I awake from a four-hour dozing, courtesy of either the heat, my significant loss of blood, or a combination of the two, just as we are nearing Prague. I can’t help but think how happy I am to be in Eastern Europe. This whole trip practically has been West, either in hemisphere or in culture. That ends, and now I don’t have to pay 10 bucks for the cheapest thing on every menu. I also don’t have to feel bad about ordering meat and potatoes. As you well know, I am capable of being an adventurous eater. But weeks of culinary exploration leave a man wanting something dense and boring. Not to mention these things tend to be cheap, and there are few things that make me happier than excessive amounts of fried potatoes and enough salt to pickle my innards. There I go rambling on again about money and my vagabond vittles. You didn’t come here to read about my love for french fries. Pay no attention to the man behind the iron curtain.
I approach my hostel, but it being 7 a.m. I assume I cannot check in yet; I buy some coffee at McDonald's, then continue north and drop into a convenience store for a strawberry-pineapple-poppy-seed pastry and a water. In the Old Town Square, the humans changing into giant generic stuffed animals look like they are being eaten by anorexic abominable snowmen. There are few tourists around to take pictures with them so early, so they start their shift when it is still cool outside. There are, however, a couple of stag parties in sequined leprechaun hats who haven’t stopped pub crawling from the night before. The two parties, the stuffed animals and the stags, express not-so-subtle amusement at each others’ existence, as the headless bears chuckle in Czech, and the stumbling Englishmen point at them, whispering to one another with groggy bright faces.
I enter the Ananas Hostel on the second floor of a shopping mall, where one might expect to see a Cinnabon, and the receptionist allows me to stow my backpack there until I check in. The hostel conducts a daily free walking tour, so I descend the stairs at ten o’clock, after brushing my teeth in the lobby bathroom, and meet the young tour guide in charge. Also a paralegal, the guide immediately demonstrates his expertise and charisma by making jokes with those waiting and asking questions about who we are, where we are from, and so on. It is clear he has been doing this awhile. Throughout the tour, he combines funny historical anecdotes, jokes, cultural observations, and local advice. It is easily the best free tour I have taken. Halfway through, our guide stops at a grocery store and advises us to get a drink, preferably a beer as it is cheaper than water, so we can stay hydrated through the heat of midday. Sure enough, when I enter the store, a bottle of beer is half the price of Bon Aqua, so I grab a bottle. In a city where it is not uncommon to see people drinking in the city square at 7 am, I feel having a beer before lunch is less egregious. And for 70 cents, who can say no?
At the tour’s conclusion, I receive a card with restaurants, points of interest, and bars to make my stay in Prague as pleasant as possible, though the page is almost entirely bars. Of the five veritable restaurants on the brochure, a self-service restaurant called “Restaurace Apetit” is billed first as an authentic, affordable option for Czech food. Part of me feels I missed out in my routine avoidance of school cafeterias in my youth, so I head there. I have never been embarrassed to eat alone, as many people dread when traveling solo. In fact, I prefer it. In middle and high school, the cafeteria was a cacophonous place where there were hardly enough seats for people. So generally I would eat in the library, against school rules, because ducking a handful of librarians was much easier than avoiding conversation at lunch tables packed with talkative teens. In a self-service restaurant, I find peace. Often the only unstructured time where I can sit and either stare off into space, or reflect on my recent wanderings, I cherish an undisturbed meal in a cafeteria where there is no waiter to disturb my solitude.
When I arrive at Restaurace Apetit, the strong smell of paprika flows from the stove and over the sneeze-guard like a riptide. More than half the tables sit empty, as it is well after the lunch rush. I order goulash, which comes with coleslaw and vacuum-sealed, steamed white bread, and I am somehow drowned in flavor by such a simple meal. The prelunch beer, along with the goulash, exhausts me, and by late afternoon I feel like laying down. First, I stop by the famous astrological clock of Prague, which our tour guide believes deserves the title of “second most overrated attraction in Europe” (after the Mona Lisa). To be honest, I had no idea the clock was a “thing,” but I definitely think the hourly puppet show evokes a much more excited reaction among the hundred-plus tourists than it deserves. And, admittedly, if I had waited any more than 3 minutes I likely would be disappointed. However, since my passing by coincides perfectly with the passing of an hour, I am satisfied.
In the hostel, I sleep soundly that night knowing that I would have the room to myself until my roommates return somewhere between the hours of two and six am. Sure enough, when I awake all of the empty beds that surrounded me when I entered the room have semi-naked, still-drunk folks snoring with arms outstretched. I am the first to leave, ten minutes before check-out. Before I leave Europe, I resolve to take part in a hostel pub crawl, though binge drinking and walking long distances are two things I try not to do in conjunction with one another.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.