Don’t let a few strange happenings stop you from visiting Prague’s old Jewish Town Hall.
Prague, beautiful, ancient
Prague, though thronged with sex shops and youthful tourists, remains very much Franz Kafka's city.
"A dear little mother whose claws never let go," he wrote of his hometown in a scathing 1919 letter to his father that he never sent.
At the end of a day spent tramping cobblestone streets, stopping at riverside cafés, touring the castle and the old Jewish quarter, I'm beat. I stagger aboard the no. 15 tram, firmly in the clutches of sightseer's fatigue.
I put my ticket in the machine to be stamped. Oops, wrong one - I stamped this one earlier in the day. Slumping into the nearest seat, I dig for a fresh ticket. Too late. An inspector, near-incognito in blue shirt and pants, looms above me. Showing him my unused ticket, I smile my best Canadian smile. A mistake. Surely he can understand? No dice.
"Give me 500 kronen."
I object. My friends leap to my defence. He's adamant, so young yet so inflexible.
"You want to go to police?"
Something snaps. Yes, I tell him, police would be just dandy.
By now all eyes are riveted on our bit of theatre. My travelling pals - the Greek and the Canadian - are standing, arguing on my behalf.
"Five hundred kronen," he repeats.
There is, at last, one single move remaining. Bringing my hands to my face, I begin to sob. Why not? I'm tired and facing jail time.
A girl seated opposite stares with frank curiosity. An old man joins the chorus in my defence, scolding the inspector. Can't he see I am a tourist? Sensing the crowd's mood turning against him, the inspector grabs my proffered virgin ticket, stamps it and returns it.
"Thank you," he spits.
"Are you being sarcastic?" I return, but he has evaporated, a bad dream.
Later, our little gang meets for dinner at an old-fashioned tavern across from the hotel, joining groups of local Pilsner drinkers over platters of meat, potato pancakes and sour cream.
Our server, a Czech Erin Brockovich, is all smiles and busty efficiency. Kafka would have loved her, maybe even proposed marriage - as he did to various women.
I continue to obsess over the tram scene, unable to let go. Was I really guilty? How guilty? In an existential sense, aren't we all guilty?
"Give it a rest," my friends plead.
So I do. But Prague isn't finished with me. Not yet. Later that night, a woman from reception phones my room to announce that I have no reservation at the hotel. But here I stand, phone in hand. Wearing my pyjamas.
Like the inspector, she will not yield.
"You are not in the computer."
But here I am, in the flesh, explaining that a very nice girl at the desk has arranged for late check-out the next day, so logically, they must know I'm here.
"They did not understand you," she claims.
"This doesn't make sense."
"Don't shout to me, madam."
"Okay, let me phone the people who made my booking."
She agrees. Only the phone doesn't work. Turns out it's "locked" because they don't have an imprint of my credit card - but neither have they asked for it. Finally, phone unlocked, I reach my sleepy travel agent, the patient Pavel, who resolves the situation in Czech.
Don't get me wrong. Prague is splendid. For sheer physical loveliness, it has few rivals in Europe. And it will always be home not only to Kafka but also to the Velvet Revolution, the best-named regime change in history.
Crisis over, I pick up the city's excellent English-language newspaper, the Prague Post. (Kafka read a German-language paper, Prager Tagblatt, in which he published his story A Dream.) My eye is caught by a review of an autobiography by Jan Drabek, a Czech Canadian who returned to offer his help after the Velvet Revolution - he eventually became the ambassador to Albania - only to be greeted with unremitting suspicion about his good intentions.
The review begins: "Here's a heartening thought for expats: It's not you. Everyone who comes to the Czech Republic is treated with rudeness and suspicion, including the author of this very entertaining memoir...."
I laugh out loud. Reading on, I learn that there really is something called the foreign police. This is fabulous. I revel in knowing I am not alone.
God bless you, Franz Kafka, and your baffling, bewitching hometown.