Tuesday, January 15, 2019

7 Years and 5 Audrey Hepburns

7 Years and 5 Audrey Hepburns
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
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Hollee brought five Audrey Hepburns back from North Carolina.

On our first afternoon together in 7 years
I nailed the Audreys to her bedroom wall while
she smoked in the corner and told me how
she drove with her son and a chihuahua from Raleigh to Austin in one day,
and how America looked like a ghost town on Christmas Eve,
with six lanes of empty highway riding in from the sea to Atlanta.

I cross the Sea of Gibraltar to her kitchen, knowing
when I open the refrigerator, I’ll find her Diet Coke cans
lined up like soldiers along the door like they were 7 years before—
because there are friendships where you can wade out for miles but
remain waist-deep in shallow water,
then there are friendships where you jump in half an inch
and suddenly you’re drowning.

Last time we were together, I flew up to Cape Fear and
we drove down to Myrtle Beach and spent 2 days in the sand sucking
in our stomachs and drinking plastic cups of
orange juice and vodka from the cooler.

I remember how I fell in the ocean and didn’t stand up,
just laid there laughing in a bed of salt water, until the lifeguard appeared
and said, “ma’am you should get back on the beach until you’re sober”
and I said, “sir, I would prefer if you not call me ma’am.”
And how, at the pier, the bland twenty-something-year-old boys
bought us beer, and when we refused to share our hotel details,
they said, “You should feel lucky that young bucks like us
pay you old hags any attention.”

And how we laughed and Irish goodbyed them,
and walked a mile back to our hotel barefoot
holding our stilettos, and how we passed out on the beach
when Hollee couldn’t find the key and woke up the next morning
with sand stuck to our crow’s feet and sun tangled in our hair,
and how I laughed and said this is a very Erin-Hollee thing to do,
to book a hotel room but wake up next to the Atlantic Ocean.
And how Hollee laughed before scrambling to the nearest
vending machine to wash away the taste of sea with her trusty bottle
of sugar-free caffeine and a lit Newport cigarette.

7 years and five Audrey Hepburns later,
I told Hollee next time she drives through Atlanta and it’s
not Christmas Eve, to stop by the coke museum, they serve
diet cokes for free with the price of admission.
“Maybe we can go together,” she suggests.
“Maybe,” I agree—because we’re not spring chickens,
but it didn’t matter. we were two old hens who had found each other,
and true friendships are rare and won’t drown you
if you know how to swim—meanwhile, anywhere in America, you can
always find six lanes of empty-headed fellas ready to buy a pretty lady a beer.


-EP, 1-15-2019
Wednesday, January 9, 2019

This is Prague

This is Prague
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
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I should have known Prague wouldn’t be my kind of scene when the Trader Joe’s checkout girl —a punk rock millennial wearing the nametag “Star”—announced it was her favorite place on earth.

“A real party town!” Star exclaimed. “Makes Austin look like Lubbock. You’re gonna love it.”

Star began listing the best bars in Prague, ignoring the economy-sized bottle of pre-menopausal multivitamins in my cart that suggested I was not in the partying phase of my life.

“There’s the Hemingway, Black Angel’s, Tretter’s—oh! They serve dollar shots on Tuesdays. You should totally go.”

“Ha!” I heard my fourteen-year-old daughter laugh behind me. “Only if they serve shots of Metamucil.”

I ignored her and asked Star, “What about the crowds?”

Star laughed. “Oh yeah, it’s crowded.”

“Like how crowded? Like 6th Street on a Saturday night crowded, or like a Gay Pride Parade and 6th Street on a Saturday night crowded?”

“Uhm…like a Gay Pride Parade and a UT football game just let out and 6th Street on a Saturday night crowded.”

Shit. I bit my lip.

“It’s a great chance to meet new people,” Star added encouragingly.

Behind me, my daughter snickered. “Obviously, you don’t know my mother.”

#

Deafening bass pumps through the speakers, rattling the windows on the Uber ride from the Prague airport to our hotel. I press my palms to my ears and share a pained glance with Doug. This wasn’t the first time our Uber lift turned out to be a mobilized nightclub from hell. Either our Uber driver was the same guy who drove us around in Berlin, or European house-techno cranked at full volume was an EU mandate for Uber rides.

I look out the rattling window to the scenery flying past. It’s nine at night and Prague is shrouded in darkness, illuminated intermittently with Christmas lights tangled in trees and the soft glow from windows of cafes and restaurants. The Uber driver stops at a light, and I spot a huge Australian flag hanging low from the balcony of what looks like a frat house but was probably a Great Moravian palace presently serving as a youth hostel.

Doug waves a hand in front of me, redirecting my attention. “Prague is cheaper than the other places that we’re visiting, so I got us a nicer hotel. More bang for our buck,” he screams over an auto-tuned voice repeating, sit on my face, girl, sit on my face.

“Is it a boutique hotel?” I scream back.

Doug shakes his head. “Nah, it’s a chain. Fancy schmancy, but in an old school kind of way; not ‘trendy’—so to speak.”

Doug wasn’t lying. The lobby of the Alcron Hotel sparkled with excessive flair that seemed both elegant and classless, like something Donald Trump might conjure up under heavy sedation. Screens of brushed gold partially obscure its lobby; its floor a perfect grid of smooth, white tiles. Dark marble columns dissect the space, and to the side, tall vases of oversized flower arrangements mark the entrance to the hotel’s Michelin star restaurant. Up six levels, our spacious room greets us with mirrored walls, a king-sized bed draped in gold linen and matching gold tassels hanging low over polished oak tables.

The Alcron Hotel may not have been the hippest hotel in town, but what it lacked in trendiness, it made up for in garish luxury.

Still, being here, in the presence of such extravagance—garish or not—unnerves me. “I feel like an imposter,” I tell Doug. Our house back in South Austin was filled with my parents’ hand-me-down furniture and knick-knacks from charity shops and garage sales. I bought the generic brand of everything. I lied about my kids’ ages to get the “12 and Under” discount at Supercuts. We were decidedly middle-class; even with Doug’s fly miles spent, it would take us years to pay off this trip. We didn’t belong in a place like this.

“Erin, just relax and enjoy it,” Doug advises. “We don’t have to scrimp and save on everything.”

Yeah, just wait until we file our 2018 taxes, I want to say, but think better of it. Instead, I take his advice and relax. I’m unpacking when I realize I’m already out of clean underwear and we’re not even halfway through our trip yet. I spend the next thirty minutes washing my undies with warm water and hotel soap in the bathroom sink. By the time I exit the bathroom (Operation Clean Underwear complete), Doug is already softy snoring on top of the gold bedspread.

#

As it turns out, the Trump Hotel: Prague Edition is in a great location—just around the corner from Wenceslas Square and the National Museum—and in the morning, after a long, much-needed sleep, it becomes our first destination.

The late morning sun reveals Prague’s charm: rows of 19th century buildings nestled together, their pewter facades and Rococo plasterwork capped off with deerstalker roofs painted rustic red and Baroque flourishes along the trim. For the first minutes of our walk, Doug and I enjoy this grimy, faery tale city virtually alone.

Then we turn into Wenceslas Square and are instantly ejected back into a crowded, claustrophobic reality.

Bundled hordes of humanity walk to and fro, circling us in every direction, waves upon waves of them, like fish in a whirlpool with no exit. In surround sound, I hear the shrill voices of Americans (“Daaayvid, did we leave the passports in the hotel? Do we need to tayyke them with us? Daaayvid?”) and fast-talking eastern Europeans. Burly, chapped-face Russians elbow past in a cloud of cigarette smoke, a gaggle of Japanese teenagers following behind them, staring at their phones as they walk in somehow perfect synchronization.

Doug and I don’t need to share our dismay; I feel his and he feels mine. We decide that if we’re going to enjoy Prague, we’ll need help, and we make a beeline to a famous, historic Czech institution across the street.

Okay, maybe Starbucks isn’t Czech or historic, but it is certainly famous, and our bodies crave the caffeine. We also know that America’s favorite drug pusher accepts credit cards—a fact that no American travelling abroad should take for granted.

We order the usual—a caramel macchiato for him, a soy matcha green latte for me. I sprinkle vanilla in my cup because the matcha served at European Starbucks contains zero sweetness, and I wasn’t about to adjust my dependency on sugar, even temporarily.

Speaking of sugar, we’re waiting for our order when I glance at the display of food options—a big mistake. My mouth waters at the assortment of delectable pastries staring back at me. Lemon squares, red velvet muffins, and chocolate cannolis—a hell of an improvement from the stale bran muffins and soggy egg sandwiches offered back home. It takes every fiber of my being to remember the trouble I had buttoning my pants this morning (like trying to fit a steak into a hot dog bun), and not take the bait.

Doug and I look for a seat—an impossible mission until we discover the café’s second floor, where we fine a table warm and snug against a corner with a window overlooking the square. We get settled just in time to listen to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” for the 838th time in four days.

Five shitty Christmas songs later, the caffeinated versions of Doug and I exit the Starbucks and follow the scent of baked pies and roasting meats to the Christmas market at the square’s center. We join the throng of shoppers lined up among the market’s red tents and begin perusing the inventory.

It doesn’t take long to realize that we’re not in Germany or Denmark anymore. The booths are not craft-specific, not aiming to scratch a single cultural or culinary itch. Instead, each booth offers a miscellany of touristy kitsch identical to the booth before it: snow globes and magnets that bear Prague’s name in its native spelling; “Praha”; chocolate bars wrapped in pictures of vintage cars; hats and t-shirts with glitterized images of Prague’s most famous landmarks. It may be pretty, but there’s no craftmanship in the threads, no originality in the machine, no sense I’m taking a piece of Prague back home with me.

In the end, I buy chocolates for my son and a magnet for my mom—both of whom were turning out to be the easiest family members to shop for. Sidenote: the hardest? My stepfather, John. A chain-smoking, soccer-loving, working-class Brit, who, let’s just say, is “unappreciative” of anything and anyone that isn’t English. Over the course of this trip, whenever I’d determine an item looked John-ish (Zippos, beer koozies, ashtrays), I would immediately hear him in my head, objecting in his thick, barely discernable Midlands accent. An ashtray in Berlin—“Bloody Germans!” A cigarette lighter in Copenhagen—“Bloody Danes!” A beer mug in Prague—“Bloody Eastern Europeans!” I wasn’t even about to entertain the idea of buying him a gift in France, a country that—for reasons beknows only to him—received the lion’s share of his contempt (“Bloody Frogs!”).

Doug consults Google Maps for directions to the Old Town Square. His arm juts out, finger pointing past me. “That way,” he says. “Not too far. It won’t take us long.”

But it does take long, because walking to Old Town from Wenceslas Square means squeezing past one gazillion groups of guided walking tours, bundles of oblivious college students taking selfies, large families with straggling children, overly affectionate couples stubbornly holding hands (unwilling to break apart, at the inconvenience of other pedestrians), displaced Yankee fans, the Russian mafia, the entire 10th grade class of some high school in Missouri, and a drunk guy dressed in an oversized polar bear costume.

The crowds thicken the closer we get, bottlenecking at the Old Town entrance before spilling out into its large, medieval square. To the right, we see the gothic Our Lady before Tyn Church, with its eighty-seven-yards-high towers capped by four spires poking the cerulean sky. Beside it, the St. Nicholas Church, its creamy front façade accentuated with the blackened statues of medieval heroes.

And in front of us? The famous Astronomical Clock, a favorite hot spot of the Prague tourist scene since its debut in the 15th century.

It’s here where foot traffic comes to a screeching halt. Legs freeze, bicycles brake, baby carriages lock. Phones are extracted from purses and pockets, cameras are raised to the eye, and a flood of recording devices begin snapping away at a nearby distance, where a spouse or a family or a combination of friends pose, grinning or not grinning under the clock’s massive, adorned eye.

It’s circumventing the space between the amateur photographers and their models that proves the most infuriating part of our day so far. Each pairing seems indisposed to haste, as if under the impression that their spot is reserved, and they can take as long as needed to capture the perfect image worthy of Instagram; to hell with everyone else.

At first, Doug and I indulge this arrogance, pausing midstride whenever a fellow tourist aimed their camera in our path. After a while, however, we realize our good manners might rob us of precious daylight (not to mention sanity), and we soon become the king and queen of photobombs.

A Christmas Market is set up nearby, and I wander over and inspect it long enough to reassure myself that it’s selling the same cheap crap as the other market. Still, there’s a tent selling gluehwein, and I’m contemplating a mug when Doug takes my hand. “You’ll love this,” he promises, and leads me to a platform near the Jan Hus Memorial.

At this exalted height, my view of the square becomes a panoramic postcard of medieval beauty, and it’s hard not to be wooed and won over by this city that time has forgotten. Yes, the major tourist attractions are breathtaking—the churches, the museums, that goddamn clock—but also amazing are the little-known constructions and edifices surrounding them: the Renaissance buildings painted yellow, pink, or eggshell blue, framed with sloping Mansard roofs; the Jewish Quarter synagogues with their flying buttresses and solemn, copper copulas; the cafes and businesses with columns and pilasters adorning their entrances.

I could have come here and seen only the unheralded and still been perfectly content, I realize. Because here’s what European guide books and tour groups fail to understand about Americans—that to us, any building designed without a parking lot, a public bathroom, and an ATM is before our time, thereby rendering it ancient and worthy of our admiration.

But as I’m standing on the platform fawning over Prague’s beauty, there’s another emotion that seeps in, too—a dark, ugly bitterness. It’s unexpected, but I understand the source.

Many European cities crumbled under the weight of the second world war; capitals of once great empires reduced to mausoleums of death; their landmarks and places of worship—Coventry Cathedral in Coventry, the Brühl Palace in Warsaw, the Golden Rose Synagogue in Lviv, to name a few—burned to ashes or blasted to rubble, ravaged by the insatiable thirst of an invading enemy.

And yet, Prague endured. Why?

Because Czechoslovakia, unlike Poland or the Soviet Union, never felt the one-two punch of a Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe attack. A German Junker never nosedived through Czech clouds, delivering parcels of death. Prague’s cobblestone streets never rumbled under the weight of a Panzer armada bulldozing past, firing shells into hallways of the holy or offices of the governing, demanding an entire city to surrender or else. No. They hadn’t needed to. Czechoslovakia had let the Nazis in through the front door. The Czechs never put up a fight.

And this was their reward for their gutlessness—the most beautiful medieval city in Europe.

I can hear my father, ever the history professor, silently admonish me.

“That’s not fair…they were trying to be diplomatic…they didn’t want bloodshed…the Munich Pact was Chamberlain’s folly…and Prague was bombed in the end, by American forces. The Emmaus Monastery, Faust House—you don’t see those still standing, do you?”

My dad’s conjured-up ghost voice has a point, but the resentment still remains, and it stays with on our way to Prague’s most famous bridge.

The Charles Bridge straddles the Vltava River, linking the Lesser Town and the Old Town. According to my Google search this morning, the magnificent stone edifice was completed in 1390 and named after Charles IV.

But it’s more than a pretty face. The bridge has played a crucial role in Prague's history—first in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years' War, when the invading Swedes were halted here, then in 1744, when the Prussians met their defeat along its Bohemian sandstone surface.

Today, however, the bridge acts not as an obstruction, but a key destination for a different sort of invader. The later morning hour as brought the tourists here en masse. It’s like the scene from the Astronomical Clock, but ten times worse, and in a much more confined space.

Doug and I push our way through the crowd, pausing momentarily at the statue of St. John of Nepomuk. Now, I don’t know a thing about this St. John guy, but according to my aforementioned Google search, it’s customary for tourists to place a hand on him and make a wish. I tell Doug this, and we take turns making wishes.

As we’re leaving, I ask Doug, “What did you wish for?”

“World peace. What about you?”

I had wished everyone on the bridge would fall off and disappear into the river. “Same thing,” I say.

I come to a halt when my path is suddenly obstructed by a girl colliding into me from the other direction. This scenario has become a common one on the trip—that is, me walking a straight path and intercepting someone walking the same path but in the opposite direction. The embarrassing seconds that follow include me and the other person performing a kind of macabre dance as we attempt to untangle and get the hell out of each other’s way.

I decided last night while I was washing my undies (hand-washing your undies gives you a lot of time to think, fyi) that the next time this happened, I was just going to stand there and let the other person move first—which is what I’m doing now.

But this girl must have also had the same idea, because she doesn’t move either.

So here we, on the famous Charles Bridge, in the dumbest standoff ever, looking like assholes, like the North-going Zax and the South-going Zax, because neither one of us is willing to budge.

I’m going over my war cry in my head (Listen, bitch, you’re not going to win. I spent waaay too much time last night cleaning underwear and coming up with this line of defense) when the girl finally yields with a loud huff and moves to my side, accidentally-on-purpose nudging my ribcage as she passes. “Americans!” I hear her complain loudly to a friend who had walked on without her.

I flinch and reach my hand to my lips. How did she know I was American? Was I smiling too much? I glance at Doug.

“Shake it off,” he advices. He motions with a wave to keep moving.

We cross the bridge without further incident and make our way to the Church of the Infant Jesus of Prague, which for some reason sounds creepy to me, like there’s a withered-face baby in priest robes standing at the alter passing out bread wafers and milk bottles. But my mom, when hearing Prague was on the itinerary, insisted we go. As she tells it, when she was a child, four-hundred years ago, she lived with a group of mean nuns, and she kept an infant Jesus amulet under her pillow for protection against their fury. Because the amulet was on its last leg these days, my mom requested that I bring her back something similar.

By the time we reach the creepy baby infant church, the sky is already darkening, the three hours of winter daylight in Europe already dimming to a hazy glow. The clouds dip lower and the sky drains of birds. Doug and I enter the church and gaze at the white walls and archways long enough to say we’ve been here, we’ve seen it. Yeah, the sentiment is a tad discourteous, but such is the problem with seeing too much beauty at once; the enjoyment wanes, the appreciation reaches a tipping point. I know when I return to America and live once again among the depressing strip malls and dollar stores and Starbucks with sad breakfasts, that I will look back and wish I had studied every pane of stained glass, every Baroque molding—but at this moment, all I want is to relax in our big hotel bathtub with its fluffy gold towels and cheap body soap disguised in silver containers and celebrate my petty victory at Charles Bridge.

#

Doug and I are lounging in bed and checking our social media after a lovely dinner at a tapas restaurant when a thought occurs to me. “You know what Prague is missing?” I ask Doug. “Kate.”

Doug raises a brow. “You want Kate to join us? Just her? Won’t her husband think that’s kind of weird?”

I shake my head. “I don’t mean Kate literally; I mean like a Kate. A Prague Kate. Someone to show us around the city, give us the insider scoop. We’re seeing all these beautiful buildings and statues, but we barely know what they are.”

“Aw,” Doug says, catching on. “We could sign up for a walking tour.”

I scrunch up my nose. “Isn’t that what old people do?”

Doug shrugs. “We’re old.”

I think about the Star’s idea of the perfect Prague vacation (stay out late, get shitfaced) and how appalling it sounded to me, and decide Doug is probably right.

I open TripAdvisor and book a three-hour tour, which includes a visit to Prague Castle, a one-hour cruise, and a walk through Old Town.

#

We’re supposed to meet with our tour at eight o’clock outside the Estates Theatre, which is a ten-minute walk away, so naturally Doug makes us leave at six-thirty. “Just to be safe,” he says.

“Safe from what? Sleeping an extra hour?” I ask. He ignores me.

It’s still dark but already the throng of humanity is leaking out into the streets from hotels and coffee shops, slender European silhouettes and plumper shapes from other places moving in slow motion under a waning moon. Doug and I find the meeting spot easily, but the kiosk is still closed, its shades drawn, and the bus is absent from its designated location. We wait on a nearby bench, huddled together with cups of caffeine, and watch the slow, rising sun dilute the darkness with brushstrokes of red and copper until the sky is peach cream swirled with raspberry sorbet.

The city grows louder, the streets fill with more tourists. Our bus rolls up and brakes with a loud screech across from the kiosk. Doug and I can see from the heads poking above the seats that the bus is already full. We exchange a confused glance before boarding the bus and shuffling to the only unoccupied seats in the back.

Doug turns an accusing eye at me. “Where did everyone come from?” he asks. “How is the bus already full?”

I scroll through the confirmation email and find the answer. Sheesh. I show it to him and he rolls his eyes. It seems Doug’s early bird special picked a rotten worm; he hadn’t counted on my aversion to reading the fine print, which in this case stated that the company offers free hotel pick-up—a courtesy that everyone but yours truly had read and accepted.

“At least we saw the sunrise,” I say, flashing him a sheepish grin.

“Mmm-hmm,” Doug replies, turning to the window.

A meaty man dressed in a black coat and an Elmer Fudd hat steps onboard the bus. “Hello, I am Vladmir,” he says, “I vill be your guide.” He says something more, but it’s indecipherable, and I know right off the bat that this won’t be a one-off thing—that the majority of the next three hours will be spent decoding our tour guide. Not only is Vlad’s accent thick— not something I can blame him for, obviously—but he’s also a mumbler who can’t project his voice farther than two inches in front of him.

The driver presses hard on the accelerator and the bus lurches forward before stopping a second later at a traffic light. Vlad points to a string of what looks like important historical shit on our right. “This is the w...vich…ing,” he explains. “It…oh-four by…Czech…ic.”

The light changes and the bus turns sharply, nearly killing three pedestrians. Vlad points to another beautiful building. “Over here is the…useam. It vas built…oh-nine vin king…”

I rest my head on Doug’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” I whisper.

“It’s ok, baby boo,” Doug reassures me. “At least he’s not playing German techno.” I smile inside his coat. He doesn’t seem annoyed anymore about me screwing up the hotel pickup, which I’m thankful for. It’s going to be a silver linings kind of day, I can feel it.

It’s another ten minutes of Vlad’s indecipherable narration and our driver’s various brushes with vehicular manslaughter before the bus breaks outside the gates of Prague Castle. The bus door slides open and people slowly begin filing out.

Outside, I take inventory of my fellow tourists for the first time. As expected, the majority are elderly couples, white haired and well-insulated in thick wool coats and scarves wrapped tight and crawling up their chins, their smart sneakers squeaking along the cobblestone as they try to keep up with Vlad the Bad.

But there are families, too—moms and dads around my age walking briskly side-by-side, preoccupied in private conversation, pausing at regular intervals to look for the bored, scowling faces of their teenage children staggering behind them like reluctant zombies.

Age and unappreciative teens aside, it’s a diverse group. No nationality dominated; no specific race. We are Indian, Chinese, American, Australian, Sri Lankan, Brazilian, Viennese. We are the United Nations, but with selfie sticks and fanny bags; an international collection of dorks who had traded a potentially rewarding, independent exploration of Plague in favor of cushioned seats and manufactured heating.

We reach security check just inside the castle gate. Vlad says something I can’t understand, then motions to us and points to the different lines, which I take to mean he wants us to split up.

Our group disperses into different lines, except for an elderly woman and her pot-bellied, weary-eyed husband. “What? What is happening? What are we doing? I can’t hear a thing,” she complains in a shrill, nasally voice that can only mean she lives on the east coast—Massachusetts or New York, if I had to guess.

“We’re at a security checkpoint,” I offer. “They’re searching our bags and pockets. Just like at an airport.”

Old Lady East Coast acknowledges my helpfulness with rolling her eyes. She adjusts her coat and struts to the shortest line. Her husband shares with me a pained expression that says, “shoot me now” before following her lead.

After a thorough search by security, we enter a courtyard where Vlad waits by a large, elaborate stone fountain. He holds a black umbrella high in the air, a beacon for his lost sheep. Our tour group slowly collects around him. He counts heads. Satisfied, he tells us about the courtyard, none of which we understand. Doug and I are polite, we nod our heads, we fake it, but Old Lady East Coast is not letting him get away so easily. “What?” she screams over our heads. “I can’t hear you.”

Vlad ignores her and continues, “The cathedral…eighteen-oh-vive…the var…and vas rebuilt. Any questions?” Several people raise their hand. Vlad ignores them too. “Good, let’s valk to the cathedral.”

By “cathedral” Vlad means the St. Vitus Cathedral, which now stands before us—a colossal, gothic beauty, a medieval goddess of stone with undulating clerestory walls and blind tracery panels of buttresses towering high against the silvery morning sky.

The entrance line snakes around the corner, but it moves quickly. A guide from a different tour tells her group (in an accent we can understand) to mind their purses and wallets, there are many pickpockets inside. Doug and I heed the warning. I reorder my purse under my coat and button up; Doug switches his wallet from his back to front pocket.

We’re near the entrance when I brag to Doug, “I know a little about this cathedral from my tour books.” (and thank God for that, because Vlad is useless) “For instance, they started building it in 10th century, but it wasn’t completed until the 20th century.”

“Wow. That’s a long time. Who was in charge of building it? Your kids?” Doug asks.

“Not likely, since it was eventually finished,” I reply (with teenagers, a good sense of humor becomes a tool of survival).

The cathedral’s interior doesn’t disappoint; even seeing it amid the droves of people and in partial darkness doesn’t take away from witnessing its beauty firsthand. Vlad only gives us five minutes to look around (tight schedules—one of the cruelest cons of group tours), but I use my three-hundred seconds wisely, soaking in every stained-glass window, soaring high ceiling, and royal tomb that I can.

I hear Old Lady East Coast’s voice behind me, “I don’t know where I’m walking! Why is this cathedral so dark?”

I’m about to answer, because it’s easier to get away with murder, when I hear her husband reply, “To set the mood, honey.” He sounds exhausted.

“It’s a safety hazard if you ask me,” she sniffs.

When they walk away, I lean over to Doug and whisper, “If I’m like her at that age, please take me out to a pasture and shoot me.”

“Oh, I already decided that, baby boo,” Doug replies. “No need to ask.”

We leave the cathedral and make our way to Golden Lane, which, according to old legend and Wikipedia, was the home for alchemists who served emperor Rudolph II.

On the way, Vlad points to the Czech flag hanging over the castle. “Vin the flag is hung high…zee Czech prime minister is zee country,” he explains.

I mutter to Doug, “And when the McDonalds is open 24-hours in America, it means Donald Trump is in the country.”

Doug side eyes me. “Please don’t be controversial. There are other Americans here—some who may not be allies.” He nods toward Old Lady East Coast, who is currently using her husband as a support post so she can retie her shoes. “And by the way,” Doug adds, “I don’t want to hear his name again while we’re here. I don’t want to even think about American politics while we’re on this trip.”

“That’s white privilege,” I point out.

“Yeah, well, post it on Facebook. I’m sure your friends will have a field day,” he snaps. “I’ll get my face plastered on some faux-outrage exploitive FB page like Now This or Occupy Democrats with the tagline, ‘Texas lawyer visiting Prague Castle doesn’t want to talk about American politics! This is what white privilege looks like!’”

“Probably,” I admit.

“Ugh,” Doug groans, and we move on.

Golden Lane is a small, picturesque street with tiny, charming houses that now serve as museums and shops. I spot a lady serving gluehwein. I hand her my last Czech koruna and gulp down the hot red wine with the kind of enthusiasm that would make Starr proud.

Nearby Vlad is telling the group about the street. “Zee…gold…zientists, scholars…Franz Kafka…”

“What?” Old Lady East Coast cries out. “I can’t hear a word he’s saying.”

“He said, this is the street where Cersei Lannister threatens Little Finger in Season 2,” I reply, no longer feeling helpful.

Old Lady East Coast furrows her brow. “What?”

I’m saved from further explanation by Vlad, who pokes his umbrella in the air and tells us to follow him back to the bus. “Ve go on cruise now,” he explains.

Doug and I load into the bus first, startling our bus driver, who had been sleeping peacefully with his head on the steering wheel, probably dreaming of mowing people over.

The ride to the dock is short, and because Doug and I are seated up front, we’re the first ones to disembark from the bus and the first in line to board the ship.

We don’t board immediately. We’re waiting on stragglers. Meanwhile, angry winds coming off the Vltava stir the breeze around the shore into a winding, violent frenzy that pushes back into the river—and the river, in turn, answers with bursting, impetuous waves that rise and break on the banks around us. The cold and the smell of cold curdles the air, stabs us in vulnerable places. Doug and I nestle closer together, our teeth chattering. When the crew finally allows us to board, I can no longer feel my nose.

I begin walking up the steps to the top deck.

“Erin, are you nuts?” I hear Doug behind me. “Why are you going up? They’re serving food and drinks downstairs.”

I turn around. “They only accept cash, and we don’t have any,” I remind him (I fail to mention that I spent the last of it on gluehwein). “Please, Doug?” I beg. “I really want to get away from the others.”

“But it will be cold and wet.”

“It’s been too cold and wet for some time,” I say, exasperated. I point to my face. “Look at my nose! I look like Rudolph the fucking Reindeer. So what? Come on, we’ll be fine.”

We’re fine for approximately two minutes before I decide it’s too cold and wet. I don’t even have to see Doug’s smirk that said I told you so; I feel it on my back coming back down the steps.

We enter the lower deck to discover more bad news. Not only had my error in judgement nearly caused us our fingers and toes from frostbite, but it has also cost us a decent table—or even a bad one. All the tables are full, thus forcing Doug and me to stand in the center of the dining area like two clueless jackasses waiting for a hostess.

We’re saved by Vlad, who directs us to two chairs at a table occupied by the unhappiest-looking family on earth.

The mother’s frown deepens when I pull out my chair. The smudge of eye liner above her cheek suggests she’s been crying. “Hi,” I say. She nods before looking down and refolding her hands on the table. I glance over at her teenage kids, a boy and a girl, thinking maybe they’re friendlier, but they’re engrossed with their phones—the son (who is sitting beside me) playing a game that involves sniping unsuspecting pedestrians from a tall building, which awards him with 50 points and a “Good Job” message each time his virtual bullet hits its virtual target.

Doug tries to bond with the dad. “Cold day, isn’t it?” Doug asks with a forced laugh. “Maybe we’ll get some snow.” The dad acknowledges him with a grunt before looking away at some invisible object of interest above the window.

We sit like this in awkward silence for what feels like centuries until the boat finally jerks to life and the cruise begins. An automated voice comes over the speakers, using perfect, clipped English to describe each visual marvel as we float by it. Waiters zig-zag around the room with beverages and plates of food for the lucky customers who didn’t spend their last dollar on gluehwein. Savory aromas fill the air—thick potato soups and sizzling salted pork. A waiter stops at our table and sets plates of dumplings and sourdough bread with shaved butter in front of the unhappy family, who seem not the slightest bit less glum to see their food appear.

I turn back to the window, hoping the scenery will distract my hunger. I hear Doug’s stomach rumble beside me. A wave of guilt washes over me. “I’m sorry,” I whisper against the windowpane. Doug hears me and squeezes my hand reassuringly. His kindness only adds to my guilt. I press my forehead deeper into the glass.

Prague’s riverfront moves slowly by, its red roofs and spires split evenly on either side of the Vltava’s dark, steady currents.

Past the Charles Bridge, countless swans waddle at the shore, flapping their massive, white wings, and snapping at pieces of bread being thrown at their heads by the clumsy but well-intentioned hands of children. I’ve never seen so many swans. My eyes stay transfixed on them, drawn to their beauty and grace, and it doesn’t take long to realize these extraordinary, magical-looking creatures are complete dicks—less Swan Lake, more Showtime at the Apollo. They’re snappy, they’re temperamental. They stop eating only long enough to bite each other’s butts and chase each other back into the river. They’re the Canadian geese of Europe.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Last Day In Berlin

Last Day In Berlin
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
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Twenty years ago, I sat in an Adelaide pub with my best friend Merc. We both lived in Melbourne at the time, but she grew up in Adelaide and wanted to show me her hometown while there was still time, i.e. before I moved back to America for good.

We were knocking back Carlton Colds with an Aussie bloke, who announced midway through our third round, “I have a way of telling Americans apart from the rest of the lot.” He pointed at me and leaned in closer. “It’s the way you bloody buggers smile. You’re all gums. The lot of you. Gums and teeth.”

Since then I’ve been conscious of smiling abroad.

Since then Merc got married to a German man and had two kids. Last summer she and her family moved to Berlin. “You should visit us,” she suggested.

I mentioned it offhandedly to Doug. “You know, if we can ever afford it,” I said. No pressure.

In September Doug presented me with an itinerary. Europe at Christmas. “I cashed in my frequent flyer miles,” he said, winking.

I spent the next three months standing in front of a mirror, practicing a subtler smile.

#

A dark tapestry of clouds unspools over the Berlin sky. Doug, Merc, and I exit the train station five minutes past eight and head toward the Reichstag building, where Kate is waiting for us, her hands tucked in the pockets of her green puff coat, her lavender scarf wrapped tightly against her throat. “Follow me,” she says through a chatter of teeth, and we do. Although Kate started out as a random liberal American—one of many—that I friended on Facebook on the night of the 2016 election, she had, over the past two years, become a dear friend, and over the last two days, become an invaluable guide in a city that she has adopted as her own—first as an exchange student and later, like Merc, through marriage.

After passing through security, we make our way up the steps and through the columns of the Reichstag’s Neo-Baroque entrance—the only vestige leftover from the original structure—and walk up the spiral platform inside the dome. From here the city is a 360 panoramic of monuments that survived the second world war and buildings that were born from its ashes. A man’s voice speaks English through a headset in my ear, pointing out the more notable landmarks—the Abgeordnetenhaus, the Rotes Rathous, the German Chancellery, the embassies of other nations. Droplets of rain begin trickling in through the dome, but I hardly notice. The gentle, cold drizzle of Europe is different from the thunderstorms back home. In Texas, the heavens roared, and lightning scourged the sky like the hammer of God swinging down, bruising the earth. But the rain in Berlin enters and exits without such theatrics, and I’ve come to accept it as a frequent, almost pleasant, backdrop to our vacation.

Beneath the dome, a large roundtable of images and text recall the Reichstag’s history. Merc and I walk around the circle together. She takes a step, I take a step. The Weimer Republic, the 1933 fire, the Berlin blockade and the unification—she reads, I read. We share our reactions without speaking a word. That’s the beauty of our twenty-year friendship—the ability to communicate in complete silence.

Outside, the rain has let up and Kate leads us through the Tiergarten, down its rock paths dotted with German heroes immortalized in marble statues. We cross a busy intersection and exit onto a sloping hill where at least two thousand slabs of concrete lie arranged along a grid of cement tiles. The sight immediately unnerves me, although I don’t know why. “This is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” Kate explains. I lift my phone to take a picture. Kate continues, “Many people misuse the memorial—you see kids playing hide and seek, adults sitting on the slabs and eating lunch or talking on their phones. Someone created a Tumblr account and posted pictures of people treating the memorial so casually, but in the photos, the slabs were replaced with images of the Jews who were murdered.” Kate pauses, then adds, “The Tumblr account is down now, but when it was up…well, it made quite an impact.”

I understood. I drop my phone back in my pocket.

The four of us walk along the slabs. Kate warns us not to break away. “It’s easy to get lost,” she says, and after a few minutes, I understood why. The concrete slabs—all different in height—have a way of swallowing you whole. Suddenly I’m deep in the center and although I can still see the people passing by outside the memorial, they seem unreachable, as if existing in a parallel world that I can see but never enter. I tell Kate how I feel. She nods. “It impacts everyone differently,” she says. “But your reaction is common, I think.”

We leave the memorial and walk toward the train station. Along the way, Kate stops and points to a line of pinkish stone wedged within the sidewalk. “These stones mark the area where the wall used to be,” she explains. We take a train to Friedrichstraße station, where Eastern Germans said goodbye to visitors going back to West Germany during the Cold War. The station hosts a permanent exhibition of that era; displaying artifacts, documents, and even a recreation of the train station before the wall fell. I buy postcards and two pieces of the Berlin wall for my children, who will never appreciate it.

“Should we go to Checkpoint Charlie?” I ask. It’s only a kilometer away.

“The exhibit that we saw is much better than Checkpoint Charlie,” Merc tells me. “Less shock value. More reality, more of a human feel to it. You don’t really need to see Checkpoint Charlie after seeing this.” I take her word for it.

For lunch, Kate suggests the Clarchens Ballhaus, a famous Berlin ballroom founded in 1913 that has, according to online reviews, managed to stay mostly unchanged—a remarkable feat in a city perpetually changing.

We dine alone. Most patrons dine beside the smart wood trim and outdoor veranda downstairs, but Herr Restaurant Owner, perhaps charmed by our enthusiasm and Kate’s fluent German, has allowed us to eat in the ballroom upstairs.

The ballroom reminds me of Miss Havisham’s mansion in Great Expectations. It is a room frozen in time. Old photos show a space splendid with excess, a prized trophy of lavish showmanship; today, its charm is purely nostalgic; its beauty derides not from what it shows but what it conceals. It’s hard not to look around and imagine: what have the large, cracked mirrors along the wall seen? Whose hands have touched the peeling red paint of the entrance doors? What famous names have waltzed among its unpolished wood floors? What conversations were held under the half-lit chandeliers drooping from the gold-trimmed ceiling—what decisions were made over a plate of roasted duck and a glass of rot wein that would, ultimately, change history?

Even Kate, our Berlin expert, is impressed.

Our waiter brings our menus. Kate had opted for the German menu and looks down to read a short blurb about the restaurant’s history. “Wow,” she says, her eyes growing wide. “Josef Goebbels used to dine here.”

I study my menu. “Where does it say that?”

Kate reviews my menu, then glances at hers again. “Hmm,” she says. “It doesn’t mention it in the English menu.”

“Well, that’s a convenient oversight,” Merc quips.

Merc leaves after lunch; she has to pick her kids up from school. We say our goodbyes outside the ballroom. Doug and I promise that we wouldn’t be late coming back to her house, which is located in the Berlin suburb of Frohnau, far north of where we are now. For dinner, we’re ordering take-out from the same quintessentially German restaurant that we enjoyed on our first night in Berlin (“Potatoes to die for,” Doug says at least once an hour).

Kate has to leave soon too, but she wants us to see one last place—a Christmas Market at Gendarmenmarkt square, in the central Mitte district of Berlin.

On the way to the train station, we stop at an entrance to a building and Kate points to gold plaques plastered in the steps. One reads, “Here lived Hanna Kramer. Born 1896. Deported in 1941. Died 1942.”

Kate explains, “You’ll see these gold plaques at the entrance of any building where someone was deported to a concentration camp and murdered.” She pauses, then adds, “Sometimes it says where they died. But sometimes it doesn’t, because the location is unknown.”

A chill comes over me and I huddle close to Doug to stay warm. I had promised myself to enjoy this holiday—this “snow globe vacation” as Doug calls it—to visit Merc and the Christmas Markets and other fun places, and not get lost in Europe’s history, as I had on past trips.

But there’s really no way around it. History lives here, it breathes here, and to try and ignore it…

Well, just look at America.

We board a train. I watch Kate holding onto the rail, standing among other Berliners, her mouth upturned in a friendly smile that nevertheless is too subtle to ever be identified as American. She seems so accumulated, so content within her space. I want to ask her if she ever sits on these trains and gets lonely for America, the way I did during my five years living abroad in Australia—if there were days when even the rich culture and the socialized healthcare couldn’t silence the siren calls from the other side of the ocean.

But the train stops, and I lose my chance. We’re suddenly off again, down the street, walking against the wind and rain, not stopping until we reach Gendarmenmarkt square. We drink mugs of gluewein and wander among the white tent shops with festive gold stars at their tips. I stop to buy a bracelet for my daughter. The gluewein enters my blood and warms me over, loosening my limbs. A young couple walks by with wide, gummy smiles and I laugh when I hear them speak English with an accent I know too well.

A man on stage begins to sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Kate leans in and says, “It’s interesting watching Germans sing this song. Very intense. They put their whole bodies in it. It’s like they become the song.”

A Snow Fairy in stilts enters the crowd and begins tossing out white glitter from her feather pouch. The three of us pull out our phones and take pictures. The rain falls harder and I hear children’s laughter behind me. Doug takes my hand. His palm is warm, and I nuzzle my nose against chest. His coat smells like home, and suddenly I am where I want to be—not in the past or the future, but in the present, the in-between, my feet firmly planted in the best of both worlds.
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