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Feb. 17, 2020 | Monday
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Hometown Traveller: Prague – If our friends could just see us now
Prague’s main train station. (Wikimedia Commons)

Graham McMillan

Special to The Lake Report

Welcome to Prague (again).

Well there’s travelling and then there’s travelling. The former is ticking off the sights, sipping cappuccino at quaint sidewalk cafes, and writing clever emails and postcards to your friends back home designed to inspire envy and jealousy.

The latter is all the above, but with just a touch of reality interspersed.

Take for example, our arrival in the early morning drizzle at the central train station in Prague. Somewhat grumpy from being abruptly awakened at 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. for passport checks and too-early wake-up calls, and still in a semi-coma from a sleep-inducing cold remedy, we staggered down the gangway to the station’s cavernous center. There we searched vainly for a friendly agent, a street sign in English, or a helpful passerby. We exchanged a few Euros into Czech crowns at onerous train station rates, and stumbled out into the mist beyond.

On the phone in our living room back home, the hotel agent had advised me to take the #9 tram, go a few stops, and get off at the Andel station. Couldn’t be easier, she assured me. I had duly jotted these details on a small slip of paper. Except for the Andel station bit, which for some reason hadn’t seemed that important at the time. After a brief search, we spotted a tram line, and as luck would have it, tram #9 was just pulling up. I kicked and punched my way on board the seriously overcrowded vehicle, with our heavy suitcases in tow. Being a few steps behind me, my wife was still outside as the doors began closing. To her credit, she remained calm, as I issued instructions to her through my pursed lips, which were still protruding outside the closed doors. Ultimately the driver relented and opened the door just long enough to let her board.

Now with several seconds to make up on its schedule, the tram lurched forward just as I was arranging our suitcases between my legs, flinging me headlong across the laps of the first row of passengers. They appeared very understanding, and muttered kindly words and phrases to me and each other, I think.

Now much the wiser in the ways of trams, I grasped the rail with one hand, steadied our luggage with my feet, and with my free hand began fishing for the hotel directions, by now crumpled into a small ball in an obscure pocket. Triumphant at last, I shared this document with several locals who did their best to ignore me, until one kindly advised me that this particular #9 tram was speeding in the opposite direction from our hotel.

As we tumbled from the tram at the first stop (or were we pushed?), we felt fortunate indeed. True, we were now standing in a ghetto with tough-looking kids greedily eyeing our luggage. But we had ridden the tram with no ticket and hadn’t been apprehended. Furthermore, there was a tobacco agent nearby who could sell us the tickets we needed for the next leg of our journey.

After just twenty minutes standing cheerily in the morning drizzle, another tram clanged toward us, this one hopefully heading in the right direction. It was even more crowded than the first, but casting caution to the winds we leaped on, and began peppering innocent commuters with questions about our hotel’s location. This was entirely fruitless, but it did make us feel somehow more in control of our destiny.

For the uninitiated, place names in Prague can be intimidating. The typical tram stop name is an alphabet soup of misplaced consonants and vowels. What was our stop again? Was it Masarykova Nadrazi? Malostranski Namesti? Sidliste Cerveny Vrch? I grew confused.

At last I noticed a name on a tram stop that I thought looked familiar. We disembarked and stood blinking for a few moments, until someone took the paper from my hand and disappeared into the crowd. When all hope was lost, he somehow miraculously reappeared and explained in hand gestures and broken English that we needed to board another tram to go a dozen stops further to the Andel station.

The next tram was less crowded, and much more high tech, with an LED screen and a computer voice reading out the name of each stop, and the one after that. This brilliant concession to the new world order was apparently only semi-automatic; the duty of updating the screen fell on the unshaven and disheveled tram driver. This realization dawned on us simultaneously, as I watched “ANDEL” scroll lazily across the screen at the very moment my wife noticed the same word fly past the tram window. The next stop was about a mile and a half, which we sat through in a glum and stony silence. The return trip to the Andel station seemed much longer, given the hostile and recriminating sidelong glances we had begun to exchange with one another.

By now, all that kept us going was the thought of the welcoming hot shower and cozy bed that momentarily awaited us. The hotel clerk was pleasant but firm as she assured us that our reservation was on file, but check-in could not possibly happen before noon. It was now 9:30 a.m.

As we retreated sullenly to opposite corners of the hotel lobby for the remainder of the morning, I thought to myself, “Ah, if our friends could just see us now...”

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