The Travel Conundrum: Does Misery Make the Best Travel Companion?

The Travel Conundrum: Does Misery Make the Best Travel Companion? Ask almost any seasoned traveler (or travel writer) about their most memorable journeys and you’ll likely get a tale of pain and suffering. “The best trips are the worst trips,” is a quip I constantly hear coming from travel writers’ mouths. And they’re right. Not only because, after the fact, it makes for good verbal consumption at a party but because it does something deeper to us. It almost feels like in those moments – smack in the middle of a desperate what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-now? moment – we’re really living. We don’t realize it at the time but being out of our comfort zone – even in such dark places we’d never willingly put ourselves – we become human.

As travel has become more accessible to people around the planet and the machinations of the travel industry have grown, experiencing pitfalls along the way are sometimes impossible to avoid. If you have a passport, if you’ve ever stepped on an airplane or a train or a bus, if you’ve journeyed beyond your backyard, then you too have had a bad travel experience. I asked a few people for their tales of travel misfortunes and here were some of my favorites:

Magazine editor Dana Dickey wanted to give herself a birthday present: a short trip with her friend to one of her favorite cities, Lisbon. She was late boarding the flight in New York and flashed her passport at the gate agent before quickly boarding the Lisbon-bound plane. But when she was standing in line at the passport check at the Lisbon airport, she noticed something was wrong: it was a few days after her actual birthday and her passport was expired. “The immigration officer unfortunately noticed, too,” said Dickey, “and he took me into custody, while my friend went on his merry way and checked into our suite at the Four Seasons.” Meanwhile Dickey was escorted to a dodgy antechamber in the customs office where she sat (with “suspicious looking chaps” who lounged on mattresses on the floor) for hours. The hardest to take for Dickey, however, was what her friend did – or rather, didn’t do – next. “Rather than enlisting the Four Seasons or someone to help me in my plight, my friend opted to call our mutual friends back in New York so that I could become water cooler jest while still in detention.” Six hours later, Dickey’s passport was extended a few more days and she was free to explore the city.

Nithin Coca, a 28-year-old San Francisco resident, also had passport issues, but of a different kind. While in Paris, he left his backpack at a bus stop. He was actually relieved to learn his wallet, passport and cellphone turned up at a police station, but was in for quite a surprise when he went to fetch it and learned his possessions were found on the body of a murdered person. Coca was brought into an interrogation room and suddenly realized he was being investigated for murder. “I was worried that, as a wide-eyed foreigner, I was being accused of a crime, or forced to go on trial, or worse,” said Coca. Fortunately, after 30 minutes of questioning, they gave Coca back his belongings and told him he could leave.

When writer Alexander Zaitchik was traveling to see a friend in the Czech Republic, he wasn’t so lucky. Tired from his travels, he did the one thing he could not afford to do: fall asleep on the train. With no money on him, he woke up and realized he’d missed his stop. He got off at the next town, the winter cold blushing his cheeks, and boarded the next train headed back to his friend’s hometown in the center of the country. Because he didn’t have a ticket – at least not one for this train journey – he’d hoped a forgiving ticket checker would look the other way. Not so. When he couldn’t produce a ticket (or the equivalent of $1.50), the train slowed to a stop and, in the middle of a snowy forest, Zaitchik was unceremoniously tossed off the train. So he walked and walked until he found a road and stuck his thumb out until a generous driver stopped and, as luck would have it, was headed to the same town Zaitchik need to go to.

Travel wouldn’t be travel without the occasional misfortune. Yet, we don’t stop that from keeping us going. We continue moving to explore our own personal uncharted territories. It’s, at first, a human thing – we charted the planet and now we’re going further, into space. And it’s also a human statement: that no matter how hard life becomes, no matter what pain and suffering and discomfort our travel experiences serve us, we keep on trekking, putting one foot in front of the other, until the pain turns into joy, which (eventually) turns into pain again with the next bad experience. And so on. But in the end, what we’re left with is something a five-star resort or a Michelin-starred restaurant or an upgrade to first class cannot ever deliver: a lot more wisdom than we began with. And, in the end, that will be the one thing we’ll never forget to pack.

It’ll also provide one more thing: a damn good story to tell.

What are some of your travel horror stories?

The World’s 10 Scariest Haunted Castles

haunted castles

From a Czech forest castle reported to house the gates of hell to a gargantuan castle right here in the United States, the world’s most haunted castles boast histories rich with frightening details. Specters haunt the halls of these old castles and travelers visit to experience brushes with the paranormal. Some of these castles possess secrets darker than a moonless night, and when darkness comes, the spirits stir.

These are the ten places to go and meet ghosts. Covering nine countries, each of these castles has a past that may just try and make a ghostly impression on your present.


haunted castles

Edinburgh Castle
Country: Scotland
Built: 12th century
Haunting: Do you believe in ghosts? Edinburgh is one of those places where skeptics cross the threshold and start saying yes. A few years ago, Time Magazine set out to name the ten most haunted places in the world and included Edinburgh Castle on that list. For starters, a headless drummer has been seen and heard in the castle halls beginning around 1650. Lady Glamis, accused of witchcraft in 1537 and burned at the stake while her young son watched, is also known to prowl the dark halls. A ghost dog has even been seen delicately prancing through the misty graveyard.

There have been so many hauntings for so long that Edinburgh Castle attracted one of the most thorough paranormal investigations ever. In 2001, an English doctor enlisted roughly 240 volunteers to spend 10 days in and around the castle. The volunteers were all screened to insure that none of them knew anything about the castle. The findings? The place is a paranormal hot spot. Many of the volunteer experiences were consistent with past sightings at the castle. There were burning sensations, phantom gropes, shadowy figures and a specter in a leather apron seen in the same spot he was seen by unrelated individuals before the study. Its ancient dungeons and cobbled corridors are home to some serious creepiness.

Visiting: Fly to Edinburgh from London for under $100 round trip. Buy tickets to visit the castle here.

haunted castles

Chillingham Castle
Country: England
Built: 12th century
Haunting: The appropriately named Chillingham Castle is located in the northern corner of England and has been haunting guests for a very long time. The castle served as a fortress to repel attacks from the Scots in the north and has thus seen a great deal of bloodshed. Chillingham has been featured on at least six ghost-related shows, and the webs are rife with strange pictures of its ghosts and orby videos.

So what haunts this medieval castle that appears to be plucked from Westeros? Most notably a childlike ghost, called the blue boy. The blue boy is seen regularly in the pink room as a flash of blue light and also above guests’ beds as a blue halo following a loud cry. Perhaps most creepy is one of the castle’s ghostly apparitions who wanders the dank halls late at night – John Sage. John Sage has a terrifyingly ridiculous backstory and was hung by Longshanks during the war with the Scots. He can be heard dragging bodies here and there.

Visiting: The Chillingham homepage states, “Tours last about 2 hours, depending on psychic activity.” The castle also accepts brave overnight guests. To get there, fly into Newcastle or Edinburgh and travel 70 miles to reach the castle.

haunted castles

Houska Castle
Country: Czech Republic
Built: 13th century
Haunting: Located in the forests north of Prague, Houska castle was never a strategic battle location. It also appears to have no function of outside fortification. It was not built to repel attacks or to keep things out. It was built to hold something in. It was built to close the gateway to hell.

The castle is built upon a fabled bottomless pit from which winged creatures and half-man-half-beasts allegedly exited. Demonic activity persisted at this site and eventually, Bohemian rulers decided to seal up the gateway with a castle. Before sealing off Hell’s realm, it is said that nearby prisoners were granted pardons if they would agree to be lowered by a rope into the hole. The story goes that the first lowered prisoner let out a yell after entering the hole. When he was raised up, he appeared to have aged over 30 years. He died of unknown causes just days later.

Wait, it gets stranger. During the 1930s, the Nazis took over the castle to conduct occult experiments with dimensional portals. Hitler, a paranormal enthusiast, was known to dabble in the occult, and it is uncertain what the scientists learned from Housksa Castle. Years later, during renovations, several Nazi officer skeletons were found, and it appeared they were killed execution style.

The recurring ghosts at Houska are plentiful, and include a giant bulldog/frog/human, a headless black horse and a woman in an old dress who is frequently seen peaking out of the top floor windows. Beneath the cellar there is said to be some nonhuman remains of the beasts that emerged from the hole.

Visiting: Houska Castle is just north of Prague and day trips to this spot are easy.

haunted castles

Belcourt Castle
Country: United States
Built: 1894
Haunting: In adjusted today dollars, Belcourt Castle cost its owner over $100 million back in the 19th century. Oliver Belmont, namesake of the Belmont stakes, heir to the Belmont family empire and poster child for turn of the century trustfund champions, built this behemoth. On its completion, Oliver chose to instead travel the world, collecting artifacts for the castle, which sounds like a pretty cool thing to do after building a gigantic home. The years were not kind to the castle and disrepair plagued it for much of the 20th century. In 1956, the mansion was sold to the Tinney family for $25,000 ($200,000 in today dollars), or about a fifth of a penny on the dollar (adjusted for inflation).

The Tinneys got a beat-up fading mansion with massive infrastructural needs – and a few ghosts. The strangest thing about Belcourt is that the hauntings allegedly come from the vast assortment of artifacts rather than the actual house. There is a haunted 15th century set of armor that lets out a blood-curdling scream every March, said to be the time that its medieval owner took a spear through the eye. In the Gothic ballroom there are haunted chairs that many claim to have been pushed out of while sitting by unknown forces.

Visiting: The owner of Belcourt Castle gives ghost tours and this May, he will be giving them on Friday and Saturday evenings. It is also open for weddings and other events. Belcourt Mansion is roughly an hour-and-a-half drive from Boston down 95 South.

haunted castles

Brissac Castle
Country: France
Built: 11th century
Haunting: The stylish French château is over seven-stories tall with around 200 rooms and is considered the tallest château in all of the Loire Valley. After a rich history, beginning with the Counts of Anjou in the 11th century, the domain was purchased by a noble husband and wife named Jacques and Charlotte. Charlotte enjoyed tormenting her husband by having noisy sex with randoms. She would keep her husband up all night with her lovers and eventually her husband snapped.

The affair ended when both the lover and Charlotte the wife disappeared. Jacques was likely behind it, but after their death, the lovers’ moans did not stop – they grew louder. The moans persisted and Jacques was forced to sell the castle, tormented by the ghosts of his past. Today, it is said that in the early morning the lovers’ moans persist.

Visiting: Château de Brissac is open to tours and even has two suites and two rooms to stay in overnight. The price for the overnight stay is not cheap, starting at 390 Euros with availability from May through September. Reach Brissac from Paris by high-speed train, taking just an hour and a half to reach nearby Angers.

haunted castles

Eltz Castle
Country: Germany
Built: 1157
Haunting: A picturesque castle with one of the richest interiors in all of Deutschland, Eltz rises up out of the surrounding Mosel forest as if boasting its longevity to the surrounding environs. A testament to its strength as a stronghold, Eltz Castle is one of few castles in the region that has never been destroyed. It is also one of just a few German castles that is said to be haunted. Allegedly, the ghosts of medieval knights still patrol the castle, which, 33 generations later, is still owned by the same original family. Imagine living in the same house as your Great X 30 grandmother.

Visiting: Reach Eltz Castle by flying into Frankfurt Hahn airport and traveling by bus or taxi for the final 15 miles to the city of Cochem.

haunted castles

Castle of Bardi (or Landi Castle)
Country: Italy
Built: 900, ish
Haunting: Built on a spur of red jasper, Bardi towers over the Emilia-Romagna valley. Bardi’s etymological impetus began with Hannibal and his cavalry of war elephants. The last elephant, named Bardus, allegedly died here during the march to Rome. Unfortunately, the castle is not haunted by a menacing ghost elephant.

A sad old story explains the real ghosts of this incredible fortress. Instead of Romeo and Juliet, we have a tale of Moroello and Soleste. Soleste was the daughter of the castle’s lord, and she was in love with Moroello, the captain of the knights. During a long battle, Soleste waited for Moroello to return, perched on the edge of her family fortress, eyes locked on the distant horizon. Eventually, she saw riders galloping back from the battlefront. When the soldiers reached her eyesight, she noticed they were riding with enemy colors. She was overcome with grief at the possibility of Moroello’s death and threw herself off of the castle’s edge. In a sad twist of irony, the riders were in fact Moroello and his soldiers, and they were just wearing the enemy colors to boast. Moroello found his love dead on the ground and immediately realized what he had done and killed himself. The ghost of Moroello haunts the castle to his day, wandering the grounds searching for his lost love.

Visiting: Bardi is located in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. The easiest way to reach the region is by plane to Parma or by train from nearby Bologna or Milan.

haunted castles

Dragsholm Castle
Country: Denmark
Built: 1215
Haunting: Some places are simply haunted by a ghost or two, but Dragsholm, located on an islet in Denmark, is allegedly home to 100 ghosts. How anyone came to take inventory on the ghosts and find such a round number was likely done with some relation to Dragsholm tourism development, but the place is wicked haunted, having functioned as both a prison and a battle fortification. Some consider it the most haunted castle in the world.

Of the many stories about Dragsholm’s ghosts, perhaps the most terrifying origin ghost tale involves the White Lady. Before she wandered the castle halls as a ghost, the White Lady was just a girl – a girl who was in love with one of the castle laborers. As a member of nobility, her father, and owner of the castle, condemned the relationship, but the affair persisted. Eventually, the father grew so angry about the ongoing affair that he imprisoned his daughter in the walls of the castle. She was not seen again until hundreds of years later. In the 20th century, during some routine castle remodeling, workers found a skeleton in one of the walls. The skeleton was wearing a white gown.

Visiting: Dragsholm Castle is open to overnight visitors, so if you want to stay in a really creepy castle this is probably the one. To get there, take a train from Copenhagen through Hillerød to Odsherred. The castle also has a restaurant.

haunted castles

Moosham Castle
Country: Austria
Built: 1208
Haunting: Built by the Prince-Bishops of Salzburg, Moosham Castle has a strange and sinister past. Hundreds of witches were beheaded within the walls of Moosham, and many still haunt the Austrian castle. Due to these hauntings, the castle is known colloquially as the Witches Castle.

In addition to being home to a coven of creepy witch ghosts, Moosham is also allegedly the lair of the werewolf. During the 1800’s, Moosham saw a sudden preponderance of mutilated cattle and deer corpses. As a consequence of this, several Moosham residents were tried and imprisoned as werewolves.

Visiting: Take bus #270 from the Salzburg bus station to reach Moosham. The trip takes about two hours.

haunted castles

Warwick Castle
Country: England
Built: 1068
Haunting: First built in the 11th century by none other than William the Conqueror, Warwick has seen more battles than perhaps any other castle in Europe. It has found peace in recent years, but the spirits still linger. Its eroded walls and faded battlements tell the tale of a long hard life for the spirits that now walk its halls.

The ghost tower is said to be one of the castle’s most haunted areas, as Sir Fulke Greville still wanders its interior. Murdered by his manservant in 1628, he is said to materialize from his portrait late on cold evenings. The castle dungeon, home to all sorts of past torment, also seems to be quite haunted. Many visitors complain of vertigo and nausea upon touching the dungeon apparatuses.

Visiting: Warwick Castle is very tourist accessible and is open every day except Christmas. Warwick Castle is located just 40 minutes from Birmingham airport.

Honorable mention:

haunted castles

Castle Bran or Dracula’s Castle
Country: Romania
Built: 1212
Haunting: In the heart of old Transylvania, deep in the Carpathian wilderness, is a castle named for a ruler from the 15th century – Vlad III Dracul. After Vlad’s father was assassinated and his brother was buried alive, he set out to become more ruthless than anyone in fiction could believably create. He makes pint-sized tyrants like Joffrey Baratheon look like equitable play dates.

It all began at an Easter feast when Vlad asked his nobles how many princes they had survived, insinuating that they conspired against past rulers. The story goes that he arrested all of them. He impaled the older ones and their families and made the younger nobles into slaves for a wave of ambitious improvements to the castle. All told, Vlad impaled tens of thousands of people, earning the nickname Vlad the Impaler, and the tales get so ridiculous that it is difficult to sift the myths from the truth. In fact, Vlad never actually lived in Castle Bran, though the castle has come to be associated with the “Son of the Dragon.”

Visiting: The easiest way to reach the castle is by traveling by train from Bucharest, Romania to Brasov, Romania. Many tour companies in Bucharest can arrange a day trip for well under 100 Euros.

[Top image of Brissac Castle via flickr image user @lain G]

Climbing and trekking your way through Czechia

czech republic Czechia, also known as the Czech Republic, is a country located in Central Europe that was formed in 1993. While most visitors go to explore the architecture, history, and nightlife of the capital city of Prague, there are actually many outdoor and natural experiences to be had in the region, as well.

For those who love a challenging trek there is Mount Snezka, the highest mountain in the Czech Republic, which is located on the border of Poland. If you want to see some countryside views, small villages, old-world castles, and unique rock formations, the Kokorinsko Protected Landscape Area runs from Melník to Ceská Lípa and offers an unforgettable hiking experience. Moreover, climbers will love bouldering in Petrohrad, the odd rock formations of Adrspach-Teplice Rocks, and mountaineering in the serene natural setting of Kozelka.

To get a better idea of the experiences, check out the gallery below.


Prague’s astronomical clock gets a makeover

The famous astronomical clock that is Prague’s most popular tourist attraction has lost some star players for the next two months. The four outside figures, including a skeletal Death, have been removed and are being repainted to protect them from the elements.

The clock was built in 1410 and is the oldest working astronomical clock in the world. Dials show the position Moon, position of the Sun on the zodiac, and other astronomical events. Every hour there’s a parade of painted figures representing the 12 Apostles. Four other figures, representing vanity, greed, death, and pleasure, stand outside. As the bells chime the hours and the Apostles do their walk, Death shakes an hourglass to remind you that everything is transitory.

It’s quite a show, as you can see from this video by the folks at In Your Pocket: Essential City Guides. They have a free downloadable guide to Prague and many other cities on their website.

The clock will continue to function as the four figures are repainted. Legend has it that if the clock stops, disaster will strike the city.

A (not-very) special Czech Christmas

A (not-very) special Czech ChristmasAs the last tiny fireballs shot into the tree, marking the end of this bizarrely belated Christmas celebration, my Czech friend’s father, Ladia, looked at me and giggled nervously.

Was he happy we didn’t burn down this bone-dry pine tree in their living room? Or was there something else I was missing. Did he know this was it–that I would be emancipating myself from this family and never be back to ease the misery of their lives? I set my deadened sparkler down on the formica coffee table and turned away from the dry Christmas tree, quickening my pace toward the front door where my jacket was hanging. I’m never coming back here, I thought. Never.

How did I get to the point where I walked out on a family that took me in for the last and final time? This was the end of my most bizarre Christmas I ever spent. The most bizarre Christmas I ever spent in late January, that is.

Lenka, a 22-year-old college student living in Prague, and a friend of a friend, had arranged a short-term apartment for me when I arrived in the Czech capital for a long stay.

Which is why I didn’t mind going to Lenka’s parents’ house in north Bohemia my first weekend in the Czech Republic. Besides that, Lenka insisted I go. Usti nad Labem, which, translated into English, means “Usti above the Elbe River,” only sounds romantic. During the three-hour ride north from Prague, we passed ruined castles perched on high cliffs and a myriad of small towns whose main feature was a bulbous Baroque-era spire. Then we arrived in Usti, where post-World-War II-era buildings–tall, concrete block apartment structures, the architectural equivalent of Soviet realism–dominate the city the way spires do in Prague. Unlike the Czech capital, Usti didn’t escape World War II without damage. A few modest Baroque and neo-Gothic churches and a small 19th-century opera house dot the city, wedged between drab, functionalist shopping centers with relief sculptures of proud, barrel-chested workers. The wide river and surrounding green hills could not save Usti from looking like the love child of Dubuque and some horrible Soviet’s vision of paradise.

But Lenka and her family were proud of their hometown. Her parents met us at the train station and immediately whisked us off on a driving tour in their clunky late-’70s orange Skoda. We gawked at the city’s chemical plant (where Lenka’s father, Ladia, worked) drove over the river several times, and stopped to admire the skyline of “commie condos.”

Once inside their boxy apartment, I was immediately guided into the living room, where, over tea, Ladia chronicled his English language studies for me–for hours. Somewhere between “right” and “uh-huh” as well as several variations on the I’m-still-listening-to-you head nod, I took the time to study the décor. Adhering to the glossy formica-meets-enclosed-glass-display-case school of design, this was a relic from the past era. Socialist furniture is, like its architecture and attitudes, impersonal and cold. Still, Czechs do their best to make their homes feel warm, often exhibiting fresh flowers as well as large collections of books, most of which are classics, from Homer to Dante to the obligatory Czech scribes: Kafka, Kundera, Hrabel, and Klima.

“It wasn’t practical to learn English,” Ladia said, blowing on a steaming cup of tea before taking a sip. “During the old regime, we couldn’t travel to English-speaking countries, so besides Russian–which we were forced to study–most Czechs learned German.” Ladia, who could have passed as a look-a-like for former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, was different. He studied English in secret, mulling over grammar books and dictionaries late into the night in the privacy of his living room. He paused and smiled. “But I knew. I knew that someday–“

Just then Lenka’s mom, Edita, who was assiduously making lunch, yelled something from the kitchen. Lunch was served.

Later, we were all sitting around in the living room listening to Ladia again. The conversation seemed like it was happening in slow motion. With each word, the second hand on the clock ticked slower and my eyes grew heavier. Ladia was just trying to entertain us (as well as practice his English), but whether we were talking about the inner workings of the chemical plant, life under communism, or his fascination with birds indigenous to Central Europe, I felt like flinging myself from their twelfth-floor balcony.

Still, in retrospect, that first visit to Usti wasn’t so bad. At best, it was a crash course in Czech life and culture. At worst, it was a two-day lesson on birds and the old regime. The following week Lenka invited me to Usti again, and though I still felt indebted to her, I declined, saying I’d go the next weekend instead. She looked disappointed, but didn’t protest my decision.

When Lenka roped me into another Usti visit two weeks later, the experience was almost the same: Ladia cornered me in the living room while Edita spent most of her time in the kitchen preparing food. Before we departed for the train station on Sunday night, Edita proclaimed that she was my “Czech mother,” and this family was my “Czech family.” Everyone rejoiced.

“See you next weekend,” Edita yelled as we made our way to the elevator. Then she slammed the door before I could say anything.

On the way home that night, Lenka began to open up. “I don’t like my family,” she said, the carriage packed with twenty-somethings who, like Lenka, were obliged to come home every weekend. “In fact, we all don’t like each other. That’s why my brother never comes home–even though he’s supposed to.”

It was true. Martin had moved as far as he could away from his family–to Ostrava, a massive industrial town even uglier than Usti in the far eastern part of the country. The one weekend we were both in Usti, it was painfully obvious that he hated being home; he sulked around the apartment for two days acting like an alienated fifteen year old and did his best to ignore the latest foreigner that Lenka had dragged home.

As the train reached the suburbs of Prague, Lenka confessed, “When you come to Usti with me on the weekends everything is okay. The attention is on you, the guest, and not on how much we quietly loathe one another. The tension is gone.”

I felt sorry for Lenka, but I was beginning to loathe her family too. Besides, I didn’t want another family–I already had one 6,000 miles away.

I stopped going for a while, despite Lenka’s aggressive tactics of persuasion, which included stopping by my apartment a couple times a week. She was the only person who knew where I lived, so when I’d hear the buzzer, I’d hit the floor. She knew I was home, evidenced by the fact that she’d keep her finger pressed on the buzzer for long periods of time, terrorizing my ears. After a few minutes, she’d resort to intermittent buzzing like a school fire drill. Finally, she’d slowly wade backwards down the street, her eyes perpetually fixed on my third-floor apartment window.

One day, the buzzer going non-stop for three or four minutes, I finally gave in and went down to the door.

Lenka actually looked surprised that I’d come down. “If you can’t come to Usti this weekend, that’s fine,” she said. “But please come for Christmas in two weeks. Please.”

I was less startled by her pleading and more surprised by her choice to (un-ironically) combine a black, eye-brow-raising miniskirt with a Miami Vice-like hot pink blazer. I had already anticipated a Christmas invitation, and, rather than just telling her straight out that I never wanted to come there again, I had decided to go far away: I’d bought a train ticket to Florence for the week of Christmas. I bit my lower lip, took a deep breath through my nostrils and told her the news.

“What?!” Lenka barked out. “What are we going to do?” she asked rhetorically. She stood in front of me, her mouth ajar. “Well then, I hope you’re at least going to come this weekend,” she said, probably sounding exactly like her mom when Lenka made the rare announcement that she couldn’t make it home.

“I’m going stay here in Prague to hang out with some friends from work.”

“Friends from work?” Lenka said incredulously. “You don’t even like the people you work with.”

I didn’t respond, choosing instead to focus on a triumvirate of chain-smoking drunks who were standing in front of a pub. Lenka’s stare pierced me.

“Okay…,” she said, taking a few steps backward toward the street and pointing her index finger at me, “but my mom is going to be very upset.”

Despite communism’s disdain for all things Jesus-like, Czech Christmas traditions carry a heavy dose religious symbolism. The Communist Party’s failed attempt to replace the Czech’s traditional gift bringer, Jezicek, or Little Jesus, with the secular Grandfather Frost failed, even with the culture’s general apathy toward organized religion. Recent census polls indicate that a near majority of Czechs consider themselves atheists, or at least agnostic.

Christianity came to Bohemia when Wenceslas, the duke of Bohemia (and the “good king” of Christmas carol fame), officially converted to Christianity in 929. Since then, Bohemians’ relationship to Christianity has been, at best, rocky. When the charismatic Czech religious reformer, Jan Hus, convinced the Bohemian populace that the church needed reform in the early 1400s, the pope had Hus burned at the stake and then sent crusading armies into Bohemia to squash the movement. A century later in Germany, Martin Luther, picking up where Hus left off, succeeded in splintering Europe apart on religious lines, culminating on the outskirts of Prague in the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, which pitted Reformation Europe (including the Bohemians) against Catholic Austria. The Austrian Hapsburgs won and proceeded to supplant Counter Reformation zeal onto the Czech lands with enough fervency to make a Stalinist shiver.

But for reasons that I don’t understand, Jezicek and a handful of religious customs persist, all of which I was happy to miss that first year in Prague.

When I got back from Italy after Christmas, I quickly learned I was not off the hook so easily. A letter from Lenka was waiting. “We’ve postponed Christmas,” the letter read. “My mom insists on giving you, her new child, a proper Czech Christmas. Please call me or Mom as soon as possible so you can come to Usti.” I imagined Lenka’s family sitting by the undecorated Christmas tree rotating glances between the clock and the phone. It was already December 28. I avoided calling Lenka to arrange a belated Christmas celebration.

Another letter arrived a few days into the new year. “We’re still waiting for you,” it read. “We’re not celebrating Christmas until you come. P.S. The tree is getting dry.”

A week later, there was yet another letter pinned to the bulletin board just inside the front door to my apartment building. It only contained once sentence:


I couldn’t take it any longer. I called and apologized, offering a typical American excuse that I’d been “busy with work.” Lenka’s voice was cold, like a shunned ex-girlfriend, but she still seemed relieved when I finally made plans to come celebrate Christmas, even though I was just coming for the day.

Before I knocked on Lenka’s parents’ door, I stopped for a minute to gather my thoughts in the corridor. This is it, I told myself. This is the last time I’m going to do this. Then I raised my fist to knock. It was January 24.

“Merry Christmas!” Ladia, Edita, and Lenka yelled as I walked through the front door. “Oh, thank god you’re here,” Edita said. The apartment was sparklingly clean, decked out with decorations of angels and apostles. Christmas carols spun on the record player. The table was set for a full-course meal, which was the traditional carp and potato salad.

Two weeks before the holiday, large plastic tubs crammed with live carp appear on street corners in Prague and other Czech cities. There are two options for buyers: have it killed, cleaned, and gutted right there on the sidewalk or take the carp home alive in a large water-filled plastic bag. For the latter, standard procedure dictates that the fish live in the bathtub until Christmas Day. Holiday revelers starve the fish, which gives it a cleaner taste.

As Edita plopped a large chunk of carp on my plate next to a bulbous dollop of potato salad–another Czech holiday staple–I couldn’t help but wonder if the fish had been frozen or if it had been living in the bathtub for the past three weeks. Ladia and Edita didn’t smell funny, but then again, the aroma of baked things wafting from the kitchen was eclipsing my sense of smell. I spent the time uncomfortably fielding questions from them about my time in Italy over Christmas. Between questions, we’d fall into a silence, broken only by the clanging of silverware.

After dinner I was shepherded into the living room and placed in front of the skeleton-like Christmas tree. After a series of traditional rituals that involved ringing a bell, the supposed arrival and departure of Jezicek, and a few stories about how we were supposed to see a golden pig, Ladia handed out sparklers. “This is typical Czech tradition,” he said, looking slightly sheepish. As I stood next to Lenka and her mom in front of the brittle tree, Ladia lit our incense-sized fire sticks and the family began to sing a Czech Christmas carol. I took a step back when I noticed small fireballs launching into the tree’s arid, impotent branches. No one else seemed alarmed.

In fact, they were blissful. From my position a step behind them, I watched Lenka and her parents stare at the tip of their sparklers, singing a song in a language I didn’t know. They looked lost, completely taken away from their loathing reality. I felt satisfied that, one last time, one last Christmas, I could be the distraction that keeps this family from completely hating each other. Merry Christmas.