...and I am in Prague.
I know, it sounds like I just magcically slipped here from London as in between a partition of two screen doors. Not the case: I have oodles and oodles of magical moments to relate of my voyage thus far: London-Oxford-Canterbury-Dover-Calais-Lilles-Bruxelles-Amsterdam-Munchen-Dresden-Praha, but that will come in dur course. I hope. There is so much time in the wrong places, when you are travelling, which is why our scientists have invented the Blackberry.
Big open spaces of the time, like my first night in Praqgue between 0430 and 1300 hours.
You see, I was overnight in Dresden, in a lovely, noisy bar-hostel that charged only 15 euros a night, but they'd only room for that one night because of a big celebration they were havign that weekend; the reopening of the Frauenkirche, the Cathedral of our Lady, restored finally sixty years after the fire-bombing that levelled the city, cf. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, cor, you'd thin they could have done it sooner, but something came along called Communism. Men in leiderhosen and masks of robot harlequins, women in white debutante dresses, hawking sweet memorabilia, calling up the past like a friend at the next table. Room only for that night, because all the world was coming to Dresden's day of glory. No room for me? Small potatoes; I was off to Prague.
Praha. Zakir had told me of its enchantment, as had every other young Singaproean who'd gone to England to study and foudn cheap holidays only in Eastern Europe. Marko, a 7-foot-tall painter I met in Amsterdam, said it was a fairytale come true, to stand in the town square and see the mountains and the castle almost touching the bit of sky on your forehead.
Well, that was utter rubbish. 7-foot tall people may enjoy a different horizon than we, but the town square in Prague is composed of the following:
1) No skyline to speak of
2) A large piece of historical statuary
3) A hundred gift shops and expensive cafes, and
4) Ninety squizillion tourists.
There are so many tourists in Prague. Being newly accessible, cheap and pretty afetr the Cold War caused tourists from Western Europe to swarm there in the hundreds, and now from America, China, too, fair weather or foul, cold weather but especially the summer months, but it's chilly now and everyone will be in Dresden, so I thought...
First rude surprise, waking up afetr an hour's nap in the train from Dresden. An old German man and an old American woman with a terrible stammer rumble into my cabin, telling their fellow conference presenter that we're not stopping in the main train station. Hopelessly confused, they mumble to each other about this for a good ten minutes before I regain sufficient cosnciousness to retrieve my ticket and map and clarify to them that yes, we are getting off at Holsewice train station in the north, yes, you'll have to take the metro.
I've said it's easy to love a city with a subway system but in the case of Praha this is challenged by other elements.
Second rude surprise, after emergence from the station, now having to recover my bearings to determine how to direct myself to my hostel. I need money, so I will withdraw it directly from my mother's account (HSBC is too half-assed to send me my PIN information, so my mum lent me her spare ATM card for this trip).
There are to Bankomats in the station. I try each of them three times.
No dice. ATMs in the Czech Republic do not recognise HSBC visa.
Luckily I've euros to change (it's Saturday, so the banks are shut, so I get a lousy rate and pay a hearty commission). I muddle my way through the metro, eprturbed that Czech prices are pretty mcuh the same, no, worse than Singapore ones, and the trains are much less clean without the patina of say, New York or London grime.
Rude surprise number three when I get out of the train station. Prague is one of the least linear cities in the world. The dtreets snake and swivel, and change names halfway. My map simply won't cut it.
It takes me 45 minutes to find my hostel. Rude surprise number four: it's fully booked.
Well, I'd tried to book beforehand by phone (some of the thrill of backpacking, like random sex, is the risk of never quite settling on a schedule), but the Let's Go number one choice Dlouha 33 had told me to check again the morning of, and the morning of had been booked solid, sorry. So I went to the numebr two choice, which had been unreachable by phone, De Appel hostel. And that was full, but they had a map of hostels in the city center.
So I marched to the Tyn Hostel. Did I mention that I'm crrying my massive duffel bag and haversack while I'm doing this? And I am not an army boy anymore? And that a man at the station ahd offered to book a room at Tyn Hostel for me, but at 400 koruny = S$27.40, I declined, hoping for something cheaper? And that because of rude surprise numebr three, I am bound to get hopelessly lost once again?
No room at Tyn. Try the new one down the road. No room, but it's warm in the corridor and I keep on buzzing up to the woman to ask for directions and advice and to be annoying, and people keep on passing meand opening the door for me in the corridor, so I can complain about how evil the receptionist is, and how sore my back is. One cute American boy gives me money to make a phone call. It's about 40 koruny. I enter it in my accounts book.
And he tells me about the Traveler's Inn, just down the road, and thereey take pity on me, because yes, they're full for the next few days but I can make a phone call, hell, use our phone, make all the phone calls you like.
Every single fucking hostel in Prague is full. Even those outside the city center. There's a hotel room somewhere, but that will cost S$145. My comfort isn't worth that much. An American girl walks in and asks for a room for five people. I experience a brief burst of schadenfreude. Five girls, in the cold streets in Eastern Europe? What are they going to do?
Me, I'm going gay clubbing. The hostel says I can leave my shit in the luggae room. I grab my sleeping bag and have a hot dinner.
I'll have to make a little cofnession. When I was in the army, there was this gay clerk in my unit named Kenny Lim. Almost-chubby, squat, pimple-scarred fellow, later admitted he'd stolen someone's handphone and let another clerk get blamed, liked to joke about his X-men special power being the ability to absorb someone's dick up his ass.
He lent me my first gay porn. I didn't surf the Internet for it at that stage.
I watched Bel Ami's "The Chain Reaction", involving a daisychain of simulated sex (no erections, even!), between Johann Paulik and Dano Sulik and Lukas Rideston and a couple of other later celebrities, a narration of how young, beautiful Johann's gay desires eventually come into fruition, with the energy of his first interrupted sexual ecnoutner passed on from rentboy to soldier to leatherman to builder to waiter to gymqueen to photographer and back to himself, these beautiful bodies with their msiter softies engaging in a strange mime of almost-love, all filmed in the night streets of Prague, all a beautiful sordidness.
And I'd heard since then, from the Bel Ami webpage of course, of the beautyof Czech boys and their affordability in the sex trade (cf "An American in Prague", "Czech Mating"). I hadn't believed it, of course; why take the face value of a nation from its covergirls?
But I stpped into the Friends club and bar on Bartolomejska, and my god.
The boys were stunning. A few in Halloween costume, but moslty in T-shirts (Halloween is not observed in teh Czech Republic.) Proud noses, firm jawlines, minimal attitude. More happy than fabulous. I talked about this with the anglophone expatriates I met: they were the grizzled old ones, the fat ones, the fag hags, usually. There was Naomi from Sutton, Jason from Austin, Chris, from London though his family was black in Barbados. Chris complained to me about the brain drain and the rise of economic opportunities in the third world; eventually I perceived he was worried about the poor native youth in England, slack at their studies while the Third Worlders abroad and invading grabbed the best jobs from under their noses. People in Barbados apparently speak better English than the English. He'd moved after coming to Prague for a busienss trip of three weeks; the London pubs alienate, the Prague bars told him eh was at home. And this, from a man who says he has trouble getting sexual acceptance because he is coal-black (he was also round and on the shorter side, but he wore it well, a shaven head and a friendly face and a British accent as fine as butter. Naomi picked him out in the crowd; she was a lovely, fat Englishwoman a few blocks away who'd come here for only two weeks so far, a logn-term job in the sciences, doing epidemiology, yes, there are a lot of women in epidemiology, a lot of gay men as well. She says she'd take me home out of the cold, but she's stayig with a friend, she could find me a place in Berlin if I like. She agrees with me that Mikhil is very handsome.
Mikhil is a tall, lean, strapping youth with close-cut red-gold hair who lookls frightening like my ex-lover Ryder before he quit smoking and got fat. I exchange words with him in the toilet.
YS: Are you from Prague?
Mikhil: Yes. Why?
YS: You look like an american friend I have.
(He breaks into a charming, guileless smile, and holds me by the waist for a moment)
Mikhil: You are from?
Mikhil: Okay. (walks out of the toilet)
YS: It emerges that boys in the Czech Republic will simply touch you because it is their custom to touch people when they talk. Not because they like you.
On the other hand, I have better luck with a tiny skinny stubbly boy named Tomas, or maybe Radek, I have no idea which, who catches my eye of his own accord.
YS: Are you Michael Jackson?
(Tomas/Radek is dressed in white shirt, white jacket, white pants, white flat cap which he hides his dark eyes beneath)
YS: Michael Jackson.
T/R: I no understand! You from Japan?
YS: I dance with Tomad/Radek. I dance with others, on the tiny dance floor where a small portion of the maybe thirty of us in the bar choose to dance from time to time. I enter a ring and leave it, afraid to enter the centre an do stunts because I'm interpretivelyacting up all the time, anyway. I court the women, because they're the ones without risk. I grind hips with a very short Czech lesbian in a fedora and dark plastic glasses; later she tells me she is studying photography in Berlin while I tell her the legend of St Margaret and the dragon.
I hip-grind with Chris and Mikhil, briefly. I notice that Mikhil allows me to grope his ass ceremonially (this is made civilised by ensuring that equitable groping occurs on Chris's ass) but he never positions himself so that he has to look in my face. I take a risk when we have broken our chain and join another sequence of hip-grinders, behind another tall, lean youth who looks liek Ryder, only this time with decidely red hair and greenish glasses. He strikes my hand away, not violently, but with purpose. I try to accept this with grace.
I return to the bar.
Tomas/Radek: I am gone.
YS: You're going home?Tomas/Radek: No. I am dead. Finish. (Slumps on a divan, eyes closed)
He is extremely drunk. He has a beer in his hand. He keeps on drinking. I am concerned, and ask him if anything's wrong. He kisses me. I kiss him back. He is small, bristly and not quite in this world. It is not sexy at all.
I make more conversation with Chris and Jason and sometiems Mikhil, who's good friends with both. I'm tired, but I have to stay up till 5 am, when the bar closes. Jason buys me another drink, a multi-vitamin this time, since he says I shouldn't have just Pepsi. I'll save the Red Bull till the end of the night. Maybe Mikhil will take me home out of boredom.
Jason: I think it's a lost cause.
Jason: These Eastern European boys aren't into Asians. I've got the advantage of being from America, so the colour of your skin just isn't an issue for me.
Jason seems a little soused himself, but he's buying me drinks, so I shouldn't knock it.
Jason: I'm into you.
Jason's also quite fat and bearded, neither of which turn me on. Still, I do need a place to stay tonight.
Jason: I know Mikhil's not interested in Asian men, because I've been home with him.
YS: (to himself) Okay, I hate you now.
This continues for the rest of the night. I dance, for incrementally shorter spans of time. I hold a very drunk Radek/Tomas. Mikhil starts dancing on a table and invites Chris up. Chris ascends, but has to go down again soon because he is frightened of heights. I am unafraid of heights and join him, as Mikhil descends. I dance with a Spanish woman, on holiday with her maybe-boyfriend. I notice that even when Mijhil is looking in my direction, he is only looking at my legs not up toward me. When I descend, he ascends again and starts doing those funky para para dance moves with his arms, which seem designed to display athleticism and alertness of mind int he small hours. My repertoire is starting to fade. Mikhil comes down. I ask him if he's alright. He makes a motion with his fingers to his mouth.
YS: You want a cigarette?Mikhil nods.
YS: I'll get you one.
I'm about to buy him a pack from the machine but I think better of it and ask Jason.
Jason: You smoke?
YS: No. It's for him. (points)
Jason: (exploding) That guy? Why would I want to give a cigarette to that guy? He's an asshole! He's a prick! He's -
Jason: Ohh. I thought you meant the guy in white.
YS: Tomas. Radek. Something.
Jason: He's one of those guys who likes to look for foreigners and feed off them.
YS: There's nothing wrong with that.
Jason: There are guys like him. They don't ask for money for sex, they just ask for money for other things, like they need a new computer. I tell you, he's an asshole. Just now he tapped my body and asked for a light, and I said why, and he said because I'm wonderful! And...
I notice that as Jason gets excited, his voice gets higher and more shrill.
Jason: I know Czech society. I know this place. You don't.
The club closes early at 4.30 am. I speak fluently with the Spanish couple, the girl says she has approached Mikhil and he says he doesn't go for Asian men. I go to the coatroom and miss the exits of Jason, Chris, Mikhil, Tomas/Radek, whom I last saw hugging a British middle-aged man who was completely uninterested.
I tell the sad story of my fortunes to a handsome gay couple in the doorway, in a mixture of English, German and mime. They commiserate but offer no help.
I consider wandering to the city center but at the next turn there's an old street with arches and a concave step toward a lower doorstep to accommodate for the slope. I unroll my sleeping abg, put on my coat, and lay my head on my guidebook on the doorstep.
Two hours later, 0630, I wake and my teeth are chattering like machine-gun fire. I try to direct myself to the town square, but my hands shake so mcuh I cannot hold a map. I locate a church and try to find an entryway. Eventually I see a 24-hour pizzeria in a side-lane. I order a tea for 30 koruny, because they have no more food.
I stay there an hour, reading the autobiography of Andre Gide. I get the message when they take the placemat from under my elbows.
I find my way to the hostel. Surprise, someone has checked out early, and I can check in there the same day and stay as long as I like, as per hostel policy. I can only check in at 1pm, though, so I take my dirty clothing and walk to the Prague Laundromat, way off the map, in the next postal district. It's 140Kr for self-service, only 10 Kr less than what the hostel was offering, but this way I'm somewhere warm where I can sit down and read while I wash my only coat, and the 18 year-old mouse-haired high-school boy who manages the place looks unsettlingly like my ex Charles. I go into the bathroom and whack off hard. Unsurprsingly, during the drying cycle, I fall asleep in the daycare creche.
In the afternoon I'm in a gay sauna, where only old men go, but I was prepared for that, though still perturbed by the very samll jacuzzi and the grabbiness of the clients. Czech men seem to age extreemly poorly, making a brisk progress from svelte boy-nymphs to Jabba the Hutts.
And I return to the hostel. And I sleep sixteen hours. Today I watch the first striking of the Astronomical Clock after its recontruction for four months, and miss daylight savigns time, and so believe the Kafka walking tour has abandoned me in the square.
I forgot to mention, earlier on, that by a happy coincidence Traveller's Inn is the oen and same Dlouha 33 under a subtitle. It houses the cheapest Internet access in the city for 24 hour stretches, and will give you cash back on credit card payments, only 5% commission (ATMs charge 4%). Breakfast is included for 340 koruny = S$23.30 with ISIC discount, not buffet, but a selection of two between salami, sliced cheese, ham, muesli, cornflakes, yoghurt and la vache qui rit; milk, apple and orange juice, tea, coffee, margarine and jam all on the side, plus two rolls to rub them around in.
And I am content. And when I got up today Prague was the magic city, airwashed and delicious, jsut as they said ti would be.
Of course, tonight I went out again. After the Don Giovanni marionette show, to a bar named Pinocchio, ostensibly a gay centre but in reality a strip joint and den for male prostitutes. Quiet on a Monday, of course. Here it was all old men, domestic and international, and a bevy of boys, from the uncertainly legal to the wiltering, for 2500 koruny to 3000 a go, their terms.
I talked to Bernard, a New Yorker, not an expartiate but a regular visitor, who introduced me to Libor, a young man whose slight baby fat was no longer quite as endearing as it once must have been, Bernard joking about how much he'd fetch himself ont eh market, with his massive flab and white hair, 5000? 1000? 50? Or would he pay for it, as he'd always done? And I asked Libor, whose Englsih was good, whether he was gay, and he said he didn't know, becuse he liked girls. His friend Eki, whose English was next to nonexistent, was 18, starting work three months before, and was straight. These were men in sports jackets and baseball caps, hip-hop fashion for the Euro banjee boy. A tall brown-haired man called Peter called it the Shit Republic, no money from his day job, which he'd be doing on Tuesday. Libor didn't have money, he asked me for 200 kourny in trainfare, but he had been to Londona nd Berlin and a client had flown him to Ibiza once, how pretty, he told me as he rolled me a joint of marijuana and played tough-boy footy games with Eki in the cellar. He blew rings and good-naturedly showed me his unremarkable cock and a Christmas card from his client in Chicago, early but thinking of him already. I told him I had only my 100 koruny note left in cash, but I would have only 50 koruny after paying for our iced teas. The cied tea bill came to 120 koruny; I denied the thrid order and it came to 80, so I got back 20, which he took. Then it turned out the man at the coat-room charged 10 koruny for a jacket, and I had only 3.
I went back to Libor, who was playign video games in the cellar.
YS: I need 10 koruny back for my jacket.
Libor: I don't have it. (He gestures at the game machine)
I am grumbly but philosophical. All are appeased when I give the old coatroom man a 1-euro coin. And I walk back into the domain of the map in the cold, muttering to myself about my plans tomorrow to catch the midnight train to Krakow.
I notice I've spent way too much money on the Internet here, half enough to buy a bed fro another night, and my style's dampened throughotu the fatigue of the story, never enlivened by the American blues played by the street violinists of the relgiious scultptures on Charles' Bridg or the grease of a potato pancake in the cracks of my palm. No matter. On to Poland, where I have less expectations. One museum I never got ot today was the Museum of Communism, which features interrogation rooms and simulacrum supermarkets filled with only two prducts. I read the brochure; it's dividied into three sections: The Dream, The Reality, and the Nightmare.
Prague was the dream. Visiting Praha's a reality, thick and crusty around the edges. Libor can keep those 20 koruny. To live here, that would be the nightmare.
Yours with love,