It was 1995 and my high school friend Chris and I were on a train to Prague. The buzz in the youth hostels of the era was that Prague was the place to be. It had an historic city center that compared favorably with Florence and prices that compared favorably with Kabul. Young upper middle class westerners like us were flocking there to live the high life on the money their parents gave them as graduation gifts, hoping to postpone real life as long as possible.
We’d grown tired of penny-pinching our way through Western Europe. We were sick of baguettes, cheese and cheap booze and we wanted to see at least one opera in good old sit-down seats.
We were travelling with a couple of street smart California surfer dudes in Florence. They told interesting stories and they were well equipped to deal with the Czech train conductor who saw us as an easy source of American dollars. I paid him, they didn't.
The train from Florence was to arrive at Prague around two AM. We were all fast asleep when we heard the conductor’s voice announce our impending arrival. I grabbed our trusted travel guide and opened it to the map of central Prague. I counted at least a dozen hostels or cheap hotels within 5 blocks of the station, and I picked out a couple to hit first.
The train rolled to a stop on at an empty underground platform. The four of us stood at the exit door facing our conductor.
“Praha?” I asked.
The conductor nodded and pointed to a large sign on the far wall of the station – Praha Holesovice.
We disembarked along with a couple of other riders and walked the length of the train toward the station. I think we all felt that something didn’t quite right. It was eerily quiet and dark, but we were busy praising ourselves for standing up to the corrupt conductor. As we descended, the train pulled away and we came face to face with darkness.
We had our navigation system down. Roll into a new town and walk out of the station with the guidebook map open, then find locate something identified on the map. I stood under a serviceable light at the bottom of the stairs…
“Alright so we should see a fountain right ahead of us and the street that runs to the right of…”
“Carl, look!” Chris pointed ahead of us into the cold dark nothingness that lay beyond the station.
I put the guidebook away.
For some crazy Communist reason, the international train stops at two stations in Prague. One station is in the wonderful westernizing tourist-hungry heart of Central Prague where, at this very moment, guys just like us were drinking 1 dollar martinis and sleeping with coeds from Penn State in their five dollar youth hostels. The other station is in a crumbling testament to the complete cultural failure of the Soviet experiment.
The guide book charitably called Holesovice an industrial suburb of Prague. Unfortunately, this suburb was too insecure to simply go by its own name, opting instead to lure innocent young travellers to its dark satanic mills with false pretenses.
It was nearly Minnesota cold and we weren’t going to see another train in the near future, so we started walking, navigating by the light of a crescent moon. We ambled by faceless cinder block buildings for ten minutes before a door down the street opened and let the light from inside pour out onto the street.
It was a bar, but we’re it not for the alcohol and the electric guitar screeching in the back, you would have thought it was a middle school lunch room. The walls were painted white, the lights were bright flickering fluorescents. There were long tables with cheap folding chairs. Having said all of that, it was a gem. Big tasty pilsners were a quarter a piece and a three piece chicken dinner was a dollar. This was about half of what similar items would have cost in Prague’s center city.
The patrons were very proletariat. We were definitely a novelty and everyone was glad we were there, but we found that almost no English was spoken. A pudgy middle -aged woman came over to us with a huge smile and said
She turned to one of her pudgy middle aged friend. “Ah-meh-di-cans!” The two women stood doe eyed in front of us, which was far too awkward and boring to endure, so we took our beers to the back room to watch the guitar player butcher some classic rock ‘n’ roll.
The star of the show immediately zeroed in on us.“roke un droll! Ah-meh-di-cahn roke un droll” he yelled, then strummed a loud power chord struck the rocker’s pose. We set about planning a strategy to get a few hours of shut eye before taking an early train to see the Prague that we’d actually come to see.
The bar was nowhere near closing, and it didn’t have anywhere to lay down. I was in no condition for a sleepless night.
Finally we found a patron who had a three digit English vocabulary. We asked if he had a place to stay for the night.He shook his head, but he had another idea.
“My friend is vedy reech, you stay heez place. Vedy reech!”
His rich friend wore a soiled flannel. He rambled on in Czech, and every thirty seconds or so, he made a hitchhiking gesture and made a sloppy fart sound ostensibly to indicate that he was ready to take us to his home. We were desperate, so we really had no choice but to follow him.
He led us through dreary and empty streets, occasionally fartthumbing us along. He led us to a small concrete building adjacent to one of the big faceless buildings that looked uncomfortably factorylike.
The building was indeed a factory locker room. Lockers covered all of the walls. There was a curtained toilet at one end and a side room with showers. A picnic table graced the middle of the room. The sole heat source was a small wire space heater that was good for an extra 10 degrees. There was another wealthy man lying on top of the picnic table and our patron took one of the benches. He motioned us to the floor near the space heater which was gracious enough considering the circumstance.
We needed showers. We needed sleep. We needed warmth. We definitely needed a richer patron tonight. Instead we slept on the concrete floor, fully swaddled in our winter gear, using our backpacks as pillows. To my great surprise, I feel asleep. When I came to, it was still almost completely dark. I was situated right against a bank of lockers and above me a chunky white haired Czech man was pulling out a hard hat, dressing for his shift in the whatever factory. I shook Chris to wake him up. We jumped to our feet and bolted out of this nightmare, scurried through this hellhole and hopped a train back to civilization.
I’d skip HOLEsovice If I were you.