It was one of those times when you knew the situation made you a bit leery, your behavior was perhaps risky, but your youthful optimism won out and you shrugged your shoulders and just went along for the ride.
Toward the end of a three-week backpacking trip through Europe, I’d arrived with my two friends at the train station in Prague. Fully looking the part of the college-aged American tourists, we disembarked, pushed past the random guys advertising places to stay and found a phone booth. We called every hostel in town, trying to find a cheap place to stay, but they were all booked solid. (In hindsight, that might have been a fortuitous circumstance, as we’d just come from a cheap hostel in Vienna that — judging by the red dots that appeared on our skin in the morning — was infested with bedbugs.)
Crossing the last hostel off my list, I hung up the phone, let out a breath, and turned to the nearest of those random salesmen. OK, I said, whattdya got?
He and his colleague eagerly led us outside to their car. They tossed our backpacks into the trunk. My friends and I gave each other nervous glances as the three of us crammed into the backseat. My mind raced as we pulled away from the station. These guys could be taking us anywhere. They could drive us to a secluded part of town, beat us up and take our money and belongings. Who knew where we were? Each of our parents had a rough idea of our itinerary, but none of them knew we’d just jumped into a car with a couple random guys who claimed to have the best place in town for us to stay.
I wished we hadn’t gotten into the car, and I wished the driver would slow down. As Blondie’s new hit song “Maria” blared from his radio, he weaved way too rapidly in and out of traffic, all while turning around to tell us how great this place was, how much we’d love staying in Prague. I wished he would pay attention to the road instead.
Mercifully, we turned onto a quiet street and came to a stop in front of an old, six-story walk-up. They showed us to a two-bedroom apartment on the third floor, our new home for the next few days for the sum of $15 a night. A balcony overlooked the street, the windows open to allow a beautiful breeze inside. The stress melted from my shoulders. We had a kitchen. Our own bathroom. This felt luxurious after the crowded hostels we’d slept in over the past couple weeks.
Potentially foolish as it had been, that distressing car ride through the streets of Prague remained a fond memory, filed away in the dusty back of my brain. Until earlier this week, when I stopped at Target on my way home from work to pick up mouthwash and paper towels and a few other items, and sure enough, “Maria” was playing on the loudspeaker. Just like that, I was back in Prague, wondering where this crazy car ride would end up. I smiled, knowing that the end result of that ride was good. No deception, no theft — and no bedbugs.