Connect to share and comment

Smoke and haze in Prague

By Louis Bien
(University of Wisconsin)

When my buddy Alex invited me to spend the holiday in Prague, he did so with one caveat: That we’d have to stay in an apartment with four gorgeous Swedish girls.

I bought a train ticket anyway.

Here’s the thing about the Swedish: They are prettier, smarter, nicer and overall superior members of the human species than me and you. The brunette was in Prague for med school. The blond is going into business. I forget what the redhead did, but I’m sure she’ll save the world.

And they all have tall, dashing Scandinavian guy friends who have been speaking fluent English since age 4 and are eager to debate U.S. politics. I sat at the New Year’s Eve dinner table drowning in a discussion of American health care reform. Being short, dumb and goofy-looking, I felt I needed to prove something to these guys. At the very least I could stand toe-to-toe in a night out on the town.

At 7 a.m. the next morning, I sat at the edge of my bed half drunk and broken. A hot dog vendor had just stolen 100 kronen from me and I could have cried.


After our political-discussion dinner, the night was off to a fine start. Midnight rolled right by me in the smoke of fireworks in the square in front of some important building. Gold clusters burst while red flares fizzed in the streets and I walked around hugging and being hugged by everything in site.

Swirling, clawing, choking through the haze, it seemed to have eaten my companions, or perhaps just me. I found myself alone until something, maybe a hand, grabbed me and put me in a cab to more craziness, more fog, this time backlit by the absinthe walls of some club in the den of Prague.

The rest of the night passed like that peculiar sort of dream that is neither sweet nor nightmare, but fades from one extreme to the other. Motored by a consistent techno backbeat, every gesture, spoken word and sneeze was done so to the rhythm. Revelers danced on any solid surface, and for awhile I maintained pace. Exotic people with exotic voices let me into their presence and I, slap happy and stupid, felt perfectly at peace.

But something happens at 4 a.m., a strange condition. The brain, perhaps encouraged by certain substances, falls into that before-sleep state where in the fleeting moments before shut eye one’s thoughts unhinge and run amok. The mind attempts to draw the universe on a needle point, compacting minutae with the meaning of life.

Everything becomes connected. Missed words long ago, the tiniest moments of triumph or rejection, a well-cracked egg on a skillet or a misplaced set of keys, in the world of post-4 a.m. these things become you. In bed, this state lasts for split seconds. In Prague on New Year’s, it lasts three hours. And unfortunately for me, rejection knew me well that night.

Somewhere at some moment in that club I lost a beat. I was slow with a quip, too quick with a laugh, I lost my time with the music and heard “no” spoken in all languages of the world. I tried my broken French on any girl I could, because in a foreign club in a foreign country I thought that every foreign person ought to know the one foreign language I can sort of speak.

As it turns out, that’s not the case. One petite and very cute brunette stuck out her thumb and with it made a slashing motion towards her throat. I didn’t know what she meant by it, so I backed away in case she was readying a roundhouse kick. Others were slightly more polite. Still, with each “ne,” nein” and head shake I sulked, each weighing on me heavier and heavier.

At 5 a.m. I sat on a couch in a corner of the club with a few of the Scandinavians and Alex next to me. I turned and looked at my buddy: His eyes wavered half closed, his jaw slightly slack, his mouth expressionless. He looked like he just walked off the set of "Night of the Living Dead," and I remember thinking "at least I don’t look like THAT guy." I found out the next day that he had the same thought about me.

I needed a bed. Alex needed a bed. The Scandinavians sat on the couch across from us and decided they needed a change of venue and another drink. An after-bar bar. I thought, "Christ, are they mad?!" and I considered admitting defeat. But no, I couldn’t do that, so I soldiered on.

We walked to the bar and time lurched, two American boys out of their element being dragged by a gaggle of sexy-smart euros talking funny up ahead. Prague is stunning at night, but at what was now 6 a.m., I saw none of it: I was in my own opaque bubble of fatigue and champagne and rejection and beer and deargodcanIpleasegotobed?!

We walked eight hours or 20 minutes to find that this bar would cost another 500 kronen. I checked my wallet: 200 kronen. Alex checked his: empty. “But Matt Damon has been here!” we were told but it was too late. The towel had been thrown. At 6:30 a.m. we quit, told our friends “you win,” and went home.

Every human emotion I had was ravaged and only primal need remained. Just across the street from the apartment was a hot dog stand. We hadn’t eaten in nine hours and, after a bed, food sounded incredible. Two cost 100 kronen.

I gave the vendor my last 200 kronen bill. She stiffed me on the change. I rubbed my thumb and fingers together in the international gesture for “give me money,” but she just shrugged like she had never seen money in her life. It was too late to care. The hot dog was raw. I didn’t complain. I was in no position to. Prague had beaten me fair and square.