It was just a gray Thursday morning. The last time i went out was New Year's Day, and before that i don't even remember. My first 2.5 years in Berlin were all about clubbing. I practically lived at Katerholzig/Kater Blau. Then i became a manager, and i quit smoking, and i cut back on drinking, and i turned vegan, and i started walking to work, and the riot police occupied my neighborhood, and Brexit happened.
And Brexit happened. That really turned my life upside down. It was the tipping point.
So i took the train south on that nondescript Thursday, dozed through the relentless dreariness that is rural East Germany, whizzed through Dresden, then past some hillbilly towns on the border, and hello Czech Republic. Never been, which is perhaps odd because - like Poland - it's closer to Berlin than most of the "famous" places in Germany.
It was surprising to me how much more built up the place was, compared to East Germany. The DDR must have been a real economic wasteland. Straight across the border there are high-rises and towns that feel like people actually live in them, even if they do look a bit shabby. I shared the cabin for a while with a tough-looking older man with tattoos behind his ears, his gray mullet curling down to obscure the text. Tobacco and cheap cologne. Then a pair of talkative young girls heading into the big smoke. Spoken Czech sounds like dozens of tiny explosions, fuzzy wuzzy fireworks.
I came to Prague with a bit of apprehension. I know precisely zero about the city other than that all my jet-set colleagues who check off weekends in European capitals like it's a competition think that it's great. Oh, and British lads go there to get hammered. Neither of those things are a shining endorsement.
In my mind's eye i was expecting an embryonic Propast - a featured location in the computer game Dreamfall Chapters. Much like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the game is set in a far future Prague, but - unlike Deus Ex - it doesn't portray the city as a cookie-cutter European town. There are hovering trains and skyscrapers and screens everywhere. There are punks and neo-Communists and it's wildly multicultural. There's a souk and a Chinatown and it looks like exactly the kind of place i want to live. The kind of place i imagined Istanbul would become when i visited it for those two brief days back in 2013, before Erdoğan's latest crackdowns.
Unfortunately, present-day Prague is more of a cookie-cutter European town. I was pretty disappointed to walk to my hotel and realize it was just Vienna redux. Or, you know, every other European town where the rich decided to rococo the fuck out of every façade just to take an especially conspicuous dump on the heads of the proletariat. Now those façades are gussied up and sold to working class tourists for photo-ops. Yes, like Vienna, it's basically the innards of The Venetian Las Vegas vomited out somewhere where actual rich people and artists once lived, and thus ostensibly higher brow.
Can ya hear my eye-roll from over there?
Good. But how could it just be the same old guff and still inspire the amazing depiction of Dreamfall Chapters? I am trying to find out. I figured a good place to start would be booking my stay in a "botel" - a boat hotel moored permanently on the river. Yes, it is tacky as all hell, but one of the locations in Dreamfall Chapters is a houseboat in Chinatown, which is along the water. Present day Prague doesn't appear to have a Chinatown, but walking along the water and seeing all the wasted space, you can see how riverside markets and stalls could develop. If Europe fell, if cars became extinct, if, if. Today i discovered a hint of a Little Saigon marketplace close to a metro station that had potential.
Last night was less successful. I basically just wandered from the central station to my botel a few miles away, and then walked up and down the riverfront till i found a vegan restaurant - a Loving Hut, of course. On my way back to the botel i looked around for a local bar in a fabulously un-exotic area surrounded by shopping malls and KFC and McDonalds. I found a little dive bar playing godawful rock music where a bunch of very rowdy Czech folks were enjoying after-work drinks. I enjoyed along with them.
I woke up with a hangover but pushed myself out for a more serious walk, first to get lunch, then to explore the castle up on the hill and all of that old town area i had plodded through with my bags yesterday. (I am not really backpacking just yet - i have a second bag i am dragging along with all the shit i need to leave at my dad's place.) Yeah, old town Prague is just what you would expect. Frou-frou buildings and lots of tourists taking photos of them. Overpriced restaurants and generic bars full of loutish Brits valiantly trying to ruin my country's reputation. (Failing, btw, since Brexit has already flushed our reputation as far down the toilet as it can go. Once i leave Schengen i will present only as a Canadian to avoid the shame.)
But hey, why shouldn't the tourists enjoy themselves? Cheap beer is awesome. And ye olde Europeane buildinges are quaint and charming and all that rot. I'd ogle that ostentatiousness too if i didn't find wading through dozens of tour groups so exhausting. So i ducked into a bánh mì place for a solid and cheap vegan-ish feed - the Vietnamese are civilizing this city when it comes to cuisine - and then left the hordes to their beer swilling antics. I did climb the hill to see the castle, because castles rock. It rocked less when i realized you had to pay to see most of it, but the walk was nice. I wanted to light a candle and say a prayer in the cathedral, but the yammering crowds gave it more the feel of a shopping mall than a place of worship, so i'll save my stab at being a good Christian for another day.
Sigh. Tourists. I think every tourist hates other tourists, just like every gentrifier hates other gentrifiers. I am under no illusions. I am as ignorant as every other dork who rolled out of the trans-Europe express with a fist full of Euros and few days to kill. Fortunately i am less interested in visiting the major sights. Anyone who is on my Facebook and has seen my urban travel photos of the past 5 years knows that the vast majority of them are backs of buildings. Semi-industrial areas. Alleyways. Graffiti. Interesting colors and lines. Could be anywhere, but i was there. I like the quiet places in between.
I haven't found many places in between here. Yet. I still have tonight, and all day tomorrow. Or perhaps i will just stay on my botel and read. There is no wifi. That's part of going on this journey, right? To get away from it all. Anonymity in strange cities. Getting lost in the cracks. Imagining what could be. Forgetting what is.
This is day two of freedom.