It was a plan dreamed up months and months ago by Tash and me, to go to Prague. One thing – of many – I’ve learned from my year abroad so far is that one can pack a lot into a weekend, and so, determined not to be held back by my 9-5 Monday-Friday job and lack of holiday allowance, I’ve been on several little jaunts since I’ve been here. (My colleagues think I’m mad). To go to Prague in December, on my penultimate weekend before flying home to Christmas was, perhaps not intentionally, a case of saving the best until last.
We were a group of six, eventually. Lara, Tash and I caught a bus from Leipzig, taking around four hours and costing very little. Our friend Tessa joined us by Mitfahrgelegenheit (car sharing – far more popular in Germany than in the UK), and Gem and Sarah, two of my school friends, flew out from England and Utrecht. And it was wonderful. To be able to go from filling out very mundane spreadsheets in my grey Leipzig office to sipping cocktails in a city that feels so incredibly foreign within a few hours is a joy of living in central Europe. My colleagues may mock my Wanderlust, but I think they ought to try it too.
Lara had been to Prague only a few months before, so we had our very own tour guide of sorts, full of ideas of places to go. Stop number one on her tour was cocktails at Anonymous. It’s a very cool bar themed around the masked character from the film ‘V for Vendetta’, which plays silently on a screen above the entrance. A figure in the mask waits forebodingly at the door to greet you. Lara promises that last time, the waiters all wore the masks too, and served you without speaking. We wondered whether perhaps our unmasked, chatty waiters were a result of growing terrorism fears in Europe. A shame. Still, the mysterious mood worked very well. Solving a riddle from an envelope inside the menu results in the waiters bringing you a private slideshow of extra drink options, as well as a UV light to read things printed secretly on the pages. Our cocktails came in a fun variety of receptacles: Gem and I felt quite boring – albeit classy – with our glasses compared to Lara’s catapult (yes, really), and Sarah’s wooden hut which opened to reveal a literally smoking drink. Anonymous so wants to be anonymous that it doesn’t have a sign, and visitors are left to stumble upon it for themselves, although it does appear, roughly, on Google maps. I loved the idea. I hope writing about it here isn’t jeopardising its anonymity: I won’t tell you exactly where it is…
Saturday was our day of sight-seeing, which we did in such glorious sunshine that every single building was something worth looking at. Prague is beautiful. I had been once before, for a few days last July, but it had been so blisteringly hot that I don’t think I quite appreciated it. This time – with the help of my mittens and wooly hat – spending the day wandering its streets was an absolute pleasure. We started in the Old Town Square, which has been taken over by a sprawling, delicious-smelling Christmas market. There we watched the Astronomical Clock. It’s the oldest working one in the world – built in 1410! – and gives a clockwork show on the hour every hour, as figures of the twelve apostles appear at a window one by one, and a figure of death strikes the time. We made our way over Charles Bridge, which crosses the river Vltava and is famous for being completely stunning. It was, as expected, packed with tourists, which I’ve never quite understood: it is far more beautiful to look at than to be on. We trekked up the hill on the other side of the river towards the castle. The views from the hill are wonderful – and much, much more lovely when not preceded by having to climb it in 35 degree heat – and we sat on a ledge, taking it all in.
It was also a weekend of culinary delights. By far the most memorable was the Trdelnik, the delicious sweet pastry filled with Nutella that I managed to spill all over my face and scarf, which Sarah very nicely mopped up for me. (When I was nine, mum bought me a chocolate ice-cream in Venice on a thirty degree day. I ate it so messily that she put me into a fountain to wash me off. This was almost like that). It’s a delicious rolled dough, cooked around a stick and topped with a delicious cinamonny, walnutty topping. It may have the design perk that you can peer through it like a pirate with a telescope (I know how to have fun), but it was rather impossible to eat with a anything resembling grace. But there were other wonderful things too. Grilled chicken on skewers with peppers and onions from a Christmas market stall: this is the kind of fast food I like. Several cups of mulled wine – I typed Glühwein, remembered I wasn’t actually in Germany and it was therefore irrelevant – served in flavours like apple and cherry. And some of the most delicious gingerbread I’ve ever had. We went to a Czech restaurant on Saturday evening, another of Lara’s finds from last time. We ate variations on traditional Czech grub (in short, meat and potatoes), and sipped on a rather odd, sweet flavoured Czech beer.
And then – since we were in the stag party capital of Europe – a night out. Even for me, a self-confessed granny who would far rather sit in a cosy pub than venture into a club, it was rather fun. We played drinking games involving questionable Czech spirits and wine too cheap to be true before venturing out: a blur of underground bars and loud music and one very large pitcher of Mojito, with a smear of black stamp on my hand left as a reminder. I might not particularly like going out, but there was an odd sort of comfort in a night that felt so familiar – all clubs blur into one, in my mind – and reminded me of what it’s like to be at Oxford, surrounded by friends and fun. And however awful I might have felt the next day, it was hugely refreshing to know exactly why. Symptom after symptom after symptom of probably-anaemia is incredibly draining.
We had to check out of our hostel after cruelly little sleep on Sunday morning. Exhausted and mojo-less as we were, we decided the best course of action was to take a boat trip down the Vltava, where the gentle rocking of the boat was enough to keep us awake, but not too much for our tender stomachs, and the beautiful blue sky bouncing off the water lifted our spirits. We said goodbye to Gem and Sarah, and then spent the rest of the afternoon eating, wandering Prague’s lovely alleys, and – dream of dreams – stocking up on percy pigs and salad pots and cheddar cheese in M&S. (There isn’t one in Germany. It was a complete treat.
I needed this weekend. My illness has made the last few weeks, months even, desperately hard. Even with the results of my MRI scan no longer looming over me, and the relative comfort of a diagnosis, I’m constantly weighed down by horrid symptoms. Stomach aches. A slightly tight chest and slightly fluttering heart. A strange pain stretching the whole way down one arm. An odd feeling in my mouth of thirst that I can’t quench, and a lump in my throat each time I swallow. Constantly uncomfortable. And so – because my anxious mind is a mindfield of ‘what ifs’ – I’m constantly worried, that the doctor has missed something critical; that I’m falling apart; that I won’t ever feel well again. And most of all, that I’m wasting my year abroad. This weekend certainly wasn’t a waste. It was wonderful to show myself that I can be okay, and that ignoring all of the temptation to just pack it in and go home – it has somewhat been hanging on a very delicate thread – was worth it.
When year abroad is good, it’s very good. And when – when, not if – I finally feel a little better, it’s going to be very good indeed.