The train to Prague whirled us full tilt in the direction of the western edge of the Slavic world.
I had been given a tip before we boarded the train at Berlin’s Hauptbanhof to sit on the left hand side. “You’ll thank me when you get to the Elba” the passing passenger, a stranger on the platform told me.
On the train I had found us an empty compartment, felt pleased, closed the doors on the rest of the Czech Rail train. Loaded the luggage into the rack above us. Spread out.
Then two young Chinese men entered. Told me with a steely but exquisitely polite manner that this was their carriage. They showed me their reservations. I scanned it frantically for a mistake.
“But why does the carriage say it is free? There are no reservation notices on the seats…” I threw a desperate hand round at the empty grey-clothed chairs.
“Perhaps this is only your problem? Perhaps, I’m thinking, it is not ours…” said one of the Chinese. Smiling cordially.
This only infuriated me more. I asked to see their, perfectly valid, reservation again.
“Yes, I think this is time you go now…” said the other Chinese, opening the sliding door, indicating the direction of rest of the train to us. “Many thanks to you” he said, closing his eyes, a slight bow of the head.
I bundled the bags out. Impotent rage gushing through my veins.
Later, while the two Chinese took a trip to the buffet car I watched a large family of Venezuelans – fat mother, grandmother, grandfather, kids, endless bags and bundles – take up occupancy in the Chinese’s compartment. I cheered up.
As I strolled up and down the train later in the journey – the third most popular rail journey in Europe, so someone told me – I looked in the carriage at the two miserable young men cramped into the corner as the Venezuleans had exploded into every part of the compartment: laying on spread rugs, baskets of food open, kids climbing up one of the Chinese, the old man playing an untuned guitar.
We were pointed due south.
Through the plains between Berlin and Dresden.
Slashes of great deep greens sitting on lighter greens in the fields on either side. Gigantic hares that I had originally mistook for foxes or even small deer. Neatly chopped and stacked pyramids of logs. Abandoned old ‘gast hoffs’ sliding by the window, and the East German home-like allotments – smoke risings from chimneys on old sheds.
A vast V of migrating birds headed south with us, flying high above.
The train carriages were older than the German or Dutch counterparts that we’d been travelling on.
Me, and my travelling Passepartout, made our way to the buffet car.
Nicely old fashioned. Lamps on the table, table cloths. Staffed by a Czech man and woman team in uniforms and peaked hats, sat upright in chairs at the back, eagle-eyeing everyone, poised, ready to serve.
No table was free.
One table for two was taken up by a heavy-set, dark man, a spread of beer mugs in front of him. Another table for two was taken just by a blonde lady reading a novel.
We asked if they could perhaps sit together, so we could have a table too. The prettily made-up young woman smiled and, slightly awkwardly, joined the man at his table. Her only luggage a ukulele.
We hit the river Elbe.
The passing stranger on the platform back in Berlin was right, the view from the left of the train was the view to have. While the right-hand side only really gives a close-up look of rising green hills, from the left the whole swoop of the river is open to you.
The river turned and coiled underneath the train window. High rocky cliffs on the other side of the bank. The first really great view of the journey. The landscape bursting into life.
Behind us was a persistent cackle of laughter.
Every few minute or so there would be a great stab piercing the air. A peal of glee. Irritated, I went to investigate.
In the rather dark kitchen – a small, sad, leaning, purple Christmas tree with mangy string tinsel sat on the counter – a girl with bright red dyed-hair was hunched over pots on a cooker, her back to me, facing the wall, in her slightly too tight rail uniform.
She kept throwing her head back with a howl of laughter. She turned to look at me. She looked drunk.
Trapped laughter fought its way out of her nose as she looked at me. Then suddenly the head of a spotty skinned young man, in square metal rimmed glasses, rose from round her legs somewhere below the counter.
He straightened his glasses, looked a little dazed at seeing me. The girl, biting her lip, continued to make light laughing whimpering sounds.
I retook my seat.
We rolled into Dresden. Soundtracked by continuing hoots from the kitchens.
The black gothic spires pointed up from the city, like reproachful finger as I looked out and thought of the flames and ruination of this place during the war.
We pulled in to the magnificent theatre of a station.
The three massive, circular iron and glass rolls of roof above us – clean and restored, contrasting with the dark soot in the imposing brick walls.
A statue representing freedom on her chariot overlooked our train as I watched the two strangers we had earlier moved, to join each other on a table, get off the train.
They were chatting to each other, as I had noticed they had done since we put them together.
I then saw with a sharp shock the large, dark, rough-looking man put his hand out to the girl – her ukulele slung over her shoulder on her back. After a pause, as she thought, looking down to her left at the offered hand, she took it.
I craned to look as they walked down the platform, the man reaching his arm round her waist. I pushed my head into the window, squashing my nose into the glass, till they were out of sight.
I looked over at Passepartout who was still busy reading. My brow knitted, I couldn’t really believe what I’d seen. I opened my mouth to tell her. She looked up, gave a quizzical look.
I couldn’t think even how to begin. And just shook my head.
There was a long wait at Dresden station.
I stepped out and watched the large red German engine being changed for a smaller, corrugated metal blue Czech one. The railway workers in their blue jump suits getting under the train disconnecting and connecting railway couplings and buffers.
I noted that it was only me and a collection of middle aged men who had come to the end of the platform to stand and gawp at this type of performance art. I re-joined Passepartout.
The buffet carriage emptied out as we headed out of Germany. The German landscape too had one last splutter of sweet, ginger-bread homes huddled into the rocks by the Elbe, before we passed over the border into the Czech Republic.
The mist suddenly descended on the tops of the sun-lit high cliffs I’d been watching all along the German river. Heavy industrial factories started to fill the window.
It was just us and the two serving team in the carriage. And a large greying-blonde middle aged lady steadily drinking large glasses of beer, one after the other.
I asked the waitress – in her heavy green uniform, powerful masculine face, if I will find the Czech Republic different to Germany.
I only asked to make conversation. I imagined she’d say of course her home country was better than the one we’d just left behind. And didn’t really believe she’d have much of an interest either way.
Děčín, the first town in the Czech Republic came and went. The waitress still telling me how much better Germany was than her country. “So, so much friendlier. You cannot believe…”
I asked the strong-looking middle aged lady passenger, who was attacking her second plate of 6 eggs arranged like a clock around her plate, ordering another mug of beer. Did she think Germany was a more friendly place than the Czech Republic?
“Yes I am from the Czech Republic…”
Yes, but do you think the people are less friendly than the Germans?
“Yes, I speak German.”
No, no. Do you think it is a friendly country?
THE CZECHS! ARE THEY NOT VERY FRIENDLY?!
“A little Spanish, a little French…”
I left her to her eggs and beer.
The thick, robust waitress continued to talk at me. Hushing her male colleague whenever he tried to say something on the state of the country.
Through the sliding doors the Venezuelans came in, crashing and shouting. Quickly filling the buffet car, a trail of chaos left behind them further down the carriages.
They looked impressed at the empty, quiet, old fashioned dining arrangements here.
“Take a photo of me” demanded the mother to our waitress, tapping at the broad green blazered back, handing forward her camera.
“I have no time for this!” snapped the waitress with a snarl, pushing the camera back into the shocked, nut-coloured South American face, not looking round, continuing with her treaties to me on the Czech Republic.
The Venezuelans, suddenly cowed for the first time, humbly retreated out of the carriage.
Outside the sky turned a murky golden grey. Regular blips of mountains on the horizon, looked like a row of shark’s teeth.
Praha Hlavní Nádraží was once a grand neo-renaissance station. It has been redeveloped and remodelled and there is now the usual glass and the shopping, but still a some of the old halls and waiting rooms remain.
The round, domed, galleries complete with statues sitting in their enclaves look as if from a church or some Baron’s small castle.
This station was also where, in 1939, Nicholas Winton saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish Czech children.
A lone English man who took it upon himself to organise the transportation of 669 children as war and the Nazi grasp encircled the city. Sending them to Britain via the route we had just taken, the other way, through the Netherlands to the Hook of Holland and finally to Liverpool Street Station.
One child he saved grew up to be the MP Alf Dubs who, 52 years later I, as an impressionable gawky 17 year old, campaigned for as he stood for election in Battersea.
The, later, Lord Dubs would go on to exert the government to accept the Dubs Amendment, which meant unaccompanied refugee children in the current European migrant crisis would be granted safe passage to Britain.
Safe passage. Travelling up the route – again – we’d just passed down.
We pushed ourselves out of Prague station into the Czech darkness and, still carrying our bags, marched a fast straight line to the river.
We paced through Prague. Through dim streets. Under the lit-up statue of Good King Wenceslas, sat above us on the dark sky.
It was noticeably colder than in Germany.
Down long Wenceslas Square we went – not square-like at all: flanked by two busy roads. The snow fell, a few flashes – not deep and crisp and even, but light, wet and flaky.
We kept on, barrelling down, through the crowded old streets, ignoring the lit Old Square. Straight to the Vlatava River.
I had once taught in Prague, years ago. I remembered the city. As if you couldn’t forget. I knew the Charles Bridge was the first thing that my travelling Passepartout should see.
The bridge appeared – loomed into view – through one of the gothic bridge towers.
The weather and the night time mixed in some perfect witch-like blend just at the right moment for the bridge to disappear as it spanned away in front of us, into a swirling fog.
We stood watching, in a knocked-back way, at the procession of dark, baroque statues, gothic saints and martyrs running away from us down the balustrades of the bridge into the mist.
The crowds that are always attached to the bridge seemed to be missing. Driven away by the cold and the dark weather I guessed.
As we stood and watched, suddenly out of the ethereal vapours, a monk in his flowing robes emerged.
This was too much.
We repaired to the near-by snug Dvende bar. Warm amongst the locals. The beards and beer glasses.
The Greek Connection once more.
We had been given a name, back in Greece, of a friend of a friend who could perhaps put us up in Prague.
We tracked her down. Getting off the tram in the outlying area of Vysočany.
We entered a good-looking pub – The Good Soldier Švejk.
The pub named after – and decorated in the style of – the famous Czech comic novel.
Written during the First World War, satirising absurd notions of militaries and Empires, Švejk is a picaresque character. Insolent to authority, resilient amongst disaster, foolish but wise. The Czechs take him as a summing up of the national character.
The table, full of drinks, around our friend of a friend inside the pub was a wild scene.
Everyone was tanked and slightly crazed. We were pulled in to sit with the crowd.
Instantly I was shouting with these friendly, mad, Czech strangers. Sitting next to a woman from the deepest countryside to the south of the country, who told me with a burning seriousness how she was a white witch of Bohemia.
An endless procession of Urquell beers floated before my eyes. Different faces, conversations.
“You’re going to Slovakia? Ugh. Awful people. So arrogant. They think they’re better than us. Can you believe it! Them? Better than us? They look down on us. Us!”
We finally got the friend to agree to take us back to her flat. We said goodbyes. The white witch from Bohemia with her long dead-straight jet black hair and white needle-fingers glided over, and planted a kiss on Passepartout’s lips. The kiss lasted an age – try as she might, Passepartout was locked, couldn’t struggle free from this grip.
The fat young men pushed me around the bar like a pinball, slapping my back goodbye, the drink slopping like a sewer inside me.
We crashed out of the pub doors, slid over the streets of snow and entered the friend’s flat. And there, stood in the hall, was a small fat Greek lady waiting for us.
The friend looked sheepish and disappeared away into one of the rooms leading off the dark hall. The mother took us roughly into the kitchen where pots and pots of Greek food were bubbling and steaming on a stove.
The mother marshalled me and Passepartout round a table. Took no notice of our polite demurings and heaped food into huge bowls for us.
We sat in a flickering, brightly strip-lit kitchen, 9 storeys up in the Prague night. And as I ate, the mother told me about her flight from Greece.
The family were communists. They had fled to the Czech Republic during Greece’s civil war.
There were persecutions in Greece. They had to leave.
“It’s like today, with the refugees. Countries now argue who’s going to take the refugees but in those days it was ‘who should take in the Greek Communists…’
Also, my husband, her father, wherever he is now… he had a grenade go off in his face” she told me, matter-of-fact. “And the Czechs were meant to be the best at plastic surgery. So…”
The old Greek mother walked over to the window as she talked. She stared out and said with a great sadness:
“I wish we lived in the block of flats over there. That block is a real Communist block. Just beautiful…”
She raved about the old days. The education under Communism. How she was able to study – she became a dentist. She missed the communist days terribly.
“Anyway,” she broke off suddenly ”It’s time for bed now. You can have her bed…” she said, pointing to her daughter who was making lurching attempts at falling asleep with her face propped on her hand on the table.
This offer woke her attention and the two of them rowed about our place to sleep – switching with speed between Greek and Czech at random intervals – we felt awkward, only understanding brief snatches of the Greek.
“I have sent her husband away” the mother turned to tell us. “Ach, I can’t stand him. He’s Czech you see, so he’s Catholic. And, well, as you know, I am a Communist. We don’t get on… You have their bed.”
Stalin’s statue has gone.
The largest statue of its type in Europe, stood high up in Letná Park, overlooking the whole sweep of Prague had been dynamited years ago. Replaced by a gigantic ticking metronome.
We had headed to Letná Park in the morning. Heading south through bright icy suburbs, past coloured buildings looking as if they’d been sugar-frosted.
Sat opposite us in the cold tram was an old man in just a thin shirt and a pair of large white-rimmed ladies sunglasses. I watched as he ate a whole box of chocolates, one after the other, just with his mouth, not using his hands, as if bobbing for apples.
Another indication that perhaps Prague has a higher than usual population of the strange residing within its city boundaries.
I recalled when I worked here briefly, years before, a Czech teacher had taken me to one side to tell me she had given up playing music.
“Oh? Well… that’s a shame” I said, groping for something to say.
“Yes. I will never play my trombone again.”
I hadn’t known she played any sort of musical instrument. I knew very little of her to be honest. I wasn’t even entirely sure if we’d actually talked before.
“Well, never say never, eh?” I tried to reassure, patting her arm.
“I can’t” she snapped. “I have buried it. Yes, I have buried the trombone. In my garden. I can never go back to the trombone…”
We got off the tram at Sparta Prague’s small scrappy football stadium and crossed the white crunchy park to its edge where, falling away underneath, Prague stretched massively and fantastically in front of us.
The wide, dark silver, river slipped away under a succession of unaccountably attractive bridges. Spires and roofs, smoke sitting on the plated sky. A forest of spikes. The city of a hundred towers.
We walked downwards, through the sculptured parkland, to St Vitas Cathedral, past the city’s fortress. Through the lanes running next to this, the largest ancient castle in the world. Past the battling Titans sculptures on the main Castle gates. Past where Hitler had stayed and surveyed his “new possession” on conquering Prague.
Over the Charles Bridges – crawling with a slow-moving crowd of tourists now in the brilliant December sun.
Past the bridge’s sinister towers, into the old town with its ancient chapels. Its medieval clock tower, with its revolving pantomimic figures emerging every hour.
A flamboyance of detail, down on the crouched lion street furniture, and up to the turrets of eagles on the roofs.
Incredible gothic buildings battling to be seen beyond other incredible gothic churches.
Prague almost bewilders with the amount of beauty on offer. To catch our breath, take stock on everything in this baroque city that has been built in a medieval town, we sat in ‘Havelska Koruna’ restaurant on Melantrichova Street.
This plain, long, yellow-painted assembly hall of food – full of wooden booths with thick coat and hatted figures deep in their dinners – is a throw-back to the communist era.
As you enter, an employee stood on the gate hands you a slip of paper and tells you that you are only permitted to order 10 items, which will be stamped on your card.
I took my place in the queue of grey looking Czechs and ordered Veprova po Selsku – unpromisingly translated as ‘peasant style pork’.
But it – and the soups, and the dumplings, and the hunks of bread and beakers of beer – were perfect, tasty, warming fare (the fruit dumplings for pudding with strong cheese and oil drizzled on them, perhaps less so). And everything so remarkably cheap.
Reinvigorated, we walked out again into the city – looking around, sugar-drunk like wasps stuck on the confectionary of Prague’s buildings.
Walking down the river away from the hive of Prague’s old town, we also hit attempts to update from the baroque and the gothic – the ‘dancing building’ erected in celebration after the Czech Republic’s pop-inspired ‘Velvet Revolution’.
The statues of David Cerny mischievously lurk around Prague to be found, hanging from wires or climbing buildings.
There are the two gyrating men in the Old Town pissing on a map of the Czech Republic; there’s a reverse statue of the Good King just off Wenceslas Square – where we first came in – where the King is still sat regally on his horse, but the horse upside down and dead.
And high above the streets, Sigmund Freud hangs, contemplating suicide.
Freud was born in the Czech Republic, though is of course associated with Vienna.
Of course. This is where we should be heading next on our downward travel through Europe to Greece. A journey home in which we were already running late.
Like the compliant patients of a psychiatrist’s word response, we started to make for the station.
Freud had a great anxiety of train travel. Reisenangst he called it.
Fretting at missing trains, he would be at the platform at a ludicrously too-early time for his train.
We, however, raced through the doors of Praha Hlavní Nádraží’s station again, pushing and bumping, with only minutes to spare before the 6.52pm to Wien Hauptbanhoff departed platform 3.
The next stage of our journey was on.
We bounded inside the train as the whistle blew.