Sunday, January 29, 2017

You can never go home (there) again

I've been reading The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson.   He travelled around Britain, originally planning to travel from Bognor Regis and north to Cape Wrath but taking a lot of detours.   I'm halfway through the book now and one overall impression is his disappointment with how the former charming English sites and villages have changed and not for the better.   The memorable front gardens of English country homes have been paved and instead of flowers and shrubs are populated by wheelie garbage cans.   Pubs have disappeared, charming hotels are shut down and shopkeepers are ornery.   In some ways the author reflects what can happen to older/retired people who can develop the firm belief that things were better in the old days.  There's also something of the 'you can't go home anymore' about the journey that can be a lesson to us all.

I visited   Czechoslovakia  in 1996 three years after it split into two countries:   Slovakia and the Czech Republic.    One of the things I recall is that Hillary Clinton was there at the same time, by coincidence, and was visiting Prague Castle at the same time I was there with one of my daughters.   She was First Lady at that time and on a tour of Eastern and Central Europe with the goal of promoting emerging democracies of the former Soviet bloc., including also Estonia, Slovakia, Hungary and Finland.   There was little security other than a closed wrought iron gate as she emerged from a limousine, but this was well before 9/11.

There were few North American tourists in the Czech Republic and Slovakia at this time although we discovered that Western Europeans used to make brief trips to visit the cheaper dentists or obtain less expensive eyeglasses.    I had a phrase book which was of some use but I'm embarrassed now to admit that we never did figure out how to pay for the streetcars and buses so we didn't.   You entered near the back and I never saw a conductor or other money collector.   Maybe I should have tried harder; it wasn't my intention to deprive the state of any money.   I believe the fares were about five cents.  Generally, everything was cheap; I recall paying the equivalent of twenty-five cents as one museum entrance.

We were pick-pocketed on the Metro in Prague.   It was all very slick; the doors started closing suddenly and we were pressed from behind.   Since I wore a money belt, I lost nothing except a lipstick.  I won't forget the hateful expression in the eyes of the female perpetrator who had stepped off the train and onto the platform at the next station and kicked my rolling lipstick under the tracks, beyond retrieval.  My daughter's wallet was taken but she only had $10 in it and her newly acquired Driver's License.   Neither of us lost our Passports, almost the most valuable document when travelling.  A month after our return home, the Canadian embassy in Prague mailed the wallet to us.   It seems pickpockets dump the wallets, minus cash, in a mailbox and from there the post office forwards them to the applicable Embassy.

Another fascinating event occurred when we were heading home from an evening classical concert, waiting in the underground Metro for the train.   All was quiet;  there were only a few people seated on the benches.   All of a sudden a platoon of police in full riot gear marched in formation down the outside steps to a distance not far from where we sat.   They wore black leather hip length boots, full helmets and nightsticks/batons.    They  ended up in formation, about ten facing one way and ten the other, back to back, facing silently forward, shields up and nightsticks at the ready.   Perhaps I should have been frightened but it seemed a little unbelievable and none of them looked in our direction.

Within five minutes a train pulled up, packed with attendees from a Sex Pistols rock concert. I suppose the riot police were there in case they were needed or maybe just as a sobering influence.  They never changed their stance; it wasn't necessary and  the crowd dispersed quietly. 

There was another experience that week because, silly me, I had not purchased travel insurance, still somehow at that age when you assume you are indestructible.   I contracted conjunctivitis and my daughter bronchitis and how we solved that problem is another story.

Prague is a beautiful city but I suspect it has changed.   I'm reluctant to go back and end up complaining about how different things used to be.   It also doesn't seem likely that my adventures would be repeated, whether that's a good thing or not, I'm not sure.   

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