Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Prague and Other Tragedies

The nightly local news squirms muted in the background, a suited man in a helmet of ink hair attempting to sell the latest i-phone/pod/GPS to give to your loved ones at the holidays. It's a handheld GPS system he's fondling and now waving. Everyone must have one because everyone should absolutely know where they are. You can find yourself over and over, checking every ten feet, if you so desire. You will never be lost again.

I moved to France in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall was chipped and sledge-hammered away. It was an exciting time for everyone, but life in Paris pretty much proceeded as normal. There did seem to be an influx of Eastern Europeans to Paris during the ensuing years.

A Polish photographer friend of mine, now a filmmaker, gave my coordinates in Paris to two of his cousins coming to Paris for the first time. They arrived at my front door with a giant army bag and one much smaller bag. The large bag was bursting with hundreds of colorful foam lizards. The cousins had been stopped at the border and the bag opened. They had said that they were in a circus. The lizards, though, were their roundtrip tickets to Paris. They spent the week in touristy Les Halles selling the foam lizards - little toys attached to a thin wire that they jiggled around. They didn't sell them all, but simply enough to pay for their trip and lots of drinking. For their trip home, the cousins cleaned out my already paltry refrigerator and, curiously, took every plastic grocery bag in the kitchen. I came home and was less worried about the food, but pissed that I would have to go shopping just for a trash bag. I wondered if they had shown up at the Polish border and explained away their abundance of plastic bags as a circus act.

But... at the time, in the early 90s, Prague was the place to be. People I knew left Paris to find their true bohemian souls in Prague. The famous philosophy/literature journal, Le Magazine Littéraire, which I read closely, published a special issue on Prague and its writers. Everyone was reading Milan Kundera. One grand city was the buzz of another grand city.

Prague had been a dream of mine for a long time. Part of my family is Czech, and I felt a special attachment to this relatively unknown side of the family and the fiercely loving, intelligent, feminist grandmother who died when I was two. I loved Kafka, Kundera, and Škvorecký, and read most of their works. Prague was the city I wanted to visit and it became a near obsession. Writers, painters, philosophers, very cheap beer, an ancient city of beautiful architecture and an archaeological culture always creating its own layers of history, even in response to the powerful Soviets.

I would visit in winter. It had to be winter: cigarette dangling from lips as I walked in solitude along the snow-lined Charles Bridge collar turned up against the cold. I had just published a piece on Baudelaire in a Japanese magazine, but I told myself that post-1989 Prague would truly be the place to write about at the time, not Paris.

Unfortunately, I was broke. Constantly. I couldn't even make it from Paris. I told myself to go anyway - hitchhike or something - but then I would come into some little job or a new girlfriend and would stay in Paris. Prague thus remained a dream for the time-being and I consoled myself with the suggestion of one writer whose name I forget, "it's best to dream of Prague for a long time before going there."

Then I started to hear complaints from the bohemians that Prague was filling up with American exchange students looking for a good party. The city was changing rapidly, becoming crowded with foreigners and the various services that pop up to cater to foreigners.

I moved back to the US a few years later. By that time, Prague was booming as a tourist destination and becoming more expensive. Brits took over, and took advantage of the copious alcohol and abundant Czech models. In the latter 1990s and early 2000s, the city became truly cosmopolitan. Today, a travel writer in The Guardian asks, "is Prague the new Prague?" She writes,

Happily, things in this picture-perfect capital are changing. The stag parties have, mostly, moved to cities that offer an edgier, cheaper weekend away. Prices in Prague have risen steeply, and although a night out will cost you considerably less than in, say, Paris or Barcelona, the days when a pint of Staropramen cost 60p are long gone. So much the better for those of us who like a weekend pottering about, indulging in a spot of shopping, a little history, a cocktail or two and some slap-up suppers.

It's in these last two areas where Prague has really improved. Slick new eateries and classy stag-free cocktail joints have opened up around the Old Town, alongside a clutch of new 'design' hotels which offer a more stylish option than the big hotel chains. Perla opened in September, and its sleek, minimalist bedrooms and cosy breakfast room were made all the more appealing by its fantastic location, mid-way between Wenceslas Square and the Old Town.

Dear God. Have I dreamed of the city so long before going there that there's now only the inside of the dream? The quote in which I took consolation had turned into a sham. The right moment had closed off forever.

I'll go to Prague... Next summer, in fact. I'll be speaking at a conference in Bratislava and plan to toodle up to the grand, dreamt city afterwards. Not the person I was in a city that's not what it was. And that's that.

This is the lesson. When you have the desire and the opportunity, however slight, always go. Even if you're essentially lost, wandering, without a clear objective. Our places and histories are eternally shaped and reshaped in front of our eyes. Much of the reshaping has more to do with impersonal economic circumstances than any particular decisions on the part of a society or individuals. My going to Prague would have been a drop in the wave that eventually changed the city into something other than what it was. Always moving beyond reach; moving further away as I grasp at it. When you do go, understand that this is the same for you. You change it, it changes you and there is nothing that can be done about that. None of us are truly located after all.


Anonymous said...

Mmmmmm... My Tallinn is the dark not-yet-redone Tallinn of January 1998. No bank machines, light pattering snow, the sweater market, ice and slush.

It was my very own. I knew it would change, had to change for my Estonian friends to do well. And so it has.

It's technicolor now, even in winter, not the grays and browns that the Soviets left there. The tourists swarm from the cruise ships in summer, and there are more Estonians there in winter. There are many more flowers at the flower market all year round. The sweater market is almost the same, although the sellers all speak English now and there are trendy shops across the street. And some of those folks have migrated to Tallinn from Prague.

I still like it, love it even, but it's not mine in the same way the lonely dark streets were in 1998.

Enjoy Prague, helmut. It's not what you've missed, but with so many dreams of it, you'll find some there.


MT said...

This is the lesson. When you have the desire and the opportunity, however slight, always go.

And/or never stop forming new desires, since so many have an uncertain shelf life.

troutsky said...

We must arrive apologetically mindful I suppose. As an ugly american I feel especially anxious (unreasonably so) about my "impact".My daughter and son in law still found loads of charm in Prague last year, just takes a little adventuring.

Anonymous said...

According to legend, the Princess Libuse stood atop one of seven hills overlooking the River Vltava and declared ‘I see a city whose glory will touch the stars; it shall be called Praha (threshold)’. From its mythological inception to the present, benefactors have placed Prague in high regard. This is a city I would love to return too having been several times in both summer and winter. It's also popular in Europe as a cheap place of Prague hotels, food, transportation.Prague represents a great vacation experience.