I had a bit of a hiccup getting out of Prague. It was all my own fault, of course, but I felt like maybe I had a fine film of Kafka dust all over me that attracted a series of obstacles to getting out, the kind that each time I overcame one, another one appeared. Like Prague was going to stick it to me and say, “HA! You think you’re so smart, well, you can’t outsmart Prague.”
I had released Kurt from the obligation of taking me back to the train station earlier in the day. I figured I’d been out and about enough, I could find my way alone. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that leaving him behind may have actually saved me. Because if he had realized the first thing I had done wrong, we probably couldn’t have fixed it. As it was, I bumbled along in the same manner of my entire Czech experience: an unseen hand guiding me through while simultaneously slapping me the entire way.
I had left enough time to get to the station. I even had time to stop and get one final, perfect souvenir. Everything seemed just fine when I left my apartment, allowing 45 minutes to make a fifteen minute journey.
Down to the tram stop, no idea how long it would take for the #12 to come. A #22, another #22, and then finally after about ten minutes, there was the #12. I hopped on. We lurched off. And after I’d been sitting for a bit, clearing my head, I tried to picture what the Holesovice station had looked like. Could I see the train station from the tram station? It occurred to me that I’d forgotten enough details to be sure of when to get off.
After about ten minutes on the tram, I looked out the window and saw a structure that looked like the train station. I hopped off at the next stop with my really heavy bag, looked up at the sign, and suddenly realized I might not actually be where I thought I was. I said to a woman standing at the station, “Holesovice?” She chattered back words that I didn’t understand but in a tone that I definitely did. I quickly turned around and grabbed my bag and threw it back on the tram and hopped back up. *Whew!* I had no time to walk or wait for another tram. The next station clearly said “Holesovice” and I got off the tram with relief. I even had a half hour before my train came. This was working out pretty well.
Found my way, with slight difficulty, to the platforms. Had no idea which platform was mine. After a bit I found a porter who spoke limited English and showed him my ticket. He seemed puzzled, but then said, “AH! Yes, platform 2, you go on to Vienna and change trains there. Your car is very very end of train, where paper numbers stop, you understand?” I didn’t, but nodded. I’d figure it out.
My ticket (written entirely in German) gave a departure time of 5:16. The platform said the departure time for the next train was 5:17. I figured the train must be slightly late, as it was the only German-bound train listed. And then at 5pm an old, rickety train pulled up to the station. I showed my ticket to the young attendant, who also seemed very puzzled by it, but indicated that I get on. So I did, of course. Doesn’t one always get on a train fifteen minutes early? It seemed a bit wrong but since the sign hadn’t listed an earlier train, I figured we’d sit for awhile, like we do in Milwaukee. The young attendant got on behind me and flagged the train to start moving (uh-oh!), and then told me that I was to take this train to the main central station and change trains there, as that was where my ticket was originating from, anyway.
I was happy that old rickety train wasn’t the one I would be spending the next 14 hours, anyway. I had made a major, major error, but somehow I’d bumbled my way onto the one train that could fix it. This was going to work out. I had 15 minutes to spare, no problem.
Except it was a loooong way to the central station, and time was ticking away.
By the time we stopped at the station, I had four minutes to make my connection and I had no idea what platform my train was leaving from. I ran down the platform to a nice looking train, but it wasn’t mine. I saw stairs. I flew down them, my bag banging and flying behind me. I turned left, ran underground, looked up the openings to the platforms looking for my train. Two or three openings down I saw “Salzburg.” Ran up the stairs, dragging my bag, which wanted to get caught on each step, behind me. I didn’t care if the wheels fell off, that bag was not going to slow me down. Got to the top, was pretty sure it was my train but knew that my car was “very very end of train.” I ran. I ran so hard my lungs felt like they were going to explode. Ran past what looked like first class, got to the middle of the train and a woman looking out the train window said something to me in German that sounded a lot like, “You can get on this car here. This is your car.” I wondered how she knew which car was mine, but I figured I needed to get on that train soon, so I jumped on.
I collapsed into an empty cabin and tried to catch my breath. I looked around. The seats were old red vinyl, like the seats of my grade school school bus in the early 70s, already a decade old. There was no air conditioning, no shades on the windows. People hung their heads out of open windows. The train started moving and I realized that what the German woman had probably actually said was, “you’d better get on this train right now or it will leave you behind!”
I started coughing. I needed water, but all I had with me was “coffee cola”, a drink I had picked up in Prague out of sheer curiosity. It was awful, like prepackaged sweetened iced coffee, and did nothing for my cough. I saw a guy with a drink cart coming down the aisle. He had two bottles of water on his cart. But by the time he got to me, both waters were gone, and I had to buy a lemon soda.
I sat back and considered 14 hours in this space, and felt overcome by a stifling oppression. This wasn’t even my cabin, but I was sure it would look exactly the same. Mine would surely have five other people in it, where would me and my ginormous bag even fit? I didn’t even know where my car was. Somewhere far, far away, “where the paper numbers stop.” I got up and opened the door between cars. The platform that joined one car to another bounced and shimmied, you could see the ground flying past through huge gaps along the sides. I couldn’t drag my bag through that. It terrified me.
So I just went back to my little empty cabin and decided to wait for the ticket man to come by and kick me out. Until then, this was going to be my space, even if I had to occupy it all the way to Zurich. My dirty, hot, ancient vinyl space. Fourteen hours of this, sun blazing, hanging my head out the window to stay cool, trapped in a Communist-era cabin by that bouncing corridor of certain death.
Good thing the ticket man came by and made me leave. Turns out that car disconnected and went on to Budapest.
To make a long story a little bit shorter, I finally conquered the corridor of death and found my way to my car and my cabin. It was SO much nicer, with cloth seats and window covers and a thin little stream of air conditioning. It was occupied by two sleeping people on the top berths, and two friendly American ex-pats from Prague with whom I shared many amazingly coincidental things in common. They had been to the Prague Fringe. They had seen 26 shows there, including ours. We had things in common in our daily lives, in our respective histories, as well. An hour out of Prague, my spirits were back and I was entirely ready for the next phase of my journey.
Which contained yet another coincidental surprise.
The expats and I talked for five hours, until it was time to sleep. I took off down the hallway to brush my teeth in the bathroom. As I passed the cabin next to mine, all of a sudden I heard someone yell, “KELLY!” I stopped, thinking it just a coincidence that perhaps there was someone in the neighboring cabin named Kelly. I went back and looked in.
And there was “Dr. Brown” from the Prague Fringe Festival, there on the top bunk.
I’ll condense this story now, as it’s already long enough. Dr. Brown and I had coffee at the Zurich train station in the morning, and then he took off on an early train to Milan. I wandered through Zurich for a few hours, caught my own train to Milan, sat amazed through the Alps, found my way to my hotel in Milan, which is another story of its own.
And here I am. I’ve got another three days to collect stories and then I’m home again.