You’ll never forget your first kiss in Europe.
Or your first Eastern European country.
And you’ll never forget Prague.
You’ll never forget your first road trip through Europe where you don’t realize you’ve entered a new country.
After exhausting all our travel options, renting a car was the cheapest way to get to Prague from Trento. A Volkswagen Polo. We jotted down the directions on a post-it note at the Map store. Our road map highlighted, our iPods filled with Rihanna.
It was mid-afternoon when we crossed into Austria. I was the only one who could drive a standard car and so my fingers gripped the wheel tightly, focused solely on the road ahead of me. A very wise choice. The anxiety kept me from seeing the valleys we were crossing. Deep, green valleys located far below the bridges we had to cross. I had gotten use to seeing mountains. Living in a city that is surrounded by the Dolomites, one comes to expect the snowy caps that dot the horizon. But these, that filled the skyline and made me feel even smaller than I thought I could be, were majestic, shooting into the sky, taking no prisoners.
The Jewel of Europe
We learned of its place in history, of its wonder to Hitler, of its age. The tour guide led us around the city, cooing over the architecture and laughing at his amusing tale of the skeleton arm. A few hours into his tour, he brought us to the Jewish museum, that held the drawings and paintings of the children killed in the Holocaust. Tears rolled down my face as his voice grew sombre, understanding his precarious position of having to entertain a group of tourists but also ensure that we realized our place in Prague; the ghosts and memories of these children were around and we’d have to step lightly on their tracks. But I think he knew that. His quick jokes and easy-going manner became softer. He pointed out the cemetery, layers upon layers of grave to commemorate the dead.
The beauty of Prague cannot be limited to the Old square and the Astrological clock. It is in the cobblestone streets that led us to our hostel; the cheap bar, the sweet bread that nourished our poor, hungover bodies. Overlooking the view from the Castle, crossing the Charles Bridge, deepening a friendship that had just started.
Prague’s place in my European memories is monumental. Years later, when a friend was going to Prague, I wrote him out a detailed list of all the things I had loved in Prague. I had pictures of Michael, our tour guide, of the bucket of Sex on the Beach we had downed with long, bendy straws and new friends, of the pub crawl we joined. Finally, I raved about the goulash we had near the National Museum and the sausages we ate whenever we could.
And the boy. My trip to Europe followed a bitter breakup. Four years of on-and-off with the same guy had taken its toll and I was anxious to erase his memories from my lips. It was our second pub crawl, one that had a ridiculous name and started at a bar that had fooseball tables and billards. My friend and I weren’t feeling up to it, but we gave ourselves a timeline: if, by the second bar we wanted to bail, we would. And oh, we were glad we didn’t. Somehow, we ended up at a huge bar/concert hall and danced to a Bulgarian male pop star. If that wasn’t enough, we had linked up with a stag party and following the concert, we stole away from the pub crawl with them and entered a biker bar called Harley’s.
The boy was British, He was probably tall. He was probably an accountant or banker since they seem to be my type. We kissed underneath the bar lights, propped up against the cheap vinyl seats. He gave me a book of matches, and led me to the top of the stairs. He kissed me beneath the stars, on the cobblestone streets, through a haze of cigarette smoke and gin and tonics. When the night ended, we left the stag party with one of the boys who insisted on walking us home. We strolled through the park near the train station and climbed the stairs to our hostel. It was our last night but not our last time in Prague. We would be back a few weeks later, drawn to the city for its romance, and for Michael. Who we loved.