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Welcome to the Czech Republic - Part II

An article by Joe Wiebe © All rights reserved.

Welcome to the Czech Republic - Part I

It is one of those split-second moments where time slows down. My urge is to jump off before the train picks up too much speed, but I also realize that I have to toss my pack down first or risk tripping over it, or even leaving it on the train. So I step back, throw it down next to Allison - now wide-eyed as she watches the train pulling away with me still on it. Then, I jump off myself. I land fine, and look back down the length of the train to see the conductor waving at us from an open doorway. I wave back politely to reassure him that we're fine, and then reprimand myself. I should have given him the finger instead. Why did they give us so little time?

The station is dark and decrepit, apparently closed down for the night. An old woman sweeps the dirty floors, but otherwise it's deserted. Not at all what I expected - after all, Plzen is a small but substantial city. The few other passengers melt out of the station's various exits into the waning evening light while we attempt to get our bearings.

I give Allison a reassuring smile, sensing she isn't impressed with the station's crumbling state. Neither am I. The urban vista outside isn't much better. We are surrounded by buildings reminiscent of drab Soviet tenements. There are no pretty art nouveau façades, as our guidebook describes Plzen's architecture, just crumbling walls and shuttered windows. I pull out our map, a smudgy printout from the Penzion Plzen's website. Why didn't I notice that the street names are illegible before? After a moment, I lead Allison in what I think is the correct direction.

But after a few blocks, I stop. The map just isn't matching up with the city's geography. She looks at the map with me, but can't see anything different there. I marvel at how calm she remains. I try to stay calm too, but inside I'm full of anxiety. Where the hell are we?

The sun is setting. There are other people out, all of whom clearly know where they're going. A middle-aged man walks down the sidewalk towards us, and before I can change my mind, I step in front of him and thrust my printout under his nose. I try English on him; he responds in Czech. I know enough to order beer in Czech, but that's about it. He speaks German, but my minimal German skills don't help.

Sign language then. I point back at the train station, then at the printout, trying to get him to show us where we are on the map. He stares at the useless map, stares at me, stares at the buildings around him. I glance nervously at Allison, but she has nothing to offer but an equally nervous smile.

After a few minutes of this, the man walks away, but motions for us to follow. Allison shrugs in response to my raised eyebrows - and we fall in step behind him. (She tells me later she hoped he was taking us home to enjoy a traditional Czech meal, drink vodka until the wee hours, and then sleep in his guest room. She might have been delirious from lack of sleep.)

He opens the doors of a tiny Skoda, and waves us in. Allison squeezes into the back seat with both our big packs. At first, I'm not sure I will even fit in the front passenger seat, but I manage to squeeze my knees under the dashboard, and off we go into the Plzen twilight. I try to follow our route on the stupid, useless map, but quickly give up.

After a few minutes, he pulls over - rather decisively, I think. I look around. We're on the side of a mini-freeway next to rows of modern apartment buildings with no hotels in sight. He gets out of the car without a word and approaches a young man on the sidewalk.

Allison taps my shoulder. "Isn't there a map in the Lonely Planet?" Of course! She hands the book to me, and I find the page. Ah, the detail! Street names, train station, hotels - all clearly marked. I open the car door, reassuring Allison that I will return. She smiles wanly and feigns going to sleep, stuffed in the cocoon of our backpacks in the back of the tiny Skoda.

To my relief, the young guy speaks English. He's an American who lives there, and he can speak some Czech. Our driver has the internet map in his hands, but neither of them can figure it out. I show them the Lonely Planet map, proud of its clear lines and legible type, but my heart rate doubles as a look of obvious confusion grows on the American's face. Why is it a mystery to him, too? He and our driver talk in Czech, pointing at various symbols on the map, but clearly not making much sense of it.

By now, I've figured out that we must have gotten off the train at a suburban stop outside Plzen. I ask the American to see if our driver knows how to get to the city centre. I remember the name of a big, old hotel right in the heart of the city - the Slovan. Does he know it? Our driver nods, so I thank the young American, and off we go again.

Back in the car, there is an air of confidence. Our driver smiles. I smile back. Allison smiles, too, relief clear on her face. We drive in silence, no shared language to fill the time. Soon, we see a sign: "Plzen Centrum." Patched and worn pavement transforms into touristy cobblestones, and the old buildings suddenly develop the lustre I've been expecting. Then, there it is, the Hotel Slovan. We thank our friend in German, English, and Czech. He smiles and says, "Bitte, bitte," - you're welcome, in German, the only language we almost share.

He leaves us at the hotel's steps, and I kick myself for never asking his name. I know enough German for that, and could have filled the car's silence with our names, our nationality, our home city, all those interesting facts that would flesh out the stories we would each have to tell. I imagine him going home to tell his family about the crazy young couple who got off the train too soon. A good laugh to go along with a shot of Slivovice, fiery plum brandy that is the Czech national liquor.

We are too exhausted and gun-shy to try to find the Penzion Plzen in the dark, so we decide to stay at the Hotel Slovan that night. It's more expensive than we budgeted, but worth every halér. After dropping our bags on our beds, we find we still have the energy to walk across the street to a little pub. When our pints of Gambrius Pilsener arrive, I raise my glass in a toast. Welcome to the Czech Republic.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver freelance writer. 
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