Pillows Should Come With Instructions
Brussels – Prague
The concept of the overnight bus is a great one in theory: it’s cheaper than flying, you can avoid paying for accommodation, and you go to sleep and magically wake up in your destination city. This thought process is similar to the one that leads you decide in college to drink till you puke or to order stuffed-crust pizza from Pizza Hut. You’re psyched beforehand, about an hour into it you’re thinking this was the best idea ever, and halfway through you’re convinced this was the single worst decision you’ve ever made. By that point, however, there’s no way out of it. It all ends in misery.
Luckily, just like those other ideas, that terrible feeling lasts only for a day or so, and within 48 hours you’re thinking that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. The bus ride from Brussels to Prague took about 12 hours in the end. I figured I was mentally prepared for it, since my sister Kate and I once spent 3 out of 4 nights on a bus in Turkey (the fourth night, bizarrely enough, was spent in a tree). But that’s like saying that getting a boot to the bollocks once means the second time around should be easier. It just ain’t so.
In this case, however, I was convinced I had the perfect tool for surviving the journey in comfort, if not style: one of those U-shaped inflatable neck pillows. I’d seen people wearing those things on airplanes and sleeping soundly, and it always seemed to me to be the best invention in the history of travel. And it only cost seven euros – seven euros! With that bad boy, plus the fact that I had two seats to myself, I figured I’d sleep like a baby from start to finish. And I did – like a shrieking, crying baby.
If somebody can give me some helpful hints on using one of these damn pillows, I will be eternally grateful. It was about as comfortable as strapping a bunch of basketballs to my neck. In retrospect, I’m thinking I over-inflated it, so instead of softly cushioning my head as I dozed off, it kept it bolt upright like a neckbrace, so when I started to doze off, the weight of my huge head falling over ripped my entire upper body from the seat like a felled pine, and, with the full load of my torso behind it, sent my head careening into the bus window. My neighbour across the aisle woke up panicked at the collision, and the woman in front of me, also using one of these wondrous pillows, had to swivel from the hips to see what was happening behind her. She promptly fell back asleep.
That traumatic event led to me removing the pillow from around my neck, but I was still convinced that I could use it to make myself more comfortable. (The package did say “pillow,” folks – I’m not crazy.) I then decided I should just go ahead and make use of the empty seat beside me and have a proper horizontal sleep. Thinking back on it, I think that having an extra bus seat beside you on an overnight bus actually does more harm than good. It gives you a false sense of comfort, as if you can stretch out and lie flat. Two bus seats give you about the same surface area as a couple of magazines lying side by side, but your brain refuses to recognize it: it sees a queen size bed. Over the next hour or so I tried to make my body fit there, and optimistically employed my neck pillow in different ways. It began as a regular pillow, under my head, then moved under my lower back, then I held it in my arms.
For a while there I found it eerily comfortable between my knees, like a Thigh-Master, and I actually dozed off. But I woke up 10 minutes later to find that the son-of-a-bitch had broken free and migrated north and was now in the same position that a saddle might be, that is to say using its U-shape to clutch onto me like some kind of inflatable crotch vice. I also noticed that my neighbour was surreptitiously squinting at my crotch in the dark, trying to determine what the hell was going on down there, and must have determined that I was either in the process of filling an adult diaper or something even more deviant, because she quickly and embarrassingly looked away, most likely also regretting her choice of transportation. Needless to say, by this point I was kind of wishing I had my seven euros back.
I arrived exhausted. I promptly left Prague a few days later, however, and was really sad to leave. Not so much because I love the city and was going to miss my friends, but because “leaving” in this case meant leaving by the same accursed overnight bus back to Brussels.
I got to the bus station a little late on that evening in late September, and hurriedly handed the woman my ticket, who, I swear, did not even look at it before handing back a boarding pass. I could have saved 50 Euros and just given her a ticket-shaped cracker.
The bus ride to Brussels was scheduled for 14 hours, as opposed to the 12 hours it took to go the other direction. (Trade winds? Uphill?) This time they showed an actual movie, instead of a half-hour advertisement for the bus company that they showed coming the other way. I repeat: a half-hour commercial for the bus I was already taking. You know, just in case I was thinking about shattering the window halfway through the journey and flinging myself onto the highway in hopes of finding a better bus company. The movie was Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, which it turns out was filmed in Carcassonne, France, where I had visited a month before and eaten cookies for dinner. (It was great, in case you were wondering. Carcassonne, that is, not eating cookies for dinner. I always thought eating cookies for dinner would be heaven – it wasn’t. When you’ve just accidentally blown your full day’s budget – 25 euros – on freakin’ cookies on Day One of your trip around the world, pretty much making that your one meal of the day, eating cookies for dinner kind of makes you want to cry.) The film was dubbed into Czech, meaning that not only was Kevin Costner not speaking with an English accent, he wasn’t even speaking English. Didn’t really hurt the authenticity. And it was a pleasant change to see him in tights as opposed to those post-apocalyptic postal-service rags. What was that all about?
Now the good news: I slept on the bus. And in doing so, I compared the two journeys I took that week, to and from Prague, and I’ve devised a set of eight rules for surviving the overnight bus. You’re welcome!
Rule #1: Don’t inflate anything to put around your neck.
Rule #2: Seriously, dude…this inflatable neck pillow is not working.
Rule #3: You don’t need to get off the bus at every break. If I look at my most restful nights of sleep in all my years, slim to none have involved getting up every 4 hours to stand at a German gas station for 30 minutes.
Rule #4: Use the side affects of allergy medicine to your advantage. They cause serious drowsiness.
Rule #5: Do not take allergy medicine right before a rest stop. I learned this on the way to Prague, when I stumbled into a German gas station under the effects of my allergy pills to buy food, and honestly could not open my eyes. I pointed at what I thought was a sandwich. My friends, that was no sandwich.
Rule #6: I know what you’re thinking – everybody else is using one of these goddamn neck pillows, right? Forget it.
Rule #7: Most importantly: remember this is a bus. You’re not supposed to sleep on it. It’s not supposed to be comfortable. It’s just a matter of telling yourself that you’re going to sleep, and do it. The power of the mind: that’s all you need.
Rule #8: Get drunk at lunch.
Maybe you can use that inflatable pillow to jot those tips down for your next trip. You can have mine.
Read all of Conor’s adventures at: How Conor is Spending All His Money.