Yesterday, temperatures hit 20 degrees. In celebration of life reentering this hemisphere, I did two things; wore a skirt (a long one, my legs are not public-ready yet) and we decided to cross a border, a favourite past time of mine. The border we chose is a particularly close one – a mere 30km – and took us into the Czech Republic. We were headed for the town of Pilsen (Plzeň) famous for its beer and, as Wikipedia informed me, the second largest synagogue in Europe, Baroque architecture and a printing press.
We elected to take the route without tolls, just to inject a touch of spontaneity into the day, and on our way, came across this Bavarian vista:
Nothing like rolling green hills and a village on a church-topped hill, to remind one exactly what part of the world they are in.
Once we were over the border, several things happened. Large, Bangkok style fake-goods bazaars popped up in the middle of unassuming villages. Petrol prices dropped remarkably – service stations were full of solid German cars filling up. The landscape changed its hue from green to shades of yellow and the stout, well maintained houses of German villages were replaced with the less stout, less well maintained houses of Czech villages. The difference, to be honest, was remarkable, and not just because I have spent long enough in Germany to come to expect the world’s houses to be sturdy and constantly freshly painted. The switch from gleaming to ramshackle, more than anything, threw into sharp relief, the German adherence to doing things well. Ditto with the roads. SG was horrified at the sight of patchy, slightly bumpy roads- as a Sydneysider, I wasn’t. No one maintains things like the Germans – roads, houses, cars. Actually, scrap that, no one makes things like the Germans.
And so we wound our way through the Czech countryside, through patches of forest, out across vast expanses of yellowed pasture. There were times of great, fairy tale esque beauty, and times of suspecting we were driving through the location used to film the Hostel films.
We reached Pilsen in just under two hours – and vowed to use the toll roads on the way home, if only to avoid Hostel film location creepiness at dusk – and found a park with ease. I remarked I wanted to do nothing but find a cafe, order a glass of wine and sit in the sun. Having absolutely no plans (unusual) beyond drinking a Pilsner in Pilsen, SG agreed. As it transpired, having no plans was a good thing because, as it also transpired, everything in Pilsen is closed on a Saturday. Good thing we didn’t want to see anything – or, better put, didn’t really know what there was to be seen.
The first sight that greeted us was this rather stately one …
… and directly opposite it was a cafe with chairs in the sun. I voted we take a load off there. Granted it was 5 minutes from where we had parked the car and the whole of Pilsen was yet to be discovered, but the whole of Pilsen, it was plain to see, was closed. We pressed on for a little while, SG positively certain there had to be more. We walked down little polished stone streets and admired brightly painted old houses and shop fronts …
… until it became apparent the lone cafe that was a) open and b) had seats in the sun, was the one we first came across. And so we made the grave error of returning to it, SG disappointed in himself that he hadn’t planned ahead and chosen a day on which the city was actually open. I said expecting a city of 150,000 people + to be open on a Saturday was an easy mistake to make. Anyone could make it.
I won’t rant unnecessarily, but the cafe we returned to was a farce. I had to ask the waitress twice – and very politely – whether she was going to come outside and take our order and the second time she referred me to her colleague who could speak English and her colleague barked at me, ‘I have no time. Go outside, I will come.’ She didn’t come. And when she did, it was because SG waved her over. I lost it. I became the nightmare westerner who is horrified by poor service. And let it be said, I am not horrified easily. Men have defecated by dumpsters in Madrid, vomited on themselves in Greece and ordered another round of sambuccas. I have enjoyed the searing snobbiness of Sydney’s various social scenes. I don’t get pissed off that easily, but when I am sitting in your cafe for nearly half an hour and I have had to ask you twice if you are going to deign to take my order at any point, and you have essentially spat on my politely phrased request and then ignored me, that is when I get pissed off.
And so we left. Before I got violent. Or became that dreaded tourist who complains loudly because things aren’t the same as they are ‘at home’. I don’t want to be that girl.
We wound up at a small Italian place (why is it that no matter where I go in the world, I always eat pizza?) where the waitstaff were completely lovely, menus appeared on tables within moments of sitting down and the waiter wanted to practice his German.
SG finally got his Pilsner in Pilsen …
… and I got my two glasses of white wine. Then we had ice cream. Balance was restored.
Pilsen is a lovely city and with the sun shining it was even lovelier, although I would imagine, dark skies and rain wouldn’t do its mystery a disservice. It is old and pretty and romantic, the Europe of postcards and film. There seem to be plenty of cafes and restaurants and bars and the cultural vein pulsing beneath the quaintness of it all is evident in the tiny museums, antique shops and hole in the wall galleries.
Just don’t go on a Saturday. And don’t go to a cafe directly in front of St Bartholomew’s Cathedral. Apart from that, enjoy.
Driving home, I realised what crossing borders does, when one is in the process of making somewhere new a home. It makes you miss your home. It makes what you have left behind for the day or the weekend, seem cosy and welcoming upon returning to it. Yesterday wasn’t just about checking out another city – it was about starting to feel at home in my new town. As we crossed the border back into Germany, and the signs became readable once more, and the crazy Bavarian dialect came back on the radio, a little something clicked. This new part of the world became a little less new and a little more familiar. A little more like home.