Benches and Beatles

benches and beatles

While it could arguably be considered more of a nap than a night’s sleep, I did get some rest between Prelude and Prague – though not much. The adrenaline was enough to get to the train station, but that was about as far as it would take me. Shortly after climbing into my oversized train seat I could feel immense waves of exhaustion flow through me like a strong drink. To my right my Dad was still train side; taking pictures like a parent seeing their kid off to school.

Yes, yes I did just make a Harry Potter reference. Wouldn’t you? I couldn’t help but feel like Harry, and I’m sure some similarities could be drawn. My awkward introverted nature when I’m in my glasses, my dark unkempt hair – hell I even have a scar on my forehead. Sadly I was a day late and an owl short.

It was only when the train started to pull away from Vienna did it hit my stomach: My story starts now, I’m on my own.

I pressed myself, if at all possible, further into my seat. My hands gripped the top of the arm rests. The smallest amount of sweat moistened my palms. If there was ever any doubt or anxiety, it was there for a brief minute – and just like Vienna, it was behind me.

It was barely 7 a.m., and while the Austrian countryside is seriously something to write home about, I traded moments of wide-eyed grandeur for some much needed shut-eye.

While it wasn’t quite the entire train ride, I did manage to get a few more hours of sleep before my body violently convulsed itself back into consciousness. It was as if my body was a needle being dragged across a vinyl, like I was a nail scraping down the surface of a chalkboard. Maybe it was the thrill and excitement that was bottled up in my subconscious trying to find its way to chase the light, maybe it was that sleep debt finally calling to collect. Regardless, the dazed feeling passed – and soon enough, Prague.

How many times have I heard of Prague? Certainly enough times. Didn’t Bond visit Prague at least once? No matter, it was all hearsay now. When I stepped off that train Prague became an experience that I owned, a memory that was my own. I planned to take it all in like a good bottle of wine; slowly and with small sips.

Thanks to years of being a Boy Scout, I’ve become really good at reading maps and navigating myself around places I’m unfamiliar with. Now my mother and friends may say otherwise, usually when I’m driving they’re right – but they haven’t seen me in the wild. I had spent the night before overlooking Google Maps version of Prague. I knew where the station was, I knew where I would be stepping off and where in Prague I would be in relation to the station. I knew the key things I wanted to see that day before heading off to my next destination. I had devised a plan.

When I was a Boy Scout, GPS or Global Positioning Satellite technology was still a term reserved for the military – it was barely attainable for consumer use. That should tell you how old I already am. Thankfully a lot has changed, and many breakthroughs were made since that time. For instance, cell phones went from Nokia bricks that, similar to Keith Richards and Hostess Twinkies, would be able to survive the apocalypse; to flimsy pieces of glass and shiny metal that would be inoperable after abruptly hitting a surface from any height – and made by a company named after a fruit no less. As we got better at making technology smaller, GPS devices began to show up in cars, and into phones, and finally into watches.

My watch is one of those watches. In fact my watch would make Sean Connery’s Bond question why the hell Q couldn’t give him one that did half as much as mine did – and look as nice. As soon as I stepped out of the station and into Prague proper, I pressed a few buttons and watched as it pinged the GPS system for my current coordinates. Within a minute I was dialed in, and I saved the location. I activated ‘hike’ mode and headed out to Prague. I didn’t need to know the street names, I had a compass on my watch and I knew what direction I needed to go. I knew the lay of the land and I knew that everything was going to be fine.

First stop was crossing the center of Prague and heading to Charles Bridge. Easy enough, though I will say there was a bit of a struggle as I couldn’t keep my mind clear and on track. This was Disneyland for adults, or at least creative and curious types. Though it became clear later with visiting my other destinations that Europe is very much Walt Disney World for adults; each country a new land full of magic and wonder.

I studied the people, I studied the buildings, I studied the architecture. My eyes drank in Prague like a child first tasting soda. My mind swam through its senses barely able to keep it together with all I could smell, see, touch, taste, and hear.

And then, one windy turn, lead to another, lead me to the opening to the center of Prague. I knew I had found something worth stopping for. A church, the name of which I can’t recall, towered over the square, which was filled with street artists, vendors, tourists, tour groups, locals, beggars, musicians, magicians, and the occasional mutt. I managed to keep my finger on the trigger and the camera in my hand; powered on and ready to fire.

Giant bubbles floated overhead, created by street artists trying to entertain passersby, and it was here where I managed to get one of my favorite shots of the whole trip.

I ended up finding a map so I could get my bearings on how far exactly I was to the water, and ultimately to Charles Bridge. I looked at my compass, and gauged I was about a quarter mile east of the bridge. Not bad. Tightening up my pack, I weaved around the crowds and down some more winding streets which eventually opened up to the riverside. Charles Bridge.

Once you pass through the archway you will find yourself on a massive bridge that sports a dozen, if not more, monumental statues of biblical figures – mostly Jesus – carved with meticulous detail. Postcard vendors, puppeteers, men and women masquerading as living marble figures, caricature creators, all lined the sides of the bridge. Walking in a straight line was wishful thinking, this became a game of labyrinth as you had to find a way around one immovable wall of tourists, then another.

About two thirds of the way over I found a stairwell that took me down to the other side of the bridge. Good enough, I thought. I pushed past the last group and descended the steps to a clearing.

Small restaurants lined both sides of a long rectangular courtyard that had two rows of large, and old, trees that ran the entire length of the courtyard – between and beneath the trees were benches. Needing a break from the weight of my bag, and the unbearable heat that seemed to have followed me from California, I made a break for the nearest bench.

It so happens that every now and then, and when you least expect it, the universe wants you to pay attention. Rather than being subtle like the summer breeze, it turns your head like a firecracker in an old tin can.

As I sat my bag to the right of the bench a person appeared almost out of no where and sat on the left side of the bench. I stood there, between her and the bag in utter bewilderment. Looking around and noticing several other benches free I couldn’t quite get why this was happening to me. Awkwardly I put myself on the bench, albeit as close to my bag and as far from her as I could muster.

She was tall, almost as tall as me, and thin. Fair-skinned with dirty blonde hair that I could imagine was very pretty if it wasn’t currently in the form of dreadlocks. Oh and most importantly, she was barefoot.

She was tending to something on her left ankle, or calf, I wasn’t about to peer over her to see, but I assumed it was a cut that she got from walking around these old cobblestone and jagged-rock roads. I quietly began to fiddle with my bag, slowly going through the top pouch until I pulled it out. I turned to her and asked her if she needed to clean the wound. She stopped dabbing at her ankle with a crumpled tissue and looked at me, and then to the small bottle of hand sanitizer I held in my outstretched hand.

It took a lifetime within that moment for her to answer, but slowly and surely, her eyes answered before the creases formed upon the smile-lines in her cheeks. Finally a voice with the slightest accent responds simply, “that is so sweet of you!”

Awkward Clam that I am, I turned my gaze back to my bag. “If the cut isn’t too serious, I have a first aid kit in my bag that I take with me.” She had already begun to apply the hand sanitizer on to her ankle with a tissue. “Cut?” she turns her ankle towards me and I see it before she explains, a fresh tattoo, jet black, was emblazoned upon pink skin in characters I couldn’t make out.

Then her words hit my ears. Her and her roommates had just purchased a tattoo machine and had been giving themselves some new tattoos recently. She turned her left wrist to show me, but my attention was now to right below her left collarbone, which was exposed due to her sundress. A scribble of a language that I couldn’t quite understand was tattooed there. Now looking at her wrist, the text there was similar to what was on her shoulder, and she explained that it was elvish – from Lord of The Rings. All of it was.

She introduced herself to me, and I to her. For her privacy I will refer to her as Jane – though plain she is anything but not.

Jane recanted life in her house with her roommates, and how they would tattoo little smiley faces on to each other’s fingertips, as they apparently won’t stay on very long on that region of the body, so after some time the skin would be fresh – ready for more fingertip tattoos. We asked each other what brought us to Prague. I explained that I was visiting several countries before returning home to California – that latter part was noticed, questioned, and awed.

Where. What. How. When. Questions about California I never thought I’d be asked before in my life. Funny how little we think of the rest of the world when all we know are people who look like us, talk like us, and live near us. I did my best to explain to her, without sounding lethargic, about that ‘great state’. When she had finished her line of questioning, I went on the offensive.

Jane told me she was from Germany and lived in a city called Dresden with several friends in one house. She had finished school, though in Germany finishing school doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in other places. As she explained, Germany allows students to end their schooling earlier than the US should they choose to, or stay longer and prepare to go study in the universities. Jane wasn’t the scholarly type, her education came from the world around her.

She worked with refugees and helped them learn German so they could integrate better into the country. When asked if I could speak German, I laughed. I tried to go over the few words and sentences I knew. Jane insisted she could teach me German, and went on to walk me through how to say “you have sunscreen on your ear,” which was more of a statement than a sentence, and I thanked her while I rubbed in the remainder of my sunscreen.

Bus Ride Out Of Prague

Featuring Blaenavon’s Prague

Jane told me about her trip to Morocco, and how she went to help refugees. She loves languages and learns them quickly. Her favorite saying in arabic, spoken in arabic and then roughly in english, “your eyes shine like the stars at night.” I liked that saying, I liked that I have memories of staring into eyes like that. Jane said the only way she truly learns a language is when she can study the context, learn the grammar, and not just reiterate word after word or sentence after sentence – she has to understand it to speak it. Or else she just memorizes these phrases but has no real way of holding a conversation.

All the while I’ve been sitting here, I had slowly fidgeted with my pack until I was subconsciously putting in my contacts right there on the bench. It wasn’t until my eyes stung that I realized what I was doing – and most importantly why I was doing it. I wanted to talk to her, and not just listen. I couldn’t do that in my glasses. I can’t do that in my glasses. I’m Clark Kent with my glasses on. I wear my glasses and want to be invisible, I am invisible. A growing repulsion takes over me whenever I think about being talked to – not that it’s the people that repulse me, but rather the idea that I would repulse them as Clark.

I have to wear contacts to talk to people, to be social. While this may suggest that I am Superman with contacts in, I am most certainly not faster than a speeding bullet or more stronger than a locomotive. By my own standards and expectations, I am extraordinarily ordinary – and am barely noticeable in first glance, and almost never for second glances. White bread wishes it could be as plain as me.

I don’t know when my mindset became like this, I think it was sometime between end of elementary school and near the tail end of high school that I swallowed a lie that was fed to me. That I’m not worth being noticed. That I’m not worth being loved. That my existence was laughable at best, and at worse – was a mistake. When I wear my glasses I feel more like myself, more like this person. This tiny, tiny person – not socially inept, but shunned. Someone who needed to hide in plain sight, lest he be discovered, ridiculed, mocked. Peers would chastise me, or attack me, girls would flirt with me only to mock me. The person behind the wireframes and thick lens was nothing more than a boy hiding between book stacks and bathrooms.

When I put in my contacts, I’m secretly putting on a mask. I’m putting on a costume. I’m erecting a facade to act as a barrier between some of the things that I deeply feel on the inside, and the world around me. When I put in my contacts I can talk to you, or anyone for that matter, and stare deeply into your eyes with the most sincere interest. I can hold conversations in crowds, or attempt to be the life of a party. I can do all these things because I am in costume, and my identity is protected by it.

It’s not that it’s disingenuous of me to do this, it’s a protection mechanism. It allows me to be with people, without worrying about people being with me. Without worrying whether or not I’m going to be loved or lambasted, the hand that holds turning to a closed fist. So I put in my contacts and I let my character try and take over.

Newly focused, I turned to Jane and asked her if she was here with her family – and if they were worried about where her shoes may have went. Much to my surprise, I was told that she separated from her parents some time ago and moved to a different town with friends. They have their own house, one of the oldest in town. She began to show me pictures on her phone. Room after room there was graffiti on the walls, but it was arranged more like art than it was in social defiance. Jane explained that whenever they have friends or visitors that come by they are encouraged to leave a message or a note about being there with them. She wasn’t too concerned about their deposit.

Other photos revealed a fire pit out back where everyone was sitting around, laughing, and drinking. Some cigarettes were smoked, and maybe one or two joints. The last set of pictures revealed the tattoo machine they had acquired. Each of them tattooing the other in some way, shape, form. It was a life ripe with adventure, and free from parental tyranny. Unfortunately this liberty wasn’t without its costs, the neighborhood they lived in had very uptight neighbors. We tried to meet on a word to describe their nature to judge the youths while keeping their own homes and lawns pristine. We settled on ‘anal’. Sorry Mom, it’s multilingual.

“How do you say, pred-juice, to judge people – in America?”

“Prejudice? do you mean preg-eh-duce?”

“Yes. Prejudice. America has a lot of prejudices against people. Immigrants, refugees, young people.”

Yes I thought, yes it does.

“There is no shortage of hate or prejudice in my country. Every day more unfortunate events happen that further reinforce the fact that we’ve learned nothing at all about each other.”

“It is a shame. It’s very sad. We are all very much alike.”

We are. We are more alike than anyone wants to imagine.

Her shoes were with her teacher, her group was somewhere in the area but not anywhere close. Begrudgingly she had brought her shoes with the group, but only after protest. Walking barefooted allowed her to experience more within the area. It allowed her to feel her surroundings more, whether smoothed cobblestones or rough trails. Shoes took away that sense of feeling, for better or worse.

That’s when I realized something very important. Jane wasn’t in her early twenties, hell, she wasn’t even twenty. Jane was sixteen. Sixteen with a vengeance. Her mouth was moving then, but her words were lost on me. Sixteen. I remember being sixteen. I remember the life I was living in the cul-de-sac capital of the western United States, walking down to the gas station late on Friday nights to get energy drinks with my best friends, going to the movies all summer long. No wonder I get the feeling that she’s older than her years, she’s lived more in half a decade than most have in the first half of their lives. Simply put, if people were rain – I was a drizzle, she was a hurricane.

I told her that I was about to go see the Lennon Wall, and it was just around the corner. She was welcome to join me and we could keep the conversation going. I was already sold on her story, anything from that moment would just be more letters on a screen. Luckily she was curious and wanted to come.

As I heaved my bag onto my back I could feel myself sink back down into my shoes again. We pressed on down the street towards one of the most interesting bits of Prague – at least in terms of pop culture. I asked more about her family life, before she left.

Jane had a falling out with her parents and left her family not too long ago. She described the building tension both at home and within herself. The feeling of not belonging, the anguish, the loneliness. Leaving was hard, but staying would have been harder. It was scary at first, but her friends had found a place and she moved right in. When the pieces finally settled into place, Jane found what was lost – her identity and her happiness.

She’s into big protests and a supporter of special groups – especially those who support the refugees from surrounding countries. She asked me if I knew about Syria and what was going on there. I told her I was familiar, but as I don’t live in Europe I couldn’t possibly imagine the immensity of the problem. Whether I imagined it, or it briefly existed, a very small tear formed in the corner of her eye as she discussed all the people fleeing. Jane wants to get them more support. To get the world to see them and see this problem, and to support these people who have lost everything. It’s why she loves to teach them German, she’s good at languages and likes to serve people.

I like to serve people, I thought. In reality, I’ve never served like that. I’ve never lived like that. I don’t know the burden it must be to hold back pity while doling out selfless compassion hour by hour, day after day.

We got to a huge chain fence where many people placed locks with inscriptions to loved ones. It pinged my heart to see this, as I’ve seen something like it before. I had no lock, but that was no matter – I have no one that loves me that way. Not anymore.

Around the corner from there was this wall covered end to end is the most colorful graffiti – the Lennon Wall. The story behind it is quite simple, and rebelliously wonderful. The wall is located in a secluded square across from the French Embassy. After John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, an unnamed artist painted an image of the singer-songwriter along with Beatles lyrics – this was the first inscription to the wall. Western images and symbols were banned at the time in Czechoslovakia, so as it was viewed as a means of protest, the artwork was covered over by Prague’s secret police.

Though one by one as each new coat of paint went up over the graffiti, more and more messages were left. The site became known as a place for anti-Communist political graffiti, or “Lennonism”, which neither surveillance cameras nor an overnight guard stationed at the wall could prevent. After the fall of Communism in Prague the wall became a site for calls to activism worldwide and is a symbol of global ideals such as love and peace.

It’s magnificent, and beautiful. It’s as colorful as Lennon was and a fitting tribute to all he stood for. I was grateful to be there, I was grateful to be there with this person.

After we took some pictures we walked back to the bench where we had met. She asked me where I was going next, I told her I had plans to go up to the Prague Castle. She smiled and ruffled through her own bag, and pulled out a ticket. The ticket was for the castle, and was still good for the remainder of the day. Jane also handed me a sticker. It was in support of one of her groups. She told me to take it to Berkeley and to put it up somewhere, I looked her in the eyes and promised that I would.

Some classmates made themselves known nearby by waving at her to come over, I saw this was my queue – and the close of this chapter. I smiled, and while I could see we both wanted to hug, we settled for handshakes instead. Politically correct, and always appropriate. She begged me to promise to find her in Dresden when I come back to Germany and that I could stay with her and her friends. I gave her my contact info so she could follow me along this journey I’ve called ‘life’.

Of course I would go to Dresden, of course I plan to come back. Though I know a thing about promises and people – I know that some people like to make promises like writing checks – sometimes their are some that can’t be cashed. I promise I’ll come to Germany, this time with more things to say in German, and less about eating apfels and drinking wasser. Once more, I’ll find a place in Berkeley for this sticker. Small as it may be, it represents much more than it’s size – a lot like the person that gave it to me. Larger than most lives.

I walked off to Prague Castle, and I could tell you about the sweeping views over the city, or the color of the rooftops, or the sun as it began to set down to sleep in the West. But I’ve had plenty of sunsets to watch, and hopefully a few more still to see. Today wasn’t about Prague, and I think it was less about me.

Today was about setting off into the world, free from safety and all that I knew. Whatever disconcerting feelings and trepidations about this trip I may have had before boarding the train to Prague, they didn’t follow me outside that train – and they certainly didn’t join me as I left Prague either.

As my bus pulled out of the city and headed to Nuremberg I thought about my luck, and that bench. I thought about Jane and her story. I thought about my story; the one I lost, the one I left behind, and the one that was developing. The story I’m now living.

I remembered this quote – and it is so fitting, “It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”





Note: I encourage you to listen to the Song of the Day. When I pulled this song up in the bus leaving Prague I had goosebumps break out all over me; literally head to toe. How appropriate, how grateful I am to be able to find a place in my life for this song.

Song On My Mind:

Ben Howard – I Forget Where We Were

and on Spotify:


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