Part I: March, 2006
In 2006 I boarded a plane for the first time. I had never been out of the United States. I had barely been outside of my home state. I was an antsy 20-year-old with no money working at a burrito restaurant and trying to pay my way through community college on $8 an hour. This was after my mildly successful rock band split up. My girlfriend of the time had already done the backpacking through Europe thing and was ready to head back. I scraped up every penny I could over a few months and was willing to go anywhere. She picked Prague. I didn't know much about it, and didn't really care where I was going. I just wanted to go somewhere and see something different.
After a convoluted route on three different flights, we made it to Prague. We had no cell-phones. The internet wasn't easily accessible, nor all that reliable at the time. We had a slightly out-of-date travel map, and my experienced travel partner, who was in charge of logistics, forgot to look up the address for our hostel. We wandered around Old Town, dragging roller bags loudly behind us on the cobblestone streets (my bag was actually sent to the wrong country and had to be shipped to me in Prague the next day). We asked several locals for the location of the hostel, but no one we asked spoke English. Eventually, cranky and tired from 3 flights and a long bus ride, we found the hostel. The lady at the desk, maybe a few years older than us, didn't speak any English.
It was early March, cold and snowy. I was used to experiencing allergy attacks and sunburns by that time in Southeastern North Carolina; but in Prague, I was chilly in a peacoat and hat. Despite the weather and the frustrations upon arrival, I quickly fell in love with the atmosphere. I had never seen such dramatic and ancient architecture. I had never been any place where the evidence of thousands of years of history stood right in front of me in present day. The cityscape was dramatic. The streets and buildings were dirty. There were a fare amount of homeless, street peddlers, sausage stands, and restaurants with creaky floors, heavy-wooden tables, and fresh beer for cheap. Wide-eyed, I walked the narrow streets under towering gothic architecture in awe of the bohemian beauty.
I wasn't a serious photographer yet. I had a 4-megapixel Kodak point-and-shoot camera and had barely ever taken a picture of anything before that trip. I shot everything...the towers, Old Town Square, every statue on the Charles Bridge, the Castle, and every endlessly winding cobblestone street I walked down. I primarily ate cheap sausages and hot-dogs from stands and drank legendary, yet equally cheap, Czech beer.
Our hostel was $200 USD for 5 nights, but it was wasn't really a hostel at all. Despite the run-down appearance of the building's exterior, that spacious studio apartment with a full kitchen and modern bathroom (which we had all to ourselves) on the top floor with a view of Old Town is still one of the nicest places I've ever stayed in Europe. So, $200 wasn't bad at all!
Tourism was low at that time. Prague wasn't quite the popular destination it is now. There were no Pinterest or Instagram influencers or travel vanity to drive millennials in. It was a bit grungy. Absinthe bars and youth hostels were the most prevalent businesses filling dirty and under-kept buildings in Old Town. Traditional Czech restaurants were easy to find. The Charles Bridge was lined with poor peddlers and artists desperately trying to sell their works (some to the point of crying and screaming at you to look at their paintings). Street vendors in Old Town Square sold hand-made wooden crafts, Kafka books, and t-shirts with X-rated graphics. There was a Bohemian charm. I had a great time; I was sad to leave and knew I'd return one day.