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The King of Prague

Another essay:

The King of Prague

By Peter Vincent

I sit on the green wooden bench, at the edge of a grassy park along a ridge, overlooking the Vltava River, a thousand feet below. The Vltava flows through the center of Prague, intersected by numerous stone bridges.

Across the river, red-tiled roofs, bleached orange by the sun, sweep across the city, tilting at myriad angles. Church spires punctuate the skyline, their copper domes green like moss from centuries of devotion to the pale blue sky, its few billowing clouds so still today. The domes suggest a world of oriental mosques, although, aside from its foundations in paganism, Prague's only religion has always been a Christian argument. The spires attest to this, supporting small golden globes which, in turn, support thin gold crosses, resplendent in the sun.

Electric trams and lines of small cars drift over the ornate stone bridges, perfectly placed at intervals along the Vltava, their small lanes made more for the carriages of kings on their way to coronation, not this modern onslaught.

Built of sandstone blocks and festooned with the statues of saints, the Charles Bridge feeds into the cobbled streets of the Little Quarter, heading toward The Castle. Hradcany is the first village to spill down the hill below the walls of The Castle, perched on the highest vantage point of the city, the hills below filled with a flowering tree called Golden Rain. Behind the walls of The Castle, I can see the Gothic spires of St. Vitus Cathedral, its towering stained glass windows an alchemy of light, ablaze with the passions of Christ.

Inside the cathedral, on another day, I stood by one of the many side altars, devoted to the crypts of kings, having come upon the stone casket of a young prince, his resemblance recreated on the casket, a knight still in armor, hands resting on his chest, the date of his death being 905 A.D.

That evening I attended a concert of strings directly behind St. Vitus at St. George Basilica, the first church in Prague, a small Romanesque structure built by the Celts who settled in Bohemia along the banks of the Vltava.

The short simple pews faced a wide stone dais which served as an altar at one time for some form of pagan Christian Mass. Only two windows filtered light through opaque glass behind the altar. Beneath the altar, more kings rested in their crypts behind grilled gates, easily preceding the life and death of the young knight at St. Vitus. It was here the violins, cellos, and bass played Vivaldi, Mozart, Handel under simple golden modern lights.

As I watch the river below, quiet except for a few party boats, the stillness of it all, on this late afternoon in April, brings me back to a sense of normality, as I once might have known it.

The lovers on the bench beside me are indifferent to the magnificence of the sights below, so entranced are they in their tender conversation and occasional kisses. Czech teens gather their legs up on the benches behind me, bumping each other in some private code of joy and intimacy, fused with laughter. Women, young and old, stroll through the park arm in arm to be closer to the secret discussions women are so fond of. Mothers and grandmothers huddle over baby carriages as they pass me and, as always, I notice the bright cute hats they love to adorn their children with, the mother's voice a softened lilt inquiring after the god-child, as if she has access to some remote chamber of the mind where self-love resides.

I have never seen a people love their children so much, so far am I from the Cadillac carriages of the Bay Area, attended by foreign women who barely speak the language of the children they care for while their parents sit in cubicles or corner offices 60 hours a week to ensure their children's future.

Devoid of western arrogance, the Czechs are a humble people, pillaged and occupied for hundreds of years by the likes of Attila The Hun, the papacy of Rome, the Hapsburgs and Adolph himself. Hitler was so kind as to let the empty Jewish ghetto remain standing as a future museum to the "Extinguished Race." After the war, the Czechs hoped the ghetto would be filled by those who returned, but there was no one left to return to it.

Russian tanks tried to slaughter the Czech spirit, but the muzzles of their guns were stuffed with spring flowers. Stalin's boys occupied the country for 40 years until 1989.

Czechs are universally thin, having filled the void we all must fill with something besides consumption. Portions are noticeably small, wherever you eat, whatever you buy. The average income is around 8000 crowns a month, less than $300.

The warmth and affection seen in their greetings resembles the closeness I saw in large poor Italian and Irish families I grew up with. This seems such a contrast to the rage and disappointment of the American poor who are constantly bombarded by the media concerning what they don't, and should, have.

Czech women have been raped with abandon during each occupation, bequeathing them a legacy of beauty, as pain so often does, from the various strains that have passed through them.

Beneath the oriental arch of the thin eyebrows, the eyes, like coal, look straight at you. Often called "cat eyes," it's actually the legs of the women that leave such a strong impression. At times, they resemble luscious stilts, these elongated stems, beneath their cute small butts, the rest of her draped in smart fashion. I wonder if the naturally pouty lips are an understanding at some level that the rest of the world is unaware of how much beauty goes unacknowledged in Prague.

She will stare a man straight in the eye, whether she's with a lover or not. Bold is not the word. Perhaps she's searching for the drifting soul of the man who tore at one of her ancestors, so she can extinguish it forever. Or perhaps she just likes men.

After one of these women locks her eyes on mine as she passes my bench, I turn back to witness the glorious city beneath me. There's a softness to its sounds that echoes between the ochre walls and tiled roofs, the way white sound induces trance.

"I'm Czech now," I said to Keith and Barbara as we sat in a restaurant over salmon, fresh from the North Sea. "I don't want to be American anymore."

+ + +

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 (6)

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