Prague, Berlin and San Francisco

Back to Sept 8-14 Greek Isles and the journey to Vienna

Wednesday, September 29th, 1999

The end of the trip was one week away, and Tara and I were both calculating how we wanted it to end. There were a few unknowns still: How would I make it across the English Channel, how long would it take to travel back to the west coast of Europe, and was there any way I could see even one day of Ocktoberfest?

Prague, in the Czech Republic, had been highly recommended to us by my roommate Leif and by other backpackers throughout our travels, so we were going there next. We checked out of the second hostel and had another great hostel breakfast, with a big old American style cup of coffee. We stopped one final time at an Internet place to check if Christy had written. She had.

I, of course, decided to stay one more day in Vienna, but Tara wanted to leave for Prague immediately, leaving time for a good-bye weekend in Amsterdam. We split up again. I went with her as she bought her ticket and we had lunch together before her train left. Tara had lasagna and I had vegetarian pizza. It was a big pizza, but it was covered with corn.

I called Christy and figured out how to squeeze in a visit. She had just started teaching new classes, and was swamped with work. We decided to meet at 7, and to see a show. She even offered to buy my ticket!

The train station Tara left from was adjacent to a large palace/museum, so I checked that out. Next I saw a giant fountain with Russian writing commemorating a military victory of some kind. The cheesy tourist map I was using showed a Ferris wheel in the northeast, so I headed there. I walked for almost an hour before I found it. I was expecting the largest Ferris wheel, but it was apparently the oldest Ferris wheel. It had an iron framework that reminded me of the Eiffel tower. There was no explanation, but I bet Ferris built this one or something. It had large carriages that held 20 people each.

The rest of the amusement park was semi-deserted and almost scary. The giant animated gorilla at the front of a House of Horror dark ride spoke to the crowd in German. There were dozens of colorful melty people-sculptures throughout the park. How creepy did they want this place to be?

Thoroughly amused, I headed off to meet Christy at her house. Christy came home just as I reached her door. We were both happy to have finally met up. We talked about my sister Chris and about Greece. I had been warned about how teeny-tiny her apartment was, and I found it to be true. The shower was in the kitchen. Still, it was better than a hostel (and it was free).

We walked to the show. It was New York blues legend Taj Mahal at the Metropol. I tried to buy my own ticket, saying I had to get rid of my "funny Austrian money", but Christy wouldn't hear of it. Her friend Tara joined us and we claimed our seats. It was a great show, and the crowd was really into it. Tara is also a teacher, so Christy and Tara gave me the low-down on Austrian schools. Christy and I got into a long discussion about the benefits and dangers of technology.

At the end of the show, the crowd applauded in unison to get an encore. It was neat.

After the show, we got a late-night dinner at a Turkish restaurant. It seemed a lot like Greek food to me, but with rice. It was very good.

The streetlights in Vienna are suspended by a system of cables strung from building to building, there are no lampposts, but there are a lot of cables.

Thursday, September 30th, 1999

Christy had to be at work early, so I said goodbye and thank you. I stashed my pack at the station and killed time wandering until my train left. I spent my last shilling of Austrian money and ended up too far from my station to make it in time. I hopped onto a bus, and then onto a tram without a ticket. This was no problem because they used an "honor-system" ticket scheme like Sacramento's light rail. I made it to the station without capture.

The train to Prague was a bit expensive because my eurail pass didn't cover Eastern Europe. On the trip I talked with a Czech woman about soil erosion. She was studying to be a civil engineer. She gave me an idea of what the exchange rate was for Czech crowns. She asked me what the difference between "plants" and "crops" was.

The Czech passport police checked my passport as I entered their country, and they ran my numbers through a little hand-held computer like they use to check inventory at Target. My number came up clean, I guess, so I got to stay on the train. Tara later informed me that they track the numbers of anyone with a drug crime on their record, and that they search their bags to help prevent smuggling.

In Prague, my goal was to find Internet access so that I could find out where Tara was staying. Tara was my agent in Prague and her assignment had been to locate cheap lodging for my two days there. On the way to an Internet café, I ran into Tara on the street! The thrill of this insane coincidence had diminished somewhat since it was the third time it had happened. She showed me the hostel, which was cheap, but not as cheap as we had wished. We had heard a lot about how cheap Prague was, and we were disappointed when the room was a whopping US$10.

I showered and we went out on the town. Tara had just finished doing laundry, and was thrilled that it was the last time she would have to do it before going home. We went out and she showed me Prague. We got a cheap dinner. The place really wanted to be a Mexican restaurant. It was swamped with German tourists. The chips were Doritos and the guacamole was green sour cream, but I got calamari rings for $3, and the beers were less than a dollar. They massacred our bill and we left before the karaoke really got started.

Prague has amazing buildings, apparently spared from damage in World War 2. It had a number of what Tara called "fairy tale buildings", with pointy roofs and cute chimneys. It was also packed with tourists, buying marionettes, crystal and T-shirts.

We checked the outbound trains in the station downstairs, and Tara realized she was leaving at 6am the next morning. I said goodbye in advance and went to sleep.

Friday, October 1st, 1999

Tara left at 6am, bound for Amsterdam, and I spent the day exploring Prague by myself. I haven't had too many days all to myself, because I usually meet someone to hang out with, but today I didn't.

I moved from the room I shared with Tara to another room on the "boys" side. There was only one other person in the room, an older man who was still in bed. I put a few things in my bag and went to photograph Prague.

I was feeling daring, so I stopped at a real Czech place to get some breakfast. Nothing was in English, so I cautiously asked for coffee. The woman behind the counter looked like she knew what I was talking about so I got my (Turkish) coffee and started thinking about ordering some breakfast. I ordered some soup, and I got a little bowl of ghoulash and some great bread crescents. It was fantastic, just the thing for my cold morning. Total price: $1.10.

I stopped by the museum of torture instruments as recommended by Tara. It was nice, but as she said, most of the items looked like re-creations. They had some pretty basic stuff, and a few complicated things. There were explanations in English and some depiction of the devices in use. They had an iron maiden, a rack, and men and woman's chastity belts. No pictures were allowed, and it was too dark for mine to come out well.

I crossed the old bridge, which has 16 statues of saints on both sides. The statues in Prague are almost all black.

Next I cruised uphill to the castle and took pictures on the way. I got off of the main tourist trail and wandered through a wooded park. Unfortunately, I didn't find any cool hidden-away little spots in Prague. I just found boring city blocks and closed buildings. The best thing I found was a hardware store.

The end of the trip was now close enough to do some gift shopping, so I bought some stuff on the way back to the hostel. I got a fuzzy hat for Rob J. and a Simpson's T-shirt for Mike (just kidding). I had been walking for hours, but I didn't really have anything else planned. When I got back to the hostel, the old guy was still the only one in the room, and he was still in bed. I dropped off my Santa's-bag of gifts and went out to find dinner. I walked around for another 45 minutes before I found a place that looked good. I hate eating alone at restaurants, but I didn't want to buy something from a street vendor. I had super-good potato cakes and chicken, but my bill was wrong, so I didn't get to enjoy it very long. I really don't think the waiter made a mistake, I think he was trying to rip me off. The actual price of the dinner was about 6 bucks U.S.

Back at the hostel, I turned on the lights, set up my laptop and started typing away. After a bit, the older guy (who was still in bed) sat up and addressed me in a Russian accent. He told me that a hostel is a place for sleeping, and that my typing in the room was "perverse", and that it was "not an office here".

I was amazed and amused. My typing was perverted. I looked at my watch and said, "it is nine o'clock, I will stop at ten". Another guy came into the room at that time and broke the tension, and I stopped typing soon afterwards. I left to walk around some more.

At eleven thirty, on my way back inside, I finally met some nice women. They had just gotten into town. I gave them a flyer for a dance-party, but was just too worn out to make a go of it. I also gave them my map of Prague. I went to bed. The older guy was making weird burping sounds as I tried to fall asleep.

At midnight, I was awoken by a knock at the door. I opened it and one of the hostel staff members was there. He waved a bottle of shampoo at me and asked in broken English if someone had accidentally left his shampoo in the shower. I guess that qualifies as an emergency in Prague. I said no without bothering to survey the guests who were still asleep. I'll bet someone was happy to see that shampoo, huh?

Saturday, October 2nd, 1999

Last weekend in Europe. I checked out around 8 and took pictures of the different woman's faces that decorated the top of the station. I got on a train bound for Brussels.

There was an old woman playing with her dentures in her mouth, pushing them back and forth as she read. I could see them poking out between her lips, it was really disturbing. It reminded me of Eric playing with his tongue piercing, but was much worse.

The passport procedure included the Target computer again. Two hot Czech women boarded with two pieces of luggage each: A duffel bag and a Make-up case.

I was supposed to change trains in Berlin and head towards Brussels, but I realized how much time I had left, so I stopped there for the day. I found a hostel from a poster in the station and got there on the confusing Berlin Underground/Surface rail system. I had traveled on subways in ten European cities, so I thought I had seen it all. This was bewildering. Anyway, I got there and went exploring. I had a pamphlet that described what to see, but I didn't know where these things were, but I thought I could stumble across them if I hit the dense parts of the map.

I scolded a woman in English for kicking her dog. She didn't like that.

I found a hardware store called Bauhaus, but they were closing as I got there (3pm on a Saturday?). Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a forest park called Volkspark Hasenheide. I went around the densely wooded part and found the park. Kids were flying kites and men were playing soccer. Next I wandered into a graveyard. Inside were hundreds of little gravestones and a few giant ones. One war memorial was awesome: It had a bronze sculpture on top depicting a large soldier's body covered in a heavy cloth. The shroud had his helmet and saber on top. From under the cloth, his arm poked out, his hand in a giant anguished fist. It was eerie.

The big blank spot on the map that I thought was the town center was actually an airport, There was a plane on display from the Berlin airlift. I chose another direction. Eventually I made it to the Brandenburg gate, at the edge of the Tiergarten. There was a big celebration being put on by the Deutsche Post, and a crowd was gathered outside the Hotel Adlon. I never found out whom it was they were waiting for. Nearby was the giant Bundestag, or parliament building. It had a new glass dome with spiraling walkways you could walk up for free. Everyone was excited to be there, so it may have been the first day or something.

I headed back to the festival and watched a 50's cover band. I had a beer and some bratwurst.

On the way home on the subway, I realized I was at Alexanderplatz, so I went up to take a look. It was a nice square with big hotels and the 1,200-foot TV tower.

I got back to the hostel around 11pm, but no one else was there. I was looking at twenty-four empty beds. I sat up typing and eventually some people came in. Two exuberant women from Texas entertained me for about an hour. They described the dormitory-bed social dynamic where sleeping backpackers express their discontent over noise with the "roll-over" and the "heavy sigh". Once again, I had met the cool people too late, as I was leaving in the morning.

Sunday, October 3rd, 1999

I tried to spend all my deutsche marks on the way to the train station, buying a .5 liter Coke, a can of Pringles, Mentos, a big Snickers, two Twix bars, two bags of M&Ms, and a Bounty bar, but I still had the equivalent of $15 when I got onto the train.

The train was a high-speed luxury ICE train, flying along at 230K/hour. I used my headphones from the Spanish Talgo to listen to the train-music. Two songs had interesting lyrics:

She's perfect but she smells (smiles?) so strange,
She's perfect but her eyes aren't blue. AND
Space cake break on the Titicaca Lake,
Vacation in Venezuela and Bogota.

There were seven channels to listen to, and 2 of them had great techno music. I used the earphones I got from the Talgo train in Spain. I got to hear a song that Mark and Elise always used to play at home by Blur. It made me excited to be going home. Sitting in the early morning, listening to great music, this was a very fine, memorable moment on the trip.

The next leg of the journey was from Köln, Germany to Liege, Belgium. I had enough time between trains to run out, take 2 pictures and get some food, but still didn't spend all my Deutsche marks. I had a seat in first class, but there was no techno music. Belgium was nice in parts, but we traveled through some crummy areas too, with broken houses like I saw so much of in Bulgaria.

The third leg of the journey was from Liege to Lille. I sketched landscapes on the train and inhaled second-hand smoke. One woman sat with her baby in the smoking section, puffing away. It was nasty. One guy slyly lit up some god-awful stinkweed across from me in non-smoking and I asked him what "those nasty cigarettes" he was smoking were. He probably didn't speak English, but he got the message and moved. I probably wasn't building any goodwill towards Americans in my last few days, but I didn't care. One rosy-cheeked kid in the smoking section was puffing away, he looked about 9.

On the last leg of the trip, it grew dark, so the scenery was gone. I was bored. The smoke was billowing in from all the smoking teenagers I was going to outlive. We made it to Calais at around 8:30pm.

Calais is a little city that probably sees some busy times in the summer. It kind of got left out of the picture when the Chunnel was built, so I bet things have taken a downturn lately. Some of the hotels I passed on the way to the hostel were closed for the off-season. The hostel looked shitty, and I figured I could find a bargain room in a half-full city, so I started shopping around. I ran out of energy before I found my bargain and ended up paying $20 for a pitiful little room. I considered trying to board a ferry now, but I didn't think a room in Dover, England would be any cheaper. I ate at Café de Paris, an all-night restaurant. I had minced steak, which I should have realized was going to be hamburger.

At the table, I looked back at my trip: I had been through 17 countries and had used 14 different currencies. I had spent the night in 25 cities, on two busses, ten trains and a boat. I couldn't wait to draw a black line on a world map tracing my path.

Monday, October 4th, 1999

I woke up at 9 and got ready to go to England. The port in town was vast, of course. There were convoys to diesel trucks headed up and down ramps, onto various ships. I felt silly approaching the whole operation on foot. It was designed on a grand scale, obviously, to handle probably thousands of trucks boarding scores of ships. It was like an international airport for diesel trucks.

I walked into the port area almost a mile before I saw the foot-passengers ticket office. My eurail pass supposedly got me a 50% discount, the fare was about US$20. I was pleased to find that they would let me pay part of the fare in cash and part on Visa card so that I could use up the rest of my Francs.

Watching Saving Private Ryan hadn't prepared me for how cold and windy it was out there. I guess a strong wind is beneficial when someone is firing a machine-gun at you.

I would try to find out how much the Chunnel cost. I wondered if Eric and Tara took it.

The English Channel is about 30 Kilometers wide, which is about how far you can view land across the sea. I would like to at least see the Chunnel, because from on top I could see what an amazing achievement it would be.

The cliffs of Dover are white, with a thin layer of green on top.

There was only one other foot-passenger on the ship with me, but I still broke into laughter when the giant baggage carousel started up and only my one piece of luggage came out.

I took a two-hour train from Dover to London, where I hoped to fly out in 18 hours or so.

Soon I was in London, at Charing Cross station. I was so charged-up to be back in London that I was practically skipping through the Underground station. I called ahead to the Hyde Park Hostel where we had stayed before. I knew it would be a piece of cake to get a room now that summer was over. I withdrew some Sterling and made my way out to the hostel. As I was checking in I spotted Tara's name on the register. The guy at the desk said she had been looking for my name too. I didn't see Eric's name, but I had a good idea he was here as well.

I got a bed next to Tara's, but she was not in. It was still early, so I ran over to the British Museum to see if I could see the Rosetta Stone before I left London. I made it to the museum, but the Rosetta stone was in some bullshit temporary exhibition which cost $5 to get in, so I didn't bother. They had a sign posted that you could not take photos of the Rosetta Stone, and that you could only SKETCH it with permission! What a joke. I also checked out the Elgin marbles, which had been stripped from the Parthenon. There was a model of the Acropolis there, which was funny to see, since I had been there so recently.

I caught up with Tara around four o'clock and we swapped stories from the last few days. She had indeed taken the Chunnel, and it had been expensive. It was 110 (US$180) from Amsterdam to London. She missed the 15-minute tunnel "experience" because she was asleep. I was happy with my comparatively cheap ferry ride, but it had taken up almost 10 hours of my dwindling Euro-time.

We tracked down Eric's room, but he wasn't in, so we left a note on his door. We went shopping for some last minute gifts. I was anxious to bring something really unwieldy on the plane, so I bought a big Darth Maul toy from Forbidden Planet in London.

Back in our room, we finally met back up with Eric. He gave us the lowdown on his last 45 days, tracing a route north from Amsterdam to Bodø, through Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. His trip sounded expensive, but beautiful. He voyaged into Eastern Europe as well, to Poland and the Czech Republic. We traded stories about the cities that we had both seen. Eric had taken the Chunnel also, although he took had taken it from Germany. He described the Channel trip as "just a really long tunnel, but instead of being flat, the train traveled down, and then up again". I kinda get the feeling that I didn't miss much. At least I got to see those white cliffs!

We met up with some people Eric had met yesterday at a pub called The Rat and the Parrot. I had forgotten how expensive London was, but I was celebrating. Eric and I got into a light-hearted argument about who had been on the longest train ride. We were there until they closed which was only at 11, and jumped into bed.

Tuesday, October 5th, 1999

At 1:30 am, the fire alarm went off. I had heard from Eric that the alarm had gone off the previous night, so this was obviously another false alarm. The alarm was very loud, or I would have stayed in bed. Most people just hung out in the lobby where the alarm was the quietest. In no time the firefighters showed up and turned off the alarm. It was some goddamn bastard smoking in their room. I went back to sleep.

Around six I woke up and got ready, I woke Tara and went looking for Eric. Someone else was in his bed, so I went down to the desk to check if he was in a different room. I had been in the right room, so I didn't know where he was. If he was still asleep, he was probably going to miss the flight. I gave up and took a shower. It was cold. I was starting to wonder what else was going to go wrong this morning. When I got out Eric was alive and awake and ready to go. We headed out to the subway station.

We snagged one train just before it left the station. We rode it for two stops and changed trains. The train was already at the stop and I rushed in the doors. Tara got into a different car. Eric didn't make it. The doors shut and Eric slammed the train as it left without him. Tara and I discussed what stop to get off at through the window between cars. The train took almost 40 minutes to get the airport, and we were definitely running late. Tara and I arrived at the airport and found our check-in gate. We were identified by the staff as latecomers and fast-tracked to our flight. We told them about Eric and they informed us that he had missed the flight. We were assigned a personal escort to bring us to the train and check our luggage. Fifteen minutes later, we were on our flight without Eric. It left immediately. Eric missed the flight because he missed that train, and he had only missed the train by seconds.

I was very happy to be on the flight, and we joked that if our plane went down, Eric would have one of those great, "If I had made that flight, I would be dead now" stories. We really hoped that wouldn't happen.

We sat in the middle of the plane and watched 3 movies: Molly, Wild Wild West and Big Daddy with Adam Sandler. It was a long flight, but not as bad as some train trips we had done. I set my wristwatch back to Pacific Time. I figured out it was the tenth time I had changed the time on my watch since the beginning of the trip.

We didn't know what was going to happen to Eric.

When we finally got off of the plane, my sister Sue was waiting to pick us up. This was a very pleasant surprise! She waited for me to kiss the ground at SFO and then she drove Tara and I to Berkeley. Almost everyone spoke English here. I retrieved my car from my brother and we went to get Mexican food. Sue gave me two bucks cash so I could pay for the toll bridge. I drove myself home and enjoyed every minute behind the wheel. I dropped Tara off and went home.

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