Thursday, November 15, 2007

Prague, Pick-pocketers, Emergencies and Embassies...

I think my job is the best, seriously, there isn't anything I would rather do on a regular basis. I am so lucky that Kevin and I happen to have such amazing jobs and that we work with such amazing people. That being said, we are on-call for our students 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, sometimes it amounts to nothing and we go about our own lives here in Vienna, and other times like the past few days, we drop everything to help our ducklings (as I like to call them).

On Sunday evening I received a phone call from one of our students, Amy, in Prague saying that her and her friend and our other student, Kaitlin's purses had been slashed and their passports, money, credit cards, train tickets and other stuff had been stolen. This can happen to anyone, these pick-pocketers are professionals and work really quickly, they have razorblades and they slash open your purses or your back pockets, or your backpacks, and five seconds later they have your whole life in their hot little hands and they exit the subway or street car and walk out of your life for good. All the while, you were getting jostled about by their team or by the rest of the people on the subway trying to exit. Its only later, as in the case of my students, when they looked down and Amy noticed that her purse must have gotten caught on something because there was a rip in it. Kaitlin looked at her purse and noticed the same rip and they realized that their purses had been pick-pocketed. Luckily, they had some extra money in a different place on their persons, and they had been staying with a friend, so they had a place to crash.

One lesson they had to learn the hard way: Never carry your passport on in your purse, unless you're on your way home. Its even better if you have it in a travel bag around your neck and under your shirt. A passport is one of the most valuable things you own, and it should be treated as such. As they found out, they couldn't even get back to Vienna without it. The thieves scored big when they got both of their passports, since valid passports can be sold on the black-market for around $1000. The Euros they got were only an added bonus. Hindsight is always 20/20, and they had all of their stuff in their purses because they were uncomfortable with their friend's roomies and ironically enough, didn't want their stuff to get stolen. The reality is that their stuff was safer at their friend's house. Most of the stuff they lost was easily replaceable, passports are not, especially when all of their identification was stolen as well.

It was the loss of their passports and their morale that prompted them to call me. As I mentioned they couldn't get back to Vienna since Prague, Czech Republic, while in the EU still has passport control on the borders between the countries that are known as the "Schengen states." The US Embassy was closed Monday for Veterans day so they would have to wait until Tuesday to even begin the process. They were frustrated and over Prague and sometimes we just need someone to help us deal with these things. Its where Kevin and I come in. We have been overseas in many different countries and he has gotten to deal with these emergencies on occasion. This is our job, and this is what we do I assured the girls many times. So after many phone calls, a trip to the police station for them on Sunday night which is not an easy feat in a relatively non-English speaking country and one for which I applaud them. I planned my train trip for the next day, after I would go and get the copies of all their documents.

I cannot stress enough during our preparation process and in their booklets they receive to make copies of passports, at the very least. Give a copy to your parents, and keep a copy with you on the plane. (In case your suitcase gets lost). These girls went above and beyond the call of duty. They had their insurance cards copied, their drivers licenses, their birth certificates, etc etc. You name it. That was a lifesaver for them, and they didn't even realize it at the time.

I went to their dorms and spoke to the dorm director to ask to be let into their room. Although from now on, Kevin and I are requesting the copies to be at our house as well, see we are learning as we go along too. The girls knew exactly where they were kept and I managed to find their papers and be on the way to the train station in 5 minutes flat. The copies were well-done and clear, and were going to make matters go swiftly, I hoped.

After a four-hour train ride to Prague I headed to the metro. Prague, I should mention is definitely one of my least favorite cities. I don't understand the recent appeal of it to many American college students. It isn't cheap, in fact its one of the more expensive cities in Europe. OK, beer is apparently cheap and thats the appeal. I have been to Prague every year since coming to Vienna in 2001, so that could be a part of it. In my opinion, though, once outside the town square, its still very much an "eastern european" city, and kind of creepy. I certainly don't feel safe walking around there and I am always on guard and jumpy. The only time I feel safe in those kinds of cities is when I am walking around with my husband who happens to be 6'4" and a refrigerator of a man. Then I can let myself enjoy my time because I know he is looking over my head at all the sketchy characters. When students tell me that they party there I am utterly surprised, especially when its female students. Also, I happen to be coming from one of the safest European cities. On top of that, I know the language and customs in Vienna, and what and where to expect some sketchy characters and how to avoid them. In the Czech Republic, the language is incomprehensible for an outsider, and the average person on the street doesn't speak much English, although that is beginning to change some. Prague is beautiful, I have some amazing pictures of the city from the tower, but I still don't like it. Sorry for all the Prague lovers out there. That's my rant on Prague.

So, I arrive at the train station called Ndrazni Holesovice (with a bunch of accents and other things hanging off of the letters) and dodge the many people asking me if I need "Hootel" or "Taaaaxi") and make my way to the metro to buy my ticket. Thank goodness I found 135 Czech Krouna in the drawers because I would hate to use the ATM. I got my 24 hour pass for 80 Krouna and luckily the metro was not busy at 6:00 at night, surprisingly enough. I found a seat and sat with my backpack on, my laptop case strung over one shoulder across my body and my purse in my lap with my arm covering it. I recommend trying to get a seat on a sketchy subway system, or stand against the walls, as this decreases the odds that someone will mess with you. I make it to my stop and head out towards our hotel in a sleeting rain, and some cold wind. Yuck!

I get to the hotel and they had a problem with their hot water, as in there was no hot water in our room so they re-booked us at a different hotel ten minutes away (another reason to love Prague, ha ha). Ten minutes if you know where you are going and can walk fast, 15-20 minutes if you are constantly consulting the little map they have given you. We get into our room, and I am as happy to see the girls as they are to see me. We go to dinner at the hotel restaurant and the waiter is very happy to speak English (or happy that he has these two cute American girls to talk to). I don't count as a cute American girl anymore as I am obviously pregnant and wearing wedding rings. After dinner we hang out in the hotel room and watch season 1 of Grey's Anatomy which I threw in my backpack.

The next day, we get up early and begin to make our way to the embassy/consulate. Kaitlin was our map leader and what a great map girl she is, I was impressed with how she navigated these twisting, turning streets. All of a sudden, we round a corner and I realize, I know where I am. We are on the road up to the castle. I was just here last March with my friend, Kelly. We stopped at that very cafe and had hot chocolate. Ahhh, I feel so much better now that I know where I am. Kaitlin consults the map and we realize we are one street off. There is a tunnel and Amy has gone to check out the foreign flag that we can barely see the bottom of from our point of view. Suddenly, she shouts that we are here, the American flag is right here. I even think she is doing a little dance of joy. So we run through the tunnel and head up towards the door. Yup, that is definitely the American flag. I ask them if they want a picture with the flag in the background (this is definitely a joyous moment for them, one to be remembered in picture form) and at the exact moment of the picture the wind whips the flag out and its flying straight out for them, only a light pole is in the way of all its glory. Darn. The security guards are Czech and teasing, and an American embassy official comes up behind us and jokingly says, "oh, I wouldn't trust that guy." Yea! An American accent, for sure!

We head into the office and are prompted by security to remove all of our electronics. We go through the metal detector and receive a badge to go in through the secured door. We go to the American Citizen Service area and take a number after some debate amongst ourselves about whether or not they had filled out all of their documents and even though they didn't have pictures yet should we talk to the officials while we were here. We decided to talk to them. Amy went first and handed her papers in. The lady took it and told her where to get some pictures taken.
(I had warned them that the embassy website said it would take 5 days to receive a new passport, and not to expect anything other than that). So, when Amy asked when they could get their passports, and the lady answered, "This afternoon" Amy turned around with this huge grin on her face and tears in her eyes.

Poor Amy has had a rough semester. She had a massive allergic reaction that caused hives all over her body and really hampered her first few weeks here, including an emergency trip to the hospital in an ambulance, a massive dose of cortisone, an early flight home from Rome and staying at my apartment so I could take care of her for a week. Through it all she has managed to be optimistic and still considers this semester to be one of the best of her life. I know there were times when she wanted to pack it in, like this past weekend, but she was able to make a fun hilarious situation out of a really difficult one. I wish that all students were blessed with her ability to laugh and make the best out of anything.

Kaitlin handed in her paperwork and we are on our way to the photo shop. They got their picture taken and we trooped back up to the embassy where the guard joked with us some more. They handed their pictures in and the official tells us to come back between 2-4pm to pick up the new temporary passports.

The girls hadn't seen too much of Prague so I tell them we are going to go up to the castle. We walk up to the castle and it is freezing. The wind is biting, and it is sleeting. I take their pictures with the guards and then go into the beautiful church and then we are headed back down the hill with hot chocolate and a warm cafe on our minds. We sit around and thaw out while drinking some great hot chocolate. They tell me stories in a way that only long time friends can tell and they have me laughing hysterically. We then head back into the cold and over the famous Charles bridge. I take some pictures for them, and tell them that normally there are street bands here and a ton more vendors. We walk through the little side streets into town square and look at the clock where I take some more pictures for them. If you looked at the pictures, it would look like they spent days in Prague instead of one afternoon. Then we decided it was time for lunch and they wanted fast food. I mentioned that there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken here. Well that sounded very good to the girls. Sad to say, there is a KFC there no longer. We walked right past the empty building with me saying to them, I swear its right around here. However, there was a McDonald's a block away. We went there instead and managed to get a table in the crazy busy Mickey D's. We sat there chatted and laughed and then ordered hot fudge "mcSundaes" all around. By this time it was nearly 2:00pm and we headed back to the embassy one more time.

The girls got their passports and we headed on the long trek back to the hotel in the freezing cold weather. By the time we got back we were good and tired. I told the hotel receptionist that we would be checking out and wouldn't need the hotel room again tonight. She said she still must charge me because it wasn't 24 hours notice. I told her that was fine and we were off to pack up our stuff, hang out for a bit longer and then head to the train station. We got on the 5:35 train home and were thrilled. We arrived back to Vienna at 10:30 and I think we all fell into our beds exhausted from their weekend travels. I am just happy we made it home in time for group dinner today, and that it wasn't such a difficult process for them to obtain their temporary passports. The efficiency and kindness of those officials at the embassy really made a difference. And now they have one more story to tell when they arrive home, since everyone knows its all about the stories!