It was dark when I arrived. I stepped off the train into a chilly evening in Prague with a small notebook in my hand. The scrawled lettering on the cover read “Feste’s – Bořivojova, Žižkov.” It was a bar in Prague that my friend Marco was known to hang out in, and I was looking for him. I shoved the notebook back into my pocket and rushed into the station, moving with purpose and direction, yet not knowing where I was going. It was difficult for me to not stop to examine the interior of the station, but I didn’t want to let on that I was new and alone. It was my first time in Prague. It wasn’t my first time traveling on my own, but if there was one thing I didn’t like about traveling it was arriving to a new train station after midnight.
Hlavní Nádraží’s station was stunning. The prodigious dome, with its illuminated stained-glass windows, and the colorful matted walls with winding plants that undulated in whips of movement had caused me to pause for a moment. There were statues leaning from the corners of the walls. Their faces with carved blank eyes, all more than a century old, stared down at me. I was crossing platforms that had been crossed by hundreds of thousands of strangers. People just like me, and people nothing like me, but we were all traveling. The colossal doors with sweeping archways were framed by statues of supine women draped in stone fabric that looked to flow and breath. The marble women, with their down-turned mouths and closed eyes, curved like open yawns over the arched windows of the doors. The station was a reminder of a time when travel was ostentatious and reserved for the wealthy. And here I was. I had decided to move to Prague because someone had told me that the Prague of the nineties was like the Paris of the thirties, and I was a romantic. I lived in books, and grand movies. I competed with fictional characters and their authors’ who I felt were the people who knew how to live. People like my friend Marco. Marco the friend I came to stay with. Marco who probably thought I was dead. I was very late. Two weeks late.
As I continued through the station, I walked beneath vaulted columns, and it was as if I had passed through a time warp. The millennium was not that far away, but the Prague station straddled between the turn of the 20th century and 1950s communism. The art nouveau, the flowering organic grasses, and the sinuous forms of the previous room had vanished, and were replaced by a giant constructionist cube. The heather and concrete-grey checkered floor reflected the lights from a low ceiling that sparkled with hundreds of silver and white circular lamps. Train arrivals and departures flipped on a screen that harkened back to 1940s Wall Street. This part of the station was blocky and cold with neon food counters, closed shops sealed shut with metal gates, and bureaux de changes with barred windows. It was divine meets grotesque, eclectic and surreal. I wanted to take it all in, but this part of the station was dingy and dirty. It was sketchy, with people huddle in corners and I felt I was seconds away from being kidnapped and sold into some brothel in Turkey. It was after midnight, I was late, and the one person who knew me didn’t know I was here.
Moving closer to the exit, I spotted marble tables that looked like round backgammon pieces. The tables were empty except for two junkies lumped over their chairs with their heavy heads rested in their folded arms. I made my way through the maze of tables and paused before the doors, unsure which one would lead me to Bořivojova street. One of the junkies lifted his head and mumbled something in my direction. His mouth was barely opened, and a soft grey hue had formed around his lips. He looked like he was trying to get out of his seat. I took a couple of steps backward then turned in the opposite direction. It wasn’t that I was afraid, just cautious, maybe I was a little afraid. I’ve always been a bit paranoid. I think almost everyone is a potential serial killer. It’s a wonder that I ever made it out from my childhood bedroom. This duality of fear and restless wandering can put a damper on the whole “free spirit” thing. I was a bit of a mess, but I knew it didn’t matter as long as I stayed smart enough to be safe. I blamed these paranoia issues on my parents. I still did that.
I finally pushed through enormous glass doors, relieved to be out of the station, and peered across the street into a dark park drowning in its own shadows. On the other side of the park I could see streetlights and what looked like a tram stop. I stepped onto the grass, but hesitated once I saw a figure move behind a tree and scuttle into the shadows. An eerie wind hissed through dry leaves, scratching and clicking like some giant insect attempting to lure me across the wide empty park with their sudden stillness.
Night is an illusion of space. It is in the dead of night when a person can get the closest to feeling what it is like to be in the universe, to feel it expanding around you. There is no true sense of distance or height and no perspective. There is only eternity’s movement. Right now, eternity’s movement reminded me that I was alone and standing next to a park filled with potential serial killers. I had just wandered into a huge unfamiliar city, late at night, with no idea how to find my friend, and no phone number to call him. I didn’t know where I was or where Feste’s was in the vicinity to this ubiquitous park. I didn’t know where to find any hostels. I didn’t even have a map. If I hadn’t have messed this whole thing up by having an unnecessary meltdown in a friend’s closet I would have been on time. I would already have had job and a place to sleep.
Standing under a light reading a map were a young couple dressed in Patagonia fleece tops and carrying North Face backpacks.
“Excuse me,” I said as I half ran, half lurched toward them, my backpack and daypack swinging like opposing pendulums intent on knocking me off balance. Are you Americans?” I knew they were Americans. Americans always wore North Face and Patagonia and proper shoes. I was an American, but a shitty one. I had lost my fleece in a hostel in France six months prior, and that was the end of me representing.
They both nodded, as they looked me over.
“You ever heard of Feste’s on Bořivojova?” I asked.
They shook their heads no.
They were “pretty people”. The kind that looked polished and put together. Every item of clothing and accessory perfectly placed. Even in the darkness you could tell that they were healthy and had zero to one percent body fat. No matter how difficult the train ride or the obstacles they faced they came out looking good. They could have elephant dung thrown at them from a ceremony gone wrong, and be attacked by malaria mosquitoes the size of mangos, and they’d still come out looking like models. I assumed their teeth were perfect.
“You don’t have a map?” The guy asked.
The guy was tall and attractive with short sandy blonde hair, and white straight teeth. His tone was a bit surprised, but not condescending, still I could tell he could not believe I would be traveling without a map. I didn’t need a map. I needed a location point. That’s what I told myself. I’d moved my entire adult life, and I was twenty-seven now. I was pretty secure in my chaos. At least, that’s what I liked to tell myself. Once I hooked into the word-of mouth-travel circuit, the name of a hostel was all I needed. It wasn’t necessarily the smartest way to travel, but again it was my way and my chaos. A lot of it turned out to be luck.
“Ah, no,” I said, clearing my throat a bit. “No map.”
“Well, lucky for you we have one.” The guy smiled flashing those perfect teeth. “We’re staying in a hostel not too far from here. You’re welcome to follow us and maybe you can find your place tomorrow,” he said.
“You should get a map tomorrow.” The girl said. “It’ll really help you out.” She tilled her head as she spoke, and smiled warmly. She also had perfectly straight teeth.
Just as I had expected.
I looked back toward the park, and watched the long shadows as they pulled away from the light.
“I should do that.” I said. “My name’s Annabelle.”