The train from Warsaw pulled into Hlavni Nadrazi at about 8 a.m. I got off, shaking the hand of the unsmiling Polish woman who shared my overnight sleeper, and went to look for T.J. on the platform. He was bleary-eyed and a little grumpy after a restless night in third-class. When we walked out into the sunlit Nove Mesto, he seemed happier. "I haven't been to Prague in two years" he explained as we walked to find a café, "it's always the favorite part of my trip." T.J. was Australian, and thus required to travel to Europe every few years to drink and party. We had met in Krakow three days before, sharing the same hostel room on the outskirts of the Old Town. Amidst the November chill and my own worries, I was grateful for a friend.
We sat at a quiet café, drinking coffee. T.J. was about to hop on a train to Cesky Krumlov, a tiny town in the south that every backpacker I met raved about, some kind of a medieval party paradise. "Meet me at ----". He rattled off a bunch of hostels and pubs in the town, and I took notes, nodding seriously, as if I could imagine anything past what would happen that day. Because right now the big hope that my trip would continue at all centered on a dog-eared entry in the Prague city section of my guidebook, listing the emergency medical aid available for foreigners at Hospital Na Homolce. The book promised that the highly-rated hospital had a Fakultna Poliklinica, a drop-in clinic geared to foreigners with an English-speaking staff.
I walked T.J. back to the train station to catch the local. "Alright, kiddo, meet me in Cesky Krumlov," he said, hugging me clumsily before getting on the train. The foreign clinic didn't open until noon, so I walked slowly through Wencelas Square, just starting to wake up, and past the National Museum to the Zizkov neighborhood. I made the mistake of checking into the Clown and Bard House even though I'd been warned that it was one of the most popular hostels in Prague. Two hippy-types wearing dreadlocks with Canadian flags sown to their backpacks were checking out as I came in. A sleepy fat Czech guy handed me a receipt and pointed upstairs.
The stairs were redwood and newly renovated. I suddenly felt like I was up in northern California. The second cheapest dormitory was on the top floor, and it opened into a skylit room of beds. More dreadlocks nestled on the pillows. Nearly everyone was still asleep. I realized that I had stumbled into my worst nightmare-- the party hostel, full of college-age, macho, suburban pseudo-hippy frat boys. But in my present state, none of it mattered. I got into my assigned bed, with two hours to kill, and tried to doze. The kids slowly began to wake up around me. Someone whispered really loudly "Hey, Mike, didja hear Gabe puking last night?" and everyone started laughing. "He woke us all up!" A girl shrieked, toothbrush in hand. "Dude, he was ralphing for like 6 hours last night." "Did he go to the absinthe bar with Kevin?" "Duuudde." Kevin sat up and shook his head. Gabe snored loudly, and the room began to clear out.
An hour later I got up. I washed my face and rubbed the streaks off my glasses, thinking I should look presentable. Most of the kids were still downstairs, blearily reading or drinking from a mug, still recovering from their night out. I felt as if we were in two alternate universes, side by side but completely different.
But out on the streets with the cobblestones glinting in the pale sunlight I felt better. It hit me: I was in Prague! The gilded buildings, the beautifully preserved streets - as I walked, I kept feeling as if I was coming back to a city I lived in many years ago. Awakening the feeling of a dim memory - if I searched too hard, it would flutter away.
The walk continued to cheer me up. Well, at least there was no more waiting. I hopped on a bus to the Homolka neighborhood. The streets became more residential and less touristy. The clinic was a newer, utilitarian-styled brick building on a side street that reminded me of the old public schools in New York City. I walked inside to a stairwell with cement steps. There was no sign so I wandered up and down the stairs until I found the floor I was looking for. Even in the hall there was nothing, only closed gray door after gray door. Following them down, I finally came to a reception area, where a man was listening to the radio behind a thick wall of glass.
"Hello," I said slowly in English, forgetting the Czech greeting I had been practicing. Adopting the poor English of the area I was in became a habit throughout my trip.
"I have problem with eye."
On the first week of my big trip through Europe, I started having flashes in my right eye. A burst of white light in the corner that traveled up slowly, only to explode in a burst of optic fireworks. Sly curlicues, a question mark uncurling itself, or sometimes, the glowing trail of a pixie flitting by. I was in Amsterdam, visiting a friend, and the flashes grew more frequent: in the falafel shop, in the Rijksmuseum, crossing the Leidseplein. An email came back from my parents, sharp with worry: I had a posterior vitreous detachment, better known as PVD; apparently a tear in my vitreous fluid had caused it to detach from the retinal wall. The loose fluid bouncing against the retina causes light to flash. No pain, no discomfort, but the worry that the tear, like a run in your stocking, will get larger until the retina, nothing to cling to, detaches into the void. My father had this condition years before, and the only treatment was emergency laser surgery. "Come back when a black curtain descends over your vision and you have pounding headaches, that is when your retina has detached," a Dutch doctor told me in flawless English. Well, thanks. And I kept traveling, hoping the flashes would fly away the further east I got. They didn't, and I finally made a deal with myself: if this foreign clinic in Prague couldn't treat me, I'd take my excitement and restlessness and wanderlust and drag them all home.
The guidebook had lied, I discovered. No one really spoke any English. The receptionist led me into a room without smiling once. A brisk sandy-haired nurse came in and finding we had no common words, wandered out again. Two more women walked in and out without even attempting to speak to me. I kept trying to say 'eye' in Czech: oko. Finally they brought in a nurse who could speak some English. She peered into my eye with a little flashlight and then switched it off. "You say you have eye problem. We don't see anything." This was it. I was completely defeated. I'd have to go home. I began to cry. "I have tear in my eye. My retina - you know retina? Thing we see out of? will detach. It will move away! I could go blind, will go blind. Can't see."
Somehow that got through to her. She nodded, and shouted to an assistant, who walked in carrying a small bottle. Thank god for that nod. Without another word, she deftly placed drops in my right eye. While I sat there, my head thrown back, I heard her pick up the phone. After a brief conversation, she came back. In thick, careful English, she explained "You must visit doctor in other hospital. Across the road. Floor three. The oko clinic." I clutched the note, full of thanks. She smiled for the first time "Good luck."
Back down the concrete stairs. Was it me or were the stairs tilting? The drops that dilated my eye made everything blurry. I was back on the large, silent road. There were no other cars, no people, no stores, just a row of quiet buildings. I realized for the first time in my life I was completely on my own.
And then I went up the stairs of an identical building. Gray walls, dusty corridors. But I counted. Floor three for the oko clinic. Momentum propelled me forward. I glided through the double doors. Down the hall. A group of old Czechs sat by the receptionist, who did not look up when she took the note. All the staff wore white robes and white sandals with sport socks. I sat down and, for lack of anything else, pulled out my copy of Gravity's Rainbow. When I looked up, all the faces turned away. When I went back to reading about Tyrone Slothrop's travails through Europe, the faces followed my head down.
The words swam before my eyes, but it was easier than looking at the people watching me. When they called my name finally, I didn't hear anything. I looked up to see everyone silently pointing at me. "Please come," the nurse said, she was younger and seemed to speak more English. I wanted to pray, I felt so grateful.
She moved me to another room across the hall. I sat for a while, staring at the dusty window, waiting for the drops to take full effect. My vision had almost completely blurred when Dr. Dvorak, (his actual name) came in. And he smiled, the whole time, as he dropped a few words in English. He looked like John Ritter with a beard, and I fell in love with him, especially after he peered into my right eye with a thin flashlight and said "Yes, I see hole. Come with me."
I followed him through a maze of hallways, and into an elevator. As it sped down to another floor, he said, "It is good to take care of this now." And that's all I needed. For in about five minutes, he led me into a darkened room and rested my chin on a plastic cup-like brace, flipped my eyelid up, and commanded me to "Look at the light." Blink blink blink. Three pulses and he moved the laser away. "Thank you." He lapsed back into a smile, his teeth very white.
That was it. I paid a bill back upstairs for about 300 koruna (approximately twelve dollars) and they insisted on giving me a receipt for reimbursement from my health insurance, even though it was less than my actual co-pay. I was required to come back in two weeks, and Dr. Dvorak warned me not to go running, swimming, or play with balls in that time.
When I was invited to play water polo a week later at the municipal pool in the southern town of Tabor, I declined. But my fear and anxiety dissipated and I traveled for months more, forgetting almost completely about my eye. Occasionally when people invited me to dance at discotheques, I'd explain, well, I had this laser surgery, and they'd gape, but I savored it as a good story. Even when I got my eyes checked out back in San Francisco later, and was told Dr. Dvorak had done a good job, that the treatment was much cheaper and faster than anything I could get in the U.S., and that the Czech Republic is the indisputable center for eye surgery in Eastern Europe, I remained blasé. Miracles happen, but we move on, and even that very afternoon, with yellow gunk still in my eye, I walked over the Charles Bridge and visited the Prague Castle. What a place to see.
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