When I was studying psychology during my undergraduate years, one of my favourite projects involved examining people’s attitudes to speeding. As a class, we designed a phone survey, and we were randomly allocated sections of the White Pages from which to find interview subjects. I read a variety of papers on the topic, and remember coming across literature which outlined the moral problem of setting speed limits on federal highways in America — and back then I had no concept of what that battle was really about and thought that surely speed limits were a good thing, and wasn’t it a government’s job to set laws to protect lives? Although I still agree with that basic premise, I now appreciate that it’s not always as simple as that. Individuals can probably take on some of the risk of driving and use their skills to stay safe — like what happens on Germany’s autobahns.
I’m sure many people have come to Germany just to experience the thrill of driving without limits, and now I’ve had the chance to experience it for myself. We sat in the hire car while our German friend drove from Leipzig to Prague, pushing 200km/hour at times, and otherwise settling on the comfortable speed of around 130km/hour. It felt strangely safe to be travelling so fast, and there was never a moment I felt worried something would go awry. I’m sure that if something went wrong on the autobahn, it would go spectacularly wrong at such speeds, but it was all as smooth as clockwork that day.
In any case, that’s how we got to Prague in a few hours. We left Leipzig after a late lunch and arrived in Prague well before dinner. It was wonderful to arrive in a new country like that, which is something we have no concept of in Australia. That same amount of driving time would have led me only from Sydney to Canberra.
Prague is firmly on the European tourist trail and from the moment we arrived I could understand why people loved it so much. Although it was no longer summer, there were still thousands of tourists in town. It must get awfully crowded during the peak season.
There was no great revelation awaiting me in Prague, certainly not in a few days, but it was actually really refreshing to be in a Slavic country. Slavic culture as a whole is a bit familiar to me growing up in Western Sydney and I also had Polish and Czech housemates in London, but otherwise I’ve never been that interested in going to Eastern Europe. I’m glad I finally cracked the ice because there was so much that was new to me in Prague; obviously the food and drink, but also the multicultural mix — including lots of expats at a modern restaurant we dined at one night in the Jewish quarter. Somehow, having internationals around makes a city instantly cosmopolitan. I also noticed that Prague was somewhat over-run with foreign brands, which perhaps added to my perception about its cosmpolitanism. There were also a lot of Vietnamese living there, and the conversations I overheard suggested they were from the North of Vietnam so they probably came as ‘guest workers’ during the Communist years.
One thing I immediately loved was encountering a totally new language. I had a faint idea of how to read the Roman characters of Czech with its diacritics, but beyond that I didn’t even know how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and didn’t have time beforehand to look up (which was lazy of me). Struggling with the language was actually something of a highlight — as Josh said at some point, this is when travel is often at its best — going into a cafe where no one speaks English and having to muddle your way through the order. Though to be perfectly honest it wasn’t really all that hard to work out how to order a capuccino and a toasted tomato and mozzarella sandwich. Aside from English, Italian food is the world’s other global language.
There are a lot of cities in the world which give off an air of old-world romanticism, and Prague is right up there with them. We wandered through the main square a few times, walked over the Charles Bridge and explored the extensive castle — and there were moments I felt overwhelmed by its beauty. It rained on one of the afternoons and wandering around together under a cheap umbrella, it was impossible to not feel the city’s magic.
Because of the rain, we hung out in nice cafes and also popped into a contemporary art gallery. It was interesting to see the large collection of work from Central Europe. It’s healthy for me to be constantly reminded that cultural reference points and ongoing concerns can be very different around the world.
We had a local connection in Prague, a Polish friend of our German friend, and she’d been living in the city for a year. I really enjoyed meeting her and it was intriguing to meet someone the same age from Poland who had the same lust for travel. On our second and last night she invited us over to her apartment outside of the old city for pierogi (dumplings) made by her mother — and a home-cooked meal is always an offer far too good to refuse. Visiting her also fit in with my current pattern of travel which is to make sure I always see the new parts of cities, and not just the pristine old parts so that I get a better sense of the living, breathing culture of a place.
The next day I was heading off to Stockholm, while Josh was off to Bangkok, and it was our last night together until mid-December.