Before I dive into this story, you have to know that I loved Swarovski crystal figurines. In fact, every time our family goes on a trip, I get a piece to commemorate our travels. If it's a small trip, I usually get a small figurine. If it's a big trip, I get a big one. When Rick and I took a trip to Austria's Salzburg and Vienna, I got a big one: a crystal piano.
Now back in the day before kids, Rick and I used to travel quite a bit. If we'd bought crystal for each trip it would have put us in the poor house so we decided that some trips didn't wouldn't warrant it.
The tale I'm going to tell you now to tell you is about one of those crystal-free trips.
It was 1993 and we had just moved to Germany. Rick was especially pumped. "We're so close to the Alps!" he would say. "I can't wait to go skiing!" Um...yeah.
You see, I wasn't a skier. Not even a little. Sure, I had skied a couple of times, but both had been on small Wisconsin hills. And even then I'd sucked. We're talking black-and-blue-butt sucked. Still, Rick loved skiing. I knew my destiny was doomed.
The first Thanksgiving we were out there, Rick made arrangements for us to go skiing with friends at Steinplatte Ski Resort in Austria. Man, was I nervous. Before we went, I told Rick I wanted lessons from a ski school instructor. Rick balked, "Lessons? You don't need no stinkin' lessons," he replied with Blazing Saddles flourish. Rick was an expert skier. He could easily teach me. Why throw good money away?
When we arrived at the ski lodge, I brought up the subject again. I may have even begged.. "Rick, you have no idea how bad I am. I really think I need lessons."
Rick still brushed it aside. "Well, you have no idea how good of a skier I am. Trust me, you'll be fine."
The next morning, after I composed my last will and testament, we suited up and hit the hills. As we rode up the chair lift, I swore the mountain grew before our eyes. It got bigger and bigger. Taller and taller. There was no way I'd make it back down. Just getting off the chair lift proved too great. As soon as I skied off the bench, I landed on my butt.
"Don't worry," Rick said with the gusto of a cheerleader trying to will their losing team to win. "Chair lifts aren't easy the first few times. You'll be fine on the hill. Just follow me."
We started going down the mountain and I did follow him for about ten seconds or so. Problem was, I didn't know how to stop or slow down. Before I knew it I was way ahead of him. And I was going fast -- too fast -- and a big turn was coming up. I screamed back to Rick, "How do I stop?" Rick bolted forward, doing his best to catch up with me. I forgot what he told me to do.
What I do remember is the mountain. You know those banked turns that keep you from skiing off a cliff? Well, this ski run didn't have one. As for those fences that catch you if you do run off a cliff? Nope. Didn't have those either. As I careened toward the turn I couldn't make, I realized what would happen if I didn't stop. I'd Wile E. Coyote off the cliff and then plummet to my death.
HOLY HAND GRENADES!
Rick realized it, too. "Just crash!" he yelled. Now that's something I could do well. Just shy of the cliff I tumbled backward -- a sea of arms, legs, skis and poles.
It wasn't pretty. When Rick caught up to me, a slew of creative and crude expletives burst from my mouth. He just stood there, stunned. Then he smiled at me rather sheepishly. "How would you feel about getting some lessons?"
Needless to say, I got a HUGE crystal figurine for that trip.
Prague's castle district
It’s been a long while since I talked about my travels overseas, a fact I’m sure has made you lose a lot of sleep. But worry no more. Today I'm bringing you the tale of our first trip to Prague in 1993.
When we went, it had only been four years since the Velvet Revolution. To say the Czech Republic was still bouncing back after years of communism would be a big understatement. But I didn’t care. My husband and I had just been stationed in Germany and I was (still am) part Bohemian. And by "Bohemian" I don't mean artsy chic. I mean from Bohemia, part of the republic. I couldn’t wait to check out the motherland. We went right away.
You know that bit about making a good first impression? The Czech Republic failed miserably. As soon as we drove past the border we saw dozens of (ahem) ladies of opportunity lined up along highway. And these ladies looked HARD. They were working for food, not a cute pair of Ferragamos. The country was in transition, all right. We feared we had arrived too early.
Many miles later, we made it to the outskirts of Prague. In order to get lodgings in the city we had to visit a shack right off the highway exit --and I do mean a shack. About ten feet square, it had clapboard walls and a concrete floor. Inside was an attendant with a bunch of binders filled with pages of make-shift hotels. There were also private residences available for rent while the tenants were away. We chose a private residence -- a one-bedroom apartment for only $30 per night.
We paid our fees, got the keys, then headed into the city. After a long search down many a broken down street, we finally found our apartment. Every building on the street was old and covered with the blackest of soot. Yuck. As for inside the apartment, we were lucky. The gentleman who resided there left us plenty of entertainment. Right next to the 13" television was a stack of pornographic magazines.
No matter. We weren't there to stay indoors, plus by then we were starving. We needed dinner.
Minutes later, we put foot to pavement in search of a decent meal.
We didn’t find one. All we found were more blackened buildings, torn up sidewalks and burned out streetlamps. Not ideal. In fact, it was so bad when we got back to the apartment, I considered asking Rick if he wanted to leave the next day. Little did I know, Rick was thinking the same thing as me. THANK GOD we didn’t say anything to each other. Why? Because the very next day Prague became my absolute favorite city in all of Europe.
One of many smiles in Prague.
It started the next day when our trolley -- a decrepit old thing with sparks flying everywhere -- dumped us off near the Castle District. Again, soot everywhere. I’m not exaggerating when I say the buildings were quite literally black. However, a few blocks into our walk we saw a city worker sandblasting one of them. What he uncovered amazed us. Underneath all that gunk was masterfully carved stonework -- beautiful! As we continued on our way, we saw more sand-blasted buildings, all of them absolutely gorgeous. We were inspired. Was there more to see in this town?
We walked down the Golden Lane at Prague Castle and explored the beautiful cathedral. We found a little café next to the Charles Bridge and watched the Castle District light up at twilight. We found a bakery off Old Town Square that sold chocolate éclairs for just five cents a piece. FIVE CENTS! The food was crazy cheap everywhere. It was tasty, too.
St. Nicholas church -- near the 5 cent eclairs!
The more we explored Prague, the more we loved it. We vowed to come back again and we did. In fact, we went often and each time we did, Prague got more and more beautiful. That wasn’t all, though. Even the grocery store shelves which, in the beginning, were only 10% full, slowly grew increasingly stocked. It was wonderful watching the city bounce back from communist rule and return to its former glory. Each time we visited, we got bolder, going further into the country and discovering cool, new places.
I often think about what would have happened if we’d turned around and headed home that first night. I’m so glad we didn’t. The Czech Republic holds such a dear place in my heart. One day I hope to go back.
Rick and my parents eating at famed restaurant U Fleku.
P.S. If you liked this story, check out my other tales from Germany and Italy. I act like an idiot in both. ;)
If this isn’t your first time here, you may have read my harrowing account of stupidity in Lost in Translation: The Wall. Well, I’m here to tell you I have the distinct honor of being a screw up in more than one language. This time? Italy.
Ahhh, Italy. The history, the architecture, THE FOOD! The 'Eat, Pray, Love' chick got it right. If you want to eat until your belly button pops out, Italy is the place to go. Not only does it have the best cuisine but the best waiters, too. In Italy, being a waiter is a vocation, not a way to help pay for college or pay the bills until some Hollywood producer discovers you. Food is an art. The chef? An artist. The server? Dang, I don’t know where I’m going with this just trust me, Italian waiters are awesome. They strive to make your meal pleasurable, memorable.
Anyway, during one of our trips to Venice, my husband and I discovered a wonderful little restaurant near Basilica di San Marco, which sounds way cooler than St. Mark’s Basilica. The atmosphere was beautiful, the menu scrumptious, the waiter? Ohhhhhh, man. Tall, dark and handsome never looked so good.
He came right to our table as soon as we were seated and started rolling out the charm. That smile, that accent -- I don’t care what people say, Italian is the most romantic language in the world. Though I had no idea what he was saying to me, in my heart I knew it was something like this:
Senorina, are you enjoying your stay in Venice? (I nod.)
Never have I waited on someone so lovely. I hope you find my city lovely, too? (I nod again.)
And the shopping. Please say your husband has indulged you with a trinket or two. Maybe some jewelry? A Gucci handbag? (Another nod.)
Etc., etc., etc.
And so it continued for a minute or two, he with the questions and me nodding like a bobble-head. My husband just looked on and smiled. “Looks like I need to learn Italian,” he chuckled. Well, as it turned out, I was the one who needed to learn it because five minutes later the waiter came out with a serving tray the circumference of the moon. I swear I saw his knees buckle right before he set it down. That’s when I realized our earlier conversation had sounded more like this:
Senorina, would you like to start with a glass of our special house wine? (I nod.)
I’m sure you would like an appetizer, as well. Can I bring you some cheese and bread to start? (I nod again.)
Our salads here are also amazing. Can I interest you in our caprese salad? One for your husband, too? (Another nod)
Etc., etc., etc.
Now I can’t say it was the only time I was suckered into buying something due to a language barrier, but I can say that it was the most enjoyable one. Like I said, in Italy the waiter’s job is to make your dining experience memorable.
He didn’t fail at his task.
As a regular reader of my posts you may wonder, “How did this woman get so wise?” Well, I could tell you that with age comes wisdom and, after many years of parenting, I’ve learned a thing or two. However, the truth is I’ve been wise all my life. Yep, I came out of the womb filled with shrewd sensibilities.
Case in point: my sure-footed travels through Europe. No missteps there.
Before I begin, you need to know I studied Spanish in school. To my delight I became quite fluent, allowing me to travel to Mexico several times without fear of accidentally ordering flaming donkey poo with my chicken enchiladas. What it didn’t prepare me for was a three-year stint in Germany with my husband, Rick, who’d decided to join the Army.
We moved there during the summer of 1993, not long after The Wall came down. What’s ‘The Wall,’ you ask? Thus begins the gratuitously educational section of this post. (We’ll get to my wisdom later.)
When World War II ended in 1945, Europe was divided into two separate groups: the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact countries. Here’s a map:
See Germany? It was the only country split in two, turning it into East Germany and West Germany. Mean, I know, but for some strange reason everyone was pretty mad at the Germans and just didn’t care.
Anyway, the NATO countries all had democratic governments, whereas the Warsaw Pact countries were tied to the Soviet Union, which was run by communists. Dirty, filthy communists! World War II had just ended, and already the Cold War had begun. Sigh.
What was the Cold War? Well, it wasn’t really a war, just a lot of tension, worry, and name-calling between the two sets of countries. This not only produced some totally awesome thriller spy movies, but the Berlin Wall -- a tall, cement wall that separated East Berlin from West Berlin -- and the ‘Iron Curtain’ -- a long, heavily guarded steel (not iron!) fence that separated the Eastern/Warsaw Pact countries from the Western/NATO ones. If the countries couldn’t play nice, they wouldn't play at all! Built by the Soviets, its main purpose was to keep Easterners in and Westerners out.
Now I won’t get into all of the politics, but I will tell you that people COULD NOT CROSS THAT FENCE. Military, diplomats, tourists from afar? Only through special checkpoints and if they had the right paperwork. Everyday citizens? No way. If they tried -- and some from the oppressive East side did – the Soviet guards were under orders to shoot them on sight. That’s the way things remained until 1989 when Soviet leadership crumbled and both the Wall and Iron Curtain were torn down.
Okay, history lesson over. Back to my infinite wisdom.
We’d just been stationed about 20 miles from the old East German/West German border in a town called Schweinfurt (translation: Pig Crossing. No joke.) We decided it’d be cool to drive up to the old border patrol checkpoints and see what was left. The short answer: not much.
Outside of an old tank trail and some heavy metal fencing, little of the area remained. Here’s a photo (and yes, that’s my husband looking all serious):
Anyway, even thought there wasn’t much to see, it was cool traipsing through the grass field, imagining what life was like just a few short years ago.
Oh! I forgot to mention something else we saw. Posted sporadically in the field were small white signs in German. They looked like this:
What did they say? Don’t ask me. Like I said, I knew Spanish, not German. So we did what most Americans do in a foreign country. We ignored them.
Flash forward three years. Our tour in Germany was wrapping up. We decided it’d be fun to go back to the border and see how much it’d changed. The short answer: not much.
But I had changed. I was not only pregnant, but fairly fluent in German. Hey, what do you know! I could read the signs!
Now my German is not what it used to be, so I’ll have to paraphrase, but they said a little something like this:
Entering and walking the field is forbidden!
Then they went on to inform us there were yet to be diffused landmines buried throughout the area.
It took us half an hour to walk the forty foot stretch back to our car.
Anyway, like I said, I’ve been wise all my life. Any other questions?
Map from the files of W.W. Norton & Co. Thanks!