Prague: Checking out of Czech

Mon June 13

An early morning in Budapest, a completely empty Keleti station. The sun streaming through the windows highlights my favorite time of day: departure time. The train for Prague leaves at 5:25 a.m. and I’ll be damned but there are people munching on onions at this hour. I can smell them.. and they are nauseating. But no more so than the constant drone of a strange language in the seats in front of me in these pre-dawn minutes. I tug on my sleeping mask, turn up the classical music on my ipod and pass out, trying not to breathe too deeply.

I wake up in time for a phone call from my friend Blanka, who will meet me at Pardubice station (land of homemade gingerbread). She has been safeguarding my monster suitcase for me while I’ve been gallivanting around the countryside. There is literally only enough time for me to hug her, shake her boyfriend’s hand, have him heave the suitcase onto the train and jump back in the car under the stern gaze of the conductor cop. I muscle my suitcase into the luggage rack and settle in for the last hour.

It’s a long ride from Budapest to Prague, but leaving in the wee hours has its benefits – we pull into the station at lunchtime and I have the whole afternoon in front of me. I splurge for a cab; I’m not dragging this suitcase anywhere I don’t have to. I check into my hotel and do the most logical thing: take a nap. What? I’m still Spanish.

My afternoon post-siesta is spent wandering the streets and photographing both old city and new. I can’t get enough of the skyline over the Charles Bridge and take the same photo, over and over. I head toward the Globe Café, an expat bookstore and delicious lunch venue. I am ready to trade in two books and pick up two more for the long way home — I Was Told There’d be Cake and the Curious Incident for The Reader and The Einstein Girl. I read the last few pages of the Curious Incident with my Chicken Tandoori panini and the waiter eyes the Cake title saying, “Me too!”

One full day in Europe to go. Is this for real?

Tue June 14

Today is for the Prague Castle, and to squeeze the last bit of Czechness out of the city. The castle is magnificent and full of tourists. I wonder if I am in fact in China, not Czech. Either way, I cannot understand the language. I follow my nose to a bakery and take advantage of the recently vacated seat outside to cozy up to the sweet bread vendor. Trdelník is a delicious confection made of almonds, sugar and magic. It is heated over an open flame on a metal cylinder, and served warm into your waiting hand. I am torn between requesting the recipe, asking if I can try it myself and eating another one.

I buy earrings from a vendor on the Charles Bridge and listen to the Bridge Band – a rag tag group of older gentlemen singing songs in the sunshine. My lunch is Thai and delicious – my efforts to find Czech food satisfied after this morning’s treat. I take the furnicular up to Petrin Hill and decline the climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower look alike. Of course there are gardens here, and roses for days, but not nearly enough foliage to hide the couples making out on the benches. I hop the tram again and head for Letna Park where I complete both my workout and my sightseeing tour with a serious set of steps. Instead of being rewarded by the infamous giant metronome at the top of the hill, I spy scaffolding and a mess of construction.

A perfect cafe latte and a hearty slice of tiramisu are my last meal, and I spend my last conversation interrogating a British expat about whether or not his Kindle matches up to my book (it doesn’t). A thunderstorm sweeps in to accentuate my argument and delays my packing a bit longer. Why do I have to meet the nice guy on my last day here? I make a break for it when the clouds clear and have my bags packed and ready for airline arguments by 10 pm. My dreams are devoid of stars and stripes but full of clocks, alarms and time. This is one flight I cannot miss.

Wed June 15

The hotel offers me an early breakfast, and my taxi driver is 15 minutes late. When he finally shows up we head to the airport with nothing to say to each other. The Czech radio announcers interrupt the American pop songs and start entertaining callers which have my cab driver laughing hysterically. I miss my Spanish taxistas in this moment, and I miss my second language.

There are three flights with my name on it today. Prague to London, London to Iceland and Iceland to Newark. I repack my bags in London to satisfy the 20kg weight limit and have a terrifying moment where a stranger leaves her red duffel bag behind and I am interrogated by an airport official. (to me) Is that your bag? No. (to the other guy) Is that your bag? No. (to me) Did she tell you to watch her bag? No. Ok. With a lingering look at the bag he actually backs away slowly and starts off in the wake of this mysterious girl. I look at the bag and at the other guy and we corral our luggage and relocate. I don’t have time for bombs today.

We are delayed by an hour and I feel like my worst nightmare may come true. Will I miss my connection to Newark? to America? Land of the Free and Home of the Pop-tarts? Over my dead body. Turns out I have no need to worry because when we land in Iceland and disembark, rush through customs (twice) and spit back out into the waiting room .. I discover we are boarding the same plane we just left. Thanks, Iceland Express. Even if your plane is super cool with its comic book characters and a skull and crossbones on the engine next to my window.

I get the row of seats all to myself on this endless 5.5 hour flight, but what I don’t get is dinner. Cruel and unusual for the folks that did not pick up a sandwich and a Cadbury bar (ok, two) at London Gatwick. Everything at the Iceland airport is closed .. we may as well have landed directly on the volcano. Who will pay for a sandwich on this flight? Not this blonde.

But you know what? My mom has dinner waiting for me in the car. A peanut butter sandwich, Pringles and chocolate milk. This, is the meal of champions and my meal of choice for traveling Route 78 West after a long transatlantic flight. After baggage claim and customs, I am more than happy to walk down the corridor to the “Kelly Marie Holland” sign my mom made on the computer. I get hugs and my Dad gets my luggage. An hour later we are home and I’m tired. It’s almost midnight here and therefore almost 6am Central European Summer Time. All I have to do is look at my bed and I’m asleep.

With my head on the pillow and my mom in the doorway, I smile. You can’t argue with Dorothy – there’s no place like home.

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