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Welcome to the Czech Republic - Part I

An article by Joe Wiebe © All rights reserved.

Frankfurt is hot, 27ºC and it's only 11:00 a.m. It was snowing in Calgary yesterday, even though it's mid-May. Our bodies think it's the middle of the night, but three trains and a border crossing await us before we can sleep.

Ever since the Berlin Wall came down, I've been intrigued with Eastern Europe. On my whirlwind backpacking trip around Europe in 1991, I spent two days in Prague and fell in love with the city - its beautiful architecture, alluring women, and delicious beer, best in the world on all three counts as far as I'm concerned. When I left, I promised I'd return soon. Back in Canada, when Allison and I first got together a couple years later, one of my first promises was that I'd take her to Prague.

It has taken us almost ten years to get to Europe because we were never able to put together the cash. We can't really afford it even now, but we've decided that if we don't just go, we never will.

We activate our Eurail passes in the Frankfurt Bahnhof, and buy some Czech currency. Our flight from Calgary was forty-five minutes late, so we've missed our first train already. That's OK, we can still make it to the Czech Republic; we'll just have to wait two hours for the next train east. I suggest we celebrate our arrival in the true German style, and Allison agrees. At the Deutsche Bahn Lounge, I enjoy a delicious Bavarian Hefeweizen. Beer is a big part of the trip for me - our first destination en route to Prague is Plzen, birthplace of the Pilsener style of beer.

We try to relax, but the combination of sleep deprivation and excitement leaves us jittery. We're alone in the bar, which only adds to our sense of surreal displacement. After I finish my beer, we go back to the platform. An hour later, I reach for my Eurail Pass to check something ... and can't find it. I search all my pockets. Nothing. Allison's eyes widen as she realizes I've lost my train pass. Then I remember that I looked at it in the lounge. I race back to the bar. It's still empty. There, on our table, beside my foam-ringed beer glass, sits the train pass.

"Can you believe," I say to Allison upon my return, holding up the pass, "I almost lost this on our first day?" To her credit, she only smiles. I give her a kiss and thank her for not freaking out.

Our first train departs twenty minutes late (and I thought trains always ran on time in Germany), which means we get to our first transfer point with only one minute to spare. If we miss this connection, we're in for an unplanned night here in Nürnberg. Shouldering our overstuffed backpacks, we trot between platforms as quickly as we can. Seconds after we board our new train, it leaves.

As we approach Schwandorf, our transfer point for Plzen, our train stops without warning at a tiny rural station. The driver strolls over to a small building, where he chats casually with the station-master. After a few minutes, he waves auf wiedersehen and ambles down the length of our train. Finally, we begin to move again - but in reverse! We stop a few hundred metres back … and sit there. Eventually, a freight train rattles by towards Nürnberg. I guess we were in its way. Once the freight passes, we start up again - only now, we are definitely behind schedule.

Luckily, our train for the Czech Republic waits for us. It is identical to the Soviet-style train I rode on my 1991 trip, right down to the Russian signs above the doors. The seats in our compartment are so dusty it may not have been used since my last visit. We don't care. We're going to be in Plzen in a few hours!

Two border guards come by, sweaty and tired - we're the last train of the day for them. Allison smiles prettily and tries out her much-practiced Czech on them. "Dobry den," she says. Hello. Their severe faces don't crack, and when they spot the maple leaf on our passports, they grimace. It means extra work for them to process our entry visas. I feel guilty, but fight my Canadian urge to apologize - after all, we paid $80 each for those visas.

They stamp our passports brusquely and leave us alone in our compartment. We give a little cheer and kiss. We've made it! We're in the Czech Republic! Verdant farm fields roll by outside the window, shaded green with early shoots of barley that will eventually end up in the incomparable Czech beer. I can taste it already, and can't wait to get to Plzen so we can find a pub and celebrate our arrival.

The train rumbles east and we fight the urge to sleep, even though we've been awake for more than twenty-four hours straight. I didn't think to check my watch when we left Schwandorf, so I'm not sure when we should arrive in Plzen. It's getting late, and I'm worried it might be dark when we get there. We still have to find our hotel, the Penzion Plzen. According to its website, it should be just a ten or fifteen minute walk from the train station.

The sun is getting low on the horizon when the train enters a station and begins slowing down. I spot a sign with Plzen on it. "This is it," I announce. We grab our packs and head for the door. When the train creaks to a stop, Allison wrestles with the handle for a bit, but it proves too heavy for her. I reach past her and manage to wrench it open. She steps down to the platform, I hand her pack down to her ... and the train starts moving again!...

 Continue to Czech Republic - Part II...

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver freelance writer. 
For reprint permission contact the author

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