March 11, 2018

the original airbnb

When I was a junior in college in 1991, my brother, Pat, and I studied in Ireland for the year.  It was a St. Mary's College program, but it was open to Notre Dame students (ND is located across the street from St. Mary's - an all girls school).  Pat and a few other students from Notre Dame were accepted that year.

Over Christmas break all 21 of the students in our program bought Eurail passes.  We traveled by boat to France and then embarked on our separate adventures to see Europe.  It was an unbelievable experience!
Pat and I in Prague when we
 weren't in search
of a McDonalds.

Pat and I planned to travel together.  I wanted to strangle him from time to time because he completely lacked in the sense of direction department.  This annoyance paled in comparison to his  insistence that we eat most meals at McDonalds.  The fast food nonsense stemmed from his frustration in Italy.  We didn't speak Italian and when we ordered food they brought us kiddie portions of pasta.  Pat is 6 foot 4.  He wanted to eat somewhere where he could predict portion size and not struggle with the language barrier.  I wanted a do-over in the choosing-travel-companion moment, although I know my folks would've insisted that I stick with my younger brother.

Part of our itinerary included meeting up with Pat's two roommates.  They were the only other guys on our program, and Pat shared a house with them while in Ireland.  Pat was turning 20 on December 27th, and his buddies wanted to celebrate with him.  We met them at the train station in Prague, Czechoslovakia.  Looking back I have no idea how we arranged to bump into them here because cell phones were not in existence in 1991.  Imagine how resourceful we had to be.  (I feel an offshoot post brewing titled:  'kids today don't know how easy they have it' - but I feel I would be preaching to the choir).

At the train station there were men walking around very casually uttering the word 'accommodation' in low, hushed tones.  We had heard about this phenomenon in our travels.  Students hanging in hostels often shared experiences and travel tips with other students.  It was like a very cool unspoken code.  'If you go to such-n-such, don't bother with this hostel . . .there's a better one up the hill', etc. 

We were told (and for the life of me I have no idea who tipped us off, but I think Pat's roomie Neil was the one who insisted that this was how it was done) that free enterprise was unlawful in Prague.  People approached travelers and offered their home for a very reasonable price in order to make some money.  It was all very sketchy and secretive.  Of course we were young and cheap, so red flags blowing in the 'be-afraid-be-very-afraid' breeze could whip us in the face hard and we would stay the potentially dangerous course. 

Just as predicted a man in a suit walked up and whispered 'accommodation' over and over while nodding at us.  At this point, Neil's eyebrows shot up as he spun on his heel to face us.  He was like 'It's happening guys!  Just like I told you.  How cool is this?  This old dude is fighting the system.'  After more nodding and pointing, we followed Charles outside the train station (I swear, that I remember his name was Charles.  Why my memory won't serve me today in recalling what food item we've just run out of while I'm in the grocery store, I have no idea). 
This is me and my huge pack.  I am pretending to
nibble on the foot of this statue. 
I guess I was hungrier than I recall.

Charles could only fit two of us with our huge backpacks in his tiny car.  (This is where that red flag left a mark on my face, but my cautious side was no match for 3 Notre Dame men who felt confident that this was a no-brainer.)  Pat and Keith left in Charles' car.  I looked at Neil as my brother and his obnoxious and overly hairy roommate Keith drove away.  I wondered aloud if this harmless looking Prague native would kill those two and then come back to finish us off in order to rob us of whatever dirty clothes and bits of money we lugged around in our enormous backpacks. 
Great building:  exhibit A.  Beautiful Prague. 
Easily one of my favorite cities.

Just when I thought I might soil my pants, which would've been a real downer since I only had a few pairs stuffed in my pack, Charles returned for Neil and I.  Sure as Prague is home to some beautiful buildings, he delivered us to his flat where Pat and Keith awaited our arrival. 

If I found watching my brother carted away by a possible ax-murderer-in-disguise-as-a-gentle-soul  unnerving, then what happened next was the most frightening experience of my life to that point.  Sorry, I've reached my self-imposed-bordering- too-long rule of thumb. 

The best is yet to come.  Promise. 


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