Sunday, October 28, 2007

Optimists in the City of Sharp Claws

"Prague never lets you go... this dear little mother has sharp claws." -- Franz Kafka, real Czech writer of"The Metamorphisis," in which a man slowly turns into a cockroach

"There are moments when optimists should be shot." --Jara Cimrman, fictional Czech hero, who beat Kafka, Vaclav Havel, Martina Navratilova and every other national figure in a poll to find the "Greatest Czech of All Time," and would have won handily if not for the formality that he does not, in fact, exist


It is now Monday morning, and I finally have a little time to write after spending two amazing days with Laura in Prague. It is quiet at the Pension u Medvidku, the hotel where we're staying, a medieval shell built atop a bustling brewery in this country that arguably makes the best beer in the world. In a way, the place combines some of the contradictions that make this country so fascinating and unique. It is, first of all, a very old place. The door to our room is bright red with the gold, starry emblem of some long-forgotten noble family on it. It is a huge door, with an ancient metal key, and closes with the cavernous thud of a bank vault -- you half expect Bach's "Tocatta in Fugue" to play whenever you open it a crack. The hotel is also a raucous business, one of the many entrepreuneral enterprises that exploded two decades ago when the Czech Republic exiled its Communists landlords and, seemingly overnight, started welcoming back the tourists.

You could accurately describe the city as Kafka-esque, filled with hovering old buildings and narrow streets that are just barely lit at night. But with the Communists gone, the only hidden menaces are ones of the imagination. There is almost no violent crime here. It was oddly comforting last night when Laura and I, trekking to a restaurant high on a dimly-lit cobblestone lane in the shadow of Prague Castle, smelled the unmistakable odor of pot smoke...coming from the local police barracks.

Because it is one of the few capitals of Europe to escape the bombing of World War II, and because it now is bursting with energy after the fall of Communism, there is this delicious mix of old and new here. It was one of the Eastern-bloc countries to most quickly embrace the West, but it is stubbornly clinging to its own uniqueness...or, more accurately, it is rediscovering it.

It is, to my way of thinking, refreshingly free of so much of the health consciousness and litigiousness we take for granted in the U.S. For example, the escalator leading down into the subway is the fastest I've ever seen -- getting on reminded me of the opening credits to "The Jetson's" where George races off the treadmill and into the wall. I nearly endured a similar fate. When we climbed the 400 winding steps up Petrin Tower, a 200 foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower that stands high above the city, it was hard not to notice that there was hardly anything, aside from a thin metal rail, seperating you from the elements -- no glass, no safety bars, no nothing. It's the kind of thing you'd never see in America. Fear of lawsuits alone would prevent it. (Those of you who know me well know that I have a long and tortured history with going on vacation and periodically forgetting that I have a terrible fear of heights. It happened climbing the pyramids at night. It happened in the hot air balloon in Charlotsville -- we do not need to revisit those regrettable incidents. Of course, it happened again, this time early in the trip. I was white-knuckling the hand-rail at about foot 150 when I stopped for a moment of vertigo, and it was only the nonchalant voices of small children giggling above me that led me to swallow my fear and go on. Well, that and the people grumbling in foreign languages behind me. But I digress...) It was well worth it. We were rewarded, upon reaching the top, with a breathtaking panoramic view of the Old City in all its resplendent fall color.

And everyone smokes here. They smoke in the hotel, the coffee houses, the restaurants. It seems like there are two sections: smoking and black-lung. The Czechs, it seems, had enough of Big Brother under the Soviets, and the attitude now is appropriately laissez-faire.

A final note. Despite shaking off the yoke of Communist tyranny, the Czechs have yet to embrace vowels. That's why the language gives you words like krk (neck), zmrzlina (ice-cream) or even a vowel-less sentence, "StrĨ prst skrz krk." (Put your finger down your throat--just imagine singing "Behind Blue Eyes" in Czech.) There’s a joke about a Czech man going to see an optometrist. The optometrist points at the letters p r c h l n k v d on his board and asks the man if he can read them. “Read them?” exclaims the Czech. “I know him!” Anyhow, it is not one of the easiest languages to follow or adopt. Parisians, I'm told, are willing to forgo some of their snobbery toward Americans if we at least make an attempt to speak their language. Not so in Prague. Those times I've attempted to speak in Czech have met me with looks of pity and concern -- and occassionally disdain--and are soon followed by answers in perfect English.

Anyhow, back to the story. We arrived in Prague after a night at the Ibis Hotel near Heathrow Airport in London. That came after two unusually stressful and sleep-deprived weeks for me in Washington and a seven-hour flight that, as usual for me, was a form of medieval torture. When you're 6'4, it is very hard to keep your psychological tray table in its upright and locked position when you have a foot of leg room, and the person in front of you is a fidgety recliner.

So we more than a little groggy in the cab en route from Prague Airport to our hotel. Along the way, we passed a lot of grey, depressing urban sprawl, a sign that it will take some time before the stain of Communism is fully erased from this country. After unpacking, we quickly made our way along the banks of Vltava River, past the 14th century Charles Bridge, into the Old Town Square. The square is flanked by the centuries old St. Nicholas and Tyn Churches, a statue to Jan Hus, one of the first protestants who was burned at the stake a century before Martin Luther preached, and the Astronimical Clock, which marks the hour with a crowd-drawing tableua: First, Death tips his hourglass and pulls the cord, ringing the bell; then the windows open and the 12 apostles parade by, acknowledging the gang of onlookers; then a slightly-choked rooster crows. The hour is past.

We perused a store that sold elaborately-carved and painted marionettes, walked around an exhibit of art made with chocalate, and passed a bustling outdoor market that sold everything from figs and chess sets to scarves and large fur pelts (I became obsessed with the notion of not leaving Prague without a pelt). We also idled by the Museum of Sex Machines. I swear, I am not making this up. Though it certainly fired my imagination --"See the first vibrator...made of wood!" I envisioned -- Laura drew the line and said no.

We ate dinner at the Klub Architektu, a wonderful place in a medieval cellar. Most Czech restaurants do not have private tables, and this turned out to be a delightful thing. We shared our meal with a very funny and engaging couple from Stratford-on-Avon, both teachers and musicians. The food here has been unbelievable. It's big on meat -- wild game like rabbit, boar and venison. Laura and I both had lamb braised with raisins and wild mushrooms in a sweet wine sauce, which I downed with an amazing Slovak beer.

From there, we indulged in the local theatre speciality--"Black Light Theatre." It sounded pretty cool, relying on the use of ultraviolet black light to create intricate optical illusions combined with a lot of movement (think Synetic Theater in Washington) and a dash of Theater of the Absurd. There are easily 30 Black Light Theaters in Prague, and we went to one of the most recommended, The Image, which showed a "Best of" retrospective Saturday night. Sadly, it turned out to be mostly a dissapointment, combining two art forms I despise: Benny Hill-style slapstick humor and interpretive dance. It was like an illicit marriage of the worst of high- and low-brow entertainment. Laura didn't like it either. It might have been the performance we saw. And it might have been just us. But the audience went bezerk afterwards --I don't know if I've ever seen that many curtain calls. My perception of the performance was somewhat altered by the fact that into the third routine, my body crashed from exhaustion. I kept dozing and waking up, and fell into one of those half-asleep, half awake fugue states where the action on staged merged into my subconcious and the hurried events of the past two a way that could be described as Kafka-esque. It was odd...and I wasn't unhappy to leave.

We had been warned to expect cold weather and lots of rain, and that's why we were pleasantly surprised to wake up Sunday to a beautifully sunny fall day. Being Czech Independence Day, we walked the streets to the intermittent sounds of fireworks and marching music. We passed a powerful memorial, erected in 2002, that served as a reminder of what independence means to this just-recently emancipated country. Called the Monument to Victims of Communism Who Survived, it depicts a series of sculptures that represent how people atrophied under the totalitarian regime: they do not die, but slowly disappear, one limb at time, until the final sculpture at the top of the hill is nothing but a rotted shell.

A happy accident -- the furnicular to the top of the aformentioned Petrin Hill was closed--- meant Laura and I spent two hours (Did I mention it was a spectacular fall day?) walking through a forest lined with fruit trees, with views of palaces and churches everywhere, to the top of the hill. Lots of pictures were taken. (There is no USB port at this computer, so that part will have to wait...until later, if not until I come home. But trust me: It was breathtaking.) At the bottom of the tower is a hysterical exhibit in honor of the fictional Cimrman, who is a great example of the offbeat sense of humor here. Wiseman, inventor, and "autodidact gynecologist," he is known for creating a host of useless objects and for never getting credited for his ideas ("You can't just have two sisters," he told Chekov. "How about three?")

We walked down the cobble-stoned Nerudova Street, where wealthy families are still identified by elaborate murals over their dooors--two violins for an instrument-maker, a set of scales for a lawyer. We climbed the hill to Prague Castle to the sounds of music: classical, choral and, at the top, Czech folk music. Inside the castle grounds, we spent the bulk of our time in St. Vitus Cathedral, a powerful symbol in this largely Roman Catholic country. In addition to some of the first Hapsburg kings, St. Wenceslas (as in the Christmas carol of the Good King) is buried here. In fact, Czech Kings were crowned right in front of Wenceslas' tomb in a chapel with precious jewels as big as paving stones set into the wall. There was also a masterful stained glass window designed by Art Noveau/Art Deco artist Alfons Mucha.

After spending a half hour at the Toy and Barbie Museum, which traced the evolution of European toys from wooden Noah's Ark pieces and scary Aryan child dolls to the perhaps even scarier Barbie, we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. This splurge came courtesy of my mom and Bob, who gave the splurge funds as a Christmas/Chanukkah present, and my goodness, it was memorable. After passing the police precinct with the pot smoke, we went to the Restaurace David. To set the ambience: You have to buzz even to get in. It's a quiet candlelit place with Czech art on the walls. It's a place where the waitors meticulously remove and add silverware after every course -- the Czech equivalent, I guess, of the guy who cleans the crumbs off your table, both practices that make me feel like I've done something wrong somehow. We sat near a trio of friendly Italians. Laura, who looked amazing in a fancy black dress, had a Czech meal of wild boar and potato pancakes with blueberries. I had a more international dish of venisson with cranberries. The waiter was friendly, and brought out a patte appetizer and, at the end, a dessert port in a huge glass with a one-foot stem -- both compliments of the chef. Even though the restaurant is too expensive for the average Czech, by American standards it is only mid-range. It was, nonetheless, one of the most memorable evenings we've had together. So thanks, Mom and Bob!

And with that, I'll leave you. Tomorrow we're off to the small town of Cesky Krumlov, about three hours south.

Until later....


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

I Be Gone: A Final (Final ) Test of the Emergency Odney System

"You Will Be Goning On Vacation"
--actual fortune from actual fortune cookie received at a recent Chinese meal

I'm sending this just to test that the automatic e-mail thingy works. The final weeks leading up to a vacation are always hard, but these have felt like the Bataan Death March. I am sleep-deprived, caffeinated and ready to fall down. But pity me not, dear reader, for I am about to embark on a grand adventure. I am about to...gone.

I will sleep on the plane.

Further Trials

This is to see if the e-mail function works.

Trial and Error

Well, people have been telling me I should blog for a long time. So, I'm gonna try it this way rather than send e-mail dispatches home.