Prague was also the place where I saw my first familiar face in almost two months. Laura Bailey, my brother-in-law's mother (or my sister's mother-in-law, whichever you prefer) happened to be in Prague for the annual meeting of the Swedish-based company she works for
. She offered to take me out for dinner knowing that I probably hadn't had a truly decent meal in sometime and I was more than happy to oblige. Laura arrived in front of my hostel along with her friend and Canadian counterpart (Laura is the Director of Marketing for the entire US), who's name also happened to be Laura and together we strolled across the Charles Bridge to the restaurant of their choice, Kampa Park. Kampa Park was a very classy, modern and up-scale place situated on the banks of the Vltava River with an equally classy, modern and up-scale staff and menu. Now if you have seen any of my photos you will notice that I often appear wearing one of two or three different outfits (all I can afford to carry in my backpack weight-wise) and over the course of two months of daily wear they were starting to get a little ratty. No doubt the staff were probably wondering who these two well-to-do women were with this vagabond they had graciously invited to dinner. Laura informed, to my delight, that I could have my choice of anything on the menu regardless of price and I naturally chose a meal I had been desiring since my departure from home, Filet Mignon with asparagus and a twice baked potato and finishing it all off with a chocolate sorbet complete with raspberry mousse and maple walnut ice cream. We chatted about life back home, most of which centred around my little nephew Thomas and his foray into the world of swimming lessons, music class and all those wonderful little firsts that I will unfortunately be missing out on for the time being
. All in all it was an excellent evening.
When I returned to my hostel after dinner I discovered that I had a new roommate. Sergei was a twenty-something engineer from Minsk, Belarus who had traveled 24 hours by train just to see Prague for one day before heading to Wroclaw, Poland for a heavy metal concert. Belarus, for those of you who are unaware (including myself until doing some research on the country) is a country in Eastern Europe formerly part of the Soviet Union. It is now ruled by in Sergei's words a "nut case" by the name of Alexander Lukaschenko who has been in power unopposed since 1994 under Soviet-era policies and what some describe as a legal dictatorship. He told me about life in his country and how despite the fact that he had a master's degree he made the equivalent of $200 US a month, barely enough for food and shelter. In Belarus student's who perform well in university are recruited against their will by the government to work for them for a minimum of 3 years while making the paltry sum mentioned above. He also told me of the hoops he had to jump through just to make the journey to Poland and the Czech Republic, paying outrageous visa fees, requiring a sponsor, and more or less being monitored for the entire length of his short journey out of Belarus. He asked me what I had to do to get a visa for the places I had visited and when I said, "I just showed up and they stamped my passport," he told me over and over again how lucky I was to live in a country like Canada
. When I asked him how he could afford to travel at all on such a low salary his answer was both simple and surprising, "I play on-line poker...and I am very
good at." In the middle of our conversation Sergei's cell phone started ringing and when he answered it he began speaking in Russian to the as yet unidentified caller. When he hung up I said to him with a grin, "was that your mother?", he started laughing, "yes it was. How did you know that? Do you speak Russian?". "No", I said, "but you can always tell by the tone of their voice when a man is speaking to his mother."
Up to this point I have made very little mention of the actual city of Prague. Despite having visited such renowned stunners as Paris, Barcelona and Venice, Prague is simply unmatched (with the possible exception of Florence) in sheer, draw-dropping beauty. The town square is among the most impressive I have seen anywhere and the view from the Charles Bridge down the Vltava River with the imposing Prague Castle overlooking the city is stunning. Even a trip on the rails to the small town of Kutna Hora was something to behold in itself, with it's beautiful cathedrals, creepy yet undeniably unique Sedlec Ossuary (or bone church as it is more commonly known) and peaceful, lush-green, valley setting. As the title of this entry suggests, through my first two months of travel she is simply the "Belle of the European Ball."
My visit to the city of Prague marked a couple of firsts in my journey across Europe. With the exception of the UK I had only used one currency, the Euro and despite the fact that the Czech Republic is part of the EU they still use their own currency, the Czech crown (or koruna). "Great!", I thought, "finally a country where my money is worth something!" (at the time one Canadian dollar was equal to roughly 17 Czech koruna). These thoughts were quickly dashed when I purchased a can of Coke for the price of 35 Czech crown, thus beginning my first lesson in Currency Exchange 101; just because an exchange rate appears to be good, you must first find out the currency denominations, along with the price of goods and services.