Train station Praha. If London was a little like falling down the rabbit hole, and Paris was my looking glass, then this would be my first conversation with the Cheshire cat. Stepping off the train onto the outside platform was all hustle and bustle inside the red garish fixtures under fluorescent lighting reflected even the echoes of unfamiliarity in the language over the intercom.
No matter how prepared I could have been, nothing could have prepared me. Realizing I needed different money to use in the payphone was my first introduction to the strange land I would come to know as home. I found an exchange booth where a man took my forty Euro and gave me a thousand crown note. I later learned this was almost double the actual exchange rate. I got some loose change out of it without having to use language at all.
Somehow I managed my phone call to Dana who told me the others had already arrived at the flat and somebody would be there to meet me. Next step was to get a cab. I was nervous. A friend of mine, Monika, from Prague, had explained to me that the school’s taxi service was ridiculously overpriced. This had convinced me it was better to get one myself. No matter how much they overcharge, she had explained, it couldn’t possibly be as much as double. Now, as I headed toward the giant black and yellow TAXI sign, I wondered about all the warnings I read about the danger of cabs in Prague. Stories of kidnapping, prostitution and the white slave trade jumbled through my overtired brain.
Surely, it would be safe in the middle of the day. I organized the heavy bags I was carrying and hobbled over to the Taxi sign. I looked around outside and a very large grizzly bear of a man greeted me in grunts. Russian mafia was all I could think to describe his demeanor, except a bit more course.
I gave him the written address and asked “How much?” “Nine hundred koruna.” The mafia driver looked at me with glassy eyed indifference. He made a slow motion to move my oversized bags, which he slung with careless ease, into the trunk of the yellow skoda. It seemed like a lot. But it was less than the school’s twelve hundred.
“Okay.” I was sulky but glad to be getting closer to a place where I could sleep, eat and bathe. Feeling uneasy lasted about as long as it took to drive from the parking lot of Hlavni nadrazi to Museum and through the street s of New town across Legii most and to Zborovska, the street of my first flat in Prague.
Legii most, the bridge just south of Charles bridge, offered an amazing view of Prague Castle, in the horizon hovering over the Vltava river. The sumptuous colors and shapes sparkled like jewels of the Emerald city. Never before had I seen anything like this closer than the cinematic sweep behind a speedboat chase or the hazy backdrop of a historical drama film. Somehow the poignancy of that first glance embedded itself into my psyche with the exaggerated clarity of a hallucinogenic imprint.
My mind was in a state of exhaustion and excitement inducing a very peculiar feeling of seeing something for the first time, yet knowing it would not be the last time. Perhaps the same chemicals are emitted as when athletes describe an endorphin high or rock climbers and other extreme sports enthusiasts claim to be addicted to the adrenaline rush. This shock of novelty and somehow of familiarity I had only ever experienced before when reading something gravely important or poetry that moved me almost physically with emotion.
I was glued to the window of the taxi with open mouthed rapture, gaping at the stunning scenery, trying to absorb every line and nuance with my eyes. The driver’s demeanor toward me changed, almost imperceptibly, as we crossed the bridge. As if grudgingly acknowledging one who truly appreciated the wonder of his world.