Berlin to Prague; Giant bills from the ATM; Language issues

We took the train to the Czech Republic in the middle of the day after saying goodbye to Orlinto, Larissa and Jens. Our first-class rail passes allowed us to skip the ticket queue and go to the first-class line, but didn’t allow us access to the first-class lounge. Neither fish nor fowl, it seems. We discovered in the queue that our passes don’t cover travel in the Czech Republic, as we’d assumed, and so we had free travel to the border and had to pay for the balance of the trip to Prague (around €25 each). Crossing the border from Germany into Czech, we noticed an immediate deterioration in the tracks and train stations, but a marked improvement in the scenery. For most of the trip to Prague the tracks were paced on the left by a calm river and towering cliffs. Occasionally we’d see climbers on the rocks, but otherwise the country was oddly deserted.

We arrived in Prague around 5pm at the Holosovice train station. It was run-down and covered in graffiti, and the air was thick with cigarette smoke. There were huge crowds of people and long queues of backpackers at the station’s two ATMs, so we went through a tunnel and out to the street, hoping to find one there. We didn’t, but we did find the subway station. I ran back into the station to join the queue, leaving Sheryl out with the packs. I’d been using Euros for so long that I found it hard to wrap my head around a new exchange rate, and had to convert Czech korunas (crowns) to Canadian dollars and then to Euros. The exchange rate at the time was 14Kč to one Canadian dollar, so doing some quick math, we’d both decided to withdraw 2000Kč. Imagine my surprise when the machine churned and clanked and disgorged a single 2000Kč bill. And I thought $50 bills from ATMs back home were annoying - this was the equivalent of about a $125 bill! What was I supposed to do with that? Thinking quickly, I withdrew 2200Kč for Sheryl instead of 2000, thinking that at least this would give us one small bill to use to buy subway tickets. Alas, my quick thinking was wasted, because the ticket machines only took coins. I had to try out my nonexistent Czech at the ticket counter and asked for “dvá, prosim” only to be told with the aid of much pantomime that there were two kinds of tickets - one which allowed transfers, was good for 75 minutes of travel and cost 26Kč, and the other which was good only for five subway stops and 20 minutes which cost 18Kč. We only had to go two stops so I opted for the cheaper ticket.

We got lost almost immediately on exiting the subway - or not precisely lost, really. We knew were we were, we just didn’t know which direction to go. We were just off the edge of the map in our guidebook, so we didn’t see any names we recognized. A helpful Czech man took the time, after presenting flowers to his girlfriend, to ask her for directions for us. The hostel turned out to be embarrassingly close - we only needed to turn one corner and we’d have seen it. It looked dodgy, with its Playboy-style portrait of three topless women in the front lobby and its signs warning guests not to throw bottles off the balconies. The rooms were decent and clean-ish, though, and it was one of the cheapest places in Prague.

The weather was wet, though not actually raining, and chilly. We wandered a bit, taking in some of the historical buildings - a tower and a theatre decorated with gold leaf - and Sheryl saw an advertisement for one of Prague’s famous black-light theatres. We both wanted to go, since we love that sort of thing. There was a performance of Goethe’s Faust that I thought would make fantastic black-light material, but the prices were sky-high. 650Kč for a single ticket (almost CAD$50) is out of a backpacker’s reach. Sadly, no one came along with a 50% discount coupon as had happened in Berlin at Legoland, so we shuffled dejectedly away. Theis scene was repeated outside one of Prague’s equally famous marionette theatres.

We did see a (free) open-air exhibition of prints of animals and bugs and things, with an ecological-protection theme, curated by the photographer responsible for the Earth from Above body of work, Yann Arthus-Bertrand - quite lovely.

The Czech written language looks completely unpronounceable at first glance, but I began to get the hang of sounding the words out silently surprisingly quickly. The English letter c is pronounced ts, unless it has a háček accent over it (č) in which case it’s ch as in chair. Similarly for the other accented characters like z (an English z) and ž (zh as in pleasure). The only difficult ones to remember are e, ě, and é (e like in bet, ye and air, respectively) - and of course ř (rzh). It looks hideous, but even words like tábořiště (campground) felt oddly natural to my mouth.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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