It was Easter 1995. Around about this time last year I had set off overseas. I was now about to leave London and head for home.
Living in London had gotten the better of me and it was time to leave the city well behind. I looked in the glossy backpacker's magazine for the cheapest bus ticket which would take me as far away as possible. The destination was Prague. I boarded the bus at midday. Early the next morning I was awoken after an uncomfortable night's sleep at the Czech Republic border.
The border guards had come onto the bus to check our visas. I dazedly pulled out my passport to proudly display my organisational skills. It had been a last minute, hectic effort to obtain the necessary European visas but this bureaucratic obstacle had been overcome.
But now there seemed to be some sort of problem. The border guards made me follow them off the bus and into their office. Fortunately a passenger from the bus was there to act as my interpreter. He informed me I did not have the necessary Czech Republic visa.
What do you mean?
I showed him the visa, written in some incoherent language, stuck in my passport. I told him I had obtained the visa from the Czechoslovakia Embassy in London. In work time too I might add.
My interpreter looked closer at the jumble of symbols on the visa sticker. It was a Slovakia visa he informed me. He went on to tell me Czechoslovakia had recently been split in two and now comprised the separate countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I had a visa for the wrong half of recent history.
I had a problem. I thought about turning back and circumventing this problematic country but the border was stuck in the middle of nowhere and it would have proved impossible. The only solution was to buy an expensive on the spot visa for the Czech Republic and head forward.
It was too early in the morning for news like this. I reluctantly handed over the money.
Somehow I had to get it back. I identified food as the area of my budget with the fattest thighs. It seemed I will have to starve myself during my stay in Prague. As a result my lasting memory of the city is of me drooling outside some crass fast food joint cursing Eastern European bureaucracy.
But there were still other memories. Memories of a city separated into different worlds, some from the not too distant past.
There was Prague's old town square, Staromestske Namesti. This was unique; a fairytale world which lived in the minds of the mature. Its central attraction, a Gothic astronomical clock, struck the hour, opened its doors and a parade of mechanically worked creatures sprung to life. They were well rehearsed, stuck in their tracks, not deviating from routine. They were above an encore for the tourists gathered below. The tourists would now have to wait for the next performance, scheduled like clockwork.
Bright coloured buildings enclosed the old town square. These included the twin gothic steeples of the Tyn Church and the more conservative dome of the St Nicholas Church. In the centre was a monument dedicated to a religious reformer. Down a side street was the Josefov, the city's former Jewish quarter. Cobble stone streets, fine architect, history and tourists crowded around this prosperous part of town.
Sitting across the river was the main attraction of the city, the famous Charles Bridge. Statues and street vendors stood at regular intervals over the bridge cross way. Its dark brooding statues, its intricate detail, its religious and imperial themes all gave the Charles Bridge the hint of crossing over into yet another world. In the background was the Prague Castle where the rulers of this other world must have one day resided. I crossed over to the other side and was greeted by more tight-knit cobblestone streets, statues and an imperial garden.
I walked back over the Charles Bridge to whence I had come. The gothic statues of the bridge appeared as though they had been removed from a cemetery. They made me aware, as the shivers crawled down my spine, that our life upon this earth was finite. Death was ever present.
I realised I must appreciate more of what I have. OK at present that is nothing of a material value but I still must appreciate life more. Perhaps I should buy a drawing of the Charles Bridge from one of the street vendors to signify this change in outlook.
But then a sudden cold wind swept through my mind. I remembered I had not eaten that day and that I was probably becoming delusional.
It was a sign to head back to my hostel before I did myself some ill repairable damage. The hostel was located in yet another world of Prague. This was from the world when Czechoslovakia was a communist colony of Russia. A world with bland concrete structures, the monolith of the Strahov football stadium and a tram transport system that wasn't geared towards tourism.
It was a world written on the pages of history during my own lifetime.