Photo: Katerina Kalcikova.

Tomas was worked as a warehouse manager for a clothing distributor just outside Prague. His fiancée Katka, was a photographer originally from Poprad, a city in the Tatras Mountains in Slovakia. The three of us frequently met up for beer and conversation in Prague’s pubs and beer gardens and had become quite fond of each other.

One evening, Tomas called. The wedding was right around the corner.

“Are you free this weekend?” he asked. “Come with me to the mountains.”

That his voice was nervous and tense seemed natural. He was getting married.

What seemed less natural was this: his bride-to-be had been kidnapped.

“What?” I asked. “Have you called the police?”

“Just be at the Černý most metro station tomorrow morning at 9,” Tomas said, interrupting. “I will explain. Oh, and bring some outdoor clothing, if you have any.”

So the next morning (I called in sick from work) Tomas picked me up in his new, black Skoda.

“I might as well tell you,” Tomas said, grinning. I thought it odd that he was in such pleasant spirits. “It’s really an old Czech tradition. Just before the wedding, the bride’s friends kidnap her. We have to find her and ‘rescue’ her in time for the wedding.”

“No way,” I said.

Tomas laughed.

“You’re lucky,” he said. “We weren’t going to tell you, and just let you go on thinking it was real, but –“ He reached behind the seat, produced a bottle of slivovice and handed it to me. I had a small dip and handed the bottle over to Tomas, but he was driving, so he just returned the bottle to the back seat.

As we drove out of the city, out into the countryside, Tomas began explaining his plan. We were to go that afternoon east to the north Bohemian town of Šumperk (pronounced ‘Shumperk), where we would meet up with Robert, one of his old school chums who was to be best man, and head north to some mountains near the Poland border. Tomas said he thought that the “abductors” had taken her to these mountains because that was where, on a camping trip some years before, he and Katka had first met.

Aside from driving to the nearest asylum, it seemed as good a plan as any.


We drove east for a few hours, passing through the town of Hradec Králové, and arrived in Šumperk in early evening. We checked into a small, clean hotel and went downstairs to the pub. Robert, the best man, was already there, so we joined him for a few pints of Pilsner-Urquell and went over the rescue plan.

In the morning we awoke early. Tomas, on the phone in Prague, had instructed me to bring rugged, outdoor clothing. But I had disregarded that, not having any such clothes anyway. Instead, I was wearing my usual shirt, tie, trousers and a pair of dusty, black office shoes.

“Is that all you’ve got to wear?” Tomas scanned me from head to toe, shaking his head disapprovingly, especially at my shoes. “You know we’re going up the mountain today. It could be rough.”

We drove for about an hour north to the town of Králíky, and parked outside the town at the base of Králický Sněžník, a mountain in the Eastern Sudetes and on the border between the Czech Republic and Poland. Králíky means “rabbit” in Czech and Sněžníkderives from the word for “snow.” Snow Rabbit Mountain.

Both Tomas and Robert were experienced outdoorsmen, and were geared up with backpacks, climbing boots, and even flashlights attached to their hats for after dark. Then there was me in my city clothes.

Fortunately, the weather had cleared and it was a lovely day, the sun falling through the trees, the air crisp, and there were only little patches of snow in the shade. Tomas reached in his backpack and produced a bottle of slivovice, the Moravian brandy distilled from fresh plums or pears. It tasted of fresh fruit on the tongue and burned going down. We each took turns on the bottle and, fortified, were ready to take on the summit, some 1,200 meters up.

The climb took a couple of hours. Not being accustomed to it, I quickly got tired, but Tomas kept me going with occasional shots of slivovice. Up near the summit we passed a group of people on their way down.

Chystáte se na svatbu?” one of the men asked, looking at me derisively.

“It’s your clothes,” Tomas said. “He asks, ‘Are you going to a wedding?’”

“Actually, yes,” I said, winking at Tomas.

“Yes,” Tomas said, joining in. “James is getting married. We are going to the wedding now.”

“And where is the bride?” the man asked, switching to English.

“We’re not sure yet.”

The man scratched his head. His friends were waiting impatiently nearby, but he held them off with quick wave.

“So you are climbing a mountain without proper clothing,” the man continued. “And you are going to your wedding and you can’t find your bride?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Can I ask where are you from?”

“America,” I said, grinning.

The man shook his head:

“I thought you must be.” He wished us luck, and went on with his friends.

“Well,” Tomas said, patting me on the shoulder. “At least he wished you luck.”


By late afternoon we reached the summit. We had climbed above the mist and now looked down at a vast range of mountains spread out in all directions.

“Do you know where you are?” Tomas asked me. He turned and had me follow his gaze to a broad grey sign that read:


“You are in Poland now, James!” Tomas said.

Tomas himself was Polish, born in Warsaw. He moved with his family to Prague after the 1989 revolution toppled Communism in Eastern Europe. At that moment we heard cries from the other side of the summit. People were coming up from the Polish side, just as we were coming up from the Czech side. Everyone greeted each other in mixtures of Polish and Czech. Shots of vodka and slivovice, served in Styrofoam cups, were cheerfully passed around.

But there was no sign of Katka.

“So what do we do now?” I asked Tomas. He and Robert conversed in Czech for a minute. We each took a swig off the bottle of slivovice.

“Well, we head down and keep looking,” Tomas said. “Come on, we must hurry though. Soon it will be dark and the temperature here on the mountain drops quickly.”


Where the hell were we? I wasn’t used to running up and down the mountain like some goddamn, half-assed Paul Bunyan. I had blisters on both feet, and the alcohol was also taking its toll. What had started out as a clever jaunt – setting off in search of the damsel Katka in her pretend distress – seemed to be turning into serious folly. I thought of Prague, several hours away, and how it was Friday evening there and how I could be in a cozy pub in Vrsovice instead of tagging along on some psuedo-quixotic Czech prenuptial ritual.

But there was no other choice. We hustled back down the mountain, an exhausting trip that took about two hours, and when we finally made it to the car every part of my body ached. I now knew why Tomas had been so adamant about wearing proper gear. I was about half-frozen, and my shoes set like daggers digging into my toes.

The guys took some pity on me. “Not bad for your first mountain climb,” said Robert, who was an experienced climber. “You have a strong will.”

“Come on,” Tomas added. “We go now and rest up. Some Czech beer will put you straight.”

“Show me the way, brother,” I said.

We found a pub near the hotel and raised glasses of frothy, delicious Pilsner-Urquell and had a fine Czech dinner of pork and dumplings. On the wall was a painting of rabbits playing billiards.

“It reminds me of the rabbit who goes into the shop,” Tomas said. The rabbit is a common character in Czech jokes, so Robert and I prepared to listen:

There once was a rabbit who was about to be married. One day, just before the wedding,the rabbit went into a shop and asked for carrot ice cream.

‘Have you got carrot ice cream?’ the rabbit asked. The seller said no, unfortunately. There was no carrot ice cream.

The rabbit was furious. ‘Why the hell don’t you have carrot ice cream?” the rabbit angrily inquired. “What kind of a place is this? I’m getting married soon and I have to put up with this?”

The shop-keeper, wanting to avoid a scene, tried to calm and assure the rabbit. He promised to order some carrot ice cream immediately.

“When can you have it here?” the rabbit asked, somewhat appeased.

The shop-keeper insisted he could have the carrot ice cream by the next day.

So the next day, the rabbit returned to the shop. The shop-keeper rushed to meet the rabbit, elated and enthusiastic.

“Good news, Rabbit” the shop-keeper said. “You’ll be glad to know we have carrot ice cream.”

“Yes, I’m glad to know,” replied the rabbit. “Now, you know what I would like?”

“Anything,” the shop-keeper said.

“I would like,” said the rabbit, “for you to take that carrot ice cream and shove it up your ass.”

The poor-shop keeper was appalled.

“But why would you say such a thing to me?” he asked.

“Because” said the rabbit. “I just asked if you had it. Did you really think I wanted it? Who the hell eats carrot ice cream?”

“Well,” I said, when Tomas finished the joke. “That was Czech humour alright.”

“I would have finished the joke differently,” Robert said, stroking his beard. “In my joke, the rabbit would go in and ask for carrot ice cream, but when the shop-keeper brings him the carrot ice cream, the rabbit should say something like, “Carrot ice cream, what do you think I am, a rabbit?”

“But that’s not the point,” said Tomas. He was a bit drunk. “The point was, that whatever the rabbit asked for, that he would not want it when he gets it. It’s like that … We want something, but then when we finally get it, we don’t want it. We always want something better. You understand?” Tomas turned to me.

“Got it,” I said.

“You see, during Communism, there never was anything to buy. You wanted, say, brown shoes, but there were only black shoes available. Nowadays, there are every kind of shoe – too many – and people are like the rabbit. They don’t know what they want.”

“Which is better?” I asked.

Tomas looked at Robert, who smiled.

“This,” Tomas said, agreeing. “This is better. Better to have too much than not enough.”

We clinked glasses.

“Anyway,” I said. “Let’s go find that bride of yours.”


On Saturday we woke up early. Tomas had made some enquiries and now had a more definite idea of where Katka was being kept. We loaded into Tomas’ car and set off forBratislava, Slovakia’s capital.

It was a pleasant ride through the wine country of south Moravia, and I felt my hangover slip away by the time we crossed the border. Since both the Czechs and Slovaks now belong to the EU, the border station is just an empty relic.

“I remember during Communist times,” Tomas reflected. “When we crossed the border it would take several hours, with the police checking everybody. And now! It’s a different world!”

Bratislava, a smaller version of Prague with a modest, white castle overlooking the Danube River, was quiet that morning. We skirted around the center. It seemed that Tomas had other plans in mind. We were headed for the High Tatras mountains.

Already sore from the day before, I dreaded the prospect of another climb. But I was in for a surprise.

Along the way, we stopped at an immense, fairy tale-like chateau. It seemed that Tomas’ informants had told him that Katka might be there. We bought tickets and got in a tourists’ queue and went inside. It’s a lovely castle, Romantic, with some Gothic and Renaissance features, dating back to the 12th Century. We went in and out of stately, elegant rooms and up winding flights of stairs past luxurious apartments loaded with antique furniture and tapestries adorning the walls.

We went all the way to the top and looked out at the view of the forested mountainsides. But there was no sign of Katka here either.

It was afternoon now, and I know I was pretty tired, what with all this mountain-climbing and, now, castle-climbing. Robert and Tomas pressed on and I followed them downstairs and back out to the car.

The guys were up front talking in Czech and soon we were on the road again. Over his shoulder Tomas informed me that we were headed for the city of Poprad, Katka’s hometown, in the High Tatras Mountains. While they drove and talked up front, I lay down in the back and fell asleep.

It was dark when we arrived in Poprad, a lovely town. We parked the car near St. Egidius Square.

“Don’t worry, James,” Tomas winked. “It will soon be over. Come. Jdeme na jedno!” That meant, “We go for one.”

The pub was all decked out with streamers and fresh-cut spring flowers. As we walked in there was a great, joyous cry. Katka, looking lovely as always and a little drunk, sat on a barstool surrounded by her bridesmaids and smiling.

Ahoj!” she said. “I thought you would never arrive!”

Tomas went up to his fiancée, his bride of the High Tatras, and hoisted her off the chair and into his arms. They kissed and everyone cheered. It was a great feeling, like we were heroes returning from the war. While Tomas went around and embraced everyone, Katka took a moment and came up to me.

“Thank you for coming!” she said. She looked at my clothes, which by then were a wreck, and laughed. “I see you are all ready for the wedding!”

“I wouldn’t have missed it,” I said.

Robert, the best man, produced a fresh bottle of slivovice, poured shots and passed them around. We raised and clinked glasses, toasting the happy couple.

Nearby, two gloomy youths – cousins of Tomas – were sitting in a booth. They were both immaculately dressed in rented tuxedos, but seemed uncomfortable in such formal attire, and sat looking upon the celebrations without joining in.

I sat down next to them.

“So,” I said, raising my glass. “Are you guys going to a funeral or what?”

“Yes,” one of them said. “Our own.”

James Tressler, a former Times-Standard reporter, is the author of “Lost Coast D.A.” and “Letters from Istanbul, Vol. 1.” He lives in Istanbul.