Very surreal…the Beach Boys ‘Get Around’ plays on my stereo, immediately following an original version of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ on a local Czech radio station. (I shouldn’t be surprised at the tasteful and eclectic music in Prague – after all, this is the city that produced the Plastic People of the Universe, possibly the most important band after the Beatles, to ever grace a population with its music. More on this in a later post, but stay tuned, because their story is incredible). I’m drinking a glass of wine, which has been poured from a bottle depicting a large black bear with a Czech label. The wine is red, oddly sweet, and cost me 45,00 Czech Korunas, which is roughly equivalent to just over US $2.00 (for the entire bottle). I’m sitting alone in the spacious bedroom of my apartment located in Hloubetin (which has a weird accent on the ‘e’ and the ‘i’, which I cannot reproduce on my American machine), and the ceilings are not quite so low. My front window overlooks a busy street, and my back window overlooks an adjacent apartment complex. The subway station is less than a half a block away. It doesn’t quite register to me that Communists (capital ‘C’?) once lived in this apartment.
I’ve just returned from my first jaunt into the city center, one of the few in Europe that escaped destruction during World War II. That post I wrote this morning in the airport seems like it occurred a lifetime ago, which is generally the feeling one gets when traveling great distances in a short period of time. At least I get that feeling.
Prague is old, it’s sprawling, it’s confusing, it’s beautiful, it’s scary and it contains an oddly large number of marionettes. I want to say something to the effect that Communism still reigns supreme and that people are only starting to adjust to Western culture and capitalism. But that’s not true at all. Capitalism is everywhere, encouraging and sickening at the same time. For some reason I guess I expected the city to be more authentic, more something, but the same trendy restaurants and tourist boutiques line the Old City just like anywhere else. The comforting realization that nearly all of the Old City buildings are actually authentic and original in their architecture and construction is squashed by the establishments that inhabit those buildings. Paradoxically, tourism simultaneously maintains and kills the authenticity of a city by preserving the look of an historical place such as Prague, yet destroying the feel with the influx of money and foreign tourists.
I must go back in time before I can return to the present. I’ve been writing what is coming to mind, which may be a product of my solitude, the wine I’m drinking or this bizarrely eclectic radio station I’m listening to. Mostly I think my stream of consciousness comes from that ominous black bear who graces the label of my wine bottle. I feel like the hammer and scythe should adorn the bottle next to the bear. ANYWAY, (and I shamelessly borrow that word from Chuck Klosterman), I digress. So back in time we go…
Remember that 7 degrees C that I mentioned Paris was enjoying? Well evidently Paris is a bit farther from Prague, at least meteorologically. When my plane landed, after descending through three distinct and mesmerizing layers of clouds, the pilot announced, in not less than three languages, that the temperature on the ground was minus 6 degrees C. Not sure if I heard him correctly, his statement was shortly confirmed when I exited the terminal sans jacket and promptly froze my ass off waiting for my ride to the school. For some reason I didn’t get a stamp in my passport, which is disappointing, because up until now every country I’ve visited has left their mark in my little Blue Book of Freedom.
Via shuttle bus, I was granted a short tour through the Old City en route to the Hotel Pivovar. Despite my zombie-like state, brought on by my 1:00am bedtime and 5:00am wakeup call, my initial reaction to the city was one of amazement. The driver did his best Michael Shumacher impression as he tore through the cobbled streets, our sense of speed multiplied by the incessant vibration from the ancient pavement. A few observations immediately stood out; cars were parked on the sidewalks; trolley cable cars zoomed down the center of the main streets; church spires stood like palace guards over every visible section of the city; and the enormous castle loomed over the entire city while the river meandered through it’s ancient center. The castle, I later discovered, is more than one thousand and one hundred years old, built more than a millennia ago. The first passenger was dropped off just under the famously beautiful Charles Bridge, where an old mill, built in the 1350’s, was visible. As the cab departed, I noticed a sinewy, soldierly looking man, ostensibly in his 30’s, running through a park adjacent to the river, in shorts. I was reminded that I am in the former USSR, and that these people are probably a lot tougher than I am.
Upon arrival at the hotel, I was greeted by a few of my fellow students, all of which were female. One of the girls was asking for help lugging her enormous bag, of which she’d packed two, up the stairs to her room. Another was very friendly, in her 40s or 50s, and will probably feel very out of place with a class full of twenty-somethings, but whom I will probably relate to the most. The third was unmistakably American, and unmistakably female. She had not one positive comment to make, and her frustration with not being able to make a credit card phone call or get online with her laptop quickly became everyone else’s problem. I’m very cautiously optimistic about the rest of the class.
My apartment is larger than I’d imagined, and for better or for worse, I occupy it by myself. I was under the impression that I’d be living in a bedroom of my own in a shared apartment, but that is not the case. I have a large kitchen, a huge bedroom, a nice shower, a decent stereo, no TV, and an absolutely enormous closet. I’ll like it here, and I’m only two subway stops from school, eight from the city center, about a 10-minute jaunt. My accommodation is adequate, but I must emphasize that it is pretty rustic, a bit musty, and, for lack of a better descriptor, very Russian. (Rather appropriately, I think, I began re-reading George Orwell’s 1984 this morning in the airport.)
After a brief doze on my entirely-too-small-for-one-person bed, I decided to explore. Never fully cognizant that I’d be experiencing yet another culture with yet another language to challenge my comfort level, I was a bit shocked at the indecipherable recordings while riding the subway. Without realizing it, I’d become very accustomed to Swedish, and now faced with a culture even more foreign to me, Sweden seemed oddly familiar and comfortable, in hindsight. Nevertheless, I ascended from the underground into a bustling, vibrant city, gawking like a child at my surroundings. Fairly confident in my route-finding ability, I set off in a direction that seemed to lead to whatever it was I was in search of. Block after block of ancient architecture delighted and confused my senses, and soon I was very, very lost. I didn’t care. Truly enjoying myself, albeit freezing my ass off, I meandered along the ancient cobblestones, keeping a watchful eye out for a neat pub or interesting gallery to pop in to. About to continue down one street, I glanced to my right and noticed the silhouette of the immediately recognizable castle looming in the distance, and immediately changed course. Following a side street, I soon emerged onto a veranda overlooking the river, and beyond that, the castle itself. Perched on the peak of a small rise in the landscape, the castle in Prague occupies a stunningly enormous piece of real estate, and is a truly magnificent site to behold. The sun had already set, leaving only a faint grey-blue hue on the western horizon, and the castle stood, glowing in the soft-yellow light that shone upon it, dramatically contrasted against the ever-darkening twilight.
By chance alone, I found myself in the middle of an explorer’s nightmare – packed amongst hundreds of wide-eyed tourists, snapping photos in every direction, unconcerned by anyone else around them. I had stumbled upon the Charles Bridge, the gateway to the castle and essentially the central tourist attraction of Old City. In this most historic and beautiful of locations within the city, cheeky tourist shops which belonged in Ocean City, not Eastern Europe, dominated the storefronts. Unfortunately, these places and the people that keep them in business are exactly why historic monuments like the bridge continue to exist in their original form. After all, money is king, and tourists bring in more money than the people of Prague have ever seen in the 40 years of Communist rule.
The radio station has seemingly switched to mellow classic rock at this point. Crosby, Stills & Nash ‘Our House’ is currently playing. That followed The Who’s ‘Substitute,’ which followed Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond.’ Life in my apartment was more exciting when Led Zeppelin diametrically opposed The Beach Boys. Ah, fittingly, The Beatles are here to save the day, and help me finish my $2.00 bottle of wine. I wonder if this black bear is going to give me a bad hangover.
Several sips and several minutes later, after re-reading and editing much of what has already been written…
Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ is now playing on that radio station. I feel that this is important to mention. Additionally, in the hour or so that I’ve been creating, there has been, at a maximum, maybe 30 seconds of continuous commercials on this radio station. The sounds emanating from my stereo have been almost entirely musical, and I’m thrilled that this song is on the air right now…20 seconds later, and now what is playing? None other than ‘Love Isn’t Always On Time.’ This place is bizarre. One of these days I’m going to do a Bill Simmons-esque running diary of this radio station. I may need more Czech wine for that.