Former exiles, current expatriates, Czech natives, and wayward travelers come together to tell their stories in Travelers’ Tales Prague and the Czech Republic. These stories are entertaining, enlightening, and laugh-out-loud funny, and the writers revel in the country’s major landmarks—from the 14th-century, sculpture-lined Charles Bridge to the magical medieval town of Cesky Krumlov—revealing why this country (and its bewitching capital) has a pull like no other place.
By Ivan Klíma
Translated from Czech by Lenka Cihelková
In 1969-1970 I was lecturing at the university in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But four months after my arrival, the Czech embassy (representing my recently occupied country) notified me that I must immediately return home which meant walking through a door that would never open for me again. In the meantime, back home, my books were blacklisted, the magazine I used to work for was shut down, and most of my colleagues were looking for blue-collar jobs. Of course I could have decided to emigrate, but the idea of never having a chance to return to my hometown was more frightening that the persecution that was probably awaiting me. My wife was of the same opinion.
I found it interesting that I was not thinking about the places that symbolize Prague for most visitors—that is the Old Town Square, the Castle, or Malá Strana. I was fantasizing about places that were connected with my life—Petrín Hill where we used to push my son’s stroller or a little park by the Liben? Manor, and the romantic footpath I used to walk on with my first love. I could not resign myself to the fact that I would never be able to stroll down that path again.
It has been thirty-five years since our return and I have never tried to go back to those places; it is likely that the path does not exist anymore. For the beauty, the singular attraction of all places in the world is connected with some unique experience, event, or encounter—the city just opens the way and can provide an impressive setting.
I opened this book about Prague and the Czech Republic written by English-speaking writers with curiosity and concern. I do not like stories about tourist experiences and I refuse to accept generalizations about a place, let alone people. Fortunately, my concerns were unfounded. The essays in this anthology are based mostly on encounters and experiences (sometimes life-changing and sometimes ordinary). With some exceptions, the authors were not merely tourists, but they had spent some time in the Czech Republic—they taught, studied, they emigrated from here as children or were children of emigrants. Therefore their views are mostly informed and so I, the native and lifelong citizen of Prague, have learned about places I did not know from my own experience: a great story took me among ramblers with whom the author spent a few days and accepted their unusual way of life (Brad Wetzler); I was invited to a pig slaughtering, depicted so graphically that I will never feel the need to attend one (David Farley); I roamed, lost and alone, through a vividly painted bleak mountain landscape (Christopher Cook). A splendidly written sketch by Francine Prose included an interesting connection: the successor to the Austro-Hungarian throne felt an almost pathological need to collect weapons and slaughter animals, then he himself was shot in Sarajevo and his murder gave rise to until-then-unseen human slaughter in World War I.
I also met many countrymen, most of them pleasant—doctors, professors, and even a lady who owns a brothel where she provides English lessons to her “girls” (D. A. Blyler). I read a tender love story that begins in nighttime Prague (Jessie Sholl), and took a ride in a typical Czech train (one of the slowest trains in the world) through the borderland up to places where I would otherwise never go (Nicky Gardner). The writers introduce many places to us. Their travels usually take the well-known tourist routes, so Prague is represented mainly by the Charles Bridge, Malá Strana, the Old Town Square, Franz Kafka’s birthplace, but for me the anthology opens almost symbolically with a story from Rieger Park. Because Prague’s charm lies not only in the cathedrals and historic buildings but in the number of beautiful parks and forests which are located in the very center as well as, and mainly on the outskirts of the city. Even a fairly uninformed tourist can spend hours walking in the romantic valleys, climbing the rocks, or picking mushrooms. There also are several towns and castles in Bohemia (many of them are mentioned in the book) that are world-famous tourist attractions—for example Cesky´ Krumlov, Trebon?, or Kutná Hora. But there are a number of less famous castles, towns, and remarkable villages that deserve attention of the country’s visitors. Many of them are introduced in this book. The concentration camp in Terezín and the persecution and genocide of the Jews are also mentioned several times, but foreign visitors do not speak of the second wave of repression in the post-war period when the communists established new concentration camps, imprisoned thousands of people and shocked the world with hundreds of staged political trials resulting in death sentences. It is not the foreigners’ fault, rather it is us who advise them of what is worthy of their attention. As if we were ashamed of the Museum of the Third Revolt in the town of Príbram, because it shows our own crimes and foreign authors are too polite to remind us of them.
If I were to look for the authors’ most frequent impressions, it would be Prague’s pavements, Czech dumplings, and the local people’s incredible lack of English knowledge which, on many occasions, causes unplanned detours for the lost visitor. Fortunately, with the passage of time, mostly the younger people speak passable English and don’t eat dumplings since they prefer healthier options. The pavement, mostly on sidewalks, is being restored too.
This rich collection of essays and prose is worth reading for anyone who has visited Prague or is planning to do so and I recommend it to readers who enjoy colorful stories about experiences from foreign countries.
Ivan Klíma was born in 1931 in Prague, where he still lives. His writing was banned by the Communist regime until 1989. Since then, his novels, short story collections, and non-fiction books have been translated into 29 languages and won numerous awards, including the international Franz Kafka award for literature in 2002. Klima’s books include My Merry Mornings: Stories from Prague, Love and Garbage, Judge on Trial, My Golden Trades, The Spirit of Prague, Lovers for a Day, No Saints or Angels, Between Security and Insecurity, andA Summer Affair, which is currently being adapted to film in Great Britain.
ESSENCE OF PRAGUE
The Spirit of Rieger Park
MAXIM BILLER, TRANSLATED BY ILONA VANDERGRIFF
The Magicians of Prague
Going Off Script
Is Just Like Amerika
The White Monk
Soviet No More
STEPHANIE ELIZONDO GRIEST
Let a Thousand Satellite Dishes Bloom
In Love with George Bush
Alan Levy 101: A Eulogy
SOME THINGS TO DO
In Search of Kampa
More Interesting than a Naked Woman
Naked in Bohemia
The Almighty Child
CHRISTINE H. O’TOOLE
Bohemia, Where Fairy Tales Might Be True
Why Prague Shines
Slow Train through Bohemia
Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
GOING YOUR OWN WAY
The Universal Language
D. A. BLYLER
You Can’t Go Home Again
Natural Born Pig-Killers
Seeing Is Believing
A. E. SOUZIS
Full Moon over Bohemia
The Disappearance of Honza Happy
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Czech Republic
Brewing Up Controversy in Pilsen
IN THE SHADOWS
Two Glimpses of History
Prague’s Vomiting Multitude
THE LAST WORD
The Art of a Wasted Day
Czech Pronunciation Guide
Index of Contributors
Writers are the rock stars of the Czech Republic.
Vaclav Havel is everywhere. He gazes down from the walls of bookstores and surveys your purchases in the bakeries. He peers out from the sides of telephone booths and the windows of beauty parlors.
Havel greets me every morning as I come down for breakfast in the house where I am staying. The poster is taped to the middle of the glass door leading to the vestibule, and proclaims in Czech: “Truth and love must triumph over lies and hate.” When I catch sight of it out of the corner of my eye, it always looks at first as if a child is standing outside, waiting to be let in. Then I take a second look, and recognize the president, smiling boyishly in a crew-neck sweater.
This cult of personality sits uncomfortably with you at first—images of Mao’s “benevolent” regard come quickly to mind. But then you realize that, unlike in China, the pictures here are hung voluntarily by the people, out of long-suppressed reserves of respect and gratitude.
The pictures range from the informal sweater pose to a more dignified portrait of the former head of state. But in this one, Havel doesn’t quite look the part, giving the impression of vague discomfort with the trappings of power, if not the tightness of the tie. His look is at the same time proud and quizzical, his upper lip somewhat leonine—the uncowardly lion.
It is not just Havel’s face that is visible in Prague. His writings, at last, are sold in bookstores and his plays performed in theaters. He himself is known to enjoy an evening out, and sometimes can be seen at one of his favorite restaurants. (An English journalist, spotting him once across rows of tables, had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t his picture.)
As you would expect in a country run by a playwright, the Czech Republic appears—at least in its capital—to be among the most literate of nations. Bookstores are plentiful and are supplemented by small-time entrepreneurs who set up collapsible, book-filled card tables along pedestrian streets. Getting an early start in capitalism are three schoolboys who, after class, gather on the Charles Bridge and hawk comic books to passersby.
Alena, the daughter of the couple in whose house I am staying, tells me that one of her friends has been selling books from a table at a subway station and making about three times the average salary. Pornography, he claims, sells the best, although its availability in Prague does not compare to what one finds in Budapest.
A bust of Kafka identifies an apartment house near the Old Town Square where the great writer lived. One of the most popular tourist restaurants in the city, U Kalicha, is Good Soldier Schweik’s old tavern. The bumbling hero of the classic comic novel is remembered in souvenir glasses and napkins, as well as in the heavy, gravy-laden dumplings.
The former mayor of Prague was a translator before he entered public life, specializing in modern American literature. He has given the Czechs, among other works, Slaughterhouse Five and On the Road. You begin to wonder if Czech writers are ever allowed to work in their field: In the days of Communism, those who spoke against the government were demoted to jobs as street cleaners and window washers; now, they often are the government.
At home in the evening, Alena and I talk, she in halting English and I in accented Polish. But we find a common language: literature. She read James Thurber’s fables (translated by the mayor? I forget to ask) while still a high school student, and now shows me a favorite book of hers, in a similar vein, by the great Czech writer Karel Çapek (loosely translated, the title reads: The Life Together of a Dog and Cat and Other Things As Well). She’s a fan of John Updike’s Rabbit series (also in Czech), and is interested to hear there is a sequel out to Rabbit is Rich. She wonders about the title. “Rabbit is Poor?” she suggests, with a charmingly malicious grin. “Rabbit is Pensioner?”
Alena is in her final year of medical school at Charles University. Founded in 1348, it is the second-oldest university in Europe. Despite its tradition, it is lacking, she says, in good professors. Many academics emigrated after 1968, and those who stayed were discriminated against if they failed to join the Communist Party. This policy extended to the student body as well. Alena says that one of the densest students in her class did not flunk out solely because his father was an influential party member. She wonders what will happen to him now.
After graduation, she probably will have to go work in a small-town hospital, as jobs are difficult to get in Prague—and apartments, as well. Then, after a few years, she will try to come back to her beloved city.
It is easy to understand her desire. Prague is an architectural marvel, a collection of Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance masterpieces. It is difficult, if you are an American, to imagine having grown up here. And, thinking of those who have, it is almost impossible to imagine them wanting to leave.
Prague’s original character has been faithfully preserved by virtue of three important factors, or more precisely, absences. The relatively small amount of fighting in the area allowed it to survive World War II pretty much unscathed (unlike Warsaw). The absence of commercialism, in the period of socialism, kept its ornate buildings free from the contemporary clutter of Western advertising (unlike Vienna; Milos Forman shot much of the footage for his film Amadeus in Prague because he found it a better representation of eighteenth-century Vienna than Vienna). And, finally, the 1968 Soviet invasion left behind a heavy, sullen atmosphere that discouraged tourists for years (unlike in Budapest).
Now, after the Velvet Revolution, tourists are coming with a vengeance. They fill the narrow, twisting cobblestone streets with their cameras and Burberrys, and stand patiently before the ice-cream windows. On certain streets, on certain days, there are more tourists than residents.
Perhaps the most popular spot in Prague, for tourists and residents alike, is the Charles Bridge. Completed in the fifteenth century, it is lined with towering statues of age-blackened saints who look almost ready to spring to life. But what distinguishes it—in fact, makes it one of the few bridges of its kind anywhere in the world—is the fact that you are attracted to it for reasons other than getting to the other side.
Closed to vehicular traffic, the bridge today is a combination promenade, flea market, art gallery, and open-air theater. From one end to the other, you pass young women selling jewelry and artists displaying watercolors. Two teenage boys sit at the feet of St. Anthony of Padua and strum folk songs on their guitars. Farther along, a five-man band plays ragtime, which you hear sung, for the first time in your life, in Czech.
Standing lazily on the bridge my last day in Prague, taking in the scene, I am approached by a man with a camera.
“Do you speak English?” he asks tentatively.
“Fluently,” I reply.
“Oh, good. Can you take our picture?”
After the shot, he and his wife introduce themselves. He is American, she is Czech, both about forty and now living in Los Angeles. “But I grew up here,” the woman says proudly. “I used to cross this bridge every day on my way to school.”
They have just been to see one of her former neighbors, an elderly woman who regaled them with stories of the Velvet Revolution. “During the demonstrations,” the woman tells me, “she cooked huge pots of soup and took them out to feed the students.”
“And she gave us this picture,” the man says, delicately opening the book he is carrying. I look and there, between the pages, pops a black-and-white photograph of Vaclav Havel. He is riding a horse. He looks, again, a bit ill at ease. “She has a friend who knows Havel,” the man explains, in reverent tones.
After more conversation, the man says softly, “Let’s go, Lucka, we have to pack.”
“I hate to leave this,” Lucka says, turning around for one last look at the storybook city, her hometown. “I don’t want to leave.”
Thomas Swick is the travel editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. He is the author of a travel memoir, Unquiet Days: At Home in Poland, and a travel collection, A Way to See the World: From Texas to Transylvania with a Maverick Traveler. His stories have been included in The Best American Travel Writing 2001, 2002, and 2004, and The Best Travel Writing 2006.
David Farley lived in Prague for three years. When he wasn’t teaching English, sitting in pubs, or teaching English while sitting in pubs, he was trying to reach the most remote corners of the country via train, bus, or on foot. He’s lived with a classic rock-loving, gas-sniffing addict in a crumbling Communist-era high rise (the story of which was published inThe Best Travelers’ Tales 2004), attended a pig killing on the Czech-Austrian border (see “Natural Born Pig Killers” in this collection), and, most recently, for Condé Nast Traveler, bewildered Czech villagers in a spaceship-looking convertible with Michigan license plates. Today, he’s a freelance writer living in New York City. His writing has appeared in New York Magazine, Time Out New York, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel, Playboy, BlackBook, Chicago Tribune, and The Washington Post. He recently won a Lowell Thomas Award for travel magazine writing. He teaches writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and New York University. Please visit his website,www.dfarley.com.
Jessie Sholl has called a pup tent home while gutting salmon in an Alaskan fish cannery, been caught in a hurricane in Belize, and hiked across southern Bohemia and Moravia. She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from the New School, where she teaches fiction writing, and has had short stories published in several literary journals, including Other Voices, CutBank, Lit, and Fiction. She has been awarded residencies to The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and Ragdale, and is currently finishing her first novel, You Are Here. As a freelance editor, her clients have included magazines, web sites, and novelists. Jessie lives in New York City with her husband, David Farley, and their dog, Abraham Lincoln. She can be reached at www.jessie-sholl.com.