Lost and Found in Prague
Prague, the city of lights. No, wait, that’s Paris.
Prague, the city that doesn’t sleep. No, that’s not right either.
Prague, the city of pizzerias.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
I have never seen so many pizzerias as I did while in Prague, except maybe in Italy.
Before you get excited, I didn’t take any pictures of said pizzerias, but I swear, they were there.
I went to Prague in part because I was searching for a little piece of my history – my middle name is Vlach, after my grandmother whose parents came from Czechoslovakia. I arrived alone from London for a rainy three-day weekend, without any real agenda besides soaking it up where my ancestors used to roam.
Despite the drizzle, the old town square was buzzing, packed with tourists. My hostel was easy to find – it was near the Astronomical Clock, above a pizzeria that was across from a pizzeria that was next to a pizzeria.
The challenge of navigation in Prague is that there is no real way to orient yourself from within the heart of the city. If you’re by the river, it’s much easier. If you can’t find the river, you’re out of luck.
This is how I got lost on my second morning, having set off with the aim of crossing the famed Charles Bridge and taking some pictures before the crowds descended. My aimless wandering took me from side street to side street, leading me to an eerily quiet part of town.
There wasn’t a tourist to be found. I passed people who I suspected were locals, judging by the wary looks they gave me. I knew for sure I was lost when I couldn’t even find any pizzerias.
Finally, I glimpsed the river, beyond a dirty abandoned car park, past a graffiti-covered building. I passed underneath a bridge to get to the river walk, and was almost hit by three cars who I am sure were gunning for me. (American tourist! Ten points.)
After a morning of walking, my legs started to ache and my photos had all started to look the same. I stopped at a cluster of umbrella-topped tables in the Town Square for a Budvar.
It seemed like people were just sitting down and being served, so I did the same. I found a table directly in the path of the sun’s rays and I sat, pulling out my notebook and hanging my coat on a chair.
There was a group of waiters all dressed in black right in front of me. I even made eye contact with some of them.
No one made a move to come over.
This went on for at least five minutes, which is a long time when you are waiting for acknowledgement from people you know have seen you.
I waited some more, watching as they served other diners.
Was I wearing the wrong thing? Did my big sunglasses make me look pretentious? What insider knowledge did I lack? My Czech blood certainly didn’t come with any social intuition.
I was about to get up and ask when a waitress wearing a bright red top appeared and asked what I wanted to drink.
Oh. I’d been making eyes at the wrong group of waiters.
That night I met a friend from college for dinner. She was completing an internship in Prague while I was studying in London. We swapped travel stories in an underground restaurant called U Chlupatyho Ducha. I had chicken, Shelley had pasta.
It wasn’t until later, when I looked at the restaurant’s business card that I realized they advertised themselves as a pizzeria.
The next day was my last in Prague, so I walked through the castle gardens and climbed the Petrin Observation Tower, a 60-meter tall replica of the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure the views were nice, but I forgot about my fear of heights until it was too late. I spent most of my time hyperventilating, back pressed against the wall, eyes squeezed shut.
All of the excitement was too much, so I grabbed my bag and caught the metro to the airport.
The woman in the glass case at passport control looked closely at my identification page.
“Lauren Vlach Fitzpatrick?” she said. “You are American, but with a Czech name? Vlach is a Czech name.”
“Yes!” I virtually shouted. I felt so vindicated.
“Yes, it is! My grandmother, or someone, came from here, or Slovakia, once. It was her maiden name. My grandmother.”
The woman ignored my eloquent diatribe.
“Vlach, it means Mister,” she said.
My face fell.
“Vlach is men, Vlachova is for woman.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said, distressed.
There was an awkward silence until she remembered to stamp my passport and hand it back.
I passed through the gates, excited to be recognized for my links to the Czech Republic but confused about my name’s gender identity.
As I ate a slice of pizza and waited for my SwissAir flight to be called, I decided that whatever Vlach really meant, I didn’t mind.
I’m proud to be Lauren Mister Fitzpatrick.