This isn’t about heroin. This is about a real night train.
It was my last day in Prague and it would be a weird one. I had to check out at 11am and had an overnight train to Krakow that didn’t leave until 10pm. I checked out even earlier than 11:00, too anxious to sleep late, I got up and showered and had of course already packed the night before. I tried to watch a Thanksgiving episode of Bob’s Burgers to distract me but that just reminded me that in a couple hours, my friends and family would be getting up for Thanksgiving prep, travel, togetherness.
Fortunately, the hotel not only allowed me to leave my luggage with them, they had a sister hostel across the street where I could sit for as long as I wanted. I went over, drank four cups of coffee and loaded up on fruit, I felt a cold coming on. Then, I took my last walk through Prague.
I started with Old Town, went to visit the astrology clock one last time. I walked through the square and watched people assemble the small, wooden houses for the impending Christmas market. I liked that here, everyone was preparing for Christmas, not Thanksgiving. It made me forget for sparse moments throughout the day what I was missing back home. Then I decided I would go to the Jewish Cemetery and wandered around for about an hour looking for it. Turns out I had passed it several times, I just didn’t realize you couldn’t view it from the street, that you had to pay for a ticket to go in.
There were three tours offered and I asked the woman which I should get. She was old, everyone who worked here was. She pointed a crooked finger to the scratched up plaque to the left of her. I couldn’t read it, there were entire letters and words missing.
“I’d like to see the cemetery.” I finally said.
“Tour One or Tour Two,” she said with a thick, Slavic accent.
“Okay, then Two.” I said, seeing that it also allowed me to view several synagogues and a museum.
“No, one ticket for Tour Two.” That was when I noticed a woman standing obscenely close to me, also trying to read the plaque.
I took my ticket and followed a crowd into a synagogue that had its walls painted with the names of the murdered and missing Jewish Czech citizens between the years 1939 and 1945. It was over 100,000. The names included dates if birthdays and death dates were known. They alternated in red and black font. The effect was dizzying, the font was so small and there were just so many names.
I always find myself searching for my grandpa’s last name when I am in buildings like this. His parents were Russian Jews who moved to Brooklyn to start a family in the early 1900’s. I wonder how many family members he lost that he didn’t even know about. There were no Wolk’s here.
After that I walked in a somber line through the cemetery. The headstones were jagged, shooting up from the ground like sporadic shark’s teeth. Some were green with moss, some had no moss at all. The ones near the roped off path had pebbles balanced on top of them and as I moved further through the crowded plot, I could see that folded prayers were shoved in any crevice of the headstones closest to the path. A small tea candle was lit on top of one.
I did not realize how big the cemetery was and often stopped to look at its magnitude. It was incredible to me how many people were beneath the ground. It was incredible to me how close the headstones were together, how they leaned in every direction like they were all just trying to sleep now.
After that I needed to be on my own. I put my headphones on and walk towards the Charles Bridge. A man in sailor costume promoting boat tours asked me to get coffee, I lied and said I was on my way to catch my train to Poland soon. There are very few people worth sacrificing my last day in Prague for.
I found and climbed some ridiculous stairs up the side of a mountain. Graffiti overtook every inch of the walls, steps, statues. An empty beer bottle sat on the edge of the highest point. I stood next to it and looked out over Prague. To my right, a smaller version of the Eiffel Tower stood atop the neighboring mountain. I walked through the park that lay behind me and then back down the stairs. I wandered over the Charles Bridge again, trying to avoid the fake sailor as I backtracked, and made it back to the astrology clock where I sat and had a big, early dinner.
I was outside and beneath a space heater, looking out at people on Segway tours. One tourist fell off his, the guides all stifled laughter. Next to me, a Scottish couple argued and smoked together, lovingly. The woman complained that the man was asking everyone for directions to the same place, she complained that her mulled wine was too hot when he tried to cheers with her, and looked over enviously at my hot chocolate, saying she should have gotten what I got. She rambled while he ignored her, coughing up a smoker’s cough periodically. A woman who worked for the restaurant asked to take their picture. They waved her away without saying anything.
The sun was gone now, horses drawing carriages full of tourists trotted by. My last day in Prague was coming to a close. I walked slowly back to the hotel, collected my things and waited in the hostel for a cab.
The cab charged me a fifth of what the first cab from the same train station had cost me. Oh well. The station was nearly empty but for groups of tired looking travelers, bent under the weight of their backpacks. I stood beneath the sign and waited for my platform to be announced then headed down the dark underground corridor, ascending into a darker night and a completely empty platform.
An older woman came tearing up the stairs, looked at the sign, looked at me, and walked directly to the left as if there was a train there that I couldn’t see and she knew exactly which car she was supposed to be on.
Turns out, she was right. When the train arrived a minute later, she was in the right place. I followed her lead and looked at the train door, a sign listing various cities I’d never heard of hung from it. No Krakow. But the digital sign overhead clearly said this was the platform for Krakow.
An old man in all black got off the train, I hoped he was an employee and handed him my ticket, asking if this was in fact the train to Krakow.
“No.” He sighed and handed the ticket back to me. “Krakow,” he waved me down to the other end of the platform. “Down.”
Having no idea what that meant, I followed his direction until I got closer to the front of the train. I asked another older man stepping off the train in the same uniform, he said the same thing, sternly and knowingly, he waved me further forward with no more than two words: “No, down.”
Suddenly, the doors had new signs on them, and they said the train would terminate in Krakow. When I boarded my assigned car, I asked a Swedish passenger if this was the train to Krakow. He said yes. I asked about how the other half of the train was going to entirely different cities.
“The train will disconnect,” he said, “I hope!”
He was astonished that I was American, perhaps I have picked up an accent.
Then, yet another version of the same stern, older man in a black uniform came down the hall.
“Is this train going to Krakow?” I asked, handing him my ticket.
“Yes. You are on the right train, in the right car.” I let out a sigh of relief. That was almost too easy. “But there has been a mistake.” Shocker. “You have been assigned my bunk. I will give you a new one. One to yourself.” What! That was great news! I was dreading sharing a room with five strangers! “Go down to number two, it’s all yours. I will explain everything.” He took my ticket and walked away, as they always seem to do.
Unlike every other train employee, this man did come back and explain things to me. He showed me how to lock the door properly and warned me to be careful as this train was making multiple stops. When we were thirty minutes away from Krakow he would knock on my door to wake me up and return my ticket. He also brought coffee and a croissant! I never wanted to leave this man.
But I did, my train pulled into Krakow at 6:45am, just shy of a nine hour trip. I slept for about three of those hours, the rest were spent lying on the shaking train, listening to passengers board and disembark, and the singing of metal against metal as we crossed borders in the night.