First off, I’m back in business, camera-wise at least. Seems I have a bad charger and in addition with a little laying-on of hands with the memory card, we’re up and running for the moment.
Second, I’m just finishing up several days in Prague, the highlight of which was a chance to meet up with my dear friend Magda from my time in Batumi where she was a visiting student from Poland at the university where I was teaching. We have stayed in touch over the miles (I saw her in Warsaw last year, for example). This photo, taken from the Apple Museum in Prague and quoting Steve Jobs of all people, pretty much sums up our friendship and our life philosophies:
But as I elude to in my post title, I am really struggling with my reaction to Prague, similar to my reaction to Cesky Krumlov. In short, I feel as though this country has made a difficult pact with the Devil. In exchange for capitalizing (as it were) on their stunning cultural history and developing economically through various facets of tourism, they have become a kind of “faux” fairy tale European amusement park destination. The core historical sections of Prague which everyone wants to see – for the reasons that are clearly evident – are now completely devoid of, well, anything and anyone actually Czech. Kafka, whose work s known for fusing the real and the fantastic, might have had something to say about what his city has become.
Very little bite in the Old Town Square these days
One critic suggested that Kafka wrote about the “irrationality at the roots of a supposedly rational world,” and perhaps that is my existential dilemma about what has become of this gem of a city. Is this what members of the underground fought for during the Second World War? What the brave protesting students hoped for during the Prague Spring of 1968? What Vaclav Havel, the first freely elected President in 1989, anticipated? That the Old Town Square and Wencelas Square would become just long strings of international fast-food franchises, repetitious clothing store chains and souvenir shops, run by Chinese and Africans and overrun by teeming hordes of tourists of every national stripe, giggling over selfies and checking their Facebook pages at a Subway or Starbucks? It’s hard to say.
So my way to combat this cultural malaise is to pay quick tribute to the marvels of the city and then look for the interesting side stories. To that end, we start with Old Town Square, Staroměstské Namesti, virtually unchanged since the Middle Ages. Instead of showing you clock towers and churches, I’ll focus on the Easter Market, an unexpected treat on these cool-ish March days:
I never knew about Easter Markets – similar to Christmas markets, but with eggs and flowers – but it is a cheery sight, if rather commercial. One day there was a band playing Louis Armstrong jazz; the next day this group of Celtic crooners had taken their place:
Wandering a few short blocks from this site finds one in the historic Jewish quarter, again completely mobbed, all the attractions pretty highly priced, large groups waiting in long lines. Since I have paid a good deal of homage to the Jewish populations in several of the countries I have travel through in the past couple years, I though I would take a pass this time around. I did manage to squeeze my camera lens through the only opening to the Jewish cemetery that did not have a price tag on it to take this quick shot of that hallowed spot:
Crossing one of the several bridges that spans the Vlatava river (Moldau in English; same one that runs through CK), one cannot help to be continually amazed by the view of the Castle Hill. It was built to impress starting back in the 9th century and those boys knew what they were doing:
I walked my way up to the castle complex today, but the crush of humanity was so great (and this is March, remember) that I couldn’t even face going through the main attractions. BUT, confirming my opinion that Starbucks has the single best real estate agents in the whole damn world, I did came across this and just had to share:
Latte with your World Heritage site?
Happily, nearby, I stumbled onto the Lobkowciz Palace, the only privately owned building in the castle complex. In brief, this ancient family lived in this property for hundreds of years, only to lose their titles after World War I and then their properties after World War II. All was regained in 1945, only to be lost again to the Commies in 1948. It was actually President Havel that made it possible for this family to once again inhabit their ancestral homes (note the plural). But with ownership came conservatorship of the properties and their contents – to say nothing of some whopping huge tax burdens as well. That being said, understanding the history of this region through the lens of a single family, learning about their intermarriages, their patronage of the arts, and their enduring love of dogs was illuminating, humanizing, and downright fun.
Following this cheering cultural interlude, I headed down from the hill to stroll the curving streets of Mala Strana along the river, the “Little Quarter,” formerly occupied by ethnic German citizens of the city and now home to a many of the embassies in town. The American Embassy is further up toward the castle, but I saw the Japanese, Danish, Finish, Norwegian, and most dramatic and largest of all, the Maltese (?). About then I was ready for some chow, and since Czech food has already overwhelmed me with its dependence on meal and fowl, I was delighted to stumble on a Yugoslavian restaurant featuring some of the delicious (somewhat lighter) cuisine and wines of that region. Welcome to Luka Lu:
After lunch, I wandered back through the city to my hotel, noting that the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the tourist areas didn’t look a whole lot different than they had when I first visited in 1996, begging the question of how much the financial impact of the tsunami of tourism was actually trickling down to the rank and file. Buildings were run-down; shops were lit with dim fluorescent bulbs illuminating drab contents; people looked, as in Hungary, weary and wary. I would love to talk to someone who actually lives here about how they are experiencing the globalization of their country and what they see as the costs and benefits are. One shopkeeper in CK had said plaintively, “We feel like we are surrounded.” Surrounded indeed, in so many ways.
But I can see now, a little, perhaps why these Central European countries were so quick to slam the doors on the waves of migrants who have been trying to flood into Europe. As countries who are still struggling to find their place and way in this brave new world, as peoples who perhaps are still not benefiting substantially from European integration, the thought of trying to accommodate thousands of even more needy and less stable mouths to feed may be rather daunting. A crisis of confidence in their future, perhaps, rather than a question of their humanity. Interesting to consider.
But I can’t leave you on such a downer – let me share a sign that love and life, of some variety, is still very much alive and well in Prague:
Make ’em laugh
Poor Kafka, that these should all come so long after his time. They might have helped him get lucky and dispel some of those dark moods. No room in those for a ‘roach.