In November of 2002, I applied for an assistantship to attend the Prague Summer Program, an intensive, month-long writing workshop. Since the number of assistantships was limited and the pool of applicants included many people with greater experience and more qualifications, I was surprised to actually get the position, which would cover the entire cost of my studies (6 graduate credits) and half of my dorm fees.
The night before our departure, my brother called me and, over the course of the conversation, repeatedly demanded that I not buy him a T-shirt on this trip. He was so emphatic that I wondered if he really did want a T-shirt, but eventually we agreed that I would buy him no gifts. What he wanted was some writing, a description of my experience. Although I was tempted, once, by a "My sister went to Prague and all I got was this lousy T-shirt" shirt, the following journal is all I got for him.
—Kalamazoo, August 2, 2003
I leave Kalamazoo on June 25th , 2003 and drive to Chicago with my friends Sarah and Carey. We spend the night in Chicago and one of the last things Sarah says to me before we fall asleep is, "The next 2 days are going to be hell." We fly out of O’Hare the next morning, get on a connecting flight in Pittsburgh, and land in Frankfurt, Germany, grimy and sleep-deprived, at approximately 7:30 local time. But we are determined to beat jet lag, and Sarah has to be at work, in Prague, in 23 ˝ hours.
Our first argument of the trip occurs when we learn that we have missed the direct train to Prague by a matter of minutes (Carey’s bag has taken an exceptionally long time coming off the carousel) and the next direct train is not for 4 hours. However, we can leave in 30 minutes if we don’t mind taking 3 trains to do so. Carey and I beat Sarah down and we take 3 trains to the Czech border. On the first train, I have a long conversation with a young German nursing student who seems keen to practice her English and who has, as frequently happens, assumed I was much younger. Our passports are checked twice on the last train: once during the 23 minute ride and again as we disembark. Our tickets are not checked at all. We board the train to Prague half-dead with sleep deprivation. I am amused to note the number of men, both German and Czech, who find a beer in the hand and a flask in the pocket are essential travel needs. We make rudimentary communication with a jovial, wild-be! arded, middle-age Czech man who has spent the ride alternately sucking the beer, nipping at the flask, and groping a woman I can only assume is his wife. She appears to be about 50 and wears a purple miniskirt that barely covers her. He graciously assures us that we are, indeed, in the Czech Republic and then uses sign language to explain how to find the train that goes to Prague.
This last ride is the most difficult. Carey sleeps a bit, but Sarah and I are not able. We are coming up on 30 hours without sleep, and both of us confess that we are beginning to hallucinate. I continually hear Sarah’s voice telling me to open my eyes because we have reached Prague. Sarah hears the train laughing at her. I am seeing little green animals that looked suspiciously like the seaweed salad I ate at my last real meal, about 25 hours ago. We have our second and third arguments in the Prague train station, where Sarah is adamant that there is an ATM where there is clearly no ATM, and also, that we should take 2 subway trains to the dorm. Since we have all noted that our bags are clearly growing heavier every time we pick them up, and also that it is rush hour, Carey and I are equally adamant that we will take a cab. The situation is solved democratically, Sarah only fights with the cabbie briefly over the quoted price (clearly too muc! h, but Carey and I don’t care) of 800 korunas (Kč), and we reach the dorm without hurting each other.
The dorm, Masarykova kolej, was named for a university professor, Tomas Masaryk, who led the opposition to Austrian rule in the early 20th century and became the first Czech president in 1918. It is fabulously confusing, but this makes sense, as we learn that it was a communist-era building where people were brought to be interrogated: in other words, the place people disappeared to, and this is obvious in the architecture. The halls are set about a series of courtyards, making it impossible to walk in a straight line between any two points. It’s rather like a series of irregular, angular figure-eights. Other outstanding features of the building include the objects installed in the lobby. There is a single pay phone, along with a vending machine that sells three different kinds of beer. A sign atop the back stairs directs you to the beer garden. Sarah wants only a beer from the machine and retreats to her room. Carey, whose unhappy mood had been brought on by h! aving left her wallet (along with her boyfriend) in America coupled with little experience with airplanes and none with foreign countries, is ready to return home after the vending machine takes her money and refuses to spit out an orange soda. I pop a second 20 Kč coin into the machine, retrieve 2 sodas, and take her across the street for some dinner. Her mood improves immeasurably when I pointed out that the menu is in English, and after dinner, she has nearly forgotten that she was sorry she’d come. After a staggering 35 hours of consciousness, we fall mercifully into our beds.
I sleep only 8 hours and awake feeling fine, despite being startled on 2 separate occasions by people entering our room, presumably to clean it. We are fortunate that they see us and leave. Later we learn that Sarah’s kitchenette had been cleaned, loudly, at 2 am. I find the lobby where Sarah has been camped out since 7, checking students into the dorm. "Can I help you?" I ask. "You can get me something to eat," she answers. "What do you want to eat?" "Something. Anything." She gives me some korunas and I set off for the convenience store. Unable to read any of the labels, I return with a package of chocolate cookies, a container of peach and wheat yogurt, and a bottle of Evian. "You got Evian?" she asks, and I soon learned the preferred brand of bottled voda naperliva (water without gas) comes in a big blue bottle labeled "Dobra Voda" ("Good Water").
I speak with Richard Katrovas and meet his clever 12-year-old daughter, Emma, who escorts us to a pastry shop and teaches us a few interesting things about Czech language and culture. Emma refers to the women in the shop as, "a mean old baba," and explains that baba is an extremely rude way to refer to an old woman. When I tell her she is fortunate to be bilingual, she snorts and says Czech is only useful here, and there aren’t that many Czechs. We have a little argument about linguistics and then move on to Harry Potter.
Interested in the crowds of people standing wearily in the lobby, I offer to escort new arrivals to their rooms. Immediately, the staff decides I am "very, very good." In groups of 3, 4, 5, and 6, they follow me through the maze-like corridors as I repeat the information about the Communist’s use of the building and my understanding of the logic behind its plan. The students, faculty, and guests, ranging in age from 18 to 60+ express their fears that they will never be able to find their way back and I assure them that I have only arrived yesterday. It eventuates that most of them remember me as the informed, helpful woman who seemed to know everything and must have been here before. I, in my typical way, remember very few of them. I do remember meeting Andrei Codrescu, the editor of Exquisite Corpse, who asks me, "Did Kafka design this place?" I repeat my anecdote about the Communists and his wife expresses fears about nightmares. Codrescu poin! ts out to another student that the walls are extremely thick and, in all probability, bombproof.
Although, in the course of guiding people through the dorms and walking to dinner and back, I must have clocked about 20 miles, I am unable to sleep Saturday night. At 3:30, Carey says, "You can’t sleep either?" and offers me a sleeping pill. I fall asleep within the hour. The alarm goes off at 8 am, and I do not fall back asleep. Instead, I make some crepes in the kitchenette: a mini-fridge, a sink, and a 2-burner hotplate-style electric range.
At 1 pm we head downstairs for orientation. All of the faculty, including familiar faces from WMU (Jaimy Gordon, Stu Dybek, Arnie Johnson, Debra Percy) are present. The only person missing is the man I am most eager to meet: Arnošt Lustig. Sarah whispers in my ear, "I knew he would do this. Arnošt never comes to anything unless there’s food." Richard expresses the same sentiment, with a bit more contradiction: "I can’t believe he’s doing this to me. He does this to me every year." The director of humanities at Charles University gives us a rousing introduction to the city, comparing it to a beast that will get inside of visitors and transform them from polite, sober, vegetarians to cursing, spitting hooligans who will inhale sausages and beer. He also explains that Charles University is the oldest university in central Europe. Richard speaks about the history of the country, using elaborate metaphors concerning the intelligence of George W. Bush. This ! is a deliberate rhetorical move: at first it seems like he is just working for a laugh, but he follows up with a pointed reference to freedom of speech and we understand. He can say these things, and worse, with no fear of repercussions from his government. From the time the Germans took over this country immediate before WWII and ending only 13 years ago in 1989, such freedom was unheard of.
At 2:30, 2 walking tours are organized. One, led by Dan Levine, the author of Avant Guide Prague, is a "popular culture" tour. Understanding that this translates as a tour of bars, I decide I will choose another time to get him to sign my guidebook. Later, I get frustrated with the book’s lack of details about the subjects I want to learn as well as the way the pages begin to fall out and decide I don’t need his signature. I head for the art history tour, as urged by Jaimy Gordon, who introduces me to the guide, Miloš, and explains that he is wonderful. And he is.
The tour begins outside the dorm. Miloš confirms the story I have been spreading about the Communists and points out that, prior to the Velvet Revolution, the street we are standing on had been barricaded to public traffic. He gestures to the rows of parked cars and explains that a civilian vehicle would never have been seen here. His smile is downright gleeful as he surveys the long line of vehicles. We proceed, en masse, to the Dejvická metro stop and ride 2 stops to Malostranská.
Even as I walk along with a camera in my bag and a pen in my pocket, I regret not taking notes and pictures, but it is simply too much to keep up with and keep up with Miloš at the same time. Although Jaimy implies that he is at least 60 years old, his energy seems unlimited. So I reconstruct, poorly, what I recall.
The architecture of Prague is primarily Baroque. The buildings are large, stately, with rippled orange roofs and large windows. Most buildings are constructed of large rectangular stones. The ornamentation is constant and lovely. Here and there we see fancy metalwork: perhaps an elaborate wrought iron gate; or, easy to miss, a remarkable old door knocker of a pale silver metal in the form of an exquisite flower. More common are the massive stonework decorations: a pair of giant eagles flanking a door, a series of figures representing the 4 known continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. Angels and cherubs arch over lintels, and carved faces peer out from the walls. A good sense of Prague’s history is gleaned simply from learning that the section of the city called "New Town" was constructed in the first half of the 14th century.
Another feature of these old buildings is the system of address. Every building has two numbered plaques, red and blue. One denotes the old address, assigned in a seemingly random manner as the buildings were constructed, the other indicates a logical order that would enable a letter to be delivered. Miloš explains that buildings were known by their names rather than their number before the new system. Names were derived from beautiful carved plaques set into the building, often giving some indication of the profession practiced there: snakes for a physician, violins for the violin maker. We learn this in front of the House of Three Cranes, and someone wonders what the cranes stand for. "Perhaps a gynecologist," Miloš jests, cracking himself up so hard that he repeats the joke. "Yes, maybe a gynecologist." Sadly, some members of the party need the joke explained. Outside the House of Three Little Violins, he repeats an apocryphal story. One of the viol! ins faces backwards, and this is supposedly because three generations of violin makers lived there, and one of them wasn’t very good.
Outside a building with some large, modern plaques depicting stylized doves, the tour stops for some time. This is the headquarters of the Communist party. Standing beside the doorway and directly in front of an open window, our guide speaks at length about the party’s actions: their wrong-headedness about things in general, their hypocrisy about joining the EU in particular, and the frightening fact that they are still the 2nd most popular party, with 20% of the vote. Disturbed, I ask, "Would you say, generally, that it’s the older generation that supports them?" "But of course," he answers. He is very nearly quivering with joy as he speaks at length beside the open window. He is drunk on freedom of speech.
Jaimy Gordon asks me if Miloš is not fabulous, and I agreed that he is fabulous. "Is he a professor?" "He probably should have been," she says, "but the Communists found him to be…" "Subversive?" I suggest. "Something like that," she says. "They didn’t allow him to work, so he got into this black market tourism." Now, of course, he is a licensed guide, friends with scholars, certified to give tours in the Jewish quarter. "You should ask him about his interrogator," Jaimy says. "It’s a great story." What is truly great, I think, was his absolute rapture with freedom of expression, the right that Americans talk about a lot but can never appreciate in the way this man does. He savors it like a drug.
In one square, Miloš questions some young men in gaudy, military-style uniforms, then explains that they are musicians. Since this is a whirlwind tour, we are being shown places we should go, but we do not go to any of them. Now he tells us that we should see the changing of the guard at the palace. At noon, every window will have a musician in it, playing the song of the new government. This triumphant piece was written by a young Czech composer with help from a personal friend of Václav Havel, a "gifted musician" named Frank Zappa. We also learned that Havel counts the Rolling Stones among his friends. We also learned that the Rolling Stones will play Prague in 1 month’s time.
Prague is often used as a backdrop for American films, and various doorways and castles are pointed out with references to specific films. Amadeus was largely filmed here. Tom Cruise, after filming Mission Impossible, left a very bad impression on the city by taking off without paying his bill at the diplomatic hotel. "It was not nice enough for him," Miloš explained, "the hotel where Queen Elizabeth and Helmut Kohl stayed was not good enough for Tom Cruise. But the young people still like him."
One section of town is purely musical. In this building, Mozart had met his Czech lover, a charming soprano. In this garden, he had composed music. So had Tchaikovsky, Paganini, Beethoven. Here is a music school that only admits blind people, many of whom are also trained to be piano tuners. One church had been the only place in Europe where Mozart’s death was appropriately marked with 4000 mourners (half in the church, the other half in the rain) 300 musicians, 120 singers (his lover among them). In Prague, music was for the general public; elsewhere it was open only to the elite. In Prague, everyone loved Mozart. We hear the following (almost certainly apocryphal, but too good to forget) anecdote: One building was flanked by the busts of famous musicians and composers. When the Nazis took over, they demanded that the bust of the Jewish Mendelsohn be removed. Unable to tell one composer from another, they pulled down the one with the biggest nose: Wagner.
We stop in a shady area in front of a graffitied wall. Here stands what we are promised is the tallest tree in Prague, and behind us is a bird sanctuary, right in the heart of the city. The wall is his true aim. The Lennon Wall once boasts a memorial to John Lennon, but is now nearly all covered with tags, some of a peaceful nature, others more degenerate. But this is the historical poet’s corner, where young men have come for hundreds of years to write love poems, and people congregated there during the Communist reign. Miloš, who refers to himself as "a flower power child", revels in the atmosphere, shows us an old picture where the portrait of Lennon is still visible, and explains that other "great people" had also been commemorated there. The savvy reader will immediately guess who these great people were: Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin.
We come to the area that was hit hardest by last year’s floods. Stopping on a bridge, we see the high water mark, 20 feet above the river and several feet above our heads. A nearby café had been the first place to reopen, only a month after the floods. We are shown a photograph of the building. The entire first story is underwater. Our guide, along with thousands of citizens, had volunteered to help clean up after the flood. Although most of the buildings here have been repaired, the damage is evident throughout the low points of the city. Lines of crumbling masonry on the bottom parts of buildings are seen on many streets, and the stench of mold is prevalent. Here and there, some places are still closed due to the damage.
We are also shown Miloš’s favorite café, whose name translates as "Café Mortuary". The famous Charles Bridge is close to this spot. Although we have walked along many quiet and nearly deserted roads, once we turn the corner, the old world charm is shattered by the garish and suddenly ubiquitous racks of picture postcards, disposable cameras, and portable ice cream freezers. We have reached the tourist section. Here on the bridge, thirty larger than life statues depict martyrs with horrible and disturbing implements of their martyrdom. We learn that most are reproductions, as the originals were being destroyed by souvenir seekers and pollution. Eventually they will all be removed to a museum. Artists dot the bridge selling hideous paintings of the city, bad caricatures of passers-by, tacky jewelry. Miloš points out the freaks: an artist who believes he is the devil and is always seen wearing horns, a saxophone player who blows a few notes as he &quo! t;accompanies" (Miloš used the term "lip sync") a tape of an orchestra. He plays behind a number of laminated press clippings, which Miloš points out are all from foreign papers. One musician, singing and playing keyboard, is blind.
We stop to admire a swinging red needle so far in the distance that I can hardly imagine how large such a thing must be up close. A kinetic sculpture, he informs us, and he regards it with an air of content that can hardly be explained until he reveals that it replaced an enormous and "very ugly statue of Lenin."
Finally, we walk to Old Town Square, the heart of the tourist area. Here visitors flock to the astrological clock, a 15th century wonder that still employs 80% of its original parts. The only clock like it is Big Ben. Every hour that the clock strikes in daylight, 2 doors open at the top and12 saints dance past them. The clock has 3 dials telling astronomical time, old European and new European time. Many other exquisite figures are represented here, but I am not able to scrutinize the clock. The tour ends and I collapsed on the curb, intending to rest a while before finding some postcards and retiring to a café named for Kafka’s lover across the street, but I never get that far. After a brief stint in an air-conditioned Internet café, where I delete 59 spam messages from my mailbox, I proceed to the Rott restaurant, where the Prague Summer Program’s opening party is held.
For about 2 hours, I force myself to remain awake while sampling Czech food (heavy on meat and cheese) and socializing with friend and stranger alike. At last I meet a slightly tipsy Arnošt Lustig, who shakes my hand elaborately, as if he is an American gangster and asks where our class will meet. I tell him to check in the office. By 8:30 I am too worn out to think and take my leave. I say a last goodbye to Arnošt, but my friend Allison wants to meet him, so we turn back and talk for a few minutes. He is warm and happy and takes every opportunity to lay his hand on our arms and shoulders. As we stand there, Andrei Codrescu (who is, presumably, also tipsy) approaches us and takes Arnošt’s hand. "Arnošt!" he says, "Andrei Codrescu. We met some years ago," and he names a date in the mid-90s and a writing conference. "Of course. Of course, I remember you," Arnošt replies. "You’re famous." "Not as famous as you," Andrei says, ! giving the other man a jab in the arm, and they laugh uproariously. Overwhelmed by the moment, I wish for a camera, and realize that my hand is resting on the disposable one I have been carrying all day but have not removed once. I press the two men together. "Stay there," I say. They both beam with a flushed (and presumably drunken) joviality and I snap my first photograph of historic Prague.
Assuming that nothing else of any interest can possibly happen to me, I return to the dorm, happy to have the shower to myself, and spent a few quiet hours with Harry Potter.
Monday, the 30th, classes begin. After another night with 4 hour’s worth of sleep, I drag myself from bed and follow Sarah to Charles University—Universitaz Karlova—named for the good King Charles IV. Our building, brown stone with majestic front steps flanked by a series of arches, is far from handicap accessible. We climb the long double staircases, passing a statue of Masaryk, up to the program office, a big, high-ceilinged modern room with tables arranged around it and a small library to one side. Two large windows turn out to actually be doors to a pair of small balconies, from which a phenomenal view spreads itself out and up. Directly below the building to the left, a small, manicured garden. To the right, a theater with gold plated adornments. In front, trolleys and cars on the streets wend their way up the hills, which are capped off with the dark and medieval spires of the Prague Castle, the historic seat of power in the city. It is here that r! ulers always lived. It is here that Hitler stayed as a symbolic gesture of his conquer of the country. Here the communists looked down upon the city, and to this place the people of Prague dreamed of sending one of their own during the Velvet Revolution, crying in the streets, "Havel to the castle!" The castle’s cathedral rests on the pinnacle of the summit, the highest thing in the city, and is flanked by a number of baroque castles that surround it, resting lower on the hill, like a pack of hunting dogs huddling at the feet of their master.
I am given the key to room 209, our assigned meeting space, but when I slide the key in the lock, the door is pulled open from within. I am looking past a confused man and woman, over the heads of several dozen students clearly hunched over their desks as they write. Eventually we sort out that the room has been double booked and these kids are taking entrance exams. After a bit of shuffling around, we are admitted to a small office in an English studies library. Surrounded by dusty old hardcover books in locked glass cases, with another stunning view of the castle, we sit around a conference table. "I will sit here, like a king," Arnošt announces, sinking into a seat at the head of the table, "and you will sit around me like royalty." Pointing out the window, he says, "That’s where I live." I look over my shoulder. "In the castle?" I ask. "No one believes me," he said. "At the airport they ask for my address and I sa! y ‘Prague Castle’. They think it is a joke. But really it is a very good address. And they have so much room they never notice me." Václav Havel is his friend, and the new president, Václav Klauss loves his writing, so he is always welcome. For the next hour and a half, he launches into a haphazard account of his life.
Like Miloš, Arnošt’s life is history. All his stories have meaning. He tells us about a writer he loved, his favorite writer of all time, who was afflicted with schizophrenia. During his life, it seemed that no one appreciated him, but after he died, he genius was recognized, and Arnošt wrote a book about him. We learn his theory about beauty, how disgusting things can also be beautiful, how they can become beautiful. He tells a long story that began in the camps. He was there, as a 16-year-old boy, with his father, both of them knowing it was only a matter of time before they were murdered. His father thought it very important that his son not die a virgin. "A father feels such things are important," he tells us. "A father wants to know that his son is becoming a man." So Arnošt found a prostitute. She was beautiful; she rode horses. And he slept with her. And it was terrible. He hated it, found it nauseating, could not understand the appeal of the se! xual initiation his father put so much stock in. But afterward, as time passed, the experience became more and more beautiful to him, something to be savored and remembered with nostalgia. He convinced the girl to come with him so that none of his friends would have to die virgins, and she came. "I will not tell you how many we were," he said to us, chuckling. "At first the girl did not want to do it. She said we were too many, but at last she did."
Later, Arnošt watched one of these friends die a terrible death. Doctors had botched his medical care and both his legs had been amputated. He was thrown in at the bottom of the train when they were shipped to the next camp. He died there. When the allies came to liberate the camps Arnošt was again on a train, which the Nazis were using to block their own troop transports. The Americans, not knowing who was on the train, blew it up. Along with one other boy, he was the sole survivor. Many years later, back in Prague, he was friendly with the father of the boy whose legs had been cut off. This man had always been kind to him; before the war he had given him coffee, cakes, chocolate. (Coffee, cakes, and chocolate are clearly his euphemisms for all the good things in life. Whenever people are content in his stories, they have coffee, cakes, and chocolate. When they are generous, they give you coffee, cakes, and chocolate. Conversely, anything bad is "like a dog.") ! This man did not know what had happed to his son, and Arnošt did not have the heart to tell him that the boy’s death had been so awful. Whenever he saw this man, it bothered him that he had no words of comfort. One day he finally said, "There is one thing I never told you. Before he died, your son made love to a girl. She was beautiful; she rode horses." And the boy’s father cried with gratitude to know this.
Woven into this story is some basic advice about writing. All writing must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the order in which they appear does not matter. Invisible in a story is a fourth element: an unspoken moral, the reason the story has been written. There are 3 ways to describe a hero: like a historian, just as they were, as Homer did; better than they were, like the communists did; worse than they were. We learn about Kafka’s 3 pillars of life: beauty (to keep life from being empty and dark), meaning (so we are not lost), and stability (for perspective, to give a sense of the future). Plato’s theory of beauty: everything beautiful is useful; everything useful is beautiful; everything that is useful and beautiful is good. Dostoyevsky’s: beauty is evil. Arnošt’s softening of this rule: beauty can be evil. And most importantly: boring your readers is criminal.
He tells us that he is an atheist, and that three times his death warrant had been signed. Three times he had looked his mortality in the face. One time, in the camps, he had not eaten for 6 days. Everyone was starving, and he saw a pile of bread behind a fence. There was only one guard, and he went to steal bread. But his arm was too short; he was clumsy and took too long. The guard saw him and came with his pistol. Still, Arnošt threw the bread behind him so that his friends wouldn’t starve. They never got it. Some Polish men who were also starving caught it and devoured it in seconds, and the guard had his gun in the boy’s face, was squeezing the trigger. Then, his best friend leaped between him and the weapon. Not, Arnošt explained, because he thought it would save his life, but because life was miserable and if Arnošt was going to die, he wanted to go too. But the guard was so surprised and impressed that he spared both their lives. And the moral of the story is that! recognition of one’s own morality is the sweetest thing, a boon to writers.
We are given a 20-minute break, and I find a café near the school, but of course I cannot read the names of the pastries. Arnošt wanders up behind me and recommends his favorite, apricot. In the second half of class, we all introduce ourselves. Afterwards, Ajay, an Indian-American (not an American Indian) who has been living in Prague for a year, leads us to a restaurant he likes. He is an 18-year-old Simon’s Rock drop-out attending Anglo University. The place is ultra modern, cramped and smoky. If not for the ubiquitous cigarettes, it would have fit in with the yuppie eateries of Wicker Park, although the persistent techno music might not have jibed with the urban professional’s expectation.
Sarah and I lead a group to Tesco, a sort of Wal-mart-y department store, but we lose everyone except for Artrit, a 21-year-old pre-med student who’d grown up in Kosovo. "So you grew up in the war? That must have been hard," Sarah says. He shrugs. "I lived." He has sad eyes and has written 2 novels. One was a science fiction book, and he seems ashamed of it. "It’s about blood feuds and fighting for freedom. The people live on this planet." He shakes his head. "No, that’s good," I say. "It gives you the opportunity to tell your own story, but you also have some distance from it." His eyes brighten just for a moment. "Yes, exactly."
Tuesday, after 4 hours of sleep, I wake up with a sore throat. I want to attend some of the lecture series, "What really happened in 1968?" The program’s theme is to examine and draw parallels between the Prague Spring and the American Summer of Love. I drag myself to school, but the stairs slow me down. Sarah stops me with one floor to go, and soon we hear a wave of applause above us. "That’s your lecture," she says, then convinces me to join her in the office, where we gossip, write, and watch Emma get an impromptu lesson in how a camera works from one of the professors.
I make it to the second lecture and sit in the back of the room, which conforms to my idea of an old-world style class: long rows of attached desks, with flip down seats attached to the desk behind. Peter Bilek, a long and gangly man with white hair and arms that seemed to be in proportion to someone even bigger than him, speaks passionately about Czech literature in the 40s and 50s. He waves his arms and draws random shapes on the board labeled with single letters, meant to represent countries. He explains how communists thought about writing, and what happened to writers under their regime. Later, I joke that after lecturing, he must go into a room and hyperventilate for 45 minutes, because he doesn’t appear to breathe for an hour and a half when he spoke. Still, half the women in the program are in love with him by the second week; there is no denying his lanky, lopsided charm.
That evening we hear a reading at the Ypsilon Theater: Tracey Kidder, who reads an amazing excerpt from a non-fiction book about a philanthropic doctor who traveled around the world providing free medical care for people in need; Jaimy Gordon, who reads from her new novel, a piece that combines a story about 6 people hiding in a cave during World War II with a story about a Jewish American woman living with her German husband’s family in Germany; and Mary Carr, who reads an autobiographical piece about young girls’ sexuality.
Wednesday my throat is slightly less sore, and I finally sleep more than 4 hours. It is slightly easier to get to school. Our classroom is actually unoccupied. We would prefer to stay in the first room; this one has much less romance than the cramped library. There is a dry erase board, and desks with chairs. The view is also much less spectacular, although, sticking my head out the window and turning to the right, I am afforded a view of the corner of the Jewish cemetery.
For the first half, we discus some passages from Aristotle’s Poetics, dissect some fables from Aesop. In the second half, we workshop three short stories. One of them is my own. As the T.A. I decide to be the brave one and go first. Arnošt’s method includes asking another student to retell a story after it was read, and Artrit, who appears not to be paying attention in the first half of class, proves himself to have not been paying attention in the second half. His retelling of my story includes the excision of most of the plot and the inclusion of details that don’t appeared in the piece. The feedback is mixed: some warm, some cool. Arnošt says it is wonderfully written, but jumps into an anecdote that ends with the admonition that a good story must make him piss him pants, and that my piece is probably a poem or a song. He doesn’t seem to like anyone else’s work and tells us that we have not done the assignment, which was, in 2 pages, to write the most interesting story! of our lives. We have done instead what we wanted, he explains, and we are all anarchists. We should go home and try again.
Sarah and I walk to a restaurant called Café Louvre, and upscale tea-room type setting, whose lobby includes a fountain containing a single small and confused koi, and an aquarium housing 5 painted box turtles basking under a fluorescent lamp. Sarah says, "I like this restaurant because Americans never find it." We walk randomly around the city, admiring old churches, dodging German tour groups, and giving directions back to the university to an American law student who is at once bewildered by the city and relieved to hear English voices. We cross the Charles Bridge, laughing at the ugly, overpriced souvenirs and the tourists who, following their guides and never knowing there is anything else, buy them. I take a picture in front of my favorite martyred saint.
Remembering the way to the puppet workshops we had passed on Sunday’s tour, I lead Sarah down a staircase that works hard to escape the casual gaze and through a nearly hidden alley. We come first to a window, through which we can look into the artists’ workshop. The smell of paint wafts out of the tiny room, where little legs and torsos dangle from the walls, and smeared palettes cover the tables. Moving on, we pass 2 glass-fronted boxes mounted outside the shop. Each is labeled "1 Euro" and contain a scene that will, presumably, come to life when presented with EU currency. Even without the dollar’s demise, this seems a little steep, and of course, we have no Euros to begin with, so we turn into the shop, where the heavy odor of sawdust creeps up our noses.
Here is the wonderland of Gepetto. The walls and ceiling are hung with scores of marionettes, grouped by style, indicating the work of many artists. Some are painted, others of raw wood. There are fat women, skeletons, devils, angels, soldiers, orthodox Jews, fish, dragons, jesters…. We explore the rooms, look in on the artists in the workshop. Sarah is drawn to a wall of grotesque figures, each representing a ghost of Prague, each accompanied by a little booklet telling the ghost’s story. There is the Turk who was beloved of all of the city’s young girls but chose a quiet and demure girl more like the Oriental girls he had known at home. They were betrothed and the Turk extracted a promise from her that she would wait for him while he took a short trip home. But in his absence, the other girls of the city, jealous of her, poisoned her love by telling lies and making her doubt his love. Still she waited, but for 4 years he did not return. Finally, she married another, and! shortly after that, the Turk came to her door, yelled that she had forgotten her promise, and cut off her head.
Another story tells of a beautiful girl whose father had little money and wanted to marry her to the highest bidder. When he found an eligible (wealthy) man, he informed her of his decision, and she informed him that she loved another. Intent on receiving the ample dowry, he sent her to a convent until she saw the errors of her ways. However, the girl found a way to continue to see her own lover at night and when the father learned of this, he discovered where they met. Surprising them in the dark, he took his sword and beheaded the boy, thinking that now nothing stood in the way of the arranged marriage. When the girl still refused to marry his choice, he lost his temper and ran the girl through as well. She is a benevolent ghost who helped lovers in trouble, and I see her story repeated again and again throughout the month.
Sarah settles on a haggard, middle aged women with a green face and green hands. Her long, straw-colored hair hangs down to her knees and a large rock is tied around her neck. This is the greedy old servant who took up employment at the Inn of the Golden Well. In the basement of the inn, it was rumored, was a well where a quantity of gold had once been lost. Tired of pilfering sugar from jars and jam from pots, she made up her mind to retrieve the gold. Beside the well, she pondered. Jumping in seemed a bit dangerous, so she resolved to go down in the bucket. However, she reflected, she would merely float and never come within reach of the treasure, so she decided to weight herself down with a stone. Of course, she never returned, and her employers thought she must have run away, although there was the small matter of her slippers, found beside the well. Now her ghost roams the inn, and will never rest until someone ventures into the well and discovers its secrets.
As we pore over these stories, the attractive young salesclerk, dressed in an army T-shirt and medieval-looking linen pants, comes over and starts joking with us. He dishes up some of the dirt on the crazy devil man on the Charles Bridge. "It’s very sad. He had a stroke, and his wife is awful. Every night when he comes home, she opens the door this much and puts her hand out. If he doesn’t give her enough money she closes the door and he can go sleep on the street." The he shows us how to manipulate the puppets and
"How many artists work here?" I ask. "Forty." "Do you make marionettes?" He shows us his work, smaller marionettes hanging near the old-fashioned cash register. Does he take credit cards? Not if there is any other way. They have only started accepting them 2 days ago, and there are problems already. Money is always a problem for tourists in Prague. Not everyone takes credit cards. Few people will accept big bills, which are all the ATMs will dispense. One thousand and 2000 Kč notes are frequently refused, due to the number of counterfeiters. We admire a remarkable, unpainted marionette with many strings: a man on a bicycle, nearly 3 feet high, costing 10,000 Kč. Sarah, in rapture, asks the guy if she can live in his shop. He thinks a moment and says, “Only if you bring 4 strings.”
We check out the next puppet store, a much smaller one where the proprietor speaks less English. We communicate in a mixture of English, Czech, and sign language. I think these marionettes are much more beautiful, and they all seem to be the work of 1 artist. I play with some jester puppets, and the woman becomes flustered, trying to communicate something to me. I work out that she is searching for the name of the thing, and when I say, "Jester," she smiles, satisfied. "It is the same in Czech. This is our first puppet ever," she tells me. She shows us a water sprite, a ubiquitous character in Prague folklore who takes the souls of drowned folks and keeps them safe in pots at the bottom of the Vlatava, and Good Soldier Švek, a popular Czech novel about a lucky idiot during World War I. The third shop, which Milos had claimed was the best, is locked.
We walk down a narrow cobblestone alley and 3 men walk toward us on the other side of the street, each laden with boxes and packages. From the first man’s shoulder, a bundle slides wetly into the street: 2 headless, gutted fishes, each about three feet long, now lie in a gelatinous mass at his feet. It takes a moment for him to register what has happened; it is several seconds before he utters a loud, Anglo-Saxon expletive and, looking around, begins to speak in hushed tones to his colleagues. They begin scooping up the mess. The Czech Republic is a landlocked country, but fish features prominently on the menu. I’ve been eating quite a lot of it.
By Thursday the 2nd, the lack of sleep and the stress of travel have caught up to me, and I decide to take the day off, so I missed what I gather were some excellent lectures. I do make it to the readings that night: Willis Barnstone, Elizabeth McCracken, and Andrei Codrescu. Codrescu is amazing: some of his poems are sad, but for the most part, he has us all on the floor. One piece is a tongue in cheek retelling of the 10 commandments. Another has Jack Keroac proclaiming that he is full of shit and dancing with another man.
Afterwards, Carey and I decid to walk around a bit. We get some pizza and sit near the Metro, listening to obviously inebriated kids screaming and singing loudly. We decide to walk along Wenceslas Square, which is, in fact, not anything like a square, but rather a long street culminating in a National Museum. By day, it has its charms. The area certainly caters to tourists with its crystal shops and galleries selling little clay animals, but there is a pleasant recognition: the architecture may be fancier, but in general it looks like any commercial district in America. By night, the foot traffic does not diminish, and the strip is lit by neon signs. "Garish" is the only appropriate word and we both lose our taste for it fairly quickly.
Saturday begins with a cold rain. As I walk around the dorm, searching for signs of life, I can hear it hammering against the glass roofs and the day seems shot. However, the rain stops, people wake up, and by 1:30, my suitemate Katrina and I are headed for the castle. The way is entirely uphill, and we wind our way up the broken cobblestone streets Miloš showed us a week ago. Cutting across a little park, we come to the narrow way that leads up to the fortification. This street, perhaps ten feet wide, alternates between stairs and a low grade slanted walk. To the left, a wall keeps visitors from falling down the hill. To the right, peddlers selling crystal, puppets, paintings of Prague, and the same sort of tchotchkes sold on the bridge, sit under broad umbrellas. At the top, you can turn around and look out over the battlements. There, the entire city is laid out before you.
The castle is actually a small town, dozens or probably hundreds of buildings, but the most prominent landmark is Saint Vitus’s Cathedral. We buy the complete tourist package (300 Kč, 110 with my international student ID). Inside the cathedral, the eye is assaulted by so much opulence it’s impossible to decide where to look first, and I find myself swiveling my head from stained glass walls to golden ornament. The outer wall is divided off into dozens of little chapels, most of which have full-length stained glass windows, magnificent works that seemed to tell the stories of entire lives. Twenty or 30 scenes are illustrated in a single chapel. Of course, there are also gold and silver statues and altarpieces, which we do not have time to admire at length.
What we do is walk up to the top of the great tower, all 289 dizzying, claustrophobic steps. It’s a spiral staircase with no railing, just wide enough for 2 people to pass. However, the steps are necessarily wedge-shaped, meaning that the person passing on the inside has about 2 inches rest her feet on. The walls are smooth, and there are very few windows. Words probably cannot express how precarious this climb is. I am certainly afraid of falling at every step, but especially when someone appears in front of me, wishing to descend, needing to use the space I needed to keep my balance. The stairs go up and up and up. There are no landings, no place to rest. To stop would be to interfere with others’ climbs. At the top, some older folks sit on benches catching their breath. But that is just the inner chamber.
Passing through here, we find the outer wall, set with lots of windows at regular intervals, affording multiple mouthwatering views. It is possible to look down at the immediate area, tracking the tourists walking through the streets, or out at the detailed work of the other towers, which include, inexplicably, several large copper roosters. Later, I will learn several interesting reasons for the roosters’ presence and write a great story about them. One tower seems to have a number of little dragons on it. From the ground we have noticed many gargoyles, but we are actually too high in the air to make them out. Of course, there is the 365-degree view of the city. There it is, entirely laid out before us: the green hills to the north, the Charles Bridge teeming with tourists, and even the front of our building at the Charles University, easy to distinguish with its ornamental brown arches and the little park in front.
We catch our breath again before heading down, which is almost scarier than heading up. My poor depth perception makes stairs difficult at any rate, and the narrowness of the way, the two-way traffic, and the weak lighting increased the difficulty. We then descend into the crypt, noteworthy primarily for the musty quality of the air. A few carved stones leaning against the wall suggest some sort of archeological dig: broken columns, broken plaques, but they don’t seem to be particularly noteworthy, as if they’ve been left behind rather than deliberately displayed. The ceiling is low and it is only slightly less claustrophobic than the stairs up the tower. At one end, a little room contains the crypt. The tombs are behind a glass door. A cardboard sign indicates whose remains rest where.
We skip the royal museum, the line for which is only partly visible, but seems to snake over and underground as well as in and outside. We won’t have time, and we don’t have enough patience. Instead, we walk around the Basilica of Saint George. My favorite part is actually a carving of Saint George and the dragon on one of the side doors. Inside, it is primarily unadorned, kind of a relief after the rococo splendor of the Cathedral. Here, all is stone. Under the main level, a little tomb can be glimpsed. A double staircase leads to a bit of a platform. We can see tantalizing bits of a second level through a number of arches, but it is closed to the public.
Next, we visit the Powder Tower, a gun tower housing some little exhibits. On one level, some strange, alchemical glass implements (Keplar and Brahe did work here) behind a glass wall. On the second, artifacts from Rudolf II’s time. Sadly, they are labeled only in Czech, so we have to use our imagination. There seem to be an inordinate number of strangely shaped slippers, along with portraits of little princes, and a glass drinking horn with a gold stand, lid, and end wrought to make it resemble a griffin. My guidebook promises that this exhibit contains dishes that had once held Rudolf’s heart and brain, but we are unable to figure out which these were, nor can we communicate to the guard what we are looking for.
From here we find the Golden Lane, a row of small little shops whose doorways measure about 5 feet high. We visit one building that is absolutely crammed full of armor and swords, all of which are apparently advertisements for the little gift shops. There is also a small room of torture equipment, but it is roped off. Little alcoves reveal hearths, a writing room, and what I suppose is a medieval toilet. The rest of the Golden Lane is even less interesting: the stores sell high-end dresses for thousands of korunas.
We struggle back down the hill, past the vendors, and find ourselves some food in a dimly lit pub, but I am reluctant to end our adventure. As we’d passed out of the castle, advertisements for a concert in the cathedral had been pressed into our hands, and I suggest we attend. Katrina agrees, and we march back up the hill as I curse myself with every weary step. It seems twice as long as before, and the flyers did not mention that the concert cost 500 Kč. However, considering the trouble we’ve taken to get up there, there is no question of not attending.
This is a string concert, which begins with 2 violins, a viola, a cello, and a bass, playing Mozart’s "A Little Night Music", and Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons". The acoustics in the Basilica are excellent; the music seems to be all around us, even in the seats and the floorboards (the pews are set on a wooden foundation about 4 inches off the stone floor). The trembling high notes stir behind my breastbone; the low notes reverberate in my bowels. The quintet is joined by a third violinist and a woman playing a keyboard instrument I cannot see. They move on to Dvorak, playing scale-like progressions that are like electric pulses to the brain, followed by Bach, who, I’ve always felt, could have used a little shot in the arm. I lose track of the program after that, but it seems exquisite to me, marred only by an uncouth couple behind us who don’t seem to understand that talking and listening are mutually exclusive activities. Several dirty looks decrease the f! requency of their irritating conversation, but nothing can shut them up completely. I am only grateful that they are certainly not American; the accent seems to be French.
Again we descend the hill and decided to walk across the Charles Bridge. It is much closer than I had thought, and soon we are mingling with the diminishing crowds. Many of the venders are packing up, and there is no crowd in front of the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk who had, following his death, been thrown from the bridge, after which 5 stars rose from the water and were visible across the city. Two plaques at the base of the statue are rubbed shiny; it’s supposed to be good luck to touch the dog on one plaque, or the figures on the second plaque, underneath the illustration of his corpse being heaved into the river (Saint John of Nepomuk is the patron saint of swimmers). On other trips across the bridge, I’ve been unwilling to fight my way through the throng. While people are superstitiously angling for a little extra luck, they are realistically exposing themselves at the number one spot in the city for pickpockets.
We rub the plaques and cross the bridge, and we are amused that here, among hundreds of tourists, we should run into Adam, a guy from the program. Over the course of the next 3 weeks, I seem to run into him pretty much everywhere, but overall, it’s not so unexpected. Students in the program tend to visit the same places, and we come to expect that we will run into our peers at Tesco, or in a random bar, or, even once, on a day trip to another city. We chat a moment, then walk on to find some pastries before hopping on the subway just outside the university. Just before we descend into the Metro, I look up, my eye tracing the monumental distance between myself and the tower of Saint Vitus, so far away I might have been gazing up through the clouds at Mount Olympus. My feet hurt just thinking about it.
Monday is notable for the effusive complements Arnošt gives me during the break. I think for certain he is just flattering me, but he insists he is not, that I am truly too advanced for his class. Later, Katrina tells me that, while Sarah and I were out of the classroom, he told everyone else how great we were. But the truth is, he’s mostly generous to everyone. I’ve heard him say certain people in the room "will never get it", but to these people’s faces, he would only be kind.
After class on Monday, Arlie and Kristin suggest we visit the Jewish cemetery. By the time we all finish our respective lunches, a protracted affair in this town, and meet up again at the dorm, it seems too late to give it the attention is deserved. Instead we decide to visit Saint Nicholas, a baroque cathedral. After a brief argument about whether we should consult a map or just walk around until we find it, reason wins out. This is fortunate, for we determine not only that we are facing in the wrong direction, but that we have gotten off at the wrong metro stop and are on the wrong side of the river. We make our way toward the cathedral, needing no further directional aids; the blue-green copper dome of the roof is visible from blocks away.
Coming up upon the cathedral, Arlie and Kristin remark that it looks kind of familiar. They begin to suspect that it is the same one they had visited the day before, thinking that it was called Saint Christopher, and this turns out to be the case. We regroup and consult the big map, wondering what other attractions are nearby. Since I have done the castle a few days earlier, that’s out, and finally we decide to take the funicular up to Petřín Hill, the most popular of the green hills that surround the center of the city. Arnošt has explained to us that this is a popular place for lovers. In fact, after the war, he says that there were a lot of Jewish kids with no parents and no money, and having promiscuous sex on the hill was the basic form of entertainment. We find the edge of the park easily, it being fairly easy to make out a large vertical greensward on the edge of a city, and the funicular track only takes a bit of searching.!
We are pleased to discover that our metro passes allow us to ride the funicular for free, but we find ourselves sandwiched between 2 large tour groups consisting primarily of older German couples. Moments after we’ve boarded, more than a dozen sweaty people pack themselves into our small compartment, despite the other compartments being largely empty. The ride seems much longer than the five minutes that pass on the clock, and Kristen and Arlie, looking a bit green, wonder quietly if we shouldn’t have walked up the hill.
We fall out gratefully at the top and are rewarded to find ourselves in the midst of a number of extensive rose gardens. Red, orange, and yellow blossoms cover the land, some in low bushes, others trained, helix-like, around tall trellises. Little old ladies in shapeless housedresses walk slowly along the paths, singly and in pairs. While my friends consult the guidebook, I find a meditation maze painted at the edge of one garden, and begin to walk it. A small boy who is also navigating the circuitous path begins screaming, possibly at me, in Czech, until his parents physically restrain him. Arlie and Kristen collect me and we make our way across three gardens.
We come to the mirror maze, also known as the labyrinth, built in 1891. Although it is obviously a very silly piece of tourist kitsch, we pay our 30 Kč and walk the short route. At the end of the maze, we come upon a large mural depicting the last battle of the 30 Years’ War, in which Praguers fought the Swedes on the Charles Bridge. Both the corpses of fallen soldiers as well as the statues of the martyrs on the bridge are discernible, and the floor in front of the mural is covered with small change, as if it were a wishing well. The next room contains a dozen fun house mirrors, which alone are worth the price of admission. We laugh ourselves silly before passing through the final chamber, an installation of children’s art.
Next we come upon the lookout tower, a hideous one-fifth scale copy of the Eiffel tower building of recycled railroad track. When asked if I want to pay to climb its stairs (the number of stairs is not advertised, but I suspect it is more than 289), I decline. I don’t imagine the view from the top of the tower will be significantly more spectacular than from any other clear point on the hill. Instead, we walk a bit into the more forested part of the hill, and I have to catch my breath. For just a moment, the drop before us looks remarkably like the precipitous drop of my favorite place on earth, Glen Helen in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and I says this aloud. Arlie, who is from Ohio, also does a double take. "I don’t know what the Glen is, but it looks a lot like the Valley."
Wandering along the paths, we come to the Hunger Wall, the medieval equivalent of the WPA. Ostensibly a protective wall, it was really built for no other reason than to provide paying employment to the starving citizenry. It is a true medieval wall, winding through the semi-wilderness: crumbling in places, punctuated by arched passageways, crenellated at the top. We pass a few religious buildings: shines, cathedrals, a monastery, all closed to the public, along with some religious statuary, including a large cruxifix. One small rotunda features a stone bust of Jesus with dark eyes that seem to be made of marble and follow you as you move. A shady plaza contains freestanding murals depicting the stations of the cross.
One building in the guidebook features a more organic sort of architecture, and we resolve to find this cathedral, Saint Michael’s. Marching back and forth across the top of the hill, we search the fields and forests, and even stop to ask a German girl with her own guidebook. In turn, she asks us if we know where the rose garden is. We are able to help her out, but she cannot give us any guidance, so we ramble on, finally figuring out the problem: the cathedral is at the bottom of the hill.
By this time, we have been walking for several hours. As we descend the very steep hillside, we take a few moments to be dazzled by the whole of the city spread out below us. But Kristen begins to speak earnestly of dinner at the Indian restaurant with Sarah, and we tacitly agree that finding our way back to the dorm will take precedence over any cathedral. We take wide paths, lined with blue street lamps, criss-crossed with narrow dirt paths and steep stairs, through the trees. Tantalized by a few cafes and restaurants grouped near the first funicular stop halfway down, we pick up the pace and soon find ourselves back on the city streets, wondering how to find the nearest metro stop. Clearly, Staromestska, the one near the school, is not as close as Malastranska, but it takes a little orienteering and a lot of teamwork to locate the station. Arlie’s map, my instinct, and Kristen’s eyes lead us finally home, where we pick up a few more friends before heading out to eat ou! rselves silly.
Tuesday is all business. I rush to school in the morning hoping to talk to Helen Epstein, the author of several books including Where She Came From, a book about her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. I am fortunate to catch her before her lecture and manage about 15 minutes of her time. We discuss some of the process she went through in researching her book, and she introduces me to Jiri, an old friend of hers who features prominently in her story. Jiri speaks no English, but we favor each other with a few words in Hebrew. Helen is very friendly and willing to talk about her writing, and, although I wish I had been savvy enough to catch her last week, when I could have finagled an entire lunch date, I count myself lucky with the brief interview and her honest friendliness. She signs my copy of her book with "Thanks for being such an enthusiastic reader" and then gives a wonderful lecture about her experience of the Soviet Invasion of Prague.
Later, literally shaking with nervousness, I meet Sydney Lea, founder of The New England Review, author of many books of poetry and prose, winner of several NEA grants. He has received 25 pages of my work and is prepared to discuss them with me. This is one of the perks of winning the assistantship, but other T.A.s have been unhappily disappointed with their meetings with famous writers. As it turns out, I have nothing to fear from the gentlemanly Syd Lea. He began by wondering if I’m often forced to defend my choice of subject matter in workshop, and advised me not to worry about other people’s opinions too much. Basically, his critique is the same as most of the other critiques I’ve gotten from good writers: your writing is good; sometimes you need to slow down. He complimented passages where my work was "visionary" and pointed out places where I used too much "summation". At the end of the conference he said, "Can I give you some avuncul! ar advice?" I looked at this large, bearded man with his salt-and-pepper hair and warm eyes and wondered what other kind of advice he could possibly give. His advice was not to let anyone tell me what to write, to keep following my instinct. He signs my copy of his book, "Be stubborn, woman". He refuses to let me pay for our drinks, even though I try to explain that it’s really the program that’s paying.
On Wednesday, the 9th, we again think we might get to the Jewish quarter, but there is a faculty dinner to attend that night, and Kristen and Arlie bow out. Sarah and I decide to play tourists instead, and walk to Wenceslas Square and through the narrow alleys where the shops are staffed with multi-lingual salespeople and stocked with T-shirts, postcards, overpriced marionettes, crystal, and souvenir mugs. No one seems concerned that every shop contained nearly identical merchandise. I am in search of a particular T-shirt, bearing the university logo, with the motto, "Charles University established 1348." Sarah has bought one like it and promises it will be easy to find, but whenever we ask, we are offered shirts that said, "Czech me out" and "I went to a marvellous [sic] party I must say the fun was intense in Prague". When we arrive at the shop where she had bought hers, the entire wall that, she promised me, had been stocked wit! h T-shirts 2 days before, is bare. Only black hooks protruded from the walls. Just my luck. After that, we find a shirt with the right logo and motto, but in the wrong language.
Abandoning the quest, Sarah takes me to Obecní Dům, the municipal house. Here, iron and glass join in an art nouveau marriage. Both inside and out, it is richly decorated, but I find myself a bit visually overloaded and don’t take in much beside the wrought iron casing around the elevator and the strange, angular light fixtures. We look at the menus of the American bar in the basement and the Czech bar near the entrance, decided they were a bit pricey, and move on.
It is still only 3:30, so we decided to take in the Museum of Communism, which we have heard a great deal about. We have basically no idea where it is located, except that it is ironically placed next to a McDonald’s, and rubberneck here and there before deciding to ask a concierge in a Marriot Hotel, as I reason they are used to lost Americans. We are given good directions and find the building, a large complex full of cafés, casinos, and shops. Several signs inform us that the museum is in fact there, but we can’t find the entrance. Finally, I ask a uniformed maitre d-type standing lonely outside a café, "Where is the entrance to the museum?" "First of all, good day," he answers in accented English. "Um, good day," I say. "How are you?" he ask. "I’m fine." Then I turn to Sarah. "Was I rude?" I turn back to the man. "Did you think I was rude?" As if I had instead asked my original questio! n in what he considered the appropriate order, he gives us directions to the door.
The museum is a well-thought-out prospect. The first room contains 3 large text panels explaining how, at the end of the war, world leaders negotiated who would get to liberate what. Although the Americans were closer, they conceded Czechoslovakia to the Russians, and thus communism was given a strong foothold. The museum boasts an assortment of interesting artifacts: guns, children’s schoolbooks, propaganda posters vilifying the Americans. Sarah and I are not sure whether to laugh or cry at the translations, which ring unpleasantly familiar to our ears. According to conventional wisdom of the time and place, America was "the evil empire", to be feared for their secret "weapons of mass destruction." Some of these, I might add, were biological in nature. Of course it is the same hysterical propaganda that has been inundating the media at home for the last year and a half.
We examine the reproduction of an interrogation room, a bigger space with a desk and 2 chairs, but skip over the video. The final chambers recount the Prague spring, which we have been learning about in school. The country was becoming more open; democratization seemed imminent. Then came the Soviet invasion. Only days before, Helen Epstein had related how, in 1968, as an idealistic American hippie, born in Prague but raised in New York and recently returned from Jerusalem, she watched the Russian tanks roll in. The communists became hard-nosed again. The exhibit sketches out the political perestroika in the Soviet Union, offers some photographs of an extremely scruffy Vaclav Havel, and concludes with the fall of the regime in 1989. To celebrate, we buy some clever postcards, reproductions of old propaganda posters with new logos: "You couldn’t buy detergent, but you could get your brain washed", "Like their sisters in the west, they would have burnt their ! bras, if there were any in the shops", "A country full of happy, shiny people; the shiniest worked in the uranium mines", as well as a picture of a matroishka doll with fangs.
We walk back to the river and sit on a bench, watching the light traffic of tour cruises and paddleboats. A thin, excited man stops in front of us and begins talking excitedly in English, but it takes me a moment to untangle his accent. "Black market money changer. Forty crowns! Forty crowns to the dollar! Black market money? Black market! Forty crowns! No? Fifty crowns! Fifty crowns to the dollar! Come on! Fifty crowns to the dollar. Yes?" Since the official exchange is just about half that, I can only assume that this man is actually one of an extensive network of counterfeiters, the very people who make their countrymen so wary of large bills that many shops simply refuse anything larger than a 500 Kč note. Sarah pretends not to understand him, but he persists. He focuses his gaze on me and continues. Checking to see that my arm covers the “Another Kalamazooan for peace” button on my bag, I say, “No English,” but he is not fo! oled and finally, exasperated, asks, "Fifty crowns to the dollar. Why not?" "Because we don’t have any dollars," I say, which is the truth. In the 21st century, ATMs are universal. He laughs, says something to the effect that we should have let him know sooner, waves goodbye, and leaves smiling.
The streets of Prague, I have learned, are often narrow, twisty, cobblestone passages. Street signs are largely absent, the red plaques bearing the house addresses often as not telling only the name of the neighborhood (Hrachanska, Staro Metska) and the section of the city (Praha 1, Praha 6). The larger streets are set with parallel tram tracks in the middle, and, although the traffic is as dangerous as any large European city I have visited, the trams probably present the greatest opportunity for disaster. Often, one runs right behind another, or two pass in opposite directions, and meanwhile the traffic is cruising by outside the tracks or, on medium-width streets, directly behind the trams. Wires powering the trams are ubiquitous overhead. Both Sarah and I have numerous near-misses.
The pedestrian traffic signals acknowledge blind people, as well as the terminally absent-minded. A slow clicking sound emanates from each as the red figure representing "don’t walk" appears. When the light switches to green, the pace of the clicks triples. Crosswalks do not necessarily appear at every intersection, and sometimes can be found between intersections. Generally, but not always, cars will stop for pedestrians.
Public displays of affection are ubiquitous in the city. The brawny bearded man who groped his wife on our trip into the country was only a taste of things to come. Public transportation is only one place where Praguers feel comfortable making out with one another. That first couple was perhaps a bit older than the norm, but deep kissing can be observed not only in parks, where it might be expected, but also in doorways, at tram stops, and in the middle of the sidewalk. The absolute most common place to make out seems to be on the extraordinarily long escalators down into the subway. Second to this is the escalators up to the surface. I can only account for this practice by noting that it can be a very lengthy ride, and the advertisements on the wall are the same in every station.
Another eccentricity of the people of Prague is their love affair with their dogs. Dogs are absolutely everywhere, including hotels and fancy restaurants. There does not seem to be any place where dogs are not welcome. Some of them are muzzled, or else have muzzles fastened to their collars, but hanging loose. The dogs are of all sizes and breeds, and purebreds seem to be favored. Daschunds, Chihuahuas, and toy poodles are carried in the masters’ arms on the subways. Dalmations, German shepherds, and black labs sit at their masters’ feet in smoky pubs. Many dogs do not even require leashes, but run ahead for a short distance before looking back to make sure their people are behind them. The streets are, for the most part, clean of dog droppings, however, and we even spotted, on the edge of a park, a sign that dispensed paper bags for waste removal. Arnošt tells us a funny story about being one of group of Czech diplomats visiting their Chinese comrades. When a large turee! n of soup with a small puppy floating in the middle was served, the Czechs all rushed to the bathroom, nearly causing an international "incident".
As far as I can tell, homelessness occurs at a similar rate to an American city of a comparable size, but there is a big difference in the quality of begging. Perhaps inspired by the city’s love of martyrs, many of these indigent men adapt a penitent approach to their begging. Like the statues on the Charles Bridge, there are those among them who appear stationary, and every time I pass a particular corner, there will be a gaunt, brown man squatting with his head inclined and his palm up. A few small coins rest there. He does not look up. He does not move a muscle, even if someone drops another offering in his hand. Even more interesting are those who kneel, feet pressed against the wall, forehead to the ground, a small cloth under the knees and another in front, waiting to collect alms. These men do not seem to earn much.
On the 10th of July, following a strange dream in which I have been forced to leave all my baggage except for my computer behind as I depart for Prague, I decide to finally explore the Jewish quarter. Down the street from a life-size statue of the Golem (an advertisement for a travel agency), I find the entrance to the old cemetery, the corner of which is visible from my classroom. For 310 Kč, the student rate, I buy the complete package, annoyed to learn that the Pinkas Synagogue, containing the Holocaust memorial, is closed, apparently indefinitely. When I try to determine whether it will be open again in the foreseeable future, the ticket taker who, moments before, had spoken a lovely, British-accented English, suddenly reverts to sign language, only repeating the word "closed" while crossing and uncrossing her hands. I imagine that it is a victim of the floods.
The moment I step into the cemetery, I felt a strange sense of loss, as if something enormous had been left behind, and my dream of that morning returns to me. The cemetery contains something like 10 times the number of graves that could reasonably be accommodated on a plot of land this size. In use for 350 years, the space was filled, but the Jews were allotted no further land. Therefore, they continued to add earth to the graveyard, raising the markers and laying their dead out in successively higher layers. Spread out before me as I entered was a bramble of thin, crooked tombstones, many eroded beyond legibility, some leaning precariously against each other. Often thick ropes of spider web tie the stones together. I run my fingers over the Hebrew letters, jammed together as closely as the stones themselves, as I walked along the roped-off path. With neither guide nor (effective) guidebook (Avant Guide Prague, given to me as a birthday present, is useful for peop! le interested in eating, drinking, clubbing, and shopping, but scanty for people who want the deep histories of the city), I choose to experience only what I can sense.
All of the grave markers within an arm’s reach of the path are topped with small rocks in the Jewish style of paying respect to the dead. I gather a pocketful and set them atop the most faded, illegible markers, the most forgotten ones. Some modern orthodox Jews are lighting candles and saying Hebrew prayers before certain graves. Others are withdrawing little slips of paper, covered over with Hebrew script, and these wishes are folded and set on the graves under larger stones. Most people move slowly, respectfully, although, as I reached the end of the path, an Israeli man, who at first appears to be listening to the audio tour, annoys me by speaking loudly into his cell phone. "Ma shlomcha?" (How are you?) he bellows, and I catch a few other words. It is only the Israelis, I note, who are oblivious to the nature of the site. A moment later, one group calls to another over the graves. "Regga!" (Wait a second) the second called back.
The Old New Synagogue retains a sense of the sacred. Its high, buttressed stone ceilings, simple supporting columns, and twelve long, abstract stained glass windows contribute to the solemn atmosphere. The room is lit by bronze chandeliers, round brass sconces are set into the walls. High above them, unadorned painted inscriptions represent abbreviated sayings from the bible and Talmud. High backed carved chairs of dark wood ring the perimeter of the room, and the bimah, framed by a sort of metal cage and raised a few steps off the floor, is located in its center. To the east, a six-sided rose window, and below it, the aron hakodesh, the ark, covered with an embroidered curtain. There are several steps up to the ark, and an embroidered pillow rests on each step. One of them, as best as I can make out with my little Hebrew proclaims the holiness of the lord. A pair of rough silver candlesticks are set on either side. It is in this synagogue, according to lege! nd, that Rabbi Loew stored the remains of the Golem. However, I have been reading The Maharal, a book about the rabbi’s life and philosophy, and it turns out that the pious man died in 1609, while the Golem legends appeared sometime in the 18th century.
The Spanish Synagogue, with its Moorish tessellation, is an opulent counterpoint to the bare walls of the Old New Synagogue. Every inch of the walls here is ornamented with repeating designs in red, green, and gold. The atmosphere is dizzying, and seems to encourage more boisterous behavior. Small children run amok across the sanctuary, up to the bimah, which is flanked by huge gold candelabras. The ark’s doors are a rich, red wood, decorated with gold. Surrounding that, a blue curtain, spangled with stars. Above, an ornate gold altarpiece, rivaling the work in the cathedrals, bearing a copy of the 10 commandments. Above that, a stylized Jewish star branches out into a sumptuous mandala. The high domed ceiling bears a six-sided skylight. I cannot imagine praying in such a place; the mind must be distracted by the profusion of decoration. The columns are decorated. The windows are decorated. Only the 8 wooden pews, set in 4 rows of 2, seem simple and plain.
Around the perimeter, historic installations in glass cases display artifacts and historical lessons about the Jews of Prague. On the second floor, the abundance visual distraction continues. Here, a big silver pipe organ looms against a wall on the south side. The historical exhibit also goes on, relating more recent events: the razing of the Jewish ghetto, the fate of Jewish children in Terezin. The black and white photographs of the ghetto are painful; there is virtually no difference between the "before" and "during" pictures. Both show black coated men standing among the rubble of decrepit, disintegrating buildings.
Another room on the second floor houses a beautiful collection of ritual silver objects: yods (Torah pointers shaped like little hands), breast plates for the Torah, migdal b’samim (spice towers). Although I have seen many museum-quality pieces of this nature, this seems to be the most fabulous such exhibit I have ever beheld. At least, it is the greatest number of museum-quality pieces I have ever seen grouped together in such a limited space. I flip through the sign-in book here. Most of the messages are in languages I cannot read, including Korean. The English writing mostly comments on the how amazing the exhibit is, although one commands the reader, in the imperative, to go to Auschwitz and pay for an expensive guided tour. Another inscription, in a language I cannot identify, seems to demand the liberation of the Palestinians.
The Klaus Synagogue houses a museum that is at once foreign and familiar. Like a child’s primer on Judaism, each glass case holds the ritual objects of a certain holiday or practice, along with a basic description. Even the Torah in the open ark is behind glass. I circle the room quickly, feeling no need to read the text, which offers me nothing new in the way of knowledge. Here, I think, is exactly what Hitler imagined: a sterile sort of museum explaining the quaint modes of an extinct race. I can’t help but think of a similar exhibit on the native Americans of the Pacific Northwest in Chicago’s Field Museum. But despite the mournful nature of the display, those people weren’t gone either, and a few years ago the museum was compelled to return several totem poles which had been stolen from the people almost a hundred years earlier. The only interesting thing I see is a dark recess (also fronted with glass) south of the altar. There, a large box filled with t’fillin (phylacteries) memorializes the dead. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the black boxes wrapped with long leather straps.
Finally, I explore the ceremonial hall, the place where bodies were prepared for burial. Here there were strange devices: a board for washing corpses, special silver combs and brushes for arranging the hair and cleaning the fingernails of the deceased. Signs here explaine the function and arrangement of the prestigious Jewish burial societies, which cared for the sick, buried the dead, and collected alms.
Not realizing that I have skipped one of the synagogues, but already deciding to return, hopefully with a tour guide, I leave the Jewish quarter, laden with a few souvenirs: postcards of Rabbi Loew’s grave and the larger cemetery, a book on Jewish Prague (although I had already vowed "No more books!") and a little ceramic Golem. I make my way back to the university, where I bumped into Carey, who invites me out for lunch. We have traditional Czech food, and I eat as heartily as a peasant: potato-barley soup, rich with garlic, adorned with cheese and toasted bread; gnocci alla checca, gluey potato dumplings that can’t hold a candle to those I’ve eaten in an Italian place down the street, dotted with more cheese, specks of tomatoes, swimming in oil, decorated with 2 crossed green leeks, thin as string; and a chocolate soufflé (probably not too Czech, actually) with fruit and chocolate sauce. Immediately upon leaving the restaurant, I regret my choices. I am! quickly sick and my stomach is still heavy with starch and dairy products 8 hours later. In general, I have been eating in eastern-style restaurants—Indian, Thai—and I am forcibly reminded why I have, in general, been making those more sensible culinary decisions.
We walk back to school, detouring through the Old Town Square, braving the throngs of tourists, and I empty my wallet when I finally find a T-shirt with the Charles University logo (is it Charles kneeling before a religious figure?) and the legend "Charles University, Prague established 1348" in English. I have blown through nearly 1200 Kč in 4 ˝ hours. Fortunately, even with the worst possible exchange, this is actually less than $50. That night, we heard a really great reading by Patricia Hampl, Aliki Barnstone, and Stu Dybek.
Saturday, we take a field trip to Terezķn, the former military garrison that was used by the Nazis as a political prison, “model” ghetto, and way station for Jewish prisoners. I am apprehensive about the trip; in fact, I have been uneasy for months, fearing a flare-up of the post-traumatic stress that has afflicted me for the past 5 years at any example of human suffering. We leave the dorm on 2 buses around 9 a.m. and drive out of the city. We pass some interesting buildings—my favorite, clearly an example of communist art, has 4 giant statues of workers atop it—and into the country.
From above, the city is a seamless quilt of orange roofs, but the land abruptly changes to green fields and rolling hills, with mountains in the distance. We pass the orange splendor of a number of sunflower farms, the mad patchwork of community gardens bursting with wild cultivation and the occasional shed of plastic sheeting, like shiny caterpillars crawling through the fields. Corn tassel peeks over a high stone wall, and we follow the signs to Terezķn and park in front of the Ghetto Museum. “We’ll have to walk from here,” says Hannah, one of the program administrators, a Czech woman with a master’s degree in English literature, “because of the flooding last year, the bridges are not adequate for the buses.”
We fall out and take off across the town. “I didn’t think there would be flowers,” someone whispers behind me, and there are a profusion of wildflowers, with far more biodiversity in uncultivated blossoms that would be see in America. Of course, the world moves on, flowers grow. Her feeling is the same as the shock most of us had on September 11th after watching the towers fall, when we turned off the television and walked outside into the perfect autumn day, saw the sun light up the sky as if the world hadn’t ended. And almost 60 years have passed here. Crossing one bridge, we see a man in hip waders fishing out in the middle of the Elbe. When we come to the second bridge, we see the reconstruction effort. There is a 15-foot gap, spanned only by a few thin boards. We must turn around and walk down to the next bridge, more of an old, dirt-covered path.
Finally we come to the "small fortress". The first thing that comes into view is a sweeping cemetery, the headstones all small and identical, with quantities of red roses blooming between the rows like pools of blood. A huge cross with a crown of thorns hanging on it stands in the center of the cemetery. A smaller Jewish star, planted in a cairn of large rocks, stands at the back, closest to the garrison. The brick fortress looms behind it. We pass through an arch into the fortress. There is a ticket office, a restaurant, a souvenir shop. Low brick buildings surround the courtyard. Swallows swing across the sky, looping through the arch, over and under, their angular wings slicing freely in and out of the outpost.
Our guide, Zachary, a tall African man with an accent both broad and clipped, meets us and leads us to the entrance to the first courtyard. Doors line the buildings on either side of us, each numbered, and Zachary points to each one in turn: the guards’ office, the commander’s office, the "clothes store" where prisoners were made to change their clothes for discarded enemy uniforms. In this yard, he explains, new prisoners were made to stand facing the wall while they were inspected. At the end of the courtyard, the legend "Arbeit macht frei" is painted in dark letters over the arch. "I think you know what this phrase means, yes? ‘Work makes you free.’ So, please," Zachary says, and we follow him through the arch to inspect the rows and rows of cellblocks.
In general, Jews were not interred here in the small fortress, except for those who violated the restrictions on Jews or were politically active. We’re herded first into room with dimensions of perhaps 10 by 10 yards. The floor is soft dirt; the smell is of mold, and we learn that this room, like so much here, was damaged by floods. The floors used to be wood, and the triple wooden bunk beds that appear in so many Holocaust narratives, had also been on exhibit. A wooden plank with a hole in it serves for a toilet and there is a small sink. Zachary impresses upon us the conditions for the political prisoners, who were not Jewish, held in this room. "They were shot here. They were tortured." His accent draws out the vowels in the word, giving it greater weight.
The next cell, barely one-third the size of the first, was used for Jewish prisoners. Sixty men were held here at a time, we learn. "How many are we now?" he asks. "Twenty-five," I say, and we all look around. We are standing shoulder to shoulder. Under the garrison, this room was a stable for two horses, and 2 iron tether rings are still set in the wall. "The window was closed at this time. Air came only through this crack." He indicated a sliver in the interior wall, perhaps 5 inches wide and a foot long. "They were all here, no beds, no room to stand. They were tortured. Food was only coffee for breakfast. For lunch, soup and a piece of bread. Dinner, the same coffee. On this, they are made to do hard labor. Prisoners stayed here a few days, weeks. Then they were shot."
We move on to a long block of cells in another building. Solitary confinement. Room 1 boasts a plaque indicating that the man who shot Archduke Ferdinand and started World War I was imprisoned here for 2 years. The cells are about 6 feet wide, perhaps 10 or 15 feet deep. There are no windows. At our guide’s suggestion, we file obediently into cell number 4. A typical cell. Even with light coming in from the open door, the back wall is lost in the gloom. I am the first in, and slide my feet backward, cautiously, with my arm stretched behind me. "Where’s the wall?" a girl by my side, who I can’t see, whispers. More people file in and we step further into the shadow, feeling, finally, the cold rock under our hands. "I’m innocent! Let me go!" shouts Artrit.
"Now I will close the door," Zachary says, "and you will see how they lived for weeks, months." The door creaks shut. The light vanishes. There is only blackness. We all shuffle our feet, but we do not see. "Your eyes don’t adjust, do they?" someone asks. Once, in college, I went spelunking in Kentucky. Deep in the cave we turned out our flashlights. This is the same. Utter nothing. Now, as then, my desperate eyes play tricks on me, making me believe there is a flash of white before me, an invisible ray of hope that illuminates nothing. We breathe. The door is opened 10 seconds later. Everyone exhales. We spill out into the passage.
Zachary shows us the shower room, where thin pipes snake across the ceiling. "Everyone thinks this is the gas chamber, but these are showers. No gas chambers at Terezin. Here, 4 people to a shower. You understand? Four each." He reaches his long arm up and indicates one of the narrow showerheads. "In cold water. Only the women had hot water. The men had just cold water. So, please."
Back in the courtyard, he points to the hospital, where very sick Aryan prisoners stayed. "Not the Jews. They were not brought here. They were kept, a hundred to a room, and there was 1 toilet. There was enteritis. You understand. One toilet, broken, backed up, and the floor is covered in excrement." Next, we are shown the shaving room, lined on either side with dozens of white porcelain sinks, a silver mirror above each. "When the Red Cross came, the Nazis built this room to show how sanitary the camp is. But there is no water here. It is never used. When the authorities came, they made a swimming pool, a cinema, to show the Red Cross this is a town for Jews. They came here, 5 hours. Three hours they spend eating lunch, 2 hours they see the camp, and report it is good."
We walk past more brick buildings, and notice that there is a bit of a moat dug around them, perhaps 10 feet deep, covered in green moss. A thin ledge decorates the side of one building at the same height as the ground we stand on. We hear a story about 3 men who, on Christmas day, when the guards were celebrating, escaped by walking along this narrow ledge and were never caught. They were Czech and therefore knew the garrison well from their time in the army. To prevent further escapes, the ledges were broken off at the corner.
"Now, we go into the tunnel to the place of execution," Zachary says. "This tunnel the Nazis did not use. They were afraid they could not control the prisoners. So, please, if anyone has claustrophobia, I will take you around." No one admits to claustrophobia. One woman asks if we’ll have to crawl. He looks down at her. "You, no. Me, yes." He laughs. We cross the courtyard and enter the tunnel. The ceiling is so low I can easily reach up and touch it. The passage is narrow enough to touch both sides without stretching my arms. Even smaller passages on the left are blocked off by iron gates. To the right, an occasional oblong break in the wall reveals a glimpse of grass and flowers. It suddenly becomes very cold. The passage jogs left, then right, twisting and turning and going on and on. At last it widens, and finally we come out into a field.
Immediately before us, under a little pavilion, are 3 cross-shaped brick outlines on the ground, roughly as long as a man. Across the field, the earth has been turned, and there is a thin rivulet of a stream. Behind that, a little bonsai tree in a pot serves as a memorial for the people who were executed there. To the right, a low wooden structure that can only be a gallows. Beyond that, a door in the wall. Zachary points to the crosses, explaining that the soldiers would lie there when they executed prisoners, "like target practice. They never missed." He confirms that we are looking at a gallows. He explains that the door is the Gate of Death. This is the door through which condemned prisoners were brought. "Once you came through this gate, you were doomed. No one ever returned once they passed through." The wind blows gently, causing the grass to ripple and the wildflowers to bend. In this field, after the war, 600 corpses were exhumed from a mass g! rave. We pass out through the gate of death.
On the other side, there is a sinister, empty swimming pool, of even depth all around, with thin metal ladders. This is the pool the Jews were forced to dig in preparation for the Red Cross. The guards’ children played here, in earshot of the firing range. We listen to the story of 3 Jews who escaped one of the mass cells, where 500 people were imprisoned, by climbing the walls. One was caught immediately and hanged along with 3 random prisoners as a warning. Two were caught days later in town and stoned to death. The tour is now over. There will be a movie in the theater, also built for the Red Cross, used by the Nazi guards. We move into the cinema.
To reach the theater, we must pass through a small art exhibit, bizarre in that almost all the work is based on the theme of the crucifix. The seats in the theater are wooden and creaky. The film, made in 1965, has clearly been digitized, but the picture shakes frenetically, nauseously. It is not an informative film. It splices Nazi propaganda movies with prisoner art. There are Jews playing soccer, smiling for the camera, and then pen and ink drawings of skeletal men crowded into a barrack. Footage of women laughing as they cook. Sketches of old people, hunched over with the weight of their bags, on a forced march. The voice over is almost exclusively a man reading the serial numbers of transports out of Terezin, the number of people on the transport, and the number of them who survived the war. The number out is almost always a thousand. The number to live is almost always fewer than 10. Sometimes it is zero.
We leave the theater, return to the entrance, and sit on the benches, watching the swallows skim the gates, wheeling and circling, until Hannah comes to lead us back to the bus. In the city she explains that we have 1 hour for lunch, and then we can see the museum. I look around, wondering where the ghetto was. "The whole city was the ghetto," she says.
The museum is small, but full of long signs written in Czech, German, English, and Hebrew. I move slowly at first, reading the signs, examining the pictures drawn by children interred in the camp: drawings of home, of fairy tales, of their perceptions of the camp. We walk along wooden boards that I imagine must have resembled the floors that were removed due to flood damage. The images pile up: empty suitcases, rag dolls dressed to resemble the inmates and guards, the yellow stars, urns to contain ashes. Posters advertising the plays and operas performed by the Jews in the ghetto. Sheet music written by Jews while they were interred there. Videos of survivors recounting stories of hope and terror dot the walls. One woman explains how packages came to her. Another sneaks her pregnant belly past Mengele. When her condition is discovered, she is allowed to give birth so that he can take the baby and observe how long a newborn can survive without food. Most of us move faster ! and faster through the exhibit. I have been to more gripping Holocaust museums. I do not view any of the videos. More than half of my group has already left the museum, and they are beginning to board the bus. Hannah decides the first bus can leave immediately, and we pack ourselves in, twice as crowded as we were on the ride out. The second bus will have very few passengers.
On Sunday, Sarah and I visit the Mucha Museum. Having seen a huge exhibition of his work last year, she is a big fan. Alphonse Mucha was, above all, a patriot who loved his Czechoslovakian heritage and wanted his art to raise the spirit of national pride in a people without their own nation. He hoped that his life’s work, 20 huge canvases detailing Slav history, would help bring about this dream, which was realized in his lifetime. We arrive at the museum just in time to see the beginning of a movie about his life, then work our way backward through the museum.
Known primarily for his art nouveau prints, Mucha also painted, and there are a few canvases here. The most striking is big, maybe 10 by 15 feet, and as dark as a Dutch master’s. I believe it is called "The Star". This canvas shows an old woman sitting stoically under a star, her legs stretched out before her, an expression of calm acceptance on her face. The rest of the painting is so dark that it is not until we step back and take the entire canvas in from a distance that we realize there is more: 3 wolves lurking on a hill just above her. Mucha also designed the currency, stamps, and medals of the new Czechoslovakian nation, and these are on display as well. A drawing of the crucifixion, done when the artist was 8 years old, is remarkable in its perspective and realism.
Of course, his most famous work is the graphic design he did for theater posters, muffin tins, and other decorative objects. His big break came when, one Christmas Eve, he was drawing in someone else’s studio. The divine Sarah Bernhardt came into the studio, unhappy with the promotional posters for her new show and demanded that they be redesigned. Mucha, being the only artist in the studio, was drafted for the job, and Bernhardt was so thrilled with his work that she demanded a 6-year contract with him. The posters were a huge success, to the point that collectors bribed the men hired to hang them for copies, or simply cut them off the wall.
Mucha’s style has much in common with the comic book: the bold outlines, the rich colors, the whimsical backgrounds. And yet, there is a subtlety to the shading, a richness to the expression, and a depth to the symbolism that marked a new era of graphic design. He favored striking women: Bernhardt, his charming wife, his beautiful daughter. He chose mythical themes for his work. Even the modern symbols had historical depth. In a work reproduced for an American newspaper, "Friendship," a young girl represents America, while an older one is France. He often personified countries and ideals such as nature with beautiful women.
From the museum, we take the subway back 2 stops and ascend the steep hill up to the castle. Passing the junk dealers and pressing through the hoards of tourists, we come at last to the top, where I hear a familiar noise: a group of Jewish kids, filled with ruach, are cheering as they exit the castle. Even before I see the boys’ kipahs and the girls’ long skirts, I recognize the timbre of their voices. We’d chant loud slogans in just the same way when I was a teenager traveling with USY. "There’s my people," I say to Sarah. We walk around St. Vitus, Sarah pointing out to me details I missed on my first trip. There is the iron gate decorated with small scenes of local life. Her favorite shows 2 peasants butchering a pig. In between these scenes are even smaller designs representing constellations.
There is a statue of Saint George slaying a pitifully small dragon. We admire the gargoyles above us, the doorknockers shaped like dragons, and the stone carvings above the doorways. One shows sea creatures: fish and turtles. Another has small creatures: bees and squirrels. No two are the same. We slip into the cathedral to view the stained glass window Mucha designed. Much like a comic book, it consists of many panels showing the life of a saint.
We walk through the gate on the far side of the cathedral, where I finally see the statues of the battling giants. Enormous ogre types above the guard booths on either side of the gate beat smaller creatures with clubs and fists. Then we come to the Loreto Shrine, built by the Catholic Church at a time when they were battling with Protestants for control of the country’s soul. This church, therefore, is particularly grotesque. In the inner courtyards, dozens of life-size paintings of martyrs decorate the walls. The ceilings above us are covered with frescoes. Little shrines are visible through bubbled glass. Sarah’s favorite is the shrine of the bearded Saint Starosta, who grew a beard overnight to prevent her marriage to a pagan king. Her father, who had arranged the marriage, crucified her to discourage this sort of independence.
There is a building here that is supposed to be Mary’s home, flown here by angels, and carved wall depicts this project, and one of Prague’s famous black Marys is set above the altar. The main chapel, however, is something that nearly defies description. This is clearly the most ostentatious of all the ostentatious places of worship I have visited in Prague. Every surface is decorated, many with frightening cherubs with bizarre, adult faces, somehow distorted. Some faces are set directly into the wall. Others are entire cherubs, standing on each other’s head, adoring god, carrying strange implements. Sarah thinks one of them is holding a pair of pliers, but I believe it is a device used to navigate at sea. On either side of the altar are glass boxes containing what appear to be mannequins but are really the actual remains of 2 saints, their frames built up with wax. Every surface is covered with gold. A battle fresco decorates the ceiling. Somewhere behind us, the bells r! ing the hour, playing a tune I do not recognize. The bells seem to be painfully out of tune.
On the second floor, a little museum that Sarah promises will anger me contains the priceless treasures of the church: chalices, miters, and other religious paraphernalia encrusted with coral, gold, and gems. I see her point. While people were starving throughout Christian lands, priests were wearing pearl-encrusted vestments. The most extreme example of this is a device used to hold the host while it is adulated. This one, set above a golden pedestal ornamented with a lamb, a representation of Christ, and other figures, is surrounded by dozens of golden rays, each of which is encrusted with dozens of diamonds. The name for the thing is perfect: this is a monstrance.
Monday after class we walk across the bridge and visit the puppet shops again, then make our way to the museum of torture, knowing that this will be the silliest tourist thing we’ve done so far. However, the museum has 2 parts: one is the torture implements, the other promises an exhibit of 100 live spiders and scorpions. We have only enough money for 1 museum, and we finally pick the spiders. But immediately upon entry, it becomes clear that something is wrong. These are huge, tarantula-types, furry with fat abdomens, hairy legs, and interesting markings, but none of the spiders are moving. The water dishes are scummy; the webs look like the cotton you can buy to decorate your house at Halloween. The spiders are all placed at visible points in their cages, most of them right at the front, a few stuck to the walls or on top of logs. Some of them seem to have bald patches as if they’ve been rubbed too vigorously. There are crickets in a few of the cages, and some of them a! ppear to be alive, but there is no evidence that any of the spiders are.
We examine each cage intently, returning to cages we have already looked at, searching for any signs of life, the slightest change of position. "If only one of them would move," Sarah says. "I want my money back," I answer. Just then, I see one of the spiders twitch, but Sarah hasn’t seen it and doesn’t believe me. We walk through the exhibit laughing, watching a trio of Korean boys ahead of us shaking the cages, dropping coins into them. None of the spiders react in any way. One tank contains what is obviously an enormous children’s toy shaped like a spider. The doll is nearly the size of the entire cage, more than a foot across, covered with synthetic black fur like a teddy bear. In one of the last cages, one of a dozen enormous millipedes untwists itself a bit, but the rest remain tightly curled into coils. We’re not sure what to make of this. Nothing else in the room has moved at all.
We retrace our steps, checking to see if any of the spiders had become suddenly animated. None has. Two of the Korean boys have given up and left. The third stands over a cage, resolutely watching its dead occupant, and finally grabs the tank and shakes it vigorously before staring the thing down again. I’m a little angry and say to Sarah, "If I don’t at least get a good story out of this place, I’m going to be really mad." Fortunately, one comes to me. She tells me how she would write it as a piece of non-fiction. Just then, the spider that I saw twitching earlier starts to move, jerkily. It waves its legs, takes a few clumsy steps, touches a dead cricket. "It’s going to eat the cricket," Sarah says, but it does nothing but bend and flex its legs. "It’s a robot," I say. "They turn it on when people start to complain." The spider feebly folds and unfolds a leg and stops moving. We really have no idea how to interpret this experience! . Are the other spiders alive? Just some of them? Is this one? Later, Sarah takes me to a really good pet shop where I confirm that live spiders, in fact, do move.
Tuesday, there is a big plan to take the bus to Kutna Hora after class and see the ossuary, the cathedral built of human bones. But the plan’s flaws immediately appear. No one has eaten yet and Katrina’s roommate, Jaimy, a vegan, must eat in the city or risk not finding a meal. We have no bus schedule, the ride takes an hour, the cathedral closes at 4, we are several stops away from the bus station, and it is nearing 1:30. Some of the group drops out. Jaimy, Katrina, and I make our way to Country Life, quite possibly the only vegan buffet/restaurant/ grocery story/beauty supply/massage parlor in all of Bohemia. The food is better than expected, and cheap. We pay by the weight of the plate and my meal, with bread and juice, is 110 Kč. More remarkably, the water is free and self-serve. This must seem unspeakably weird to the natives. Everywhere else we have visited, water is more expensive than beer. It can only be had by special req! uest. A small glass costs the equivalent of 1 or 2 US dollars and, unlike other European countries I’ve visited, my requests for tap water have been refused.
We walk in the general direction of Wenceslas square, debating destinations in an offhand way: the house of a Czech writer converted into a museum, a modern art museum, the beer museum? As I look up the square, I remember reading about Jan Palach and Jan Zajíci, the students who immolated themselves in 1969 at the foot of the monument of Wenceslas riding a horse. There are supposedly 2 memorials here. The first, on the exact spot of the immolations, was an unofficial shrine for many years. Advocates of democracy would lay flowers on the spot and pay for the privilege: Havel was arrested several times for this act. I also recall that the last building at the end of the square (which, after all, is not a square—it’s a long strip with a broad road) is the National Museum. So I suggest we look for the memorials and visit the museum.
There is a big swath in the middle of the street with a few gardens. The big statue seems like just another guy on a horse, although this is, of course, the good King Wenceslas, flanked by 4 maidens. We don’t immediately see the memorials, but as we move closer, the first comes into view. Surrounded by some large shrubbery, with a single cut flower on top, is a plaque set into the ground. Portraits of the 2 boys appear with the dates of their lives and a message in Czech, English, and German: In memory of the victims of communism. We meditate on the meaning and agree to return later with our own flowers. I’m struck again by how lightly we take our political system, flawed as it is, for granted, and the price others were willing to pay for something they’d never even experienced.
We walk up to the museum, a big, Neo-renaissance building looming over the square. A delightful fountain sits before it, and there are stairs up to the door. The inside is fabulous and imposing. A grand staircase into the museum is covered with red carpet, and leads up to a small landing guarded by 2 life-size bronze statues on either side, apparently a king and a queen. Here, the decoration is on a grand scale: bronze busts jutting out from the walls, scrolled columns, and, in fact, scrolled everything. The ceiling is high with a flat skylight covering most of it. The detail is so minute: low-hanging ceilings around the edge of the room each have unique, botanical-style paintings of flowers and plants. A row of tiny carved wooden lion heads runs parallel to the banisters on the stairs. The white, blank-eyed faces of women peer out at us from every crevice.
The first exhibit strikes us as a bit strange at first. Most of the room is empty and the walls are covered in scrawled graffiti in every language. The most memorable is the slogan, "Everyone in Prague wears a mullet" with an accompanying picture. There is a large Hellenic sort of statue: a naked, armless man wrestling with a snake. Then we notice a small installation in the corner, and, although it is all in Czech, we gather the gist of it. A wall of photos, along with a video playing on a big-screen TV, depict the raising and harvesting of silk worms. Under a glass case, lumps of silk rest in trays. Another case holds different colored spices, barks, and mushrooms, which I assume are natural dyes. One case contains the uncolored silk skeins. The next holds a rainbow array. In the next room, dozens of kimonos are on display. They are broad and colorful, very beautiful, and when I take a picture of a dark blue kimono with silver dragons, I am chastised by a doce! nt. Photographs are allowed only by special permit, which costs more than the student ticket costs.
The next exhibit, also labeled entirely in Czech, appears to be about the history of the tape recorder. We move into the permanent exhibit on the history of man. This collection, which we are probably seeing in reverse order, has all the expected artifacts: arrow heads, bracelets, pottery. However, the condition of the bowls and vessels is remarkable. One, painted with blue glaze, looks like something I could go buy on the square today. Intricate hair pins lie next to delicate rings. Cases in the center of the room hold partially exhumed skeletons, still embedded in the earth. One is curled into a fetal position. One has a crushed skull. On the whole, they seem remarkably unharmed. A little white architect’s model shows the layout of a primitive village.
We come out into a huge, high-ceilinged chamber with an enormous, circular skylight at the top. This room is fabulous, with a circular, geometric design on the floor, more bronze busts, and murals painted on the ceiling around the skylight. One seems to depict a classical Greek marketplace. Another shows men on a hillside. Two seem to be definitely depicting historical event: some sort of congress where something is being signed, a king surrounded by his subjects in a chamber. Smaller murals in between these arched spaces show beautiful women and cupids. The rest of the walls are covered with carved flower shapes.
Continuing up the carpeted grand staircase to the second floor, we find a case containing handmade puppets for a performance of Faust that never happened. The devil is fat and comical. There is a little gem shop opposite. The heads of deer are mounted around the outer hall. A mammoth skeleton rests beside a reconstruction of a hairy mammoth. The first hall we enter is filled with cases and cases of minerals. The wooden cases are high, with glass covers, 60 specimens in each case. The labels, in Czech, relate the name of each rock and where it was collected, and I can make most of it out. A few cases have cardboard covers with label in Czech and English "Open and Replace". Only later do I realize that these are radioactive samples. The mineral hall goes on and on. Larger hunks of calcite, quartz, and amethyst are displayed on the side. The scope of this exhibit is wondrous. I have seen many, many mineral exhibits. I estimate that this one, filling 4 rooms, contai! ns between 6 and 10,000 stones. Nearly all the specimens in the glass cases are of uniform size. Smaller one rest on little pedestals. The smallest lay in glass dishes.
Then we move on to the history of life on planet earth. The same theory seems to function in this exhibit: get one of everything. There are thousands of insects pinned into the cases. Thousands of sea shells. Next room, thousands of fish. Then, thousands of reptiles. Then thousands of birds. Then thousands of mammals. They have literally everything we can think of. Three examples of crocodiles. Every kind of parrot and macaw I can imagine. The bird room contains something I have never seen: a reconstruction of a moa, an extinct New Zealand bird. You can imagine it easily. Picture an ostrich that has been fed a steady diet of steroids and PCP from birth. It is about 15 feet high with a fierce expression. This is a bird that would bite your head off as soon as look at you, which probably explains why it is extinct. Not an animal you would care to share a small island with, especially if you planned to raise children there. There is also a dodo.
The exhibit continues. All manner of sharks. The skeleton of a pin whale whose head is about the size of my dorm room. Rabbits. "Where are the cats?" Jaimy asks. We turn the corner and see them, from tiger to house cat. "I wonder if they have an elephant," I say. Out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of a giraffe and, sure enough, the elephant, though small, is beside it. We come out again in the skylight chamber, now looking out from the balcony onto a party of Japanese men in suits. They have bought the camera permit. The geometric designs on the walls and the floors make us slightly giddy. There is a sense of vertigo hanging between the ceiling and the floor.
After examining the murals more closely, we leave the museum and, after taking some photos in front of the fountain, find the second memorial. This one is more striking. The ground here is the ubiquitous cobblestone found throughout the city, but it has been altered. The surface beneath it is raised into 2 mounds, perhaps 8 inches high and each 3 feet in diameter, as if something is trying to break free of the earth below. A splintered depiction of a wooden cross rises and falls with the mounds, swelling and receding over the uneven surface. The boys’ names and the dates of their births and deaths are inscribed on the cross’s left side. It is stark and yet full somehow. We take some more pictures and, under the hot sun (we are to learn that this is the hottest summer Europe has experienced in living memory) are grateful to remember that the Museum Metro stop is only feet away.
On Wednesday, the 16th of July, I decide to peek into the library near the university, which Hannah has told me is worth an extra look. The first thing that I notice is the bar attached to the library. Etched glass panels over the library door depict the Czech lion, and up a flight of stairs a sculpture that could only be beautiful to a bibliophile. This is a tower, a hollow cylinder, in fact, built of old books. It is about 20 feet tall and 8 feet in diameter. You can walk right up to and read the titles on the spines, notice that these books have probably been withdrawn; the covers seem shabby. A teardrop shaped break in the tower allows you to look inside with a sort of shock. An ingenious arrangement of mirrors above and below gives the illusion of an infinite passage, descending forever below, ascending eternally above. Only when you crane your neck as far as it goes is the illusion broken; then your reflection appears.
The building is ultra-modern, with wooden shelves supported by metal poles. The spiral staircases and the wavy chairs give a sensation of floating. You imagine the rooms were laid out by a Scandinavian designer, or, at the very least, by someone who got the material at Ikea. In the main room, conical metal frames support climbing plants. Everything is well-lit, and the skylights open the space, as do the internal courtyards. Not only can you look out onto these courtyards; you can carry your books outside and read on a wooden bench under a vine-covered trellis. Or you could, if you read Czech.
For class on Friday, I had written my first "Prague" story, based on things about the rooster I had seen and read at the castle. But of course I hadn’t been able to remember all the details, nor find them on the Internet, and of course, although the class liked the story, they wanted the information I had left out. So there wasn’t much I could do but walk back up the hill after class (and after running errands across Old Town for Sarah, who was stuck in the office all afternoon). In class, Arnošt had also given us a tip that the locks up there were ornamented with dirty pictures—his exact phrase was "69"—and I want to take a closer look at some of the ornamentation, which I know I have not done justice to here.
I look closely at everything and examine a number of doors, but I don’t find a single naughty picture. I do memorize some elements that I had forgotten before. On one side of the castle, there is a large sculpture of a dead saint being held by a lovely angel. A tiny cherub is kissing the saint’s foot, while another holds an image of the crucifixion. On the metal gate where I first noticed the peasants slaughtering a pig, I am interested in the other little pictures: a man and a woman harvesting grapes, a woman threshing grain while a man pauses from his toil to drink from a jug, a couple shoveling hay with a pitchfork, a woman sitting in an arbor while a man woos her with a flute. Most of these pictures show a man and a woman working together, sharing a task equally. I circle the cathedral checking out devilish little faces carved into the middle of doors and craning my neck to view the grotesque gargoyles overhead.
At the far gate, I pause again to realize that only one of the giants is clubbing a guy to death. The other one is using a long and wicked looked knife. I have found the information I was looking for: the name of the god worshipped here before the Christians is Svantovít. He had 4 heads, and King Wenceslas built a rotunda to St. Vitus (predating the cathedral that stands there now) on the site of his altar to discourage his worship. I pause again, in view of the gates, to rest my feet.
A three-piece band—bass, flute, accordion—is playing here, upbeat songs that I can almost recognize, music it seems that I should know the words to but don’t. The accordion player and sometimes the flautist sing in Czech. As I sit among here among a group of Korean tourists, facing a crowd of German tourists, a long white limo pulls up, and everyone, including the musicians, turns to watch. First a guy in a tux hops out, followed by a photographer, followed by an old woman in a red dress. Now we are all waiting expectantly. There must be a bride still waiting in the limo, and finally, she is helped out. Her dress is, naturally, beautiful, with little diamond straps along with off-the -shoulder sleeves, a full, puffy skirt and a bit of a train. The photographer directs the couple around, the wedding planner poufs the girl’s skirt over and over again, and the crowd divides its attention between the photo shoot and the musicians.
Finally the musicians announce that they will play one more song, but the wedding planner runs over in her stiletto heels, only tripping once, and speaks to them in Czech. They nod and she leaves some money in the hat. Then they break into a rousing rendition of Hava Nagila. It’s up-tempo and I look around, wondering if anyone will start to dance, but my people aren’t here today. It’s mostly German families with white-haired children, the men with big bellies and strong shoulders. The wedding planner suddenly starts clapping in time to the music and the crowd follows her lead. She’s just trying to provide the appropriate atmosphere for the photographer, who is shooting behind the crowd now, but she has unwittingly provided me with a special treat. For about 5 minutes, I am watching a crowd of Germans get down to Israeli folk music. I wonder if they have any idea what they are listening to.
Saturday, the 19th, we again planned to visit the bone church, and our plans are again destroyed, this time because Sarah decides that I must accompany her to the mall. When I refuse, she convinces Katrina (I am not in the room at the time) and before I know it, there is no expedition to the bone church today. Sarah promises that we will go tomorrow (I make her swear this to me on the life of her pet rabbit and indeed, she buys me a ticket for the tour) but I have a miserable few hours in a mall where everything is ugly to me. When Sarah chastises me about my bad mood: "I’ve never seen you like this before," I answer, "you never forced me to go to the mall with you before."
That night, Carey, Allison, Lindsay, Katrina, Nicole, and I take the # 26 trolley to meet Jana, a Czech girl in the playwriting class who speaks 6 languages, at an amusement pavilion where, we have been promised, we will attend a free 80s dance party in an outdoor beer garden. Val and Libbie join us later. We walk past high chain-link fences covered with ads in Czech. One is for Les Miserables, which we’ve seen advertised all over the subway. There is a wide courtyard with 2 exhibition buildings here. They both look like wedding cakes, marzipan creations with tiers and curves and peaks. It’s dark already, but I imagine they are frosted in soft pastel colors. We hear Depeche Mode and find the beer garden, which is big, with lots of picnic tables, all of which are occupied. Settling our large group at a table where a pair of lovers are cooing to one another (fortunately, we have Jana to address them in Czech), we take in the atmosphere. No one is dancing, we only recognize ! half the songs, and the line at the bar creeps like rush hour traffic. Allison requests some 80s standards: "Safety Dance", "Enjoy the Silence", "Dancing with Myself", and "Tainted Love". The DJ, who sits behind his table morosely reading a book, as if his mother has forced him to dj her tea party, claims not to have any of these songs. Jana reminds us that there was no Western music in Prague in the 80s. We do dance to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun", "Video Killed the Radio Star" and "Flashdance", along with Duran Duran, Queen, and the Police. "Stairway to Heaven" inexplicably gets into the mix, too.
Allison shows Carey and me the fountain. This is a huge and, as Allison puts it, "cheesy, Disney” tourist attraction. We do not pay the 130 Kč for entry, but walk around the side and get a glimpse of what people are cheering for. Jets and arcs of water, lit by bold lights, jump and explode in time to an opera we cannot identify. There are fireworks too. Carey is excited to learn that on Monday, the show is performed to the dulcet strains of Metallica. From afar, we can also see the little carnival on the grounds. A high Ferris wheel is visible, brightly lit against the night. Allison says you can see the entire city from the top. Carey and I then have our own little odyssey after we say goodbye to the others and find our way back to the # 26 trolley, only briefly hindered by drunk men along the way.
On Sunday, we finally make our journey to Kutna Hora. Sarah is so excited that she comes to get us 2 hours early, but I make her go away again. Sarah, Katrina, Nicole, and I meet our tour group at 1 p.m. in Mustek, and it seems that we’ve made a good choice—there are only 9 other people on this tour: a young British couple, an old Russian couple, a Czech woman on her own, and 2 middle age American couples. The ride to Kutna Hora takes about an hour. Again, we pass out of the city, and I am struck by the utter lack of urban sprawl. There are some blocky high rises on the outskirts of town and then the landscape is rural: the rolling hills; the hayfields with giant rolls of hay, like curled yellow tongues peeled from strips of earth; more sunflower fields, the occasional stand of pine, a landscape that resembles the forests of New Hampshire.
Our tour guide, Peter, is a gaunt and slightly creepy middle-aged man whose eyes flick back and forth between my face and my breasts when he addresses me. He makes a number of tiring jokes about the height and proportions of the young British woman, who can be no taller than 4’8", but has surely heard everything there is to hear on the subject of shortness. Otherwise, he is a decent guide. He explains that 8 years ago, Kutna Hora was crumbling, but has since been placed on the UNESCO register of historically important places. A great deal of money has been pumped into restoring the town, much of it from the Phillip Morris cigarette company (which maintains a cigarette museum in the town, apparently), and Kutna Hora is now a beautiful example of the sort of Old World splendor that places like Disney World are always trying to emulate. There are narrow cobblestone streets, pastel houses set shoulder to shoulder, low stone walls, and the spires of old cathedrals tower o! ver everything.
We begin the tour in the Cathedral of Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners. Kutna Hora was once an important silver mining town, and the town is actually built over the old mines, whose excavation is no longer economically feasible. The Cathedral was intended to rival Saint Vitus and other important religious buildings of the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, as the patrons of this cathedral were more intent on expressing their prestige than their religious devotion. The roof has three tent-like steeples; the outside of the cathedral is a conglomeration of arches, buttresses, and the dozens of pinnacles, typical to Czech cathedrals. These spikes, like the ones gracing Saint Vitus, have the bristle-like appendages that, according to the cathedral’s guidebook, are called "crabs" and "flowers".
Inside, most of the cathedral has been restored in modern times. The stained glass windows, installed in the earliest part of the 20th century, are all art nouveau, although Peter explains that the panels follow the themes of the originals. I find Saint Monica, among a group of saints, venerating heaven. An elaborate old pipe organ rests on a balcony at the back of the church, and the ceiling is decorated with crests and emblems of guilds, families, and regions of the country, like shields protecting the worshippers. The main altar is a three-dimensional representation of the Last Supper, but I am more impressed by the design behind the altar. In gold and what looks like jade, a beautiful grape arbor is depicted. Some carved pews, too big and long for the area they rest in, are set on one side. The little shrines along the inside perimeter are simpler than those at other cathedrals I have seen. The most important elements here are the old frescoes, some of whic! h are partially destroyed. These date to the 15th century and depict all manner of scenes: the crucifixion, a family preparing an altar by lighting candles and looking at books, a mint worker, angels playing lyres. The most important artifact here is a Madonna and child dating from 1380, their smooth, simple faces in contrast with the flowered folds of Mary’s robe. It is a small sculpture, a few feet high, in the first shrine by the door. When the tour guide asks if I am enjoying the cathedral, I can only reply, honestly, that it’s nice, but that all the cathedrals start to run together after a while. He starts to disagree, than says that Czech architecture tends to be similar. "But even the cathedrals in Spain have similarities," I say. "But they are all built by the Jesuits," he explains, "and the followers of Saint Ignatius come from Spain." Of course. Sarah makes sure I admire the sculpture of the miner, points out his kneepads, ! and explains that the miners slid down the shaft on their knees in 20 minutes. It took 3 hours to climb back up.
We walk out of the cathedral and down a lane. To our left, we see the largest building in town, the Jesuit school. To the right, a low wall overlooking fields, with a view of some other cathedrals. Statues of saints adorn the wall at intervals. We pass an entrance to an old silver mine, a low conical structure. Peter explains that horses worked the mechanism that raised the silver from the ground. Tours still go through these mines, but the way is narrow, and he relates a story he swears is true, because he heard it from another guide. An American woman was told not to visit the mine because she was too fat but, being a "feminist", she felt this was discriminatory and insisted on proceeding. She then became stuck inside the shaft and screamed for an hour until they chipped her out with a rock hammer.
The next stop is a little museum at the old mint. This is a simple room with a number of short pillars. Each one is topped with a round glass case holding a few coins from the reign of various kings. On the wall behind them, a stylized portrait of each king is seen over enlarged paintings of each coin. A life-size diorama in one corner shows an old mint. An electric fire glows red, then orange, then yellow, but the rest of the representation is too dark to make much out. A wealthy man seems to be coming in the door. Two workers are sitting, but it is impossible to determine what they are doing. In the next room, the walls are painted with the marks of different regions and mints. A little chart shows how many groschen it would take to buy various items: a pig, a barrel of beer, a jar of ink, a dress, some boots. The impression of a coin is set into a piece of wood attached to a bench. Sarah explains that the last time she was here, a man minted a fresh coin here as a souv! enir for each visitor.
We cross a little courtyard and visit the old municipal house. Outside the council hall, a little plaque exhorts those who enter the chamber to set aside all their hostility and treat others the way they would like to be treated. Inside, we see the raised platform where the mayor sat. Murals at either end of the hall depict scenes of meetings in the hall. The room is full of wooden chairs, roped off from visitors. We are shown a wooden bench with a back that flips over, as you see in the subways of some cities, so the seats can face either way. It is explained that when the council disagreed with the mayor, they would flip the seat so they didn’t have to face him. Next we are shown a little chapel to Saint Wenceslas, painted in art nouveau style with flowers. There is a small organ here. This chapel is used once a year, on Saint Wenceslas day.
Finally, we hop back into the van to visit the ossuary, our only reason for taking this trip. It is about a mile out of town. A little skull and crossbones is marked out in contrasting white among the darker cobblestones. The cemetery surrounding the church is ultra-modern, with sleek, angular tombstones. Sarah points out one with a steering wheel attached. This belonged to a man who loved driving. The church is as fabulous as we imagined. It was originally built almost a thousand years ago. Thirty thousand people were buried here during the black plague of 1318, and another 10,000 following the Hussite wars. The bones were disinterred as the chapel was renovated. In 1511 a monk piled them into 6 pyramids. In 1661 they were rearranged into decorations. In the 18th century 2 of the pyramids were disassembled and the bones used to creates the decorations one can see today, which nearly beggar description.
The first thing we see is a goth couple, tall, with partially shaved, dyed-black hair, looking deliriously happy as they pose in front of a cross made of human bones. I imagine they are on their honeymoon, or perhaps taken a long-imagined pilgrimage. Beyond them, down the stairs, the church is laid out like any other cathedral, except everything is covered with human bones. Skulls and crossed bones are strung like popcorn from the ceiling. Leg bones hang like carved icicles from the arches. A gorgeous chandelier made with every bone in the human body hangs from the center of the room. The old pyramids still stand behind wire cages. Each has a little tunnel in its center, through which a number of skulls peer out. Little pinnacles in the center of the room are covered with more skulls. There is a monstrance of bones, and a coat of arm of bones. The latter, that of the Schwarzenberg family, depicts a Turk getting his eyes pecked out by a raven. The Turk is a skull. The rave! n is a clever arrangement of more bones.
But my description cannot do justice to the sheer majesty of the bone cathedral. This, more than any other ostentatious thing I have visited in Prague, simply must be seen to be believed. Words do not come close to the experience; nor do pictures. I could have sat in the chapel all day, but our tour guide regales us with a story of Japanese tourists who went behind the altar into a restricted area and were consequently, accidentally locked inside for a cold and creepy night. I do not find the place particularly morbid or frightening, and I know at least one person who would pay for the privilege of getting locked in overnight. Sarah says, "If I’d been dead 700 years, I’d be pretty happy to have people come and visit me every day." I find the idea of the Black Death gruesome and scary; watching friends and relatives fester and rot is frightening. These bones are bleached clean and white, creatively arranged in beautiful and orderly style for a pleasing aesthetic ! affect. I am the last to leave the cathedral, and we are hurried along to doze our way back to Prague.
A number of people on or associated with the program have been robbed by this time. One woman’s husband had $800 snatched from his pocket on the subway. A professor had his hat and sunglasses taken. Kristen’s boyfriend came to visit and his passport and wallet disappeared from the hotel room. Katrina foiled a robbery attempt; she felt someone pulling at her bag and she snatched it around to find the pocket open and the wallet halfway out. The culprit stood behind her with his hands in his jacket and she forced him to get in front of her. Some particularly misguided thieves have stolen one of Carey’s disposable cameras, so she has been going around the city trying to recreate some of the photos she’s lost.
Monday, after her late class, we meet at the University to return to the Museum of Communism. The Staromestska station is crowded; we’re barely able to pile into the subway car, and 4 boys push in after us. As the doors are closing, they all tumble out again, pushing and shouting. I think they are just messing around but Carey screams, "They tried to rob me! That guy unzipped my bag. They ran out when I shut it." She is utterly pissed off, but I’m proud of her for catching on. At any rate, she’s already removed everything of value from the outside pocket. It’s just the sheer brazenness of the crime that’s upsetting.
We return to the museum. I hadn’t taken any pictures the first time, so we both amuse ourselves by putting baseball caps on Lenin’s statue and posing with Karl Marx. I’d skipped the video the first time around, so we settle into the small theater. This 15 minute historical documentary primarily comprises news footage of soldiers and plain clothes policemen beating people with clubs in 1968, 1977, and 1989. The soundtrack is people yelling (with subtitles) at the cops and what seem to be Czech folk protest songs. It’s a little difficult to watch. Afterwards, we walk up to the museum and lay flowers on the memorial. For the rest of the night, we discuss the ethics of using Lenin as a pop icon. Was he as bad or worse than Stalin? Is it morally wrong to buy a purse with his image emblazoned on it as Carey, after a great deal of soul searching, has done? How is this different from using Hitler’s picture for a decoration? These questions are never adequately answered.
On the 22nd, I’ve arranged an interview with the poet and folklorist Colleen McElroy. Her reading last week was so impressive; besides reading her own poetry, she also told 2 stories: a Malagasy one she collected in Madagascar and an African-American ghost story. I know I have to learn more from her, so I’ve screwed up the courage to approach her about her work. In fact, I ask if I can take her out to lunch, and she refuses. Instead, she takes me out to lunch. We go to a fairly fancy seafood place near school, and I am happy that I’ve prepared 2 pages of interview questions about the work of folklorists. However, Colleen is so absolutely fabulous that I only have to ask 2 or 3 questions, and she answers all the rest without my even having to ask. Afterwards, she regales me with incidental stories about her own travels. Although I find what she does fascinating, after a few hours, I’m not sure after all that it is what I want to do myself, and I’m thankful to ha! ve met her and gotten the honest truth about the field. Later, Jaimie and her friend Pavlina are amazed. "How do you get to hang out with all these famous authors?" they want to know. I shrug. "You just ask. Most writers are thrilled to have someone to talk to about their work." Then I qualify: "Of course, you have to do 5 minutes of research so you sound like you know something about their field."
The end of the program draws up on us. We are making plans like we have all the time in the world, and then suddenly everyone realizes that our journals are due. In fact, I have to get an extension on mine, and spend two days furiously reading the books that I’d most wanted to savor. I turn it in only a day late and get to work on finishing up the stories I want to write for workshop. It’s not until Thursday, when the lecture series has ended and everyone is free, that I am able to venture beyond the dorm and the college.
Carey and I revisit the collection at the National Museum, and then I rush back to the dorm to meet Katrina at 3. Of course, I am ten minutes late, and arrive to find a note asking me to meet her at the school at 3:15. When I arrive, 10 minutes late, we cross the little park in front of the school and walk down to the river. Narrow metal steps take us to a little restaurant on a dock, where we rent a paddleboat. It’s a rickety construct, made of wood, unlike the newer, plastic boats everyone else seems to be paddling, and it’s infested with spiders, but we put our legs into it and paddle out into the middle of the Vlatava. I steer by hanging onto a little lever that controls the rudder, although the words "steer" and "control" are probably too strong to describe what it is I am actually doing to the boat with this lever. We float out into the river, where the traffic consists primarily of other little paddle boats, along with the occasional excursion b! oat, mostly long ones advertising jazz cruises, and small ones piloted by a guy in a sailor suit, carrying a couple so in love that they’re willing to imagine that they’re in Venice rather than Prague. There is also one boat that looks Viking ship.
It feels good to move my legs like this, as I haven’t been on my bike in a month, although Katrina feels differently. We float out in the middle of the river, getting some great shots of the Charles Bridge and annoying a number of ducks. Larger excursion boats must change course to avoid my erratic steering. As we pass under the bridge, we are disappointed to note that the river is blocked ahead of us by a little spillway that spans its width. Still, our plan was to float out in the middle and paint some fabulous pictures, so we orient the paddleboat until we get a nice view of the castle and the bridge, and break out the tempera. The main problem with this idea is that we have no anchor, and by the time we’ve arranged paper, water, and paints, we can no longer see the bridge. We reposition, but before I’ve sketched the perspective, the boat is facing the opposite direction. After a third try, we give up and slowly paddle back to the dock.
From there we return to the bridge on foot, and Katrina asks me if I’ve climbed the bridge tower, which I haven’t. This is another inordinately large number of stairs, seemingly endless, although the passage is bigger than most of the spiral staircases I’ve ascended this month. We finally come out in a spacious room where a man points to a booth and we buy some tickets. When I look around, I’m about to ask for my money back: all the windows, closed and locked, are made of dark stained glass. There is no view. What there is, is a small exhibit of old woodwinds and brass instruments. The man whose job is to point explains to us that we can keep climbing the stairs, which are "on sale for students". We know this is a joke because he laughs at it. After examining cases of strange, huge flutelike instruments and battered trombones, we continue up the stairs to the second landing, where there are more brass instruments, some in cases and others arranged in a semi-circ! le of chairs, as if they are waiting for their musicians to return from a coffee break. After another bunch of stairs, we finally come to a wooden door that opens out onto the roof.
The breeze feels good after the enclosed staircase. This is a sort of a watchtower; there is no ceiling, but the walls are higher than our heads, and we can see the little spires above them. There are nice portals with sweet views of the bridge below us, dotted with vendors’ rainbow-striped umbrellas, and the castle on the hill, but, frankly, there are so many places in the city to climb a million stairs and get a sweet view. After a quick circuit and some photos, we leave the tower and then slowly cross the bridge.
We walk to Petrín and take the funicular. This time, we choose the opposite direction that I took with Arlie and Kristen, and we discover some gardens of my favorite type: arranged with an eye to wildness, with hidden places and small fountains. In one walled garden, there is an old dead tree with a seat cut into it, so you can actually sit inside. Patches of purple coneflowers with heads five inches across grow next to bushes flowering in white and pink. Lovers sit on benches around the perimeter and secluded among trees in the center. We leave the open gardens and walk in the shade of the wood until we come to the lookout, where we stop for a rich dinner before returning to the dorm.
On Friday, it suddenly strikes us that the program is ending. We have already invited Arnošt out for lunch, and Sarah asks if we can have the second half of the class in the restaurant. He leads us to a small place I never would have noticed, where he has 2 tables reserved for us in the garden. There, we are all encouraged to taste his favorite dish: grilled carp, which he refers to as "river rat". He extemporizes about writing for a while and we end the class with an hour of dirty jokes. His friend, a photographer who swears he saw Bill Clinton quickly unsnap the bra of the wife of Vaclav Havel in an elevator, takes him away to work on a book, and he promises to meet us at the farewell dinner tonight.
Sarah, Katrina, and I visit another open-air market, where every stall sells fruit plus something else: puppets, or typical Chinese gifts (melody balls, red Buddhas), or Indian clothes, or wooden toys. I find a wooden comb, which I’ve been searching for, but still no marionettes that I’m in love with. By myself, I go on to visit the castle gardens. Katrina’s showed me the garden she liked best, and even though I’ve passed it several times, I can’t find it on my own and end up at the big garden, which costs 30 Kč for students to enter. This is a series of small, terraced spaces rising up the side of the hill all the way up to the castle. The gardens are walled, with the occasional fountain, topiary, or ironwork grille. The best fountain depicts a man struggling with a 3-headed monster, which is spouting water from each head. Potted flowering plants dot the steps, of which there are many. Many of the gardens are narrow: a low wall, a! three foot strip of grass, and a bench, backed up against a grapevine that hangs like wallpaper from a wooden frame. The grapes are ripening: half are green and half are purple, and I can see that the purple fruit is just falling off the vine to the ground, so I eat grapes. The insides are sweet and perfect, with only two small seeds; the skins are bitter with tannin and I spit them out.
The party that night takes place at another "traditional Czech" restaurant, but I am kind of dehydrated (having forgotten my water bottle) and have little appetite anyway. We take pictures and exchange addresses. Arnošt flirts with everyone. John O’Connor, the AWP award-winning poet, plays old folk and classic rock songs on his guitar, and I sing along with a group of people 25 years my seniors. In fact, I know more of the words than some of them. Katrina and I decide to accompany Jaimie, who is leaving at 5 a.m., up to the Petrin Hills. The funicular, we know, runs until 11:30.
Jaimie has not been to the hills yet, and is entranced by the mountain train. We walk in the dark until we find our own space: a huge field, empty save for us. Behind us, the Hunger Wall with only the single gap of one arched passageway. Before us, a wall of trees, with only a single, oval gap through which the illuminated castle is framed. We can hear church bells that are drowned out on the street, and animals crying in the woods. I would stay all night, but Jaimie isn’t packed, and the trains stop running at midnight. We have to go back. In the funicular again, Jaimie declares that "this is the coolest form of public transportation in the entire city," to which I would add, "and the entire world".
On the way back, we kind of stop paying attention to direction as we weave through crowds of British kids reeling through the streets, and Czechs drinking beer on the sidewalk. Instead of taking the route to the nearest Metro station, we find ourselves at the Charles Bridge once again. By night, the stalls are cleared away and the traffic is lighter. There are a few beggars, here and there, kneeling with their heads down and their hands out. Three or four groups of musicians play far enough apart that the music never overlaps. Two living statues work opposite ends of the bridge. I’d like to stay and listen to a guy playing a round-bellied string instrument, but we’re worried about time and hurry to the Metro station by school, arriving shortly before midnight to catch the train back to the dorm.
Saturday, the 26th, everyone is dragging a bit from the night before, but I’m in Malastrana by 1, looking for Katrina’s garden. I find it easily this time, only hampered on my route by a number of tourists asking me to take their pictures in front of the castle. It’s called the Wallenstein Garden, and it really is pretty surprising. From the outside there is only a smooth concrete wall, more than twenty feet high, with a small carved wooden door in the middle. Inside, it’s another world. The first thing that hits your eye, to the left, is the stalactite wall towering over one end, as if a gray magma candle has been burned atop it, and dripped over the sides like a wine bottle in an Italian restaurant. The wall dips down into what turns out to be a big aviary, landscaped like a garden itself, containing four sleepy owls, great horned ones, I think. There is a big house next to that, a pavilion whose sides are painted with murals of mermaids and mermen holding sh! ells and coral. Above that, scenes of ferocious battles, cherubs and angels, gods watching from clouds on the ceiling. There are little trimmed trees, low hedges cut into diamonds with purple flowers providing a canvas for the butterflies that flock to the center, and a few fountains. The statuary is all influenced by Greek mythology: a nymph running a satyr through with a lance, a centaur with a girl on his back.
I think that I’ve explored the whole garden, but that’s only one side. Past some tall hedges I find a beautiful fountain set into a manmade pond perhaps 100 feet across. The fountain depicts a guy clubbing a dragon on the head. The pond is full of enormous ugly gray carp and only smaller orange and black koi, which swim around the edge waiting for tourists to throw food at them. Ducks sail around the fountain, along with tiny, fluffy gray ducklings. A turtle suns itself on a piece of wood in the center. When I leave the garden, I spot a peahen nibbling at the grass, and I stop to watch. A moment later, a peacock struts into view. The chicks waddle after their mother.
Later Katrina and I find Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Old Town Square to hear another concert. The church is typical, with gold adornments, murals of Jesus, and angels set into the pipe organ. Its one unique adornment is a big crystal chandelier that hangs over the pews. This is a concert of organ music and violin music: Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Liszt. The full sound of the organ echoed warmly throughout the cathedral, while the violin slipped through it like a silver ladle in a pot of red soup. One strange thing about this concert is that the violinist is standing beside the organ, which is above and behind us, railed off, so it is nearly impossible to see either musician.
Our last day in Prague is tinged with regret. How much time have I wasted in the dorm? What have I missed seeing? But the best way to travel is to not try to fit every single thing into the last moments, but to revisit the best parts. Sarah and I head for the Wallenstein Garden, which she has never seen. We hit the Jewish cemetery, also a new experience for her. After that, we cruise our favorite open-air market, where I succumb to the charm of the very stupid little wooden water sprites with springs mounted on their heads, a ubiquitous tourist trinket I have resisted all month. There is one last pastry to be eaten, one last opportunity to sit on the steps of the philosophy building of the Charles University, where we have sat so many time watching horse-drawn carriages, antique cars, trams, and strange pedestrian traffic. Dinner is a simple meal at the pub across the street where we had our first meal in Prague, and we leave early for the airport. The Rolling Stones conc! ert tonight promises to make traffic difficult. If we only had one more night, we could have had tickets for $25, but the Prague portion of this odyssey is over. We have reserved a couchette on the night train to Frankfurt, our plane leaves tomorrow morning, and my father will be picking me up at O’Hare Monday afternoon. Sarah’s friend is driving out from Kalamazoo to get her in Chicago.
The cab to the train station is only 250 Kč (compare to the “mafia” driver who brought us to the dorm when we arrived). We arrive with plenty of time to make conversation with a 14-year-old German girl of Russian descent who is heading for summer vacation in Russia. She tells me several times that, although she studies English in school, she has never met a native speaker.
The couchette is hardly big enough for all our bags, not to mention the 2 strangers who will be sharing it with us, but we are happy to have enough space to stretch our legs and lie down. Although the train stops frequently and our passports are checked twice (once by the Czechs and once by the Germans) I eventually catch about an hour or so of sleep. We’ve made it to Frankfurt, but we are chagrined to realize that we’ve come, not to the airport, but to the central train station. I’m happy to have changed my remaining korunas into euros, which enables us to buy tickets to the airport for ourselves, as well as another American we’ve just met who has been teaching English in the Czech countryside all year.
In the Frankfurt airport, we suffer more setbacks: the plane, which has reportedly been struck by lightning, will be 6 hours late. Also, it is overbooked. Gate agents attempt to strong arm us into getting bumped from the flight, but we are determined to go home. Carey, who is flying on another flight, says goodbye to us, and Sarah and I, in the company of Martine, a 21-year-old Quebecois woman we’ve just met, settle in for the 7-hour wait. Martine has also taken a night train, so the three of us, sick from sleep-deprivation, pass the time talking about the last month and mocking the gate staff, all of whom have been rude and unhelpful. In the end, we finally board our plane and, of course, eventually, after a brief layover in Philly, arrive at Chicago O’Hare, where my father and Sarah’s friend are still waiting for us.