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On Leaving Prague

A dear friend of mine, Peter Vincent, an insatiable writer (published novelist), moved for roughly a year, to Budapest, by way of Prague, on my recommendation. He's now back in San Francisco thinking wistfully of his days in Eastern Europe, dreaming of a way to move back.

He has written a few essays of his time there but is not so comfortable with the TypePad publishing system, so he asked me to post them for him here. Here's the first. To read the complete essay, click on the link below:

On Leaving Prague

By Peter Vincent

Prague is a luscious seductress on first sight. She'll invite you into her bed so easily you'll think you want to spend the rest of your life with her, even die in her arms. Then she'll cast you away in the morning, surprisingly disillusioned, and you'll wonder if it all wasn't just another dream, slipping into the dawn.

But we should always remember love, not by its disappointments, but rather its earliest moments, which drew us together in the first place.

How do we reconcile this gap in experience? How do we reconcile anything, finally?

Perhaps with a last stroll through Old Town Square, that core of the city where her heart resides, gliding over its carpet of cobblestones, overlooked by two cathedrals, their proliferating domes and spires puncturing the sky, a coitus of heaven and earth, perhaps an affirmation of that early Slavic belief that Prague was that place on earth where the visible and invisible came in closest contact.

At the center of the square, we'll stop to admire that enormous monument to Jan Hus, a cluster of Hussite prelates, huddled together in such a mesh of humanity that they seem like a modern abstract, their billowing robes now green and blackened by time, shadows of their former brilliance.

Stopping, we turn in awe at the antiquity of the pastel buildings along the rim of the square, their facades often painted with delicate tableaux, their windows and balconies supported by columns, their rooftops overlooked by towering statues of mothers and children, maidens and satyrs, angels and winged warriors, as well as cardinals, kings, and popes, their heads tilted, their shoulders bent, ambiguous in their intent as to whether they are holding up the sky or simply watching over Prague.

Perhaps we're amazed with the human effort that could have erected such wonders with primitive scaffolds and human hands, but we notice the muscled males at the corner of a building, their backs hunched, their arms extended, their hands supporting the balcony above them.

These were Slavs after all, destined to servitude, whether they were women pulling ploughs, or men digging uranium in the northern mines for Russia. This was also the site of manufacturing during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, these two small provinces known as Bohemia and Moravia, sometimes called the Czech Republic.

Perhaps we've come from Chapeau Rouge, down the street from Marquis de Sade, through the arches and the courtyard and the narrow cobbled streets, where we stood outside smoking hashish bought from the house dealer, rolled in a paper obtained from the bartender who will answer our question, "When do you close?" with the reply, "We don't have a closing time."

Peering through the plate glass window, we marvel at the Victorian red walls, the mirrored balls and slow whirling fans hanging from the ceiling, the royal blue drapes encased in glass above the windows, as if dawn is always breaking, as three twenty-somethings fired on x and amphetamines dance to Trance pumping out of the DJ booth, where a few moments earlier we shared our first shot of absinthe with the little blonde who lured us across the floor, and for the first time we find ourselves sipping this minty myth while this sweet young thing takes hers in one slug, as if she's done it all before.

Then we notice the two policemen at the end of the street, stolid, indifferent to the hashish joint as they stand there looking in our direction.

Everything's allowed in Prague. There are brothels and strip joints all over the city and S&M castles in the countryside, mostly frequented by Germans who need to be submissive for a change. Prostitutes will accost you on the street: "Want good sex? Want good sex?" - perhaps the only English phrase they know. It's too costly to prosecute broken laws here. The police carry antiquated weapons that sometimes won't fire in the midst of a crisis. Prague is beautiful, but she's the daughter of a poor man.

So be careful when that Gypsy girl comes through the arches and asks you for a cigarette and clasps your hand with too much affection when you light it. Watch out when her brothers and sisters come fanning through the arches to see what the outcome will be, but you slip away with a fond farewell.

Gypsy whores will invite you for "a glass of whiskey," if she knows enough English, or "a glass of water" if she doesn't. There'll be drugs in that glass of whiskey and you'll find yourself drifting off to sleep while she empties your pockets and disappears into the night.

Two young Irishmen fell prey to such a plot after leaving a Centrum bar too drunk for their own good. One was found dead of an overdose on the sidewalk in an outlying district and his buddy was in a coma.

Gypsies (Roma) are the blacks of this culture. They suffer 70% unemployment and are given the most menial jobs. Their children are automatically sent to schools for the retarded, because they don't speak Czech. This policy was recently justified by the Minister of Education, a woman.

Every culture has its dark side, a deformity of intelligence, but Prague is not unintelligent. She boasts a 97% literacy rate. If brain development correlates with language complexity, then brains are strong here. A local cafe will carry fifty magazines spread on the counter, along with several literary journals.

But if you happen to live in a Czech neighborhood where you're the only English speaker, you learn a little what it's like for a black man to walk into a white bar. Everyone turns to stare, and sometimes the stares can be hostile, because you're immediately identified as a foreigner, someone unwanted.

It doesn't matter if you try to learn Czech. The people are possessive, like a lover, of their language, the only weapon they've ever had. They've developed sounds and manipulations of the mouth no one else can duplicate to ensure you remain an outsider. They speak at a rate oriental in its rapidity.

Unfortunately, they disdain you with good cause. With privatisation, you're the reason the brass nameplates outside the flats in Centrum bear foreign names instead of the former Czech tenants who can no longer afford them. You're the reason prices are going up while wages are not. You also helped to create the new class of Czech entrepreneurs who have no qualms about exploiting their own people. You're the reason there is a growing divide between the rich and poor.

It's said that much of the psychology here is about the Occupation. Czechs were only allowed to travel to the Black Sea for vacations. Police and secret police were everywhere. It's said that 75% of the population reported to the secret police at one time or another. This only ended 12 years ago.

The sole retreat from this oppression was the home, where family and children became the center of existence, the only world the Czechs still controlled.

On the train back from Budapest, I sat with a father and his six year old son. The father talked to his son the entire seven hours, never showing the slightest sign of irritation, quite to the contrary, he seemed to enjoy every moment. After all, poor people only have love, affection, the body to offer each other.

There are twenty words for fucking in Czech. Couples make out on the Metro, on the trams, in the squares, on the street - there is no shame about expressing your feelings or desires here. Yet, aside from robberies by prostitutes and pickpockets on the tourist streets, there's no street crime in Prague. You can walk through Old Town Square, the only soul there at three in the morning, and not feel the slightest danger.

After all, this is a matriarchal society where women rule, and women are not warlike. Thoroughly atheistic, its roots spring from pagan-based beliefs, which are still symbolically celebrated at the change of seasons. In the spring, bonfires are lit on the hills to burn off the last chill of winter.

But there are those who still miss the old days when everyone could afford to go to the opera and basic goods were priced so that everyone could buy them. It's said that Prague allowed her occupiers to march in with little resistance because they didn't want their beautiful city destroyed.

Perhaps one day as we walked along the river, we thought about the depth of this sacrifice, the price these people paid, the humiliations they suffered, to preserve this beauty called Prague for the rest of the world.

Children don't kill children here. A scrap of paper tossed on the sidewalk will bring immediate reprimand. Old people stay in their community and are offered a seat on the tram. Everyone finishes Gymnazium, the equivalent of two years of college. There are only 400 cases of AIDS reported in the Czech Republic. Perhaps there were some benefits to their isolation, as long as you cooperated and didn't get sent to a work camp.

But now we gaze across the square to the banks of canopies along the periphery, where tourists sit at open-air restaurants, the cafe-sitters enjoying their counterparts crossing the square, along with the young backpackers who sit in small groups on the cobblestones.

Then we notice another group standing at the side of Old Town Hall, gazing up at the concentric circles of the Astronomical Clock, the circles and medieval symbols glistening gold, recalling Prague as a center of spiritual learning during the Middle Ages. The crowd stands fixed waiting for the magical figures to suddenly appear from their cubby holes at the sides of the clock when the hour sounds, the bells in the tower tolling above them.

But now everyone stops to listen to the classical guitarist, perched on a wooden stool, fingering notes with such incandescence that they infuse the evening air with a music rivalling prayer, at the heart of Prague's best promise, this sense of a place where all people meet, from every country on Earth, to stand for one brief moment, free of all enmity, free of all pain, in a city called Prague, which translates as Threshold.

Then, just as he's about to finish, a storm cracks out of the sky, throwing everyone into peals of excitement, as all run for cover beneath the churches and canopies and the terra cotta rooftops, leaving only the horse-drawn carriages alone in the downpour, as sheets of water sweep over the cobblestones, slicing the air with such ferocity that everyone stands still for a moment, awed by the cleansing delight, but much like those passionate moments of lovemaking, it's washed over you before it's begun and the rain suddenly stops, leaving you with the beating desire that it could all start over again.

But you're not Czech, after all, and Prague is not your destiny, merely a threshold to it.

There's a train leaving for Budapest in the morning when, for the third time this summer, you'll slowly move out of the train station, heading south through Bohemia, passing the one-room cottages and well-tended gardens that the Czechs acquired in the old days and still vacate the city for each weekend.

After a while, you begin to see the farms and hills of Moravia, while sitting in a tight compartment with a pair of Czech grandparents taking their granddaughter on her first trip to Budapest, the grandmother speaking with her granddaughter by the window, both enjoying the sights of the tiny villages along the way, church spires at the center of them, the orange tiles of their slanted roofs lit by autumn sunlight, forests in the distance.

As the Czech family begins to share their picnic lunch, the grandfather strikes up a conversation with the Slovakian man returning to Bratislava. Then when the train police slide the compartment door open to check passports, you notice with what reverence the Slovakian man pulls out the passport from the breast pocket of his suit jacket and removes it from the plastic baggie protecting its edges from bending or fraying. Only in that moment, do you fully understand how much freedom, and freedom of travel, can mean to people in this part of the world.

Then, as you enter Slovakia, the Czech Republic's poorer relative, you notice more signs of fall in the fields that beamed so brightly in summer with green corn and yellow sunflowers. Now the harvest is in and the stalks are ready to be cut and tossed in the fires in the distance, their smoke already rising toward the darkening skyline, a blue haze against the dark brown mountains, stacks of hay neatly bundled across the fields, small tractors turning what remains of their roots in the earth, black as dried blood.

Eventually, you pass through Bratislava, a beautiful city that was levelled by the Germans, the price of resistance, and replaced by a Communist eyesore.

After several trips to the dining car, just to make this last trip the most pleasurable, where you sit at a table by the window with your diary, over lunch and cups of coffee, you finally approach the Hungarian border and begin to see the villages and hills again, the hills tiered with grapevines, until you come to that bend in the river, the first glimpse of the Danube, the sun setting over one mountain, the full moon above another, the medieval castle looking out from the mountain between them, while at the foot of all this, the moon illuminates a few fishermen bobbing on the river in rowboats, their lines stretched taught, like something out of a Monet painting, the pink sky aglow above them.

But the river bends away from the train and disappears into the hills and trees and won't be seen again until you reach Budapest and its Art Nouveau train station, a shell of glass and fancy wrought iron, once arrived at by carriages and the Orient Express.

Then you treat yourself to an expensive taxi, so eager are you to arrive at that cosy flat on Victor Hugo utca, just down the street from the Danube, and just around the corner from Balzac utca.

Quickly unpacking, you hurry through the gardens of Szent Istvan Park and make your way along the river bank until you come to Margit hid, one of the most stunning bridges in Budapest, where you walk to the center of the bridge and stand at the railing, the moon still full above you, yellow trams rumbling over the bridge, Margit Island behind you, an island the size of Golden Gate Park, Parliament on the Pest side in front of you, The Citadel and Royal Palace on the Buda side, both sprayed with light that spills over the surface of the river itself, and you recall what you said to yourself on the night of your 57th birthday, as you stood on the oldest bridge in Budapest, another full moon above you, and quietly whispered to the water below: "How can you not give yourself this gift?"

Now, as the party boats throw even more light on the river below, all doubts about leaving Prague are banished and you ask yourself with utter dismay that there was even a moment of hesitation: "You'd rather be in Prague?"

But surely Prague is not forgotten, as love should never be, but we must always weather its aftermath, if we are to be ready for love again.

+ + +

Peter Vincent is a published novelist who lives in San Francisco. He can be reached at vincentpeter65 - at - hotmail - dot - com

Rick E. Bruner | Prague Nostalgia | Mar 11, 2004 | Comments (11)

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