Reflecting on journeys I have taken is like remembering a former love. Each is infinitely unique and different and brings forth a rush of emotions, both good and bad. What usually sets a trip apart for me are the connections I make while traveling; who I meet and how they shape my adventure. This was particularly so while visiting the Czech Republic several years ago.
It was mild in Prague that April, comfortable during the days but the evenings almost always required a light jacket. Walking through the Old Town Center of Prague,one could hear dozens of languages being spoken and just as many smells wafting above the plaza from nearby cafes and stalls. Prague was the first stop on our Central European tour before heading into Germany and Austria. It was also my first time in the ancient city and I had fallen madly in love with it.
Capturing some of the romantic charm of Paris, but with a colder, more aloof edge, the city draws you in as you demand to learn more. During our stay we had eaten at a variety of restaurants and bistros, each different but fabulous in their own right. The last evening was no exception, and we left the Restaurant Barfly (now closed, sadly) well sated and content. Since it was our last night, I wanted to sample some of the beers for which this former Communist country was famous. None of that innocuous Budvar brew all the Americans demanded either, I wanted rich, hoppy beery goodness.
I don’t recall the name of the bar we eventually settled upon and I could never find it again, but it was your run of the mill pub. The wood floors and décor almost traipsed into Irish pub territory, but the Czechness of it all brought it back from the brink. We found a table and ordered a strong draught. The seating was family style, a new experience for us in a bar setting and one that at first was a little uncomfortable.
Within a few minutes a couple of guys approached and in a rolling Irish brogue asked if they could join us. Immediately establishing the commonality of our lingua mater, we began what would become an all-night discussion.
We learned that they were father and son on holiday in Prague just for the fun of it; a boys weekend. This is one of my great envies of Europeans: their ability to travel to a myriad of countries at a drop of a hat. For an American, the trip to Europe is one usually well planned and fairly expensive. But we have Canada I suppose, so there’s that.
During the course of the evening we talked about everything from our careers (they were both teachers in Belfast) to the dicey subject of international politics. Towards the end of the evening, the conversation lapsed from the weighty, intellectual stuff to pop culture and at the very end of the evening, karaoke.
We discovered that the pub had a juke box and it didn’t take us very long to completely monopolize the song selection, usually erring on the side of Neil Diamond medleys. By the third time we had sung along with “Sweet Caroline,” I could discern a palpable murmur of annoyance from the largely Czech crowd. I had suddenly, and much to my chagrin, become a slightly ugly American. Not too ugly though, because I was in a pub after all, I was drunk and I really do like Neil Diamond. So, if anything, I was just being true to myself.
Finally, the barkeep announced last call and we stumbled out of the pub, exchanging email addresses written on beer coasters and vowing to contact each other should we visit the other’s country.
During the course of my personal tribute to Neil Diamond, I had completely forgotten the fact that we had an 8am train to Munich the next day. By the time my head hit the pillow it was 4am and, as previously mentioned, I was irreconcilably drunk. I dimly recall actually waking up early in the morning thanks to an incredibly annoying travel alarm clock. I peered over at my partner and quickly surmised that we would not be taking the 8:00 am train to Munich.
Being a copious travel researcher, I had noted there was a noon train we could take and still arrive in the home of Weisswurst and pretzels at a reasonably good time. Not great, but it was our only option. We bundled our belongings and made it to the train station, only to see that it had apparently been evacuated; there were hundreds of people sitting outside, and guards patrolling the front. I tried to ask what was going on, but it was no use, I spoke no Czech and they spoke no English. Noon came and went, but I consoled myself by knowing that no one was going anywhere while there was this emergency.
Eventually we made it onboard and after an incredibly long day, settled into Munich far later than we would have liked.
Many would look at this experience as a travel misstep or at least a severe annoyance. For me though, it is one of my most treasured travel memories. There was an innocence and a pure sense of unexpected joy at engaging our Irish friends in conversation that cannot be planed or easily replicated. It is these experiences, these travel snowflakes, that make our adventures unique from everyone else’s. Anyone can travel to Prague, tour the castle, and so forth. What truly makes the trip unique and memorable are the connections you make while traveling. The people you meet, the experiences you engage in are fundamentally why we all travel. Millions travel to Prague every year and yet no two people will have the same exact experience; everyone has their own snowflake.
Ever since that adventure, whenever I travel I look for those snowflake opportunities and rather than shy away from them, I embrace them fully. Even though I haven’t made it to Northern Ireland yet, I still have that coaster and I still love “Sweet Caroline.”