12th September: Train to Vienna, 12:56
=====Eek! Haven’t updated in an age; not so much from being super-busy than from not having a table/my journal to hand. Not much major news to update on. We’re currently on the train, which is sitting in Budapest Keleti station, and enjoying for the last time the irresistably jaunty announcement jingles they play in the station. Whoever composed them clearly has a love of old school video games, and is also a genius – it’s impossible not to be cheered by them.
=====So, major day-by-day update…
SATURDAY EVENING: Went to a very cheap Polish restaurant in the Old Town with two of the mardiest-looking waitresses known to man; admittedly my attempts to subtly decant water from the huge bottle we’d bought from the mini-mart into the glass of water I’d already drained probably made me look shifty, thus incurring their passive-aggressive wrath. Despite their sour expressions, the food was nice – the roast potatoes with garlic butter weren’t as good as I’d hoped they’d be, but the meat pierogi (another good Countdown word) were very tasty. Really enjoying Eastern European cuisine.
=====Still reeling from the kitschy ‘rustic’ decor of the place, we headed for an internet cafe so I could gorge myself on the delights of the World Wide Web and Emily could upload her photos. Little else of any consequence occurred that evening, except for a ridiculous sense of personal achievement gained by managing to get a huge bottle of fizzy water (yuk) down to a state of drinkable stillness through a great deal of endurance and perseverance (ie jiggling it constantly with the lid off).
SUNDAY: Took the opportunity to have my laziest day in a while by sleeping in til 11, reading fan mail (not an exaggeration – had a very sweet message from an Irish superfan, which I was very touched by) and eventually packing my bag, though not before taking a picture of the entirely unexplainable picture of a horse’s head on the bathroom wall.
=====Emily meanwhile was at the Human Body exhibition, featuring plastinated (no, me neither) bodies, which she came to the conclusion were East Asian judging by their height and, er, ‘length’. When she returned, we headed for the grassy verge by the river to bask in the still glorious weather for several hours, before getting Telepizza from down the road and finding cheap water and sweets to spend our last few (emphasis on few) zlotys. The water was imperative as our delightfully sociable Chinese roommates in Prague had, as a thoughtful leaving present, given me her cold, and my throat was beginning to take on a touch of feeling cheese-grated, while my nose was doing its best Niagara Falls impersonation.
=====Stuck for things to do, and not in the mood to explore the city – we felt we’d exhausted its daytime pleasures – we cracked out the hostel’s jigsaw (which later transpired to be of Budapest). After some initial struggle, we made it to 90% completion. It was in vain: our obsessive personalities were not obsessive enough to convince us that finishing the jigsaw was more important than catching the night train (though it was a close call). And catch it we did, after a tense tram ride to the station spent fearing a fine for not buying a ticket (we couldn’t afford it and were still yet to see a ticket machine).
=====I can confirm that sleeping on the bottom bunk of a night train is preferable to sleeping at the top. There were pros and cons to both (more luggage space at the top, but more effort to get it up there; less fear of the bunk above you collapsing at the top, but also more fear of falling out) but ease of bathroom access, the provision of a table on which to balance essentials and increased comfort of the bed itself meant that the bottom won out overall.
=====That said, I slept better on the top bunk to Krakow than on the bottom bunk from it, primarily due to my cold. Over the course of the day it had morphed from the beginnings of one, with a slight sore throat, to a full-on can’t-breathe-unless-I’ve-blown-my-nose-hideously-loudly, good-God-my-throat-is-raw killer cold, to Emily’s horror. She was petrified of catching it, but being in a claustrophobic room which was essentially hosting a game of Sardines, she didn’t have much choice in the matter.
=====Sleeping was fractious, fragmented and generally ineffective as far as making me feel better was concerned, especially since I woke up every time we violently thudded into a station (with the exception of Bratislava – meaning I can’t even tenuously count myself as having visited Slovakia. Damn!).
=====Thank god the train had a lot of paper towels, or we may all have drowned in my ocean of nasal mucus.
MONDAY: This lack of sleep made me into a grumpy arse when we arrived into Budapest – so grumpy I could only just appreciate the jingles. On finding that Hungarian buses are just as impossible to buy tickets for as Polish ones are, we yet again had to worry about being fined for not possessing a ticket (or, more accurately, for not possessing the arcane Eastern European knowledge of where to buy a ticket when there’s no provision for the sensible thing, ie buying a ticket at the front of the bus/tram). We got away with it again, but our sins were punished through the weather: a dry day at Keleti station suddenly transformed into a vicious rainstorm by the time we got off the bus, one stop further away than intended, in fabric shoes not best suited to the volatile weather.
=====A short, bad-tempered walk later and we were out of the weather’s caprices, and into a hostel with the most cliched hippy decor. The fact it was called Shantee House should have been a clue to its pretensions of free love, peace and vogue spirituality, but still the books about trekking in Tibet, Indian throws and beards/dreads (so many beards/dreads!) came as a surprise. I rather liked it though; it was bright orange, had stairs painted the colours of the rainbow, and a relaxed vibe that put us at ease where the slightly intense guy running our Polish hostel had unnerved me slightly. While the bright colours didn’t redeem the 3 hour wait to access our rooms, we had WiFi and books to pass the time – I got halfway through Emma, while Emily is soldiering through Les Mis.
=====When we finally made it into the room, it was time for a nap. Unfortunately, a shameless Australian girl and her hostel acquaintance of one day decided that being in a room with three people besides themselves was no deterrent to fornication, and indulged their primal urges there and then. Had I been more inured to listening to other people’s copulation, I may have been impressed that they’d managed to successfully negotiate the dimensions of the narrow single top bunk, but little did they know that the heavy breathing, creaking bed frame and sounds of unzipping travelling across the room were resulting in me losing my ‘listening to other people copulating’ginity. Thank God I slept through some of it – but sadly not all of it.
=====Emily had the good sense to flee as soon as the telling kissing noises began. Feeling like Hugh Grant in the cupboard in Four Weddings And A Funeral, I felt supremely awkward walking across the room to use the bathroom, especially on identifying the offending bunk courtesy of seeing a guy on his haunches with a blanket over him. Even me loudly padding about did not interrupt the act of coitus, but it wasn’t long before zipping was heard again, and my ears were free of violation once more. The girl sleeping (/pretending to be sleeping?) on the bottom bunk of that same bed, however, wins the ‘Most To Be Pitied’ award.
=====Emily went for a wander by herself while I slept, read and checked the Internet, before deciding to head to Buda Castle to meet her – though her going on a tour of a hospital in a rock gave me an hour to kill. On chatting to the offending Australian copulator, I ended up heading into town with her. We went searching for a place to buy tram tickets while she regaled me with tales of her copulating misdeeds from the night before (a churchyard was privy to those indiscretions), surprisingly frank about it all. Unable to find a ticket office, we stopped a native passer-by who, happily, was fluent in English. He had the oddest accent I’ve ever heard: predominantly Bolton, but with flecks of regional accents from all over the UK, as well as a hint of Kiwi.
=====Martzy, as he introduced himself, was a Hungarian student of Economics at the country’s best university for the subject. He was very friendly, directing us to the ticket office and ordering our tickets in his native tongue, making our lives immeasurably easier, before boarding the same tram as us so he could go to a lecture. He spoke of a corrupt government and politics that were driving his age group out of the country due to jobs being scarce and pensions unlikely in the future – it sounded a sad state of affairs.
=====By the time we arrived at the requisite tram stop, I was required at Buda Castle instead of the centre of Pest (Pest is the right hand side of the Danube, Buda is the left hand side), so bid the Aussie farewell before hopping back on a tram and returning the way I’d come. Getting off at the first stop in Buda, I was immediately accosted by a Hungarian woman begging for money so she could afford to feed her 6 children. Mindful of our attempts to be charitable in Berlin, I lied that I had no money, before heading off deep in the throes of guilt with only Julianna Barwick’s new album, Nepenthe, to stave it off. The album’s ethereality fitted a scene dominated by dreamlike white clouds and grand old buildings.
=====Finding the route to the castle was not an issue; finding Emily, however, was a saga that Tolkein could have written a trilogy about and Peter Jackson could have adapted into a series of widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning films. Attempting to get through the castle – now a set of museums as opposed to a seat of royalty – to the funicular railway station involved continually being thwarted by building works and dead ends. I eventually made it to her before her phone died, having nobly struggled through its 1% battery life for so long.
=====We passed the Hungarian equivalent of 10 Downing Street and found our way to St Matthias Church, which is probably the prettiest building I’ve ever seen: it’s not too grand or ornate, but is enough so to be striking. Prettiest of all is the Lego brick-like roof, in a variety of colours that contrasted surprisingly well with the white walls. After slavering over it for a little whiel, we admired the lovely view over the Danube from a viewing platform and took some silly pictures before heading back to the Tesco near the hostel to buy up their selection of ready meals.
=====Tragically, the Tesco was tiny and had little choice available – not convenient given Emily’s, erm, selective palate. A few tours of it convinced us that a) to my chagrin, the only soup available was a horrendous ‘stir in’ packet, which I bought in case my urge for soup to soothe my throat proved truly insurmountable (it wasn’t – nothing could induce me to try it), and b) nothing that Emily liked or wanted was available for a main meal. Staples such as pasta and rice were a non-starter (see: ‘selective palate’) , while we’d done pizza to death. The only remaining option was to buy some chicken legs and seasoning, and cook them in the hostel’s busy communal kitchen.
=====Being a fussy eater is clearly no hindrance to being a good cook, as Emily’s cooking skills came up trumps eventually (they took an age to cook), while I overcame my squeamishness towards cucumbers to masterfully slice the vegetables (pepper for me, cucumber for Emily). Flicking the hot chicken off the oven tray was upsettingly farcical, however, and some Belgian hostellees laughed at me. Bet they wouldn’t have fared any better if they’d tried to flick HOT CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS off a HOT TRAY WITHOUT BURNING THEIR FINGERS.
TUESDAY: We’d been planning to visit the Széchenyi Baths when in Budapest for some time, pencilling in Tuesday as the day for it. Our loooong walk there took us past Heroes’ Square, among other important-looking buildings, but was forced on a detour when a coughing fit so violent I started crying convinced us to get me to a pharmacy for some throat relief.
=====We spotted a tiny pharmacy across the street and tried to ask one of the cashiers if the box to her right was cough syrup, which is what it looked like. Not understanding us, she passed us over to her colleague who, deadpan, responded, “No, it’s urinary tract infection medicine”. Explains why ‘urinal’ was in the name, I suppose. Strangely enough we didn’t buy it.
=====Loaded up with lemon and honey Strepsils, paracetamol and cough syrup with a childproof cap so secure that it was also adultproof, we headed on to the baths, where our ticket (roughly £12) entitled us to access 16 baths/pools as well as a whole host of saunas. Our lockers, we discovered, were in the men’s section – only a problem when some old codger came in and started shouting “MEN (pointing at the ground beside him), WOMEN (pointing away)”. I tried to explain to Mr Grumpy (as I unaffectionately dubbed him) that my locker was there, but he was still being lairy, so I took the hint to flee.
=====The baths ranged from 18•C (a post-sauna dunking pool that was FECKING FREEZING) to 40•C (a nice hot bath temperature), from salty to minty, outdoor to indoor. It was my highlight of the trip so far – so incredibly relaxing. Our favourite pool was the 38•C minty pool, which smelled and looked pleasantly like Listerine; we slobbed about in it until our fingers wrinkled and we were almost asleep. Better to slob than exercise, though – our go in the aerobics pool got us evils from the locals after we tried to rollerskate on the floating weights.
=====The sauna experience was a mixed bag (for me – Emily’s foray in lasted seconds as her asthma would not permit it). A minty sauna cleared my nose and throat wonderfully – newsflash: HEALING BATHS ACTUALLY HEAL! – but being in the sauna with 9 very sweaty fat men was slightly alarming. However, it was the non-minty sauna I tried that was more of a concern; when I left it, my towel had disappeared! Attempts to find out if it had been handed in to the staff were misinterpreted, as they thought I was asking about towel rental. At least I didn’t have any valuables stolen.
=====5 hours were spent there relaxing, swimming and pretending to lech on old men – except the tables were turned when one old man leched on Emily, and there was no pretence about it. He was very fat, and using two of the handrails by the stairs to rhythmically bounce up and down. As we rose majestically out of the pool, he briefly glanced away from his bouncing to unmistakeably feast his eyes on Emily’s rear. Every time we wandered past the pool he was lurking, like a hungry, sexually voracious hippopotamus. I knew there and then that he was the man Emily was destined to marry – if only we’d got his phone number.
=====Such a brief but moving encounter could simply not be topped, so we found a nice little restaurant nearby. Emily blew her budget on duck breast steak, which fortunately agreed with her ‘sensitive palate’, while I continued my quest to sample as much local cuisine as possible by trying chicken paprikas. It was very nice, but the horrid tap water rather spoiled it.
=====The evening was spent at a ruin bar – literally a bar set in ruined buildings. It was huge and very busy; we brought Daniel, our Australian roommate, with us to meet Hannah – an American (DEFINITELY not a Kiwi) we’d met in Prague – and her hostellees. Though the baths had seemingly cured my cold, I was still wary of drinking as it makes my throat balloon when ill, so remained teetotal. This was unfortunate: while the bar was exceedingly cool – totally shabby, with squat toilets and rickety chairs to show how super-authentic it all was – the hostellees were not so interesting.
=====After briefly meeting so many people, you cease to care about where they’re from, where they’ve been, where they’re going – why should you, when you’ll probably never see them again? I chatted to a guy from London who was soon to join the Royal Navy. He was fine at first, teaching card games to me, Emily, Daniel, Hannah, a sassy Swiss guy, and his travel partner Jamie, nut after the joys of me winning Irish Snap and losing at Cheat had dried up, we had to talk again, and found we had no common ground. He didn’t like football, and his only view on Countdown was the objectively wrong one that Carol Vorderman should never have left (a view that I scorned and rebuffed with stats), while his interests of aviation (nope), the military (of which, as a pacifist, I am deeply suspicious), and World War II (which interests me, but there are large gaps in my knowledge of it) held little promise. Luckily he too was bored, and sloped off, allowing someone else to steal his seat.
=====We then made for the exit to move on to another bar: bored, tired and ill, I wasn’t keen on the idea but was even less keen on the idea of getting/paying for a taxi back to the hostel by myself, plus had FOMO. Somehow me, Emily, Daniel and Jamie became detached from the trail of people that Hannah led and, after a fruitless goosechase around local bars in the rain, we settled in the empty but hilariously named Irish pub ‘PUBlin’. This proved far preferable to being in a huge group and having to yell pleasantries over a group of obnoxiously rowdy Italians, as we had at the bar, and were able to discuss the important things like music and TV. Jamie lost credibility points when he asked if ‘Summer Of 69’ was by Guns ‘n’ Roses, but regained it by being impressed by meeting a real life octochamp. We eventually called it a night at 2, bringing a loooong day to a close.
WEDNESDAY: My love of lie-ins had been trolled by my cold, and Wednesday began as no exception, an 8am wake-up giving me an opportunity to finish Emma. This great exertion tired me out enough to sleep in til midday, at which point Emily and Daniel went caving, leaving me with most of the day to myself. I spent it at first responding to fanmail (one Twitter admirer taking the novel approach of anagramming ‘We should go on a date’ to woo me, by which I was deeply amused, and almost convinced by the effort) for several hours and chatting to one of my roommates, and then by exploring the city.
=====I strolled about Pest for a while before deciding to walk up to the Parliament building along the river. By the time I was opposite St Matthias, it was dark; the sight of it along with the castle glowing in the dark across the river was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. After some poetically-minded gazing, I set off for Parliament again, thwarted by building works. When we finally reconvened (all starving, the others exhausted), we slumped at a cheap Italian restaurant off the main shopping road, Vaci Utca, and engaged in hearty conversation. Topics of discussion included dickslapping, my arm being used as a doorstop post-taxidermy, and using a man’s skin as a coat (I had no jacket, and had been outside for 5 hours in the cold). Think we slightly alarmed Daniel, but he humoured us anyway.
=====Nothing much has happened since. Time to get off this Railjet train (easily the nicest train we’ve been on thus far, minus the shrieking noises when we leave stations) and find our hostel, the amusingly named Wombats, in Vienna – the Ultravox song named after which we had playing on a loop for an hour, until we realised that you CAN have too much of a good thing.
A hand-cramped Jen
13th September: Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), 16:43
=====We are busy being deeply cultured at the opera! Admittedly by ‘at the opera’ I mean ‘nearly into our third hour of queuing for the cheap standing seats at the big opera house’, but in a few hours we’ll be watching Carmen like true opera buffs.
=====The adults in the queue seem to know that all the interrailers and tourists are blagging it, judging by their glares; a couple diagonally opposite us in the line keep surveying the groups of rowdy youths and fizing them with judgemental stares, while a woman with fierce painted-on eyebrows and a frosty expression just walked past us to reclaim her place, passing the journey by giving each person on her route a look of poisonous disdain. Only an old man with an absolute belter of a combover directly opposite us seems unfazed; he gives us weary half-smiles, clearly unaware that I took several pictures of said combover for posterity while he was sleeping.
=====In between scolding me for trying to create my own snazzy combover (a failure – I have too much hair 😦 ) and struggling through to the halfway point of Les Mis, Emily keeps singing “La la la” in a foreboding way and doing her ‘creepy ginger child smile’. It is deeply unnerving and means I can’t concentrate on reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
=====Uneventful rest of day yesterday, mostly due to Emily’s cold-induced lethargy. We explored the touristy central bit of the city, amazed by the unrelenting beauty of the architecture and occasionally getting confused as to our location. As if the lovely buildings weren’t enough, Vienna has sealed its place in my affections by having more considerate cyclists than elsewhere (read: fewer of them). The relative calm of the place gives us frequent recourse to shatter it by giving tuneful renditions of ‘Vienna’ and ‘Edelweiss’. Surprised we haven’t been arrested yet but then this seems like a city immune to crime, along with poverty, want and strife.
=====Its musical heritage is stamped everywhere, from huge statues of Mozart and Goethe to the men dressed as Mozart, preying on tourists to sign them up to see substandard operas and symphonies. We’d been warned that Vienna had only a child’s colouring-book prettiness and a musical past to offer, but so far this has sufficed.
=====Exploration was halted in favour of food, as we got the U-bahn back to Westbahnhof station and ate at a restaurant near the hostel, whose business cards featured pictures of a disembodied woman’s bust, seemingly clad in traditional Austrian garb. Took one so I could let lechers like my brother and Spanky ogle it – they’ll appreciate the view more than I will.
=====Well-rested after an early night, we set out for the restaurant again for a proper meal at lunchtime, before killing time as a Starbucks near the opera house. The employee who made my drink was very cute, though my attraction subsided rather when, having made my frappuchino, he chucked the straw rather violently at me. Oh blond Austrian Alexander who works at Starbucks, what could have been.
=====We’ve been queuing here ever since 8 – at first outside, in the cold but mercifully sheltered from torrential rain, and then inside. The wait seems to be over, though – time to buy some tickets, watch some opera and attempt to not have my eardrums perforated by 3 1/2 hours of shrill singing…
A not very combed-over Jen
3rd September 2013: Hard Rock Cafe, Prague, 3:15pm
Been a bit lax on the journal front recently due to: tiredness, no table on the train to Prague, grumpiness, business, and having hostel computers WITH chairs (a step up from Berlin, even if the internet is several steps down due to having the speed of a dying snail. This outdated version of Firefox is enough to make me long for Internet Explorer. THAT’S how bad it is). Excuses, excuses – I know.
I’ll summarise each day individually:
SATURDAY EVENING (31st August): We finally made it to a pub crawl! Taking 4 days to get round to going on a night out would no doubt horrify more hedonistic 20-somethings, but Amsterdam was too expensive to go out on the lash in (20 Euros for a pub crawl populated by spotty adolescents labouring under the misapprehension that a pub crawl t-shirt is the epitome of cool? Fuck off…) and we were too tired the night before. Fortunately, the Berlin Alternative Pub Crawl had no spotty adolescent boys and there was not a commemorative t-shirt in sight. A snip at just 10 Euros, with free shots at every place en route (a route that included 4 bars and 1 club), we met people from all over the world: a German guy who seemed frightened by my love of classic tune ‘Moskau’ by Dschingis Khan (to be fair, I did shriek “I LOVE THIS SONG!” with alarming enthusiasm when it came on), a lovely Canadian couple who were off to London next and sought our advice about it, and a load of Americans including Anna, who we met up with in Prague last night.
=====The first bar was adorably kitsch. Its ceiling was adorned with ladybirds, mushrooms and flowers, and it hosted a kick-ass 60s playlist. Overwhelmed with joy to find cider at long last, I indulged in some while Emily opted for the dirt cheap beer (one Euro twenty!! For a proper drink!!). Several Euros were donated to the Jen Losing Her Pinball Machineginity fund, although it lacked the sound effects that make the Microsoft game so fun. Then the shots came out and, well, everyone donated theirs to me. Five consecutive shots and the dregs of Emily’s beer could have ended disastrously but the walk to the Ping Pong Bar thankfully remained chunder-free.
=====The Ping Pong Bar was a bit of a dump: self-consciously bare of decoration, instead a homage to harsh concrete walls, graffiti-filled toilets and leather sofas, it should have been crap – especially given my sheer incompetence at ping pong. A lengthy chat with the Canadian couple ensured that we avoided any pinging or ponging there. It was quickly followed by a trip to Rammstein’s bar, filled with “hardcore” Goth cliches like skeletons, skulls and, er, a giant dildo incorporated into the bannister – which Emily only realised after she’d put her hand on it. The confusion only heightened as the barwoman stood on the bar, wearing just a corset and tiny tutu, shimmying and spinning some glowing balls on strings. Wow, getting a ‘sexy Goth’ to table-dance – how very “hardcore”. Though not as hardcore as me being a reckless anarchist in the bathroom (i.e. somehow managing to knock over a bin that I didn’t even touch). The anarchy only continued when we got to the Rock Bar and I swaggered out the toilets after reapplying lipstick, shouting “DO YOU EVER HAVE THOSE DAYS WHERE YOU LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND THINK GOD, I’M A SEXY BEAST?? I’M HAVING ONE OF THOSE DAYS!”. How embarrassing. The Rock Bar one-upped the Rammstein bar by playing good music (i.e. not death metal), although there were no table-dancing Goths in sight.
=====We’d been informed at the beginning that we would end up at a club that was having an LGBT night. We gamely went along, not knowing what to expect. What to expect turned out to be a fairly underwhelming experience, with one exception: a group of us mooched about the place to explore it, and wandered into a dark room. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so dark that we couldn’t see a bed and “writhing bodies” (Emily’s description). Needless to say, we scarpered and called it a night soon after.
SUNDAY : Following all the educational wandering in the daytime and bar crawling in the evening, Sunday was a lazy day – just as well since I woke up with aching feet and could only limp about in the morning.
=====Eventually we ventured out and saw the East Side Gallery, before trotting off in search of a station so we could get to the Olympia Stadion and then Charlottesburg palace. Unfortunately it was about a mile to the nearest station and my feet began to ache again which, coupled with 4 hours’ sleep, meant I was in a hideous mood – a shame, as I’d been fairly chipper prior to this courtesy of a very nice €3.80 calzone from a local pizzeria (Emily’s margherita was just €3.30). By the time we reached Charlottesburg, I was incapacitated on a park bench in an utterly foul mood, and spent an hour scowling and being moody online while Emily explored the gardens.
=====We’d planned to go o the light show at the Bundestag, but couldn’t be bothered, instead heading back to the hostel to try some local cuisine, Emily having some disappointing wienerschnitzel to satisfy her craving while I tried the ubiquitous German delicacy currywurst. It was ok, but not something I’d necessarily try again. My mood was ok by this time but needed further remedy through sleep.
MONDAY: A four and a half hour train to Prague proved uneventful but had beautiful scenery from Dresden onwards, which I admired in between defacing Douche-Barn leaflets. Emily highly disapproved of my shameless enjoyment in drawing evil eyebrows, a moustache and a top hat on a fat-faced Aryan child, but nothing could keep me from being amused by it. Small things, small minds.
=====On arriving in Prague, we traipsed off to the hostel, accompanied by a cute Norwegian guy who smelled nice (mmm, nice smelling men) but sadly wasn’t staying in our hostel. However, when we went on a pub crawl that evening with Anna – the girl we’d met in Berlin – it turned out that he was staying in her hostel and had been coerced into joining a group that included a lot of Americans and an Australian. One of the American guys had a bottle of absinthe which we finished between us; I was briefly a hero for gulping a sizeable amount of it without wincing, before or after. Thankfully it didn’t sit badly with the 5 glasses of sangria I’d relieved of existence in the hour preceding this.
=====We went onto a labyrinthine bar, where Emily and Anna quickly became BFFs. Bored of being a gooseberry, I joined some of the others – though no sooner had we begun to bond than we were whisked off to the Vodka Bar and ‘treated’ to a round of tequila shots from Absinthe Guy. It had been so long since I’d had tequila – 3 1/2 years – that I’d forgotten the order of salt, tequila and lime, but the more seasoned drinkers gleefully reminded me how it was done, while Emily bickered with a Mexican guy about English history. I left her to it and engaged in football conversations with first the Norwegian guy (sadly a Man United fan who, curiously, was fond of Spurs) and then a group of Geordies, one of whom bore a distinct resemblance to Charlie Reams (he whose website, apterous.org, singlehandedly revolutionised Countdown). Geordie Charlie Reams and I chatted for ages, and I resisted all attempts to be dragged to the dancefloor by the others so we could discuss football, Football Manager and the North. My resistance to dancing paid off: there was apparently a lecher with wandering hands lurking on the dancefloor. Sadly Geordie CR disappeared at the last club before I could swap Facebook details with him: he redeemed what could so easily have been a boring, expensive, existential-crisis-inducing mess of an evening that nearby conversations such as “You’re so skinny!” “No, YOU’RE so skinny” “You’re skinnier!” did nothing to stymie.
=====By the time we reached this last club, my eyes literally could not stay open, even after rubbing them furiously. Emily bumped into a friend from uni by pure coincidence as I was trying to sleep on the stairs. She decided to stay out with him while I went back to the hostel.
Being alone in an alien city by myself woke me up slightly as you have to be on guard, so by the time I got back I was awake enough to gorge myself on some terribly slow hostel internet. Turned out my closely-fought (…or not, final score 112-19) second game on Countdown, broadcast earlier in the day, had earned me my first random Facebook add. Dragged myself away just as Emily showed up. I had to choose the lesser evil of waking everyone up by scrambling around in the dark to find my pyjamas, or freaking out our antisocial Chinese roommates by sleeping in my underwear. As usual, I opted for the choice that required the least amount of effort.
=====Oops, we’ve clearly outstayed our welcome here and the waitress clearly wants us to clear off. Update more later.
A Jen whose hand aches from writing all of that
Later: Mistral Cafe Restaurant, 17:50
=====Stumbled upon a cheap but spacious and clean restaurant that serves mostly Czech cuisine: far more appetising than the KFC up the road, and not much more expensive. I’ve ordered the ragout (a classic Countdown word) for about £3.50.
=====Lazy morning for me as I caught up on sleep and internet (pretty sure I have a clinical addiction to it) while Emily explored the city. We went out at 2pm, first climbing the nearby Clock Tower and then sampling divine milkshakes at the Hard Rock Cafe (even if they were more expensive than my ragout). We’ve wandered past some exciting shops en route including a marionette shop and several absintheries, which sell absinthe ice cream and slush puppies.
=====Haven’t written much about the city thus far. It’s full of beautifully ornate buildings that crop up in unexpected places, though also has its share of shabbier buildings. The square is home to two incredibly grand churches as well as the Clock Tower – whose scale and breathtaking detail clash rather with the tacky little souvenir shops dotted about, which are mostly blindingly white and stuffed with crystals.
=====Who knew that a meal heavily reliant on onions and mushrooms (two foods I’m very picky about) would prove so delicious? Turns out ragout is a potato cake, which sounds less nice than it was. Czech cuisine 1, German cuisine 0.
=====We’re off to the Ice Bar with Anna tonight, a venue recommended by my friend Tamsyn, who was here a few weeks ago. Should be good, though if there are any more “I’m so skinny” conversations, we may not all return from it…
A ragged-out Jen
4th September: Outside Petrínská Observation Tower, 15:59
=====We weren’t sure what the weather would be like when we left, but we took our blazers/jackets as a precaution because the clouds were lurking ominously. Turns out it’s boiling. Not necessarily what you want when climbing to the top of a massive tower.
=====From a viewing perspective, the panorama at the top of the tower is stunning: you can see how much bigger the city is than it feels at ground level. We got the funicular railway up the hill after fiascos with ticket machines that only accept exact change, station workers who had no change, and a poorly ventilated station which made me want to pass out. Change in general is a nuisance in Prague: staff scowl at you when you pay with a note because they rarely have change.
=====The ice bar yesterday was fantastic. We spent 20 minutes in temperatures of -7•C, drinking shots from ice cubes carved into glasses, surrounded by walls, ornaments and a bar made of ice. Afterwards we went to a pub in the square and discussed our lives, travels and men, during which I realised that Anna is in fact not American, but from New Zealand. Oops. I’m so useless at working out accents. I really warmed to her, possibly as a result of my 2-day bad mood subsiding. Shame she’s off to Austria today while we head to Poland tomorrow evening.
=====Off to the castle next – all downhill, thank god. Our legs are shaking from walking up and down the tower, but we will persevere, before probably returning to the restaurant from yesterday and pub crawling again (though I can’t be arsed to be out too long – I’m definitely prematurely middle-aged).
A jelly-legged Jen
5th September: Absintherie, Franz Kafka Square, Prague, 14:43
=====Stuck to my resolution to not stay out too late last night. Sadly this was less down to tiredness, boredom or misery than me being a menace to society and must after making significant inroads into the free bar. There were all the hallmarks of an embarrassing night out: crying in the toilets about man troubles (I really am Bridget Jones mk 2), asking an Australian if he had any family in the UK because he looked quite a bit like a smarmy git I know back home (he didn’t), trying and failing to mount a bar stool and, finally, submitting the 4 huge glasses of Sangria and innumerable free shots to the toilet bowl, turning it a delightful shade of purply red. This classy conclusion to my bar crawling also saw me accidentally rip a toilet seat off and shout, in between chunders, to a very amused Emily and some Irish girls (who were slightly starstruck to meet someone off Countdown) that they should feel privileged to watch a minor daytime TV star throw up. Jesus.
=====After this, Emily made the executive decision to drag me back to the hostel and put me to bed, though not until she’d spent an hour trying to coax me out of falling asleep on the hostel toilet through a variety of methods, among them slapping, singing and threatening to take photos. She has just informed me that I shouted at her for calling me Jen (I.e. the derivative of Jennifer that I’ve insisted on being called for the last decade), the direct quote being “My name’s not Jen! It’s Jennifer! People only call me Jen because I hate being called Jenny!”. Absolutely no recollection of this. Sent a few rambly messages when I woke up sitting up at 5am, before waking up again at 10 with a sober mind but tipsy body. Thank god Emily convinced the staff to give us an extra hour before checkout.
=====V grateful to her generally for looking after me, if guilty for cutting short her night. That said, she did get a free ride on a Segway on the way back, so it’s swings and roundabouts really.
=====Shame to end the day like that after an amusing afternoon. We walked past a couple on a park bench who were indulging in some heavy petting that was probably illegal in public – I’m pretty sure no woman in the history of the world has ever looked so unimpressed with a man licking her breast as the woman in the park – and having a serious discussion about the possibility of a wasp flying up a woman’s crevice and impregnating her. Relieved as I am to learn that wasps cannot impregnate humans, I am still never squatting outside. =====The palace looked more impressive from far away – we couldn’t afford to go in – and we made it back to the restaurant from Tuesday evening. On shamelessly using the restaurant’s Wifi, I discovered a randomer’s tweet referring to me as a slag. Highly amused, I responded, signing off as “the slag”; one apology from him and some rapport later, I had manages to convert him to what has been dubbed ‘Steadmania’. Offended and delighted many others with my errant cleavage in the same show – intrigued to watch and see exactly how much boob was on display. May have to use this dress in future if I want a favour.
=====It’s my knickers I’ve been flashing today though as we took advantage of the gloriously sunny weather to take a pedalo ride around the river, neither of us wearing tights with our dresses and probably offending passers-by. We weren’t bothered though: it was a relaxing way to see the city and looked good in our photos. We may have ruined the experience for others though by singing loudly throughout: we paid tribute to our churchgoing childhoods by signing some anthemic hymns, before celebrating the city’s Bohemian history by singing Bohemian Rhapsody and finally moving onto a lairy rendition of Hakuna Matata.
=====We have to leave the Absintherie now as, despite me barely having finished my absinthe ice cream (nice to begin with, nasty aftertaste) and the shop being otherwise deserted, the waitress has informed us that it is “not possible” for is to sit here unless we have a drink. Pretty sure she’s just holding a grudge after I paid for a 39 crown ice cream with a 200 crown note and she had to pay the other 161 crowns back in change.
=====We’re off to Krakow tonight on a night train – looking forward to it, as I feel we’ve outstayed our welcome here. It’ll be interesting to see what our £4.50-per-night hostel is like too…
A very embarrassing when drunk Jen
7th September: Old Town Square, Krakow (Poland), 16:11
=====Bit of a change in tone to go from frivolous tales of drunken debauchery and absinthe ice cream to the most horrific, systematic genocide in history, but I’m going to start this entry on Auschwitz where we spent the morning and early afternoon today. The princely sum of £26 for an adult ticket has scuppered my plans to recoup my budget from the jaws of overspending while we’re here, but it was more worth it than the disastrous pub crawl on Wednesday.
=====The blazing sunshine and blue skies as far as the eye could see seemed ironic for such a miserable place. The horrid, dingy little rooms where so many suffered clashed with the cheery weather outside, the total joylessness of visitors’ expressions seemed out of place on a day that would have suited a trip to the beach, and the whole scene of bleakness and vastness would have somehow been more believable with snow on the ground, instead of blades of the greenest grass glowing in the sunlight.
=====Not much would have made the sights seem real, admittedly. It was scarcely comprehensible to think that the room-sized bundle of hair and the enormous piles of shoes, bags and combs were just a fraction of the belongings stolen from the doomed inmates when they arrived, or that 4 to 5 people could have slept in a square metre standing block, or that three-tier wooden ‘beds’ designed for horses could fit more than 15 people. We went through the only remaining gas chamber with lumps in our throats. But sadness quickly turned to anger when some absolute twonk on our tour started chuckling heartily in the chamber and crematoria at some ridiculous comment by his wife. I’m rarely one to get sanctimonious, but when you’re at the site of mass genocide, can’t ‘hilarious’ comments wait a moment? I couldn’t see a single other person on the entire site who had the capacity to break a smile there, let alone laugh in the gas chamber.
=====The only other smile I saw there was a devastating one. One exhibit had hundreds of pictures of victims on the walls, along with names, birthdates, dates of arrival and death dates. Rows upon rows of sunken, despairing eyes stared out with hopeless expressions, which was haunting enough. But one woman was defiant: she smiled, a mischievous smile, as though she were both trying to keep her own spirits up and tell the Nazis they wouldn’t break her. But they did. It broke my heart.
=====It certainly put my night-training, foot-aching, Scrabble-losing, hand-washing woes into perspective. To begin with the night train. Ever since I can remember, I have been afraid of being on the top bunk of bunk beds. Ones with sturdy, thick ladders are fine, but the majority are as thick as matchsticks, and so most attempts to overcome this fear at friends’ houses have resulted in me screaming and either being paralysed by fear or clumsily trying to jump over the side rather than face the ladder. Imagine my joy on discovering I was on the top of a 3-tier bunk bed on the night train!
=====On scrambling to the top, I refused to get down until we got to Krakow, some 8 1/2 hours later. This wouldn’t have been too bad if I could have sat up on the bed. But, alas, even my infamously short self was unable to sit up, unless one counts ‘sitting up with one’s head on one’s shoulder’, which I don’t. Left with no choice but to lay down for the whole journey, I read the first 50 pages of Emma (which I’ve been meaning to read for years) and slept for 7 hours. So not all bad.
=====However, 7 hours was not enough to refresh me enough to make me relish the half-hour search for the relevant tram stop/tram proved unsuccessful and we trekked across the city for half an hour. We reached an unsavoury-looking area which was quickly dubbed ‘the ghetto’ and, wouldn’t you know it, was where our hostel was… A host we couldn’t check into for another 6 hours. My plans for sleep and a shower scuppered, we joined a free walking tour in the Old Town.
=====Much to our relief, the Old Town is lovely; up to that point we’d been distinctly unimpressed with the city. Our tour guide Gosia was incredibly personable and regaled us with folklore involving exploding dragons, cases of architecture-induced fratricide, and heroic bugle players shot through the throat. There were also true stories about football hooligans bonding over a dead Pope, and some sly social commentary – on discussing a local dragon’s penchant for eating young virgin girls, she told us that Krakovians say that these days, the dragon would starve. Enjoyed the tour immensely even if it made our feet hurt.
=====The rest of the day passed in a blur of seeing Scottish stag parties featuring men in dresses and romper suits, watching some miserable cow on Countdown after we managed to stream it from the hostel (I SWEAR I smiled more than that), £2.50 for a pizza at the local pizzeria, and a frenzied game of Scrabble which Emily won by a single point. It then occurred to us that we could restore our piles of laundry to a wearable state by doing some laundry. A lack of plugs in the bathroom sink, a grotty kitchen sink and no washing machine meant we had to get creative with a giant saucepan. The results are yet to be confirmed, but it gave us something to do while our roomies butchered Rihanna songs in the common room. Thankfully we were tired enough once we’d finished to sleep through the rest of their hideous caterwauling.
=====Still tired from our 7am start today though. Hoping to get an early night after having some dinner, finding postcards and seeing if we can find the ginger pigeon that is Emily’s pigeony twin. A man just muttered angrily at us in Polish. Time to go.
A fairly solemn and slightly sunburnt Jen