Friday Flashback - A Post That Once Was
In July of 2007 I wrote 3 posts about a trip I took to Europe when I was 25. That was a lifetime ago. Over the years I've had the posts brought up to me by various people - some of which still actually read me. Go figure. I've toyed often with the idea of reprinting it, which is what this is, but without the cliffhangers. Needless to say, it's fairly long and probably not worth your time, but hey, it's better than working, or sleeping or whatever you should be doing.
I hope you enjoy it.
The train ride out of Dresden was pleasant enough. The scenery was green and lush. Prague waited at the end of the line- a line wrought with the romance and tragedy of history. So much had happened on those tracks, blood and love and metamorphosis.
In contrast to the old that engulfed us was the bright youth of the day. It was young, and so were we. We were full of promise and laughter, our heads heavy with lust and liquor. We carried them high.
We met some American girls on the train and found comfort in their kinship while drinking lazily and entertaining thoughts that started at their smiles and drifted gently downward.
There were two stops in Prague and ours was the second. That appeared to be the case with all of the tourists, as they all started to straighten backpacks, check their reflections in the window and polish off whatever traces of open liquor that had got them this far.
A man appeared. Many men actually. They boarded at the stop, and it was easy to see that this was their livelihood, the constant commute between two stations, rubbing against the wanderers of the world and selling their wares. In the case of our visitor, it was lodging.
It startled us, to have someone offer us a room in a private flat. We had an unspoken plan that was basically get off the train and track down one of the many hostels that filled our traveling books and then woo women. The American girls, as women are prone to do, were already prepared and had a hotel room booked in advance. They were much more organized than we ever considered being.
The apartment in question belonged to a jazz musician that was currently on tour. The room had three cots, one for each of us, and access to the kitchen, which we used as a place to sit and drink beer out of old jelly jars.
The three of us, D, M, and myself, decided to get something to eat. We stepped outside, took the first right and ran into the American girls stepping from their hotel. They smiled again.
Together we ate some bland food, drank heavily, and made our way to the main square in old Prague. It breathed deeply and it felt old, not much different than what Kafka would have walked through, but with more neon.
There is a clock there, in the square, that is the most beautiful timepiece I have ever seen. In fact, the story goes that upon its completion, the monarch that had sanctioned it had taken the artist and cut his eyes out so that he could never create another clock too surpass its grandeur.
I can't help but think that the artist thought it worth it.
There was a club there, downstairs and through a dark, damp hallway. It was once a dungeon, and now it was a bar filled with cheap beer and topless women. We went in and found a table.
The place echoed with a lifetime of screams and sweat. Only now, they were accompanied by a house beat rather than the shadow of a looming noose. Hang the DJ. Chalk one up for progress.
By the time we got to Prague we had already spent time in Paris and Amsterdam, not to mention one confusing night in Germany, it wasn't our first bar, and it wouldn't be the last, however, it was the best.
We found ourselves sitting at a community table with an assortment of young men from all over Europe that were visibly interested in the girls that had entered with us. Your women, how much for the women? Someone bought beer, and it, as they say, was on.
The bonding must have happened sometime after midnight. My companions and I had long been traveling under the single purpose of not becoming a stereotype, the "ugly American," which of course, has nothing to do with our appearance (because we're handsome). One of the things that we had not mentioned throughout our trip was politics. Why would we?
That night, drunk in a dungeon, it was brought out for us. Young men from a handful of different countries went on... and on, about our military and our might. They wanted to know about California and the streets of gold. They were curious and excited about America, which frankly, was the last response we had been prepared for. It was before George W., and, apparently, the world loved us. They did not, however, care for Germany.
If there was anything that ran as a common theme it was a united distrust and blatant dislike of all things German. We, as we thought was prudent, stayed quiet on the matter. At one point, someone started singing a song that was anti-Germany, and the whole bar finished it in unison. Apparently, having Europe's strongest economy and the worst recent history did not make them popular neighbors. I sipped my beer and watched the girls on the dance floor.
They were topless in the European sense, meaning that breasts bared in public were not taboo, but accepted. I tended to fall along those lines. I still do.
The American girls, rather than drinking free beer and having their egos stroked, had long been swept away by men with dangerous accents and possible facial scars. We had plans to attend a show with them the next afternoon, Rage Against the Machine, and the last words I heard from them involved breakfast.
In the meantime, we had become celebrities of sorts, based on nothing else than perception and passports. I found myself the focus of attention by throngs of beautiful women. Either this was the greatest night ever or we were being set up for a huge rolling in the alley. We didn't care.
At one point, the girl that I had been dancing with said that she wanted me to teach her how to two-step, which I knew to be some sort of cowboy dance and she knew to be undeniably American. I figured I could wing it. Hell, I would do the jitterbug if I thought it was foreplay.
The DJ was more than happy to oblige with a nod and a country music staple. I got ready to dazzle them with my boot-scoot boogie, and I may have. I honestly don't recall if I danced or not. I was drunk and being seduced by a 6' Czech beauty. I remember I was prepared, but when the music started, which set-off the second all bar sing-along of the night, I may have been too busy laughing to dance. It happens.
By the time the chorus came around I felt like I was in a Coors Light commercial. We all raised our beers, and we sang our hearts out:
... the Colorado rocky mountain high
Ive seen it rainin fire in the sky
The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye
Rocky mountain high (high Colorado) rocky mountain high (high Colorado)
It was awesome.
It was also 5 in the morning.
We didn't have our guidebook with us. In fact, we had lost our map earlier and had been led through the city by the well-prepared girls from Florida. What we had was the tray liner from an earlier stop at Kentucky Fried Chicken. It showed the city and the various KFC locations in it, one of which was located a short walk from where we were staying. Everything was a short walk. Some longer than others.
Before the Colonel had a chance to guide us home we were being whisked away by the Czech girl and her friend. They had another bar they wanted to take us to. Who were we to argue?
Jon Voight fell from The Charles Bridge and it was ours to drink upon it, for that is where the bar was, on our end of that bridge, cloaked as it was in fog and intrigue.
We went inside. M, as he was prone to do, soon found himself sitting in a chair with a girl's face in his lap. In the lobby. They had no shame. I was extremely jealous.
The girl that had guided me through the streets on a string of kiss-covered whispers had suddenly become a ball of the unfun emotions. She had man issues, and my resemblance to said man was the reason that she had attached herself to me. He sounded handsome. Very handsome.
It was late. Or early. I was too drunk to care. D, however, who had made his stake by being the understanding type, took an interest. I sat at the bar and drank whiskey. The sun started to shine on the deep, brown waters of the Vltava.
A man that seemed old at the time, probably about sixty, was talking to the girl at this point, and whatever he said - it pushed her buttons. She took upset to a whole new level, and as M and his new acquaintance were standing by the door, I suggested we get the hell out of there.
We were walking in the cool morning light, M leading the way, following the trail of chicken, and the rest of us a few steps back. The girls were crying, D was soothing, and I was looking at the rapids of the river.
Suddenly it became clear that I was now the object of her anger. The girl was upset that I had not stuck up for her in the bar. I had no idea what she was talking about. Didn't she know chivalry was dead in America?
It seems that the guy that had approached her had called her a whore. A fucking whore to be exact, because she was in the company of Americans. He had offered her money and promised her a better time. Oddly, he had no words for her friend that was obviously the easy one.
"What did you want me to do?" I asked.
"Hit him," she cried. "Defend me."
I looked at the river and I turned around. I walked into the bar with a beautiful crying woman on my arm, which was usually how I left them, and came face to face with the accused as he was preparing to leave.
"Did you call her a whore?" I asked.
He looked shocked. "N-n-no!" he said, waving his hands in front of me and backing down the stairs.
The girl was behind me, screaming things like "liar!" and "hit him!"
"Did you call her a fucking whore?" I continued.
"I called her what she is," he laughed.
I punched him in the face and he fell over backwards, down a few more stairs and crashed into a table on the barroom floor. I kept walking towards him, stepping over chairs and feeling her arms grow tight around me.
When I reached him he was cowering. I bent down to grab his collar and could hear the cries of the girl behind me and the heated accusations that D was now throwing at the drunk. I paused when I heard the voice of the bartender rise above the others, and suddenly I realized where I was and what I was doing. I didn't care to test the limits of my visit.
I glanced up and my eyes met those of the man behind the bar.
"Hit him," he said in a thick accent. He mimed his best uppercut. "That guy is an asshole!"
Apparently I was still within the good graces of the city. I decided to stay there. I pulled the man up to what would have been his height, if he had let his feet touch the ground, looked him in the eyes and whispered, "fuck you," before dropping him back to the floor. I walked up the stairs.
I turned to watch as the girl and D lingered. My best friend, D, standing at 5'7, next to the beautiful crying girl, who was 6' easy, and the drunk, still on his ass with his hands waving in the air in front of his face.
D yelled a few more times, demanding an apology from the man. I don't know if he got it. He was kicking him in the stomach when I turned and walked back into the sun.
M was nowhere to be seen, and I figured he had kept walking towards the flat, or was possibly in a doorway somewhere letting the friend finish what she had started. I walked to the corner, where street meets bridge, and watched as D and the crying girl stumbled into the morning.
They stopped. She was still in a bad way and D was still sensitive. I was drunk and tired. I started up the street and found M, alone, standing in the middle of an empty intersection, slowly turning the KFC map in his hands and looking at his surroundings with the blank stare of a man that had no clue.
Minutes passed. We hadn't moved and D had not caught up. I mumbled to myself as I retraced my steps to retrieve him. He wasn't there.
What the fuck? I looked around and decided they must have gone back in the bar. I had no intention of following and walked to the edge of the bridge to pass my time watching water and dreaming of sleep.
They were in the river. She was a good distance ahead of him and they were both swimming strongly towards the middle of the river and the heavy current of old world water that flowed there.
I yelled. D stopped and looked up at me, only the top of his head visible against the shadows of city.
"She's killing herself!" he shouted, and turned to swim again.
My mind raced. This, I thought, is some crazy shit. I stripped down to my boxers and called for M, who came running around the corner and froze, tray liner in both hands. He was about forty feet away.
"Call 911!" I shouted.
He started to turn, then stopped, and waved the paper in front of him. "They don't have 911!"
I couldn't let someone die. I couldn't go home without my best friend. I saw his mother's face and me, stumbling, trying to explain how he had drown and I had stood there, arguing in my underwear in the middle of a slowly stirring city.
"Call somebody." I said, and I dove in.
D had reached her and was swimming back towards me. I met them halfway. She was unconscious, and he was slipping repeatedly beneath her weight into the embracing arms of the river.
I took her and placed her arms around me, as they had been just an hour ago. Only now there was no warmth. There was no tightness. She was cold and unresponsive.
It no longer mattered that someone had called her a whore. I no longer cared that she had chosen to spend the night crying instead of fucking. She grew heavy on my back as we swam in the water and I never took my eyes off of D's face.
If there was a way out of the river we couldn't find it. Its banks had centuries ago been grown over with bricks and cobblestones, and we found a patch against the wall beneath the street that we could place her on.
She had a pulse and the slightest of breaths. Water poured out of her mouth and ran back to the depths from which it came. She was trembling with shock and cold. We removed everything but her undergarments and rubbed our hands across her body, trying desperately to alleviate the effects of the chill she battled. We were freezing.
Sirens grew from the distance. Eventually there were voices above us. Everyone from the bar was there, even the drunk. M was looking down at us with relief and amusement. Firemen and police, all with mustaches and cigarettes, started calling to us in every language but one we understood.
Finally, a gurney of sorts was lowered. We placed the girl that cried upon it and watched as she disappeared from our lives forever.
A rope ladder was thrown down and we climbed up to a hundred faces and more questions. I remember M handing me my clothes as I watched the drunk talk to the police. He kept pointing at me.
I woke up with my head lying on a heater. It was the old kind that looked like a radiator sticking out of the wall. It was on. I only moved my head enough to turn it over and warm the other side.
I was freezing and I was in jail. M and D were sitting beside me on a bench.
The drunk walked by us. "You," he said to me. "You learn how to dive in the English Navy?"
I wasn't sure if he had already forgotten that I was American, or if the fact that my dive was closer to a belly flop was some sort of crack against the English. I ignored him.
I had assumed, as I usually did when finding myself in a police station, that we were in some sort of trouble. Thankfully that wasn't the case.
"You boys are heroes," is what they told us. They had taken us to the station to speak with an interpreter, and sometime during my sleep the entire story had come out.
Two policemen that could have passed for 14 if not for the thickness of their mustaches picked us up out front. Their squad car was at least 10 years old. There was duct tape on the door joints and a handful of air fresheners hanging from the rear-view mirror, which was also covered in duct tape.
They both turned to look at us as we sat in the backseat, smiling through the smoke of their cigarettes.
"Hey," said one. "You Americans, you like to swim, no?" They both laughed. M handed them the KFC sheet, with our location circled. They looked at it like it was the most natural thing in the world, started the car, turned on the siren, and cranked the techno. They drove us home fast, smoking and laughing, talking to us the entire time. I couldn't hear a word they said.
It had been raining most of the night. We had started the day with a boat tour around Lake Lucerne, nestled softly in the grace of the Swiss Alps. We had only been in Switzerland two days and the price of Guinness alone was enough to ensure that this day would be our last.
We needed to cut time anyway, as we had spent extra days in Prague being molested in phone booths and gently kissing girls in the open doorways of slow-moving trains as they crawled from platforms headed in the wrong direction.
Just before we left Switzerland we stood in the ruins of an old castle, trying to stay dry as the showers returned. There was a group of Canadians there, and as was oft the practice when traveling as we were, everyone started to trade stories from their respective journeys.
One of them offered up a tale he had heard. He had met some American girls in Austria who had told him about some guys they had met in Prague- three American guys, and how those guys, those three guys drunk with lust and liquor, had spent an hour defending a girl's honor, and a morning, saving her life.
We caught our train, and we slept the entire way to Barcelona.