Taking the bus – a meditation on kindness

Waiting for the metro in Prague.

Our past few days in Prague we started to get the hang of using the public transportation system. It’s been great for us.

Saturday night we left Old Town with our new friend Merik to watch his band play in a jazz club. We ended up staying to watch the next band and got separated from Merik, so we had to find our own way back.

And so began Czech Public Transportation 101. Getting on the right bus was easy – it came to the corner at the club. We tracked the stops and got off at the metro station that would take us back into the part of town we know. We were the only people walking towards the metro station soon it became clear why – the metro closes at midnight.

Now we were in a part of town we didn’t know, without our friend, in the middle of the night. Prague, however, is a city that doesn’t sleep and plenty of people were out and about. Two guys who spoke just a touch of English got on their phones to find us a way home (we’re WiFi only on this trip). They sent us to the stop across the street and gave us the tram number that would take us back to the tourist part of Prague. People came to the stop, trams came and went. We stood alone. We trusted.

When our tram came we jumped on. It was packed, so we couldn’t sit together. Stop after stop, I watched the text scroll by announcing the pristi stanice, the next stop, looking for a name I might recognize. Since I’ve only learned a few words in Czeck, the odds were low. But finally we came to a stop where I recognized the name and Vinnie recognized the sidewalk and we got out, happy to find ourselves in familiar territory, just a block from the hostel.

The massive main train station.

The next day, charged with a growing confidence, we headed for the main train station to ride to the castle at Karlstejn. Walking into the main train station was overwhelming: it is huge, with pigeons flying around and all signs written in Czech. Thanks to a couple of super helpful station employees, we found our way to the ticket booth, then the right platform, and in just a few minutes we were watching the city go by from a new perspective.

The big challenge came Monday morning, when we were leaving for Budapest via bus. We wanted to know if we could possibly get a train ticket for a similiar cost, so first we went to the hlavni nadrazi (the main train station) – no luck on train tickets. Having used that time, now we needed to hustle to get to the masarykovo nadrazi (the main bus station).

Does this mean anything to you?

Walking in what we hoped was the right direction, at a cross walk we asked the group in front of us. The Czech woman and her two teenage kids really wanted to help, we could tell, but they didn’t speak any English. A few blocks later, the young professional woman sent us to the bus stop that would take us to the main station. At the bus stop we found a sign completely in Czech that seemed to indicate  some kind of change, but we couldn’t guess at what it might be. Then we saw the bus a block up the street, too far for us to race to. The driver pulled over where we were and picked us up. We asked if we were on the right bus to the station, but he didn’t speak English either. He recognized the word Florenc, the name of the bus station, but it’s also the name of a metro station, so we sat down, not knowing if we were on the right track.

Again I watched the display to see the next stop, and when it said Florenc BC, I figured we’d get off. The man in front of me said yes, go to the stop light and go left, and you will get to the bus station. We couldn’t see the way because there was a huge construction project, but we jumped off, hoping to figure it out.

Just a few seconds later, the bus stopped and a passenger jumped out and waved to us to come back. The only words in English she said were “not right” but I could tell by her expression that she was helping us, so we followed her back onto the bus. One turn and a block later, they shooed us off the bus, pointing towards a station that looked a bit like the one I’d seen on google map. Inside we asked on more person for help and with five minutes to spare, we made it to the platform where the bus waited, filling up with people.

After just two days of riding public transportation in Central Europe, here’s what I think: riding the bus is a meditation in kindness. It’s a time to be exactly in the moment, to be open to what happens and trust that we are all connected and that we all want to help each other.

During our week in Prague, we’ve gotten familiar enough that people have started to ask us directions, and generally they don’t speak English. The language barrier isn’t nearly as dark and imposing as I imagined it to be when we were state side. So we smile and listen for words we might know, and point and encourage, just like so many others have done for us.

Three weeks ago I couldn’t have guessed that riding the bus would be such an opportunity for kindness and gratitude.

There and back again

Sad to be leaving Prague.

Vinnie and I left home 17 days ago. We’ve been to three countries and four cities in that time. We’ve taken four flights. We’ve booked good rooms and one bad room. We’ve been on tours, swarmed amazing places with the rest of the tourist crowd and gotten muddy out on a trail. We slept in our tent in the Scottish Highlands because I really wanted to and 35F is really not all that cold. We’ve travelled by plane, bus, taxi, Uber, underground and by foot. We managed to get through all of those transfers and places without much in the way of unexpected events.

Until today.

Today, things went sideways. Although, not in a way that any real damage was done (gratitude for that). It just meant that we had to be flexible, amenable, willing to change. Two of the places on our list – places that Vinnie really wanted to see – dropped of the list. Two countries: Romania and Austria. And Hungary was in jeopardy. We realized last night that we weren’t going to get to Romania – it’s a long, long drive to Sibiu (8 hours and 1000 kilometers one way) for a short visit, so it got waitlisted (another reason to return to Europe!).

We planned to head out to Budapest today, with a side trip on the way to Kutna Hora to see the Church of Bones and a short visit to Cesky Krumlov (both in Czech Republic). So, this morning we packed up our things, sad to be leaving Prague and our awesome room and folks at Hostel Downtown. We hopped on the Metro (super easy to use), then caught a bus to the airport car rental to pick up our auto for the last seven days of our trip.

Full stop.

Car hire in Czech is not the same as in the UK and Ireland, and – short story – no car hire for us. We sat in the cold plastic chairs feeling a bit of free fall: first we gave up Romania, now our side trips in Czech, Hungary and Austria were simply not going to happen as planned. We wondered if they’d happen.

Happy to be back in Prague!

We decided to retreat to Hostel Downtown to regroup (location is everything). Vinnie was messaging the awesome receptionist (we’ve got Czech friends on Facebook now!) before we even left the airport. We were back on the bus, then back on the metro, then back in a room at the hostel all within an hour and half since we left. Smiling faces greeted us when we returned. We were smiling too – we love these people and this place.

Within an hour of being back at the hostel, we had a train booked for a two-night trip to Budapest, a plan to join the hostel’s guided trip to Kutna Hora next Friday (yay!) and we’re going to see our guide’s band play tomorrrow night. Tomorrow we’ll see some of the sights in Prague that we missed and we have an open day on Sunday for whatever might develop.

Before we left the US I wondered (okay, I worried about) how we’d handle it when things didn’t go as planned. Today, we did just fine. We were so glad to have this great place and helpful folks to come back to. And when we lined things up so quickly and easily, it felt like this is probably the better option anyway.  All is well for us, because we’ve done some wonderful things on this journey: we’ve made friends here in Prague, we’ve got to get to the know the place and we’ve smiled through the twists and turns. That’s a pretty picture of success.

Look, don’t touch – Strahov Library

Looking uphill at Strahov Monastery.

It was a long walk up the hill to Strahov Library in the monestary, where on a fine summer day folks sit on the brewery patio with a tremendous view of Prague. St. Vitus Cathedral rises out of Prague Castle, the domes of churches in Old Town populate the sky line and the guilted roof of the National Theater sparkles. But I wasn’t huffing up Nerudova Street for the view, I was on my way to see old books.

Strahov Monastery

Sitting at the top of the part of town called Mala Strava just inside the defensive wall, the Monastery began in 1143 and suffered ups and downs until 1586 when a new abbot breathed life into it. The parts I came to see are much newer. The Theological Hall was built between 1671-1679 and the grand Philosophical Hall in 1783, with the walnut cabinets and internal work done by 1794.

The library also include the Cabinets of Curiosity, a collection purchased in 1798 of things considered mysterious and strange (at the time) that mostly include specimens from the sea, bugs, butterflies, an amazing collection of tree books and what they believed at the time to be a unicorn horn. The corridor containing the Cabinet of Curiosoties (really several cabinets) is a look back in time at our urge to know the world and to see unimagined things from far away places. The transition time from natural philosophy into the natural sciences is a fascinating thing.

Cabinet of Curiosities

The trek to Strahov was not the things I hoped for, although I didn’t expect to get: peering into the spines of books hundreds of years old, craning my neck to look up at ceiling frescoes, holding my breath to look at a Blaeu family map or globe, soaking in the quiet and mustiness of a library. In fact, to preserve the rooms and their contents, you can only go into the halls by arranging for a tour (as in planning, which isn’t part of this trip). Otherwise, you stand in the doorway looking in.. The library, even at the top of the hill, certainly isn’t quiet as groups of tours come through the narrow connecting hallway between the two rooms, and it’s even lacking the old musty smell, what with the conditioned air being circulated.

The Philosophical Hall

Even still, Strahov Libraby is a place of learning and commitment to preserving old books and specimens. The walnut shelves of the Philosophical Hall and the gleaming, geometric pattern of the floor are something to see all on their own. And the seeing but not touching leaves a whole lot of room for the imagination.

The Theological Hall

 

Location, location – it is everything

Hostel Downtown wall art

It took a few days to get my groove in Prague. We flew in at night, in a snow storm, and had to figure out how to use the bus system (nothing in English, only Czech) to get to our first hostel. When we arrived, the hostel was dark and a bit drafty, the folks at the desk sort of similiar. The next day we headed out for walk, looking to get to know some of where we were. Things didn’t really improve much for me that day, although I feel a certain safety in being on foot. After our second night at that hostel we had to leave, since our room was booked out for the following night. What a blessing.

I didn’t know it then, and probably couldn’t have known it without a different perspective, but that location was killing my confidence (which was critical for being in my first non-English speaking country) and affecting my mood.

Just part of the kitchen at Hostel Downtown.

When we walked over to Hostel Downtown for our next two nights the change was immediately clear. The staff at the reception desk was outgoing and friendly. One of them walked us to our room, pointing out amenities along the way and showing us the activities calendar for the week. Our room was bright and airy, like the rest of the place – so much so that it made me laugh with delight and relief when I saw it. Our first hostel had been dark and dingy, the floors squeeked, the shared bathroom wasn’t what you’d call clean, and the kitchen was so dark that we had to use our backpacking lantern to cook by. In contrast, Hostel Downtown has an immaculate, large, well-appointed kitchen that is simply fun. It’s brightly colored with yellow, orange and blue walls, populated with woven paper art pieces and flunked up with graffiti style wall art. It’s a place of boldness and imagination. It inspires adventure in this city. This morning I’m sitting in the big, deep, sunny window seat that overlooks the main street below, drinking my coffee and writing while the kitchen staff cranks out a full buffet breakfast for dozens of people.

Our first day here at Hostel Downtown we decided to add two more nights to our Prague stay, we were so happy with this setting. On our second day, after a guided morning tour, we found ourselves out wandering off the beaten path. Comfortable surroundings equals confidence.

These two days at Hostel Downtown have taught me a very important lesson of travel: I need to feel comfortable and supported at our lodging in order to really enjoy the city. We’re traveling Europe on the cheap: carrying 20 pound packs that hold everything we need, including a tent, camp stove and sleeping bags (which I used at our last hostel to stay warm). We’re shopping at local grocery stores and cooking in the kitchen. Comfort won’t come to us in the form of hotel rooms and meals at restaurants, and that’s just fine with me. Even still, comfort can be found. Here it’s been in the friendly and caring staff, the clean spaces, the welcoming atmosphere and in guided tours.

We have ten more days in Europe and in two days we’ll be picking up a car to head into the Czech countryside, Budapest, and central Romania. None of it is scripted, noting is booked. We’ve only a partial idea of what we want to see along the way. Now that I understand the power of location, I’ll be looking for this same kind of home base as we head east into new adventures.

Loud and soft

Oh Prague, your history speaks so loudly, even as other stories whisper down your narrow lanes. Yesterday we took a guided tour of Old Town, a part of Prague on the east side of the Vltava River that used to have a wall around it before the construction of New Town. Old and new are relative terms here – New Town construction began in the 1340s under the reign of Charles IV. As our guide took us through this part of the city we passed churches and old market squares, like the horse market, coal market and fruit market, remaining towers that were once part of the defensive wall and buildings that are so old they sit several meters below street level because they were built before material was added to bring the city up above flood levels.

It was an amazing three hours of dipping into unexpected places to see pieces of history, walking softly into stone churches tha hold a special, deep kind of silence, and peeking through the gate to see the remaining Jewish cemetery in Old Town. I shot hundreds of photos, asked dozens of questions and tried to soak it all in – yet I can’t tell you where we were or what we saw. There was simply too much. And all of it with Czech names, so it was difficult to commit to memory. With the winding nature of the streets and market squares, we’ll have to see how long it takes us to make our way back to certain places where we want to spend more time.

This type of exploration is good practice for me to be and do, and not to think. This is about taking it all in, being where I am in the moment that I am, and not worrying about what I’m missing or forgetting. This alone is part of our Big Adventure, because if I could, I’d be taking notes. But I can’t, so I’m letting it be, doing my best to be as near-sighted as I can. We’re about to head out for another walk-ing tour this morning.