03 July 2010

First Day in Prague (and the flight!)

Do I really have to do the obligatory "oh my god that flight sucked I've been awake for twenty-nine hours and haven't eaten a solid meal since I was on the other side of the Atlantic" post? Because you can read about travel woes in about a billion places on the net, and every horrible stand-up in the nineties had a whole bit about airline food. Go read one of those, or whatever, and you'll get the nature of the experience.

Long flights suck, but I like to keep in mind this routine from one of my favorite comics, Louis CK (embedding disabled on vid, click on the link to see it). I got to wake up in my house in Kalamazoo and be in the middle of Prague less than thirty-six hours later -- to complain about the lines or the food or whatever is just looking the modern technological miracles in the wrong way. And in truth, my trip really wasn't that bad. I don't know if I was just lucky or if I just was in the right airports, but I stood in line for less than ten or fifteen minutes for the security checkpoints, and even waiting for boarding wasn't really that much of a pain.

Here was our itinerary. Took the train from Kalamazoo to Dearborn, which was maybe two and a half hours. I took a couple of minutes of video, intending to document the stops each time, but exhaustion and general malaise prevented that from continuing. There was a cute kid traveling alone in the seat next to ours, which was pleasant. Once in Dearborn we cabbed it to the Wayne County airport, got the boarding passes, checked our one big bag of luggage (that plus two carry-ons is all we've brought to Prague; we're traveling light), and went through the security checkpoint. Everyone was very pleasant and the whole experience up to this point was uneventful.

Our flight to Amsterdam was scheduled to leave at 4:00, but when we boarded we were told that the plane was having software issues communicating with the airport, so we couldn't lift off right away. I dozed off during this period, but woke back up before we were told to deplane, because the computer issue that was supposed to be fixed in a few minutes was going on a two hour fix. I sympathize, as my own experience working out software kinks means that I have some notion as to how frustrating they can be.

We deplaned and were given meal vouchers worth six dollars in any of the airport restaurants. There was a hotdog place nearby, so Shana and I decided to snack. I had a chili cheese dog and she had a Chicago dog -- we also shared chili cheese fries. This was a bit of a tactical error, as when we got back to the gate twenty minutes after deplaning, they were already loading people back up. Let me just say that one shouldn't have a chili dog five minutes before getting on a seven-and-a-half hour flight.

I meant to sleep some, but I found myself quite awake. There were quite a few movies available to watch in-flight, so I ended up amusing myself watching Cop-Out (terrible in places, really great in places) and The Green Zone (complicated feelings on this one, but suffice to say that taking real events and fictionalizing them into an action movie didn't fulfill my needs for either docudrama or action beats). I also watched a bit of Sherlock Holmes and the Hangover, but since I'd already seen both of those I just skipped around.

I did have a beer on the flight. They had the options of Corona, Heinken, and Miller Lite. I picked the Miller Lite mostly because the stewardess already had her hand on it, and I hadn't had a really bad beer in awhile. Yeah, just as crappy as I remember -- the Heineken would have been a better choice. I would've gotten another if they'd come around offering again, but that was not the case.

Eventually landed in Amsterdam, battling intestinal distress from the chili dog and the in-flight meal, and I have to be honest -- I couldn't stop grinning like a fool in the airport. We had about a five-hour layover, and this was my first-ever trip overseas, so even just wandering around the overpriced shops in the airport was a bit of a treat. I didn't buy anything, but it was still pretty awesome wandering around the dual-language bookstores and trying to puzzle out the Dutch advertisements.

Everyone at the airport was incredibly kind, including the man who had the misfortune of frisking me after the metal detector went off. Professional, relaxed, but prepared -- I was half-expecting a harrangue, but after a simple search I was allowed to go about my business. Shana had gotten a migraine at the end of the flight and was looking for tylenol, as she forgot her excedrin at home, but over-the-counter medication isn't as easy to find in Europe as in the US. A very pleasant airline employee helped out considerably by giving Shana two asprin from her purse and a bottle of water, though -- one more for the "Amsterdam people are awesome" column.

Anyway, after the layover we ended up on a Cityhopper flight. This reminded me greatly of my only other time on an airplane, which was flying Southwest to New York City for Tim's wedding. All the instructions on the plane were broadcast in two languages, though, which was pretty freakin' adorable to my American ears. I especially like the pronunciation of "Prague" in Dutch, which is "pragh" with a kind of pleghmatic hard-H at the end. Being in Europe really makes me want to learn another language.

Landed in Prague and went directly to baggage claim while Shana tried to exchange currency. We'd had warnings that the airlines lost baggage regularly, but ours was out almost immediately. The ATM at the currency exchange was out, but we found one near the airport exit, where we both picked up a few Czech crowns. There was some question about the exchange rate, but Google claims that 1000 koruny is about 48 US dollars, so I'm rounding to 50 and figuring it's easy to divide by two and lop off a zero to get a handle on pricing. Prices in general have been decent here so far, which should make this a relatively inexpensive trip.

Took a cab to the dorm, which is really a small hostel near Old Town. We came in, did a bit of procedural stuff, and went on a walk in our search for non-plane-related nourishment. The girl running most of the dorm stuff for the program recommended a nice Tibetan place, which sounded good. And, yeah, it was. For about 400 karony we stuffed ourselves silly, and Shana had more food than she could eat. She'll get a smaller dish next time. I also had my first-ever beers in Europe (I was considering getting a Heineken in the Amsterdam airport, but not even I am sanguine about drinking in an airport at 8:30 AM, even if it's around two AM by my body clock.), which ended up being Gambrinus (not sure which variety). Gambrinus on draft in Prague was sweet and malty, with a nice grassy aroma, and I hope to do a more formal review later.

I had a couple of these with dinner then off to do some exploring. We were exhausted and only took a couple of pictures, but had a great couple of hours walking around the parts of Old Town closest to the dorm. It's a very touristy area (read: many signs are in English) but very pretty and with some pretty cool art galleries and plenty of restaurants. We're going on a walking tour this afternoon guided by a Czech native, so I'll just talk about that more when we get to it.

On the way back in we stopped off at a little cafe where Shana could get some water, because she was getting pretty dehydrated. (Note to self: Carry a filled water bottle at all times in Prague.) I got another beer, because, why the hell not? This was a Budvar bar....

(An aside. In the Czech Republic, as with a fair part of Europe to my understanding) most bars have agreements with particular breweries to only serve their products. So unlike in the US where you'll see Bud/Miller/Coors taps right next to each other, here each bar advertises the type of beer they serve prominently out front, and then only has one tap for that kind of beer. In America the three-tier system prevents this sort of thing, which is probably the single best justification for the tree-tier system. I've read that these types of agreements are slowly becoming less common in Prague, opening the way for more beer variety, but every place I've seen thus far has been a one-tap shop.)

Anyway. This was a Budvar bar, so I got my first taste of what is labeled in the US as Czechvar on this side of the Atlantic. Crisp, hoppier than expected, an less grassy than my memories of the beer in the states. Very nice. We're planning a day trip to the Budvar brewery, where I hope to take some video, so look forward to that.

That's all I've got so far. I'll try to keep everyone posted on my experiences here, especially the beer, but for now I guess I'll see you later.

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