That evening, riding the vaporetto back to my hotel after dinner at Fiaschetteria Toscana in Cannaregio, I noticed an ancient palazzo that was rotting into the Grand Canal, its lower levels boarded up and flooded. On the very top floor, an elegant and very old woman stood on her lamplit balcony, chin held high like the captain of a sinking ship.
The next night I bid farewell to Venice over a flute of Prosecco and set off to catch a 20:42 to Budapest. I'd like to say I slept like a baby in my luxurious Eurostar cabin and woke up on the Danube. But I never even got to the cabin. When I arrived at Venezia Santa Lucia, a sign read SCIOPERO DEGLI OPERAI—TRENI ANNULLATI. A labor strike. All trains canceled.
Ah, the labor strike. One of Europe's lasting contributions to rail travel, along with the TGV and the fold-down couchette. Even now, hardly a week goes by without a work stoppage somewhere in Italy or France. Maybe it was the Prosecco, but I felt surprisingly mellow as I realized I had no way of leaving town. A hundred stranded passengers milled about the station. Two backpackers considered their next move. "Why don't we just hitchhike to Bologna?" she proposed. "Hello?" he replied. "We're in Venice. Do you see any f—ing roads here?"
Thankfully, I had a cell phone. I called my travel agent in New York, who was not on strike. A flight to Budapest, on an airline whose name she couldn't pronounce, would have cost $2,873. But for $300, I could catch a morning flight to Prague. I booked it. The important thing was to keep moving.
The next morning I woke to an air-raid siren—only it wasn't an air raid, it was a flood. A storm had pounded the city all night. Now the sidewalks were under 10 inches of water. Still, I had a plane to catch. So I rolled up my suit trousers, put on a pair of flip-flops, and waded into the pond while balancing a 60-pound rollaway on my head. I sloshed across ankle-deep piazzas to the water-taxi stand. Then I dropped my suitcase into the canal.
Luckily the pilot was able to snag the case before it sank. With a smirk he handed it over—sodden, reeking of diesel and brine—took my fare, and hit the gas. Crossing Venice's storm-tossed lagoon was like a scene from Master and Commander; 50 minutes later my suitcase and I were flung onto the airport pier.
Did I mention I hate flying?How uncivilized, I thought, as we nose-dived into Prague in a lashing rainstorm. Had I been on a train, I'd have found this weather romantic; in a prop plane, it was terrifying. I realized what I love about rail travel: the smooth transitions, the convenience of arriving in the center of town, and the feeling that you're part of the scenery, not plunging into it.
In November 1990, I'd arrived at Holesovice Station with no guidebook (some jerk in Vienna had nicked mine). So I simply rode the subway to where the most lines intersected, which turned out to be Wenceslas Square. I emerged in the center of a cheering mob of bohemians. (This being Prague, they may have been actual Bohemians.) A young Czech student named Alexandr explained that it was the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. I joined the rally with my rucksack still strapped to my back. Alexandr quoted Havel poems in their entirety and spoke matter-of-factly about being jailed overnight in 1989 for tossing eggs at the cops. Havel! Jail! Eggs! Real consequences. I'd felt soft and sheltered by comparison, but Alexandr and I hit it off, and I stayed on his futon for five nights.
How odd, then, to return to Prague in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes stocked with chilled Evian and hot towels. After strikes, floods, and near-suitcase-drownings, I'd decided to book myself into the Four Seasons Prague. Surely they could rescue my mood. My top-floor room was a start—it had a smashing view of Charles Bridge. And housekeeping assured me that the waterlogged contents of my suitcase, which now smelled like a fish market, would be laundered overnight. That this service would cost $293—a sum that would have kept the 20-year-old me fed for a month—did little to dent my good feeling.
Indeed, it was tempting to spend the day lounging around my hotel room, ordering room service and reading the (complimentary) Herald Tribune. Such are the perks of traveling as an adult with money—a mode I've grown entirely accustomed to, for better or worse. My first, long-ago encounter with Europe had been an unguarded one. There were fewer walls between me and the places I'd come to see—and sometimes there were no walls at all, as when I spent the night in a Copenhagen phone booth. Diving in was obligatory. Youth hostels would literally lock you out during daylight hours ("for cleaning"), so you were forced to hit the streets. Hotels, by contrast, encourage you to stay in, maybe hit the sauna. As comfortable as a room at the Four Seasons may be, it also confers an isolation and insularity that backpacking never did.
So I left the confines of my room and hit the Old Town without a map. There are no parallel streets in Prague's medieval quarter; every block is a heptagon or pentagon. Despite this, I found my way to an old favorite, the Kolkovna beer hall. It was 4 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the vaulted cellar was already full of whooping Czechs hoisting ceramic mugs of dark Kozel beer. Barmaids brought platters of roast pork and "Moravian sparrow" (beef, potato dumplings, and sauerkraut). But there were also quesadillas on the menu and a stereo blasting "Trenchtown Rock." This, I realized, was as authentic as Prague gets nowadays. And why not?Young Czechs are as cosmopolitan as Londoners or New Yorkers.
I saw billboards for T-Mobile looming over cobbled lanes. Benetton displays injected bright pastels into the city's sober palette of rust and ocher. The so-called Old Town was occupied by falafel stands, Smart cars, even a tony restaurant called Ocean Drive. Czechs, too, seemed different. Back in 1990 you could tell Eastern Europeans from Westerners by their footwear or the cut of their jeans. No longer. Outside a KFC stood a posse of young Americans in Eminem garb. I asked where they were from. "Odpustit mne?" one replied ("Excuse me?"). My mistake: they were Czech.