My first time traveling to Europe was in the spring of 2011 with The River City Rebels. I vowed to not be a slack-jawed goober in the presence of so much perspective-warping ancient stuff. I would not take ten thousand photographs nor would I have giggly drunken conversations in which I implored my new Continental friends to teach me exotic swear words. It would be cool. I would be cool.
The first week was spent mostly in various parts of Germany. Everything was familiar and comfortable: we ate sausages and pasta, drank beer, spoke English; we might as well have been in Milwaukee, which had somehow seemed more exotic to me at this point. It was cool, I was cool.
Then we went to the Czech Republic.
* * *
At some point as we drove east from Germany, the terrain became hilly and the countryside blossomed into green. Spring was here early, and it reminded me of how New Hampshire would greet me at the end of the tour. But instead of my home state’s dilapidated barns and ubiquitous stone walls, here there were pristine white farmhouses and pastel-colored villages that were old before New England even existed. We passed tiny roadside shrines—miniatures of the massive cathedrals of the cities, but only large enough for one person to enter. Single-serving churches, dollhouses of worship. Although parts of it rang a homesick little bell in me for my relatively rural, relatively old house and woods, we were definitely in a different part of the world.
The country eventually faded into some suburbs and then a city: Prague, at last!
We pulled up on a quiet, tree-lined street where the pedestrians seemed to be mostly students. We had some time before we had to play, and our fixers happily offered to take us to “The Castle,” a major tourist attraction. Okay, I thought, I’d be up for viewing an actual castle, seeing as the only castles I’d seen at home were the kind where one procures questionable hamburgers. We asked how far a walk it was, and one of the guys answered confidently “Oh, only a few minutes. It’s a short walk.”
This was the moment when I learned something that has served me well in all of my travels: never believe a European when they tell you something is just a “short walk.”
Don’t get me wrong, it was still a nice walk: our journey took us through a sprawling woodland park that once again reminded me of the rolling hills of New Hampshire. Families with little kids, young people in small groups, and joggers with earbuds in, all passed our disheveled group of black-clad punk rockers with hardly a second look. Stopping to rest for a moment off the side of the path, we found a small pond surrounded by flowers. A very aged couple walked past, hand-in-hand, sat down on a bench, and kissed each other tenderly—all of this sweetness and light! I would need an attitude adjustment to convincingly play our snotty set in a few hours. That adjustment was soon on its way as my fashion-over-function red and black cowboy boots started to work their magic on my feet. I grimaced through every uphill climb. We were already at least a half-hour into our “short walk” when I finally spoke up and asked, “How far is it from here?”
“Not far,” said our guy. And in a moment, after we crested yet another hill, he said, “There it is.”
I followed the line of his arm across the treetops. Miles in the distance I could see a skyline of sorts: huge square buildings surrounded by a cluster of red-roofed smaller residences and what looked like imposing, dark church towers.
There was no turning back. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t be a party pooper, couldn’t play the old lady card. I’d just chalk it up to experience. But if any European friends in my future suggested a “short walk,” I would be better prepared for some sort of cheerful forced march that would qualify as an actual workout back home.
By the time the ground beneath us had turned from paved bike path to ancient cobblestone, my feet felt as though they were ready to burst into flame. The wind whipped across the plaza of the Prague Castle Complex, where tourists posed for photo ops. We made our way to the Basilica of St. Vitus, where I spent about fifteen minutes just staring at the incredible detail in the outer walls of the monstrous cathedral. It was built in 1344; I turned that date around in my head a few times and got a bit dizzy. Whether this was from a lack of sleep, my aching feet, or the act of craning my neck to study some genuine Gothic gargoyles as they leered back down at me, I don’t know. If I lived near something like this I can’t imagine that I wouldn’t be there every day, losing myself in the creepy maze of its structure. I regret that we didn’t have enough time to go inside, but if we had I might be there still, feeding my morbid OCD.
Instead, someone in our party was smart enough to round up a few taxis to bring us back to the club we were playing that night. I silently thanked the universe for sparing my feet.
* * *
Back at the parking lot, one of our hosts spoke to someone outside as we cooled our heels in the hilariously named Fahrtwind tour van. He returned from his recon mission and turned the van down a couple of other streets and into a different lot. The building we approached was not much to look at: the diametric opposite of the Basilica. It turns out it was a student dorm. I stared at the steps leading to the main door and braced myself for a hellish load-in. But as we followed our guides up to the building, they passed the staircase and walked into a doorway nestled beneath it. This was the entrance to the famous Klub 007 Strahov.
007 is next to Strahov Stadium, one of the largest stadiums in the world. In its earlier days, it was the site of epic gymnastics displays set to traditional folk music that were designed to rouse Communist Party pride. In modern times it has hosted huge concerts, from Ozzfest to George Michael. It was kind of neat to be playing in its tiny opposite: a basement bunker redolent with the memories of countless punk and metal shows. Our gig that night was excellent, the crowd was enthusiastic, and the clubowners were generous with food and drink. After our set, a DJ took over and every punk in the place started dancing to the new wave tracks pulsing through the club. This was not a bad way to get introduced to a scene.
The next day we traveled to Beroun, a city about twenty miles out from Prague. It was here that we connected with James, our new host. An expat Brit who moved to the Czech Republic about twelve years before we showed up to visit, James works for the renowned Pirates Press, as did our guitarist Zak Kaplan. They had promised to bring us on a tour of the DZ Media pressing plant, where Pirates Press manufactures all of its vinyl.
Our show in Beroun was somewhere that can best be described as a compound: an ancient, low-slung farmhouse behind a makeshift gate. A second rambling building, slightly more modern, was adjoined to it. In here was an indoor skate ramp, a small bar, and—deep within the building—a small subterranean room with a stage that would be our venue. Dirt floors, chipping plaster, and hazardous-looking lighting fixtures abounded. The temperature was dropping and I briefly questioned my own sanity: this punk rock stuff is a young person’s game and every pre-arthritic joint in my body started revving up to remind me that I was no longer a young person. But dinner was being served in the main house and there was no time for this kind of negative narcissism.
We were shown into the kitchen: a warm, good-smelling room that wouldn’t be out of place in Middle Earth. A huge pot of vegetarian stew simmered on the stove, bread and beer and wine were close at hand. Our hosts left us to ourselves and we sat around the table to enjoy their hospitality. As I cleaned up my bowl with a hunk of good bread, I wished that I could just sit in this welcoming space for the rest of the night. But someone beckoned from the other room and we filed out to our stage.
* * *
After our set, a few of us stood around the Fahrtwind, passing a bottle of bourbon back and forth. The night was getting colder, but the residual heat from playing and the gentle burn from the bottle made me feel warm and at ease as I looked up into the sky to see if it looked any different from the one at home. It was still relatively early and James proposed a trip into town to visit one of his favorite haunts. A couple of people declined in favor of returning to the hotel for some catch-up sleep. I would later come to think of those people as The Wise Ones.
Did I mention the hotel? Yes, “hotel” without an “s.” The Czech economy was so much in our favor that we easily afforded a few rooms at the Hotel Na Ostrovĕ: a sprawling building that looked like it was caught between wishful Art Deco and mid-‘70s cruise ship. It was state of the art to us, even though the elevators didn’t work. Just knowing that we had such a secure place to sleep for the next couple of nights gave me the extra energy I needed to lug my stuff up the wide, aquamarine carpeted stairways. We made a quick stop to park the van, deposited our instruments in our rooms, and then progressed on foot to the town square.
Like many others that I’d seen in Europe, Beroun’s old city was entered through an ancient gateway arch. I paused for a moment and rested my hand on the cool, damp stone as I passed beneath it. That thing that plagues me, that “futility of existence” thing, settled on me for a minute. This wall had been erected some eight hundred years ago and would probably still be standing in another eight hundred after my dumb, haphazard life had long since dwindled into dust.
“Are you coming with us or what?” someone called back to me.
I dutifully trotted along the cobblestones to catch up. No one likes a nihilistic depressive on tour.
* * *
James had promised us a good time at Cobra, his favorite local dive, but when we got there there was no sign of life. Although it was relatively early, the management had just decided to knock off for the night. Slightly disappointed but undeterred, James led us back through the town square to a brightly lit establishment called Billiard Bar. It was a pretty straight-looking place: potted plants, brass fittings, normal lighting, TVs silently insisting on our attention from every corner—a jarring change in atmosphere after a dusty punk rock show in a rural squat. “We’ll just have one quick drink,” he said as we made our way to a table. I would later learn that this is what James referred to as a “classic Beroun statement.”
A round of Staropramen appeared, a toast was made, and then James asked if we had tried Slivovice yet.
We had not.
And so we did.
Here’s the thing about alcohol: that burn, that bitterness, that aftertaste, that weird hit of aroma as you hold the glass to your nose—that’s meant to make you pause for a moment. To remind you on a physiological level that you are about to invite something that may actually be a tiny bit poisonous into your precious temple of a body. It’s meant to make a mark on your senses as indelible and inescapable as Proust’s madeleine. Would you like proof? Just say the word “tequila” to some individuals and watch as they visibly hold back a dry heave.
Slivovice does none of these things.
Slivovice is a beautiful, clear elixir of the gods. Distilled from plums, it tastes like childhood and gently warms the gullet of its victim in the manner of a soothing tea. It leaves a slightly sticky residue on the lips, and rests easy in the belly. It is the most delicious alcoholic beverage I’ve ever tried.
I’m pretty sure James said things like, “Go easy,” or, “It’s stronger than you think,” because I want to believe in my heart that James is a good man and not one who would watch in secret amusement as his American friends retarded themselves on plum brandy.
I do not recall much of that evening. I am told that I had an excellent time, and that I may have had to be carried back to the hotel by my stronger bandmates. “One quick drink” is basically the equivalent of “just a short walk.” I was learning, just not fast enough.
* * *
The next morning I awoke with a full-body hangover. I tried unsuccessfully to scald it off of myself in the shower, but it was as tenacious as a big, fun-sucking lamprey in my skull and guts. The word “slivovice” suddenly took on a sinister tone, its sibilant name whispering itself in my aching head like the catchphrase of a bad commercial.
A knock at the door startled me. Towel-clad, I tentatively opened it, half expecting to see a member of the local constabulary. Luckily, it was just Dan O’Day, our fearless leader and one of the only people smart enough to stay behind when the rest of us went out for our “quick drink” with James the night before. I tried not to read smugness in his tone as he reminded me:
“Lobby in ten minutes, we’re going to the pressing plant!”
I’d forgotten about that field trip. B.S. (Before Slivovice), I had planned on bringing my notebook, taking some photos, and really digging in to the experience, which I was sure to find fascinating. But my good intentions had floated away on a sea of plum brandy the night before, and I showed up in the lobby haphazardly dressed, unable to find my notebook and too worried that I would misplace my camera to actually have it on hand. I was even wearing my shades indoors like some sort of a creep. Discovering that the hotel’s weird little restaurant did not have coffee available yet was the final nail in the coffin of my day and it wasn’t even noon yet.
My experience at the pressing plant lingers in my memory as a series of foggy impressions: a shiny BSA motorcycle parked outside the huge factory, gleaming in the skull-piercing sunlight; the strange chemical smell as we entered the building; a series of stations where a puck of unformed black stuff was hydraulically pressed into a recognizable form by a woman using a device that reminded me of a clothes presser; a mastering room, where an elderly man sat intently staring at a beautiful spinning copper disc as the grooves were carved into it by machinery I can’t begin to comprehend even in a relatively clear-headed state. My takeaway was that the act of putting sound molecules onto vinyl is a combination of old-school craftsmanship and technological wizardry that deserves as much respect as the act of composing the music they contain.
Back at the hotel, I gratefully stumbled up the stairs to my room to collapse for a brief nap. As I dozed off, I realized that I had a sore throat and a vague “ick” feeling that was not part of the Slivovice undertow. I was getting a cold.
* * *
The next morning was rainy and bleak, a real change from the gorgeous, early spring sunshine we’d been treated to for the past couple of days. I tried not to let it affect my mood, but I was already a bit sad that we were leaving this crazy city. We were due to play Budapest, but we had enough time to run a couple of errands in Beroun. My personal goal involved procuring two necessities: something for the now-fully-fledged chest cold that had blossomed overnight, and a bottle of absinthe. It took some convincing for me not to believe these were the same thing.
Genuine absinthe, complete with its magical ingredient of thujone, was as easy to purchase as a bottle of water. Several of us picked up a bottle at a large department store. A mid-level variety on one of the upper shelves ran me about twelve dollars American. Yes, this mystical ambrosia so beloved of the Belle Époque, with all of its dark, romantic associations, can be purchased for the price of a large pizza in the equivalent of a Czech Kmart.
Acquiring cough medicine was significantly more challenging. James had offered to help us negotiate the commercial end of things in Beroun, and he accompanied me to what passes for the drug store. We waited in a long line at a counter, behind which worked a number of white-coated attendants among shelves stacked high with various remedies. In order to get the right medication, one told one’s symptoms to a worker, and they would choose the correct product. I’m not sure what the Czech words were for “chest congestion, bad cough” but when James reported them to the attendant, they actually sounded rather like the thing I was trying to cure. Money changed hands and I was given my package: a bottle of codeine-heavy syrup and a box of caffeine-laden tablets. Now this was Western medicine I could get behind! I instantly popped a pill and took a swig of my cough syrup and decided to let them fight it out.
As we piled back into the Fahrtwind, I took a last look at the misty grey landscape around me. Truth be told, it didn’t look like much. I studied the bottle of absinthe and vowed to drink it with this same bunch of road pirates once we all got back together in the States.
But that never happened.
Instead, I held onto it as a souvenir of my first time abroad, an emerald green reliquary of memories already made that perhaps I would drink down at some future date. My time in the CzechRepublic made me realize how much I wanted to tour, to travel and play in strange places, and to go for quick drinks and short walks with many friends I hadn’t met yet.
I’m meeting them still, and I’m grateful.
J.V McDonough is old enough to be your favorite aunt. She played bass in some Boston bands you never heard of, then joined The River City Rebels (now defunct) in 2010. She now plays fulltime for M.O.T.O. with her husband Paul Caporino. Between November 2012 and the present they have played dates in China, Hong Kong, Japan (twice), Finland, Estonia, Berlin, and dozens of U.S. cities.