The quickest route to Prague from the northwest of Europe takes you through Leipzig and Dresden, and you drive through miles of rolling wheat fields before you get to the Czech border. The wheat is still green, but the sunlight is golden, and I put Tristan and Isolde on the stereo, figuring this to be as good a time as any to try Wagner. Germany was idyllic: I crossed the country via its swimming pools, and made 75 cents recycling plastic bottles at the supermarket, but spoke to pretty much no-one; now as I get closer to the border, I’m getting excited by the prospect of visiting a new country.
I pull over at a rest stop to make coffee, and the car park is mostly empty except for a small white lorry a couple of spaces down. The driver comes over to me, and in friendly but bad German, tries to convince me to buy a large amount of cigarettes at German prices so that he has Euros to take back to Romania. For the first time I get a sense of being in a different place: borders are open, prices change and people come and go buying and selling in the heart of Europe. I refuse the cigarettes, however, rauche Ich leider nicht Kumpel, and he wishes me a good trip and heads over to a newly arrived car.
I pick Usti Nad Labem to spend the night, being the closest town over the border, and a place with a public library where I can go and work for the day. A short tunnel marks the spot where Germany meets the Czech Republic, the wheat fields are replaced by spiky wooded hills, and two enormous smoke stacks lead me towards the town. It’s a sunny evening, and I’m in another world. Long rusting pipes line the pot-holed main street, running in and out of the chemical factory that rises over the town, criss-crossing tram lines and electricity cables with the chaos of a place built above ground. The air smells sweetly of something, kids play chicken with the cars running across the road, and three deliriously drunk men roll about in a doorway. Five lads in a yellow car fix me a look and follow me into town, and I stop in the centre for a while where more Usti Nad Labem lives hang out in the sun. Yellow car moves slowly on, and I don’t feel sure I’ve picked the best place to stop.
The next nearest place is Teplice, and I decide to drive on. More lives lived in cars, and I drive slowly round the outskirts, past dwellings dug into the side of a mined cut, then round a corner to where the grandeur suddenly begins. Each enormous old building is a different colour and in a different state of repair. A quiet leafy park has quiet leafy streets leading away from it and I find a perfect place to stop between an old Skoda and a brand-new Mercedes. I’m in awe of this place and walk round the whole town taking in its buildings, some post-1945, but mostly neoclassical pastel palaces, some abandoned and there for the taking.
I try two pubs and have two very nice pints, but have still spoken to no-one, and so try the last place of the evening, walking around its smoky interior before sitting at the bar with a couple of locals and asking for the third time in my life, dám si jedno pivo prosím. The men are talking steadily, the younger of the two drinking a rum with every pint, and the older knocking back wine. Eventually I catch the younger one’s eye and say dobrý večer. He answers in Czech but I have to shrug, saying anglicky? He waits for a moment and booms back: English…BREXIT??? I say, I know, it’s a shame and he laughs at me and tells me Europe can go fuck itself. I tell them about my trip, and they look intrigued. When I mention Albania they look at each other. Careful in Albania my friend, much guns!
An hour later, we are firm friends, Radek and František have introduced themselves and proudly shown me pictures of their family, the biggest fish they’ve ever caught, as well as videos of their own gun collections (to protect us against European Union my friend!) Radek insists that I stay at his place that evening, and we arrive in his friend’s taxi at an enormous house over the other side of town. Which flat you want my friend? 1, 2 or 3? I plump for two, and he opens the door. It’s yours! He throws me a key and disappears upstairs leaving me in charge of an enormous flat with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a living room with leather furniture and the standard enormous TV. I’ve spent seven days in the van, and I enjoy the unexpected space; after I’ve explored the flat, I pick a room, stretch out and have a good night’s sleep.