Czech Your Head: Oh, I’ve Been to Prague
When I was a junior in college, I took a trek north from Maine to Canada. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Canada continues to hold fast to the idea that it and the United States are separate countries, and so I was filled with a sense of exploration, of entering an uncharted wilderness, of breaking free of the shackles of my narrow-minded American viewpoint. That sense all but faded when, mere seconds after cresting the final hill and passing the sign that read “Welcome to Canada,” I spotted both a Wal-Mart and a McDonald’s. There’s nothing more disheartening than learning that the rest of the world wants to be like the corner of it you’ve just escaped.
I’m not a particularly geographically adventurous person. I can live basically anywhere. I feel that if my parents had told me as a youngster that the family would soon be living in Provost, or Waco, or Three Mile Island, I’d have been able to take that in stride. I’ve also never been filled with the desire to see exotic locales. One place is as good as another to me, generally. Even my sex life is a succession of nondescript bedrooms, mostly mine. My trip to Canada did little to instill wanderlust in me, and so I greeted my second opportunity to leave the USA with nonchalant acceptance. While I didn’t exactly turn up my nose at the chance to spend a week in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic, I didn’t jump for joy, either. I figured it would be just another place.
I’m not very good at predicting my own reactions.
My sister Emily calls the Czech Republic “Paveland,” after my mother’s boyfriend, Pavel Vodicka. Pavel is in his 40s and was born in Prague under communist rule. Ten years ago, he emigrated to the United States to become a professional ballroom dancer here, after winning several awards in his native country. He met my mother, also an aspiring dancer, and though it’s taken me some time to come around to him, he’s been very good for her. Together they’ve opened their own dance studio in Bellingham, Massachusetts. They call it Metronome.
Every year, my mother and Pavel travel to the Czech Republic to see Pavel’s parents, and this time, I was invited. I in turn invited my old roommate Gary to join us. Gary had enough visible excitement for the two of us, and I believe he had the time of his life.
Had it been just the four of us, I probably would have had nothing to complain about, which would have been so far out of character that my mother may not have recognized me. Fortunately, she invited two dental practitioners from her day job to come along, and they may have been the most unintentionally, unknowingly obnoxious people I’ve ever been stuck in a limo with.
Dr. Ed is wealthy beyond measure, and yet he dresses more slovenly than I do. He bears a passing resemblance to Dr. Who’s Tom Baker, and speaks with a fading Brooklyn accent. Lydia, his companion of 20-some years, is almost as broad as she is tall and never stops talking. She probably speaks endlessly to herself in her sleep, on the toilet and in the shower, and I often fantasized about sending her into a coma to see if that might shut her up. This pair has traveled the world, not really taking in any of it. They’re the sort that believe that just having been to a place entitles you to the last word on it.
In the final analysis, though, I’m glad they came along, because they gave me a perfect example of the noxious American tourist I didn’t want to be on this trip. We’re submerged from an early age in the jingoistic notion that America is the greatest place on earth, and I wanted to seize the opportunity to look through a different lens.
With that in mind, I tried to adopt a widescreen point of view. I would not, I resolved, refer to anything I came across in the Czech Republic as “strange,” “weird” or “wrong,” preferring instead to use words like “different,” “unfamiliar” and “fresh.” Within hours, though, I had dubbed the Czechs’ idea of beds, toilets and showers “bizarre” and “stupid.” Our hotel room was on the fourth floor, the beds were only slightly less comfortable than sleeping upon a jagged boulder, the toilets didn’t flush until the third or fourth try, and the shower came complete with free-floating head that had to be turned off before one could lather one’s hair, lest the room and all its contents resemble a bad day on a flood plane.
Other than that, though, the hotel was quite nice. Because of the six-hour time difference, we were encouraged to sleep a bit to ease into local time, advice Gary and I resoundingly ignored, preferring to shuffle through our first day in Prague like somnambulant mopes.
Prague is breathtakingly beautiful. If you plan to go, I can wholeheartedly echo the advice of one of Gary’s 735 guide books – “Look up.” All of the buildings are ancient, ornate and lovely, and even the most insignificant buildings are adorned with impressive statues and bronze work. Of course, if you choose to look down, you’ll be equally impressed by the endless, complex pattern of cobblestones that make up every square inch of the city’s surface. Walking though Prague is an exercise in sensory overload. You can’t possibly take it all in.
Historically, the Czech Republic is in an interesting place, with Prague as its cultural and political center. The city was constructed mainly in the 13th and 14th centuries, which accounts for the jeweled magnificence of its buildings, cathedrals and such. Czechoslovakia enjoyed centuries of democracy before the Germans advanced on it in 1939, occupying it. The Americans and Russians liberated the country in the early ‘40s, and the Russians simply stayed, setting up a communist government. 50 years of occupation culminated in 1989 in the Velvet Revolution, the major events of which took place a few streets up from our hotel, in Wenceslas Square. Following the ousting of the Russians, the Czechs and the Slovaks split into two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in what became known as the Velvet Divorce. The first and current president of the Czech Republic is Vaclav Havel, noted playwright and dissident, which would be a lot like the U.S. voting in David Mamet.
On the way to his parents’ apartment, Pavel tells us something interesting about the Square. “It’s where everyone celebrates,” he says. “Whenever Czechs beat Russians at anything, the square fills up with people, all celebrating.” I ask, and find out that “anything” extends to the smallest of sporting events – chess, arm wrestling, tiddlywinks, whatever. If the Czechs beat the Russians, it’s party time.
Pavel’s parents are the second-nicest people on earth. We would meet the nicest people on earth two days later, but for the time being, the Vodickas held the crown.
Prague is divided into 16 numbered sections, with Prague 1 being ground zero – Wenceslas Square, our hotel, etc. The further away from the center you get, the more the architecture begins to look like those depressing pictures of communist-occupied countries in your third grade history book. To promote sameness, the Russians constructed mile after mile of cookie-cutter apartment buildings, with each individual unit the same size as all the others. They’re quite small and square, and the buildings perhaps aren’t stultifying by themselves, but the cumulative effect of hundreds of them all lined up is claustrophobic.
After the Velvet Revolution, the occupants of these units were given the option to own them. Most took the government up on it, including the Vodickas, who live in a four-room apartment in Prague 5. They speak not a lick of English, except for the few words my mother has taught them over the years. Their faces are expressive enough to break the language barrier, though, and get their point across.
The Vodickas never once sat down and ate with us. Instead, they served us and cleaned up after us as if we were paying guests in a four-star restaurant. The food by itself lent to that impression even more. Between the pork and dumplings, the soup and the rich chocolate, it’s a wonder I didn’t gain 50 pounds. Even if I had, I’d have walked it off by the end of the week anyway.
Our first visit to the Vodickas’ place culminated in a lengthy, heated political discussion, in English, between Ed, Lydia, Gary and myself. I’m certain our hosts didn’t understand a word. Our second visit was punctuated by Ed’s boisterous and drunken demands for more food, in as obnoxious a voice as he could manage. Through all that, the Vodickas remained gracious and welcoming, long past the point when I’d have thrown our American asses out on the street. We tried thanking them with little gifts at the end of our stay, but they didn’t seem like quite enough.
Our second day took us all over the city, and “sensory overload” barely does the feeling justice. While the rest of us were interested in historical buildings and works of art, it quickly became obvious that Ed and Lydia were there to shop. Our procession ground to a halt numerous times while the pair stopped to gaze into another tourist trap crystal shop. Hand-crafted crystal is the chief product of the Czech Republic, or so the stores littered about would have you believe. Most of it is quite nice, but unlike cathedrals, if you’ve seen one crystal shop, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
The Charles Bridge is, impressively, one of a kind. It connects two sections of Prague 1, and it’s constructed of an intricate confluence of stones and mortar. It looks hundreds of years younger than it probably is, thanks to the incredible restoration efforts of the Czech government. Whatever the Russians left standing (which is, remarkably, just about everything) has been renovated and restored painstakingly, so that Prague is something of an old/new city.
The bridge is dotted with stunning statues, each of a religious figure, and each more than 50 feet tall. There are dozens of these, and underneath them sit booths and stands where fantastic artists peddle their works. We’re talking intricate, detailed linework drawings of the cityscape, incredible black and white photos of landmarks, and handmade ornaments. While these are just as tourist-oriented as the crystal shops, their homegrown ambience somehow sets them apart. The bridge is also home to musicians and performers, notably a man with a marionette that plays along with recordings of classical guitar music. Cliched as it may sound, everywhere one looks there’s something to see.
The Jewish quarter, Josefov, is impressive in an altogether different way. The Holocaust Museum includes the names of each Czech Jew taken to the camps, written in six-point type, and the list covers the surface of every wall of the two-story, multi-room building. Most devastating were the displays of children’s drawings from that time, when the Jewish parents were moving heaven and earth to hide the possibility of imminent death from their kids. The illustrations of train cars, guns and people struck down in the streets proved beyond a doubt that the children knew what was going on.
The Jewish cemetery is smaller than a football field, and contains thousands of bodies, some buried 12 deep, one atop the other. It was the only place, by law, that Jews were allowed to be buried. The place has a quiet, persistent horror about it, as if the cemetery itself knows what might happen if we forget this part of our history, and keeps nudging us.
Despite the presence of several signs advising against it, Lydia took several photographs and chatted loudly all the way through the burial ground. Some people learn nothing, no matter how patiently they’re taught.
The Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments is an experience.
Not only do they have several wince-inducing devices on display, but they provide helpfully graphic illustrations of these devices in use. The only lesson one can possibly take from this is that people are endlessly inventive in their cruelty. We got out of there pretty quickly.
On our third day, we rented cars and drove across the country to one of the many castles that rise forth from the otherwise flat and unremarkable landscape. Each room of this monstrosity is more opulent and extravagant than the last, with massive statues, paintings, woodcarvings and brass work strewn about in delirious fashion. I noted several intricate hanging sculptures that seemed to serve no purpose, but which each must have taken months to produce.
Our tour guide was irrepressibly cute, and she fumbled her English a few times, which only increased her cute factor. Tours were given in English, Czech and German, and so several French-speaking parents who also understood English came along on our tour, translating for their children. Naturally, this incensed Lydia, who must have said a dozen times, “Why can’t they take their own tour? This is the English-speaking tour.” I wanted to impale her on one of the many sharp metal weapons in the castle’s extensive armory and leave her dying, rotten corpse six levels underground, where future civilizations could dig her remains up and speculate on where our society as a whole went wrong.
Ed remarked that the castle reminded him of Disney World. I replied that making a statement like that is akin to listening to the Beatles and being reminded of the Monkees.
Pavel’s brother is nothing like him or his family, which is why he got the American-sounding name: Martin. Martin joins us at a gorgeous beer garden to sample Czech pride in a bottle, also known as deep, rich beer. According to Pavel, Sam Adams is the only American beer that comes close. This particular brand is only brewed in Prague and is not exported. The story is the same for the most famous Czech liquor, Becherovka. I can’t help but feel for the Czech immigrants in the U.S., forced to consume Budweiser and Zima as if it were a worthy substitute.
This is the first and last we see of Martin. He’s an electrician by trade, a gruff, hard-drinking individual who seems like he’d be fun to hang around with, if not for the insurmountable language barrier. I know Czech beer is “bivo,” which brought a smile to Martin’s face, though, so it all turned out okay.
Gary and I caught a showing of Tmavomodry Svet, also known as Dark Blue World, the closest thing the Czech Republic has ever had to a blockbuster film. It’s the story of Czech pilots who flew with the RAF during World War II, and how the Russians rounded those pilots up in camps when they took occupation, considering them a threat. Overall, it’s not bad, despite its unfortunate similarities to Pearl Harbor, but it’s infused with a palpable sense of Czech national pride. The film was written and directed by Jan Sverak, the maker of Kolya, and the foremost Czech filmmaker of the moment. As an historical document, both of the war and the current period of national identification, it’s intriguing.
Also satisfying is the traversal of the language barrier the film demands. Most of it is in Czech with English subtitles, but since a lot of it takes place in Britain, the British speak English with Czech subtitles. If that weren’t interesting enough already, the Germans speak German with both Czech and English subtitles. The movie forces you to listen and read simultaneously instead of tuning out the languages you don’t know. You’re never certain when it will switch.
At this point, I had learned about a dozen Czech words, most helpfully “prosim” (please) and “dekuji” (thank you). The language is impenetrable, however, for those of us brought up in the romance languages. Czech contains nine or so vowels, some only separated by the length of breath required to speak them. Each noun is assigned a gender, a policy which seems to have been carried out randomly. Adding to the confusion is the system of implied vowels they use. For example, “bn” is “bin,” with an implied “i.” All things considered, I think I did okay.
On the way back from the film, Gary and I were propositioned for the first time by a Czech hooker. An aging, toothless hag carelessly propped against a wall in an alley called to us in the only phrases I’d bet she knows in English: “Ah, sex? Ah, blowjob?”
“Ah, no,” I replied in a delirious mimic, discovering that perhaps sometimes I should reign in that smartass gene. “Ano,” you see, is Czech for “yes.” Whoops.
On Thursday we met the nicest people in the world, Yurislav and Mijka. Yurislav is the father of Pavel’s ex-wife, Inez, and Mijka (pronounced “Micah”) his new bride. This man, who struck me as wholly Italian, took us the secret, backwoods route to a wondrous restaurant called the Blue Rabbit. There he paid for all of our meals, which must have run in excess of 7500 crowns, or 200 bucks. (A crown is worth about one-thirty-fifth of a U.S. dollar.)
I like to have some historical or blood relation to those people who buy my meals. Here’s how I’m related to Yurislav: I’m the son of his daughter’s ex-husband’s new girlfriend. That’s to say nothing of Ed and Lydia, boisterous as always, who have no relation at all. Yurislav and Mijka were infinitely warm and open, even when we thought he might be taking us the secret mob passages in order to kill us. The next day, they presented us with gifts as well. America could use a few more like them.
Gary and I took to wandering the city at night, getting somewhat lost and finding our way back. Gary had a map of Prague 1 in his head, all of which was based around a large construction crane that could have been moved at any time and thrown us into chaos. As long as the crane stayed put, though, we could find our way back from anywhere.
One of the city’s most bizarre attractions is the astronomical clock, a huge edifice that, on the hour, puts on an animated show for the hundreds of assembled admirers. The twelve apostles come out of two large windows, look down and retreat back in. A skeleton rings a chime. At the end of it all, an obviously genetically altered rooster crows like a deranged chimpanzee, to uproarious applause from the crowd below. It’s worth seeing once.
The Charles Bridge is worth seeing over and over again, especially at night. As Gary and I were making our way to it one evening, cursing our swollen and throbbing feet, we came upon a blind, crippled old woman with the voice of a choir of angels. She stood, hunched over and leaning on her wheelchair, beneath the ratted sign of a jewel shop. Suffering through a hacking cough, the woman launched into an aria that made the stone statues around her weep. She then picked up a tattered violin and proceeded to sing through that with the same glorious quality of voice. Words cannot describe the beauty and do it justice.
When we moved on, as we had to eventually, we felt that we were stepping out of a magical zone, and that this drooping yet somehow soaring woman possessed secrets that we would never know.
I could have stayed all year.
Unfortunately, our trip was a finite one, and it ended on a rooftop restaurant near the bridge. From there, you could see the entire cityscape, wrapping around you like a 360-degree hallucination. While the others reminisced and cajoled each other, I stepped away without leaving my seat, and took one last look around. I wondered what it might have been like to grow up here, and to take all of this for granted.
Just then, a group of impetuous American teenagers pushed past me and stormed down the stairs toward the mezzanine, one screaming to the other, “Fine, we’ll just walk the whole Prague. You don’t even like it here.”
It could have been a reminder that self-imposed unhappiness exists everywhere, regardless of one’s surroundings. I suppose, had I been listening, I might have seen some of my own former disdain for the magic of places in her outburst, but I was miles above it all, looking down and committing the great city to memory, making plans to return and, above all, liking it here.
Uvidime se ve fronte v utery rano.