kept inverting words in my sentences.

“Hey can you stop… -“

“-Doing what I’m doing?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of driving me insane.”

“That’s funny because not doing it makes me feel the way that you feel when I do it.”

I glared at him over my giant Czech beer, recalling an article I’d once read about a “neuropsychiatric disorder” called misophonia where people are acutely distressed by the repetitive sounds or motions of others. How ironic that society should deem being bothered by someone else’s annoying locomotor tick was a “disorder” and not the tick itself. After a while some other Remote Year participants sat down to join us and the table began to shake once more. I must have looked strained because the leg shaker asked me what was wrong. I told him he was doing it again, he denied it, and the girl next to me chimed in.

“Oh, it’s probably my husband. He just has so much energy that he can’t get rid of,” she bragged. A searing cramp stabbed my insides. Two leg shakers at a picnic table were more than I could handle, so I called the waiter, paid discretely, and excused myself.

I was still jet lagged and in REM rebound, and a nightmare jarred me awake at 3:30am that night. The sun was already starting to rise, so I figured I may as well watch it and test out my new camera. I boarded a tram toward the Charles Bridge and hopped off to walk along the river to the entrance. It was here that I realized my misstep, as my original vision of Prague unfolded like a prophecy before my eyes.

First a sputter, then a steady stream of drunk frat boys swirled around me spouting the occasional “ciao, bella” and things I was glad I could not understand. It was, after all, 4:30am on a Friday night, rather than 4:30 on a Saturday morning. Who did I expect to be out at that time? Birdwatchers?

Sigh. This is why I don’t wake up early.

But, I thought, I was going to make it worth it, because I was finally back in Europe, damnit. I forged on to the entrance of the Charles Bridge, which was just past the source: Karlovy Lázně, a 15th century spa converted into the largest club in Central Europe.

Once past the infected well of unsuccessful Romeos, the bridge was relatively peaceful, though hardly worth what I had to trudge through to get there. A guy slid up to walk in pace with me said what I presume he thought was a smooth pickup line in Czech. “Sorry, I don’t speak Czech,” I said. He confidently pasted some English words together with all the skill of a small child with a glue stick, but was interrupted by a victorious grunt from a man up ahead, who apparently was his friend. I smiled and nodded, then pretended to be drawn to something on the other side of the bridge and slipped away.

Finally, I found a staircase and slipped under the bridge to a spot I’d read on a photography blog was the least crowded place to watch the sun rise over the Charles Bridge. There was no one around but some birds. Finally, peace.
I took out my camera and tested various settings. How long did it take the damn sun to rise? I tried to remember that this was what I came here to do, peacefully watch the sunrise, and impatiently smoked some cigarettes.

Here are the fruits of my labor:

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

I was going to head back but figured I’d give Karlovy Lázně a little more time to empty out, so I went in search of the famous Lenin Wall. The light was doing all kinds of beautiful things bouncing off buildings, so I captured a few more views that caught my attention. After all, I though, I may never see the morning light again after my jet lag subsides.

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

I stopped and noticed the moon, and all of a sudden I felt strange, like a nocturnal tarsier under a flashlight beam. Everything around me looked strange. Time for bed.

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Determined to knock off all the touristy things I wanted to do so I could live like a normal European for the remainder of my time there, I forged on to the Lenin Wall. I didn’t even hear the guy following me until he was right behind me.

Once I became aware of him, I slowed my pace to let him pass, but he slowed his step as well. I looked at him, and he immediately asked me if I speak English, in English though he was clearly Czech. It was a loaded question, and actually it wasn’t a question at all. It really meant: “I know you’re not from here so I’m going to force you to talk with me because I have the power in this situation.” I looked around on the street and there was nobody else out. Fuck. Could I not make it two days without getting myself into one of these situations? I shook my head no and crossed the street. He crossed the street in front of me. I stopped. He stopped. I looked at him and glared. He looked at me and smiled.

I didn’t know what else to do so I brushed past him. It was a really long street so I could either keep going or go back the way I came. I didn’t like it that my back was to him, and that I didn’t have my pepper spray, or my knife, or my kitty keychain, or anything else I could use as a weapon. Actually, my camera was pretty heavy. Could definitely crack a skull with it if need be. “Baby,” he called after me. “Hey baby, I want to kiss your pussy.”

Faster faster faster but don’t run because it’s a straightaway and he could probably outrun me. I ducked into a side street in the direction that I thought was the Lenin wall, but I didn’t really know where I was going and I didn’t want to check my map. He followed me still, yelling vulgar threats. I felt more vulnerable than usual with a thousands dollars worth of camera equipment on my side realizing I didn’t even have the ability to call the police because the SIM they gave me didn’t have phone credit. Nothing drives home the realities of gender disparity like not being able to simply walk down a street alone, being at peace with oneself and the world without it being shattered by some drunk creep in need of a power trip. Finally when I was far enough ahead, I turned around to see if he was still following me. His pants were down. I gave him the finger and ran away.

The Lenin wall was stupid. Amateur, I thought, compared to any old wall in Brooklyn.

Yeah, Fuck Putin. How creative.

I was paranoid that the guy was going to come back, but there were other people milling about now. I hope he tripped over his pants.

I crossed the Charles Bridge back, fuming to myself. Yeah, that’ll teach me to go for a walk by myself in the morning. Who did I think I was, trying to be autonomous in the world. Where was my male keeper, little lamb in a faraway land? I passed some carefree teens sitting on the bridge, and I envied the moment they were having, which looked so much more fun than mine.

Olympus EP5

I passed the world’s supposedly oldest astronomical clock on the way back to the train. Even that looked lame to me at the moment. But whatever. Great, I saw all the things.

Olympus EP5

Later that day, there was a Remote Year BBQ at a riverside bar. I was two hours late. I didn’t need to play stupid icebreaker games with 75 people. I needed to be alone in my room for two more hours. I felt slightly traumatized, but fine. Ultimately, I was glad to be a little shaken up. Better a harmless misstep early to get my head on straight than carrying on carelessly and making a big mistake later. No more being a tourist like this was my first rodeo. I needed to acclimate, figure out how to just be again. I was still moving in hyperdrive from NYC. It’s time to relax, learn how to feel vibes again, to sense my environment, not just perceive it.

The next day, I pulled an all-nighter working on a consulting project. After it was done, I got daydrunk at noon with my one Remote Year friend and had a blast. I walked home through a botanical garden. I found parrots, and a live invertebrate exhibition run by some cool nerds. I wandered into an antique store and had a funny conversation with a local guy with a mohawk. He gave me a 33% discount on the knife I bought without me even attempting to haggle. I felt better, at home, the way I want to feel when I travel.

The sad thing is, I feel like I did something wrong, but if there’s a lesson here, I’m struggling to see it. Don’t be a woman? Don’t forget your pepper spray the first time you walk in an unfamiliar though heavily touristy area? Sleep in? Yeah, sounds about right. Nap time for me.

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