The Poland part of the trip went relatively smoothly. I arrived in Kraków and quickly found lodging with the family of a Polish college student, Bożena, who was working for a youth travel agency near the city’s central square, the Rynek Główny. I had popped into the agency to find a room, but unfortunately, Kraków was booked solid that summer. There wasn’t a hotel or hostel to be found. Bożena had kindly offered me a spot on her family’s sofa in the industrial suburb of Nowa Huta, and that was that. She was also smart, attractive and spoke excellent English. I rarely get that lucky, and it was a good start to the trip.
Bożena would later feature prominently -- and unexpectedly -- on this bizarre first journey to Prague.
During that week in Poland, I divided my time between Bożena and her family, and Matt and his friends. Most of Matt’s fellow students were Americans who, like the two of us, were studying history or international relations somewhere back home. I remember all of them being pretty cool, and even being jealous of Matt that he’d had the opportunity to hang out that summer drinking beer and partying in the crowded student dorm they were all staying in.
When it came time to say goodbye to Poland, Matt and I headed up to Warsaw to board the overnight sleeper to Prague. The plan was for the two of us to hang out in Czechoslovak capital for three days and then take an onward, overnight train to Nuremberg in Germany. From there, we would connect to Luxembourg and eventually Paris, for the flight back to New York.
By sheer coincidence, Bożena was also planning to be in Prague that week. The summer of 1984 marked what authorities were celebrating what I hazily recall was some kind of anniversary of "Polish-Czechoslovak Friendship.” For the week, Bożena and hundreds of other Polish students would spend their daylight hours stuck in official, formulaic cultural exchanges and their nighttime hours getting wasted with each other at the Charles University dormitories next to Prague’s giant Strahov Stadium. Bożena and I hadn’t made any concrete plans to meet up, but I kept the possibility firmly in mind. In fact, I had planned to head up to Strahov to look for her the first chance I got.
Matt and I celebrated a bit on the overnight Warsaw-to-Prague train and arrived in Prague exhausted from the beer, lack of sleep, and frequent customs and passport checks crossing the border from Poland to Czechoslovakia. This was years before the European Union made borders more or less irrelevant, and back then you could expect to be woken up no fewer than four times through the night (twice by passport control and twice more by each country's respective customs agents.)
From Prague's main train station, the two of us stumbled over to the official Čedok hotel-booking office, on Panská street near the Old Town, where it was mandatory for foreign arrivals in Prague to register and book a hotel room. These days, Čedok is just another ordinary travel agency, but back then it was a sinister place, looking more like a police station than a booking office. The procedure was that you’d get in line, hand over your passport to some stern-looking old lady, answer a lot of questions about why you were in Prague, and finally – if everything went well -- end up with a hotel assignment. You didn’t have much choice in choosing a place.
We were students at the time and naturally looking for the cheapest room available. In the end, we were given a voucher for a twin-bed double at the Hotel Solidarita (these days known as the “Comfort Hotel Prague City East”), a rather soulless high-rise hotel situated in the grim, outlying district of Strašnice, 5 kms (3 miles) east of Prague’s Old Town (see the map plot, below). The lady at Čedok informed us that we had until the end of the day to go over to the hotel and claim our room.
We felt satisfied with ourselves. True, the hotel wasn’t in the center, but it was available, affordable and even (ironically) called the “Solidarita.” Back in 1984, the Solidarity Trade Union in Poland was a big deal and at the center of Poland’s anticommunist resistance. Naturally, the hotel wasn’t named after the trade union (that would have been out of character for Czechoslovakia’s rigid communist government), but we considered it to be a good omen.
Okay, now here’s where the story gets weird.
After Čedok, Matt and I walked around the center of Prague for a while to wake up and get our bearings, but I was still tired from the overnight train trip. At some point, I gave in and told Matt I would head over to the hotel, get the room, and take a nap. I’d meet up with him back at the hotel later that evening. He seemed fine with that. He said that he planned to walk around some more and maybe look for some fellow travelers to hang out with later.
That was the last time I’d see Matt for three days.
So, that’s basically how it all went down. I went over to the Solidarita, checked in at reception, got the room, and took a nap. I hung around the hotel the rest of the day and evening, waiting on Matt to return, but he never did. I vaguely remember eating dinner at the hotel restaurant and turning in for the night, fully expecting that at some point Matt would appear at the door, tell some wild stories, and crash for the night.
Imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning and Matt’s bed was empty. There was no sign of him anywhere, no backpack, no trace of anything.
I suppose I should have been more concerned and reported his disappearance with the local police or U.S. Embassy. After all, in those days, Czechoslovakia was still considered a hostile foreign government, and all kinds of spy-vs-spy shenanigans were going on. Initially, though, it never occurred to me that something bad could have happened. In fact, I remember thinking just the opposite. I was irritated that Matt had obviously stumbled onto some great party, crashed for the night, and couldn’t be bothered to let me know about it.
After breakfast, I left Matt a testy note in the room and went out for a day of sightseeing in Prague. The city was undeniably beautiful, but it was also quiet, empty and more than a little bit spooky. There were very few tourists to be seen and not really all that much for visitors to do. It was the kind of place where you could hear your own footsteps echo off the sidewalks; where you couldn't help shake the feeling that someone was watching you.
I returned to the hotel in the afternoon and again found the room empty. Matt had truly disappeared without a trace.
That evening, I decided to go across town to the dormitories near Strahov Stadium to look for Bożena among the visiting Polish students. I had no idea what to expect, but since it was some kind of hyped-up political event (an anniversary of fraternal Socialist friendship), I figured it might look suspicious for a random American to be lurking around. At the door, I polished up my best schoolbook German and pretended to be a visiting student from East Germany. To my surprise, the ruse worked and the guard let me inside. It was no small feat to locate Bożena amid the many hundreds of Polish students milling around. No one seemed to be taking the political stuff very seriously. Polish-Czechoslovak friendship looked more like just another excuse to drink beer. I first asked where the delegation from Kraków was hanging out, and once I found them, I asked for Bożena. No one had heard of her or seemed to know her, and then suddenly at one point, I heard her voice. In fact, she was standing right in front of me.
We spent the next 12 hours together, until the next morning, though my memory has only scattered pockets of real clarity. I remember we talked into the night the way students do; we talked about our studies, about our futures. We were from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, of course, which lent a kind of cinematic poignancy to the conversation. In actual fact, our dialogue probably wasn’t as brilliant as I’d like to think, but I came away smitten with Bożena and thinking she was one of the most amazing people I’d ever met. We must have kissed and maybe more (how could we not under those circumstances?), but here my memory truly fails me. We probably didn’t have all that much privacy in her dorm room anyway.
In the morning, after an emotional goodbye when I wondered (with good reason) if I’d ever see her again, I snuck out of the dorm and made my way back to the Solidarita. Yeah, I thought to myself, Matt may be having the time of his life, partying with friends or hanging out with dissidents, but I’d just had a pretty amazing experience of my own. Prague was working its magic in unexpected ways -- and maybe for both of us.
When I found the room empty and Matt still unaccounted for on my return, though, the worry really did kick in. Sure, I reasoned, you could get caught up in a party or something else for a night or a day, but two days without any sign or any note was highly unusual. I spent most of that morning and afternoon napping fitfully, trying to catch up on my sleep from the night before. I probably went out of the hotel again that day, but I can’t imagine what I would have done.
The third and final morning of my stay arrived and, once again, there was still no sign of Matt. I ate breakfast at the hotel buffet, packed my things and checked out of the hotel. As I had done each of the preceding two days, I asked at the reception desk if anyone had left a note for me or tried to contact me, and once again the staff said no. The plan that day was to catch the 8pm overnight train to West Germany, and I figured that if Matt was okay, I’d see him that evening standing on the station platform. Of course, I had no idea how it would turn out.
I spent those last hours walking around the center of Prague feeling a bit bored, a bit lovesick, and a bit worried. Over the years, in different situations and stages of my life, I would find that’s an emotional cocktail that suits Prague unusually well. As the departure time approached, I headed over to the main train station and hoped for the best.
After consulting the big departures board to find out which platform our train was leaving from, I walked through the station and climbed up the stairway to the tracks. It was well before 8pm and the platform was only partly filled, but as I looked down the line to the opposite end of the platform, there I spied him. Matt was alive and he looked perfectly well.
My mind flooded with a mix of emotions: there was relief of course, but also a healthy dose of anger and disappointment. Why had my good friend not bothered to tell me that he was staying somewhere else, had other plans, not to worry, etc?
Once Matt saw me, his reaction was, if anything, worse than mine. I couldn’t recall if I’d ever seen him so angry before. I don’t remember the exact dialogue that followed, but it must have sounded something like this:
Matt: “Where the hell have you been?”
Me: “Where the hell have I been? Where the hell have YOU been??”
Matt: “I waited three days in the hotel and you never showed up. You didn’t even leave a note to tell me where you were!!”
Me: “I waited three days in the hotel and YOU never showed up!! YOU never left a note!”
It took a while for both us to calm down. We boarded the train, found seats and started to hash it all out. In the end, we figured out what happened, and the answer was agonizingly simple.
When I had arrived at the hotel on that first day and requested our room, the reception desk gave me one room. When Matt arrived later that day with the same request, the reception desk gave him a different room. When I didn’t see Matt that first day, I assumed that he had simply not come back; when he didn't see me, he assumed that I had never checked in.
We’d been staying at the same hotel, one floor apart, for the entire three days and never realized it.
Matt actually redeemed himself in my eyes and may have even proved to be the better friend. Whereas I hadn't reported Matt’s disappearance to the authorities, he had apparently turned my name in to the U.S. Embassy. For a couple days, I was officially a missing person.
That experience stuck with me for a long time and still resonates with me to this day. It was the first time – but not the last time – that I realized Prague has a way of messing with your mind.
One of the best aspects of launching this blog (one that I didn’t see coming) has been the opportunity to reconnect with some of the people featured in the stories. Some of the stories go back 30 years or so, and as important as these people were to me then (and still are in my memory), over the years we’ve fallen out of regular contact. After this story was posted, I heard from Bozena on Linkedin. She no longer lives in Krakow (and hasn’t for many years) and appears to be doing very well, happy and healthy, in her adopted home of Canada. She wrote a sweet and supportive message and helped me to fill in some of the blanks in my memory:
“I was very impressed with your memory of the details and not sure that I could possibly add anything of importance. Of course, being a girl, I remember the very details that you were not sure about … ”
Apparently, there was a lot of tea-making in that dorm room that night, and yes some kissing too to fill in the spaces between talk and tea. She reminded me that we met up several times after 1984, including times in Nuremberg, Vienna, and once more in Krakow in 1989. Life is filled with its share of “might have beens” and I will always think of her in this way. Mark
Thanks for this. My first time in Prague was the same Summer – the LA Olympics’ boycott in full bloom. The city was beautiful but felt ominous, and I constantly made the wrong choice (like entering a bar where people like me were not welcome). At the same time, it was magical – filled with old women sweeping shopfronts with home-made brooms in the mornings, and shop windows opening up to sell some random article (pizza, ice cream, toilet paper) that I either wanted once I got there or didn’t and would buy for the person behind me. I’d buy a bottle of wine at the hotel bar (Opera, I think) and find old men to sit and share with in the evening. There was this strange worker’s restaurant on Wenceslas square where you could eat standing up for like 20 cents and get a beer for 5…it was beautiful and, I don’t know, foreboding at the same time. Hell, there was the giant red star on the hill. I’m glad that the people have better lives, but something magical and private – almost like something from The Third Man -has been lost.
Hi Steven, Thanks for reading the post and leaving a comment. Strange that you were also in Prague that same summer. The workers’ restaurant you wrote about was the Automat — it was on the ground floor of the Koruna Palace building at the bottom of the square. Alas, it’s long gone. I wrote a little bit about the place in an earlier post on Wenceslas Square that you might find interesting: http://markbakerprague.com/understanding-wenceslas-square/ Keep reading and leaving posts! All best, Mark
Yup, that’s the place. Such a beautiful city. I think I only ran into a couple of other Americans while there, other than at the Embassy where I went to watch 2-week old tapes of network news one afternoon. In a world without constant contact and access through phones and computers, it seemed like one could just disappear. I think back to sitting in a train station, waiting for someone I didn’t know to approach me about a room, following them somewhere I’d never been before, giving them money, and assuming that they wouldn’t murder me in my sleep with nostalgia for a more innocent time.
Love the writing, by the way. Thanks for listening.
Wonderful story and beautiful writing, Mark!! As I learned to say many times, “you got Pragued!”
Indeed I did! Thank you, Lisa, for leaving a comment and I’m happy you liked the writing!
Thank you for sharing your stories, Mark, it’s fantastic to hear of your experiences & descriptions of Praha back in the 1980s.
I was also there at that time, but annually on my family summer holidays over from the U.K. My mother is from Praha but moved to London in 1968, so we would take our summer holidays there to stay with my grandparents (Babi & Deda) in Praha. This was from when I was a baby in the early 1970s up to 1989 when I was a teenager, so my experiences were maybe more family-based – but we also traveled out of Praha to stay with relatives here & there in small villages & farms, and to the moutains to stay in big, mostly empty hotels – I remember those old dark green trains with the red star on the front, and the train toilets that flushed out straight down onto the track. “Do not flush when in the station”, I’m sure the signs said, hehe.
I always felt it was such a special time, even with the restrictions there from the country being under Communist rule , but this maybe made it even more special. It will never be the same as it was back then (for good & bad), but of course Praha is still a beautiful, magical city.
I am currently writing about the experiences my family had on those holidays – mainly for my children as they will probably never experience anything like that, and was doing some research on Wenceslas Square when I found your site, which was really helpful. Again, it’s great to hear your and other people’s experiences of Praha and Czechoslovakia at that time.
Keep up the great writing!
Nice photo of a different era.
A very well written story laced with nostalgia of almost innocent but magical times. Them old charm days are long gone. I was in Praha in August 1988 and August 1989. I was also there in 1991. Really it was an ill fated romance but nice memories too. I left in 92 and returned twice to see the city of 1000 spires in 2004 and 2006 to run the marathon and go down memory lane. I have not returned since so my memories are mostly old school ones. Noce writing
Thank you PJ for writing and leaving a commment. Very happy that you liked the story.
By?em w Pradze tamtego roku. Czerwiec 1984.
That’s fantastic. Do you remember the atmosphere at the Strahov dorms?
I stumbled upon your website by sheer chance and boy! – your blog pieces are a wonderful read. I have visited Prague once and found it absolutely fascinating. I am someone that was born towards the end of the cold war, and obviously before the advent of 24×7 news and somehow developed a fascination for history, particularly the cold war, the eastern bloc and life behind the iron curtain. To read the experiences of someone that actually lived through those times is exciting. Thank you for your efforts in maintaining your blog and sharing your experiences.
Particularly the first comment on this post by you resonated with me – “Life is filled with its share of “might have beens” and I will always think of her in this way.” A lot of us have those don’t we?
Look forward to your continued writing, Mark.