Before we left for our fall break tour of Europe, my friend Ashley’s mother, a scheduler for President Clinton, gave us the number of embassy officials in every city we were going to visit. It seemed like she was being paranoid—what trouble could three American girls taking trains to Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and Amsterdam possibly get into?
Nonetheless, we stuffed the names and phone numbers into a backpack and hit the road.
It was the fall of 1997, and several of my best friends and I lived in an apartment in Florence, Italy, just a couple blocks from the Duomo. We were studying at Studio Arts Centers International, getting course credits for our alma mater, Duke University, by taking classes like introduction to drawing and opera. The times were heady, wine flowed liberally, and each weekend we conquered a new country.
We experienced adventures and mishaps that you would expect during a ten-day tour of vaunted European cities—hostel dramas, late nights, cold overnight train rides in which we were forced to spoon each other to stay warm. That is, until we were leaving Prague. That’s when our youthful adventures turned into horror movie material.
We had already purchased train tickets for the next leg of our trip, but did not realize that there were two major train stations in Prague—one in the city, and one on the outskirts. We arranged for a taxi, and when we arrived at the train station in the middle of the city, it became clear that we were in the wrong place. We asked the driver to take us, as quickly as possible, to the other station.
When we arrived at the correct train station, we did not have a minute to spare. The driver pulled into a sinister-looking parking lot, surrounded by other taxis, and away from the entrance of the station. Things started to get scary. The driver popped open the trunk, leapt out of the car, and stood with his hand on the trunk as if he would shut it and leave us without our backpacks. He asked us for payment, which was about one hundred times what we should have owed him.
My friend Madeleine, or “Mad Dawg,” was fittingly the most brazen of our trio. She flipped her blonde ponytail, reached into the trunk for her backpack, and yelled, “Let’s RUN!” It was at that moment that I noticed a dozen other taxi drivers standing around, watching with threatening interest.
Ashley and I grabbed our backpacks and took off after Madeleine. I turned around to see our taxi driver, and several others, running after us. We sprinted through the station as fast as we could go, scanning the information board quickly to figure out which platform was ours. We ran up the ramp where our train was parked just as it started to pull away. My friend Ashley, whose slight frame was dwarfed by her overstuffed backpack, screamed, “PLEASE! Wait! Please! Stop the train!” But her pleas went unanswered.
We turned around slowly, afraid of what we might see. Our taxi driver was about fifty yards away, with a group of his colleagues, staring at us. We hoped that as long as we were inside the train station, in the light of day, they couldn’t do anything terrible to us. We walked to the ticketing counter to buy a ticket on the next train out, but the next train out would not leave for four hours, and we did not have the currency required to purchase the tickets. We had to use the ATM machine close to the train station exit, but we were convinced if we did that, the taxi driver and his buddies would rob us for all we were worth.
The late afternoon hour quickly turned to dusk, and the train station became scantly populated. There was a homeless woman and her sick son begging for money, the taxi drivers who wouldn’t take their eyes off of us, and the woman behind the ticketing counter. That is all. We huddled on the ground across from the ticket counter, worried that we would be unable to get money out without being robbed, but that if we didn’t get money out, we would be stranded at night in a train station, with no way out except via the taxi driver who was trying to steal from us (and maybe worse).
Ashley realized that she had the number for the American embassy in Prague, and could probably get someone on the line, given that her mother was extremely high in the Clinton administration. We spied a pay phone and hatched a plan to call the embassy, collect, and ask for help.
When Ashley got off the phone, she turned to us. Her face was white. The embassy official had told her that the taxi system had just been deregulated, and that he’d heard nightmarish reports about how the local mob had taken over many of the taxis. Foreigners, especially, were robbed, kidnapped, and abused. The American representative told us to hide in the women’s bathroom; he would come rescue us.
Fast forward a couple harrowing, nail-biting minutes in which we sprinted for the women’s bathroom, hoping we wouldn’t be grabbed by the taxi drivers who continued to keep an eye on us. Behind the dirty doors of the bathroom stalls, we heard footsteps and imagined our taxi driver kicking them open at any moment. We decided to crouch on top of the toilets so our feet wouldn’t be spotted.
After about twenty minutes, we heard confident footsteps and an American accented “hello?” Our knight in shining armor had arrived—a tall, handsome, overcoat-clad embassy official. He told us that our escape was narrower than we’d imagined. He walked us over to the ticket booth, bought our tickets for us, and waited with us until the next train came.
We were relieved, exhausted, and ready to arrive in the relaxing city of Amsterdam.
Related Story: Tears from Turkey