The Poland part of the trip went smoothly. I arrived in Kraków and fairly 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 for me Kraków was booked solid that summer. There wasn’t a hotel or hostel to be found anywhere. 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 in life, and it was a good start to the trip.
Bożena would later feature prominently -- and unexpectedly -- on this bizarre first journey to Prague.
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 slightly jealous of Matt that he’d had the opportunity to hang out that summer drinking beer and playing guitar in the crowded student dorm they were all staying in.
When it came time to say goodbye to Poland, Matt and I and some of Matt’s new friends from the Jagiellonian program boarded the train in Kraków for the overnight trip to Prague. The plan was for the two of us to hang out in Prague for three days and then take an overnight train to Nuremberg in Germany. From there, we would connect onward 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 as 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 and the others partied pretty hard on that Kraków-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 had 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, Matt and I 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 rather 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 “Hotel Fortuna City”), 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 pretty 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 anti-Communist 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 some kind of 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 hook up later with some of his Jagiellonian friends.
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 drunk 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, and 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 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 the much for visitors to do. It was the kind of place where you hear your own footsteps echo off the sidewalks; where you can't help shake the feeling that someone is 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 an American to be lurking around the grounds. 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, the dialogue probably wasn’t as brilliant as I’d like to think, but I came away very much smitten with Bożena and thinking she was one of the most amazing people I’d ever met. We must have kissed (how could one 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 his friends and hanging out with dissidents, etc, 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 from 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 for 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 departure board to find out which platform the train was leaving from, I walked through the station and climbed up the stairway to the train 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 best 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 hashed 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 mystifies 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.