Wanderings in Prague inspired by Franz Kafka
You’ve long been gone. And the world has changed. The Berlin Wall has long collapsed. It did just a few months after you left us in 1989. McDonald’s is now as at home in Moscow as it is in Illinois. The Soviet Union is no more, now divided into so many independent republics, Armenia, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, etc. The Cold War is just history, except in ‘80s reruns. What used to be Czechoslovakia is now the Czech Republic and I am here now, writing you on a local train, nothing like the Eurorail or Thalys, that, bound for Vienna, has just left Praha hl.n, the main railway station in Prague.
By the time I finish this letter, I will have crossed the border to Austria. Because I have much to say, I might finish this in Vienna or, if that’s not enough time, I might finish it many days later, maybe on the train to yet another Eastern European city, Budapest. For now, let me just focus on Prague.
I am little sad leaving Praha, so sad that on my last night there, even as a solo traveler, I had a candlelight dinner at a traditional Czech restaurant in the Old Town Square, a goulash the menu described as South Bohemian that I relished with two bottles of Pilsner. Both goulash and beer I don’t particularly like (though beer was all I could afford in college) that in the five days I was in Prague I would eat more pasta or roast chicken and even a fish-and-vegetables combo at a Sichuan eat-and-go place on Karmelitsky with wine or water, no gas, or Coca Cola, regulare, prosím.
You were in my thoughts as I wandered around Prague. When I was young, while you were indoctrinating me in all things American, recruiting me into your one-man army whose sole mission was to keep the Great American Dream alive, my gradeschool teacher assigned me to do a report on the Balkan Peninsula. What a thrill it was to come upon something so otherworldy—Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia… Yugoslavia was still one country and would remain so until 1992, when it would dissolve into Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, etc. Come to think of it, the Balkans were my gateway to Europe, although Paris drew me there first.
But now, I had just left Prague, and with such heavy steps and a heavier heart that as the train neared the Austrian border in Gmünd, I felt like I was headed back to the familiar world, to think that I had never been to Vienna, except while reading about the childhood of Marie Antoinette at the Hofburg Palace before she was sent off to Paris to marry Louis XVI.
I was at home in Prague the moment I stepped off the plane from Venice. With no plan other than to find my way into the city via public transport, I was prepared to get lost, but I didn’t have to, except along the length of Nerudova Street, where I resisted the urge to ask for the kindness of a Czech stranger because I was sure I was where I should be. True enough, I was right at my hotel front steps, but I walked past it, dragging my suitcase uphill on cobblestones all the way to the end of the street, 15 extra minutes of pure struggle with the sun in my eye and gravity against me. At the hilltop, past the Strahov Monastery in all its Baroque glory, past the long stretch of the road that overlooked a portion of the complex of orchards housing the Tour Eiffel-inspired Petrin Tower, where for a moment I stopped to catch my breath and let the sweeping view take it away, I hailed a cab to take me a few meters back, but the long way around because Nerudova was a one-way street. I paid 200 CZK ($8) for my stupidity and I do not know—nor do I care—if the cabbie, a decent-looking fellow, had me.
But the Residence Green Lobster, quaint, old, and cheap, welcomed me with arms as wide open as Prague’s itself, replete with a canopy bed worthy of 16th-century nobles, an extra bedroom, and two large windows overlooking Nerudova and its many cafés. Behind the hotel, as seen from the balcony, where I smoked many a cigarette, were the Prague Castle and a historic building of the Prague National Gallery.
All weariness gone and I took no more time than needed to drop my suitcase and change to a new shirt to be out there, exploring the many alleys sloping up and down the streets of Malá Strana (the Lesser Quarters). I wasn’t very keen on visiting the many places cited on every top 10 list on the Internet. Prague in its entirety, in every nook and cranny, is a museum piece, but what made my trip special was, just walking around, I would find myself about to cross Karlův most, Charles Bridge.
Spanning 515.8 meters, with so many statues and statuaries to keep you in thrall, it crosses the Vlatava and connects the Old Town side of the city with the Lesser Quarters, where Prague Castle is. More than a geographical connection, however, it is a bridge across time, taking us back to 1989 when the Velvet Revolution brought communism down; back to 1648 when the Czechoslovakians warded off the Swedes right on the bridge as the latter tried to advance into the Old Town having just occupied the west bank of the Vlatava; back to 1535 when King Charles IV, at exactly 5:31 a.m. on July 9 on the recommendation, according to legend, of a numerologist, laid the first stone on the building of a new bridge in place of the Judith Bridge that a flood swept away earlier.
Such was every day for me in Prague. My trip, more than the execution of a detailed plan, was a wandering. I let my feet take me where they would and they took me to surprising places tourists would pay to find. Although I might have lost a lot of time finding my way, would you consider it time wasted if I spent it walking interminably through a desolate orchard or down nameless streets with wild flowers cascading down quaint windows or down a path to the edge of the Vlatava to find myself, to my utter surprise, in the company of swans?
Did you ever dream of Europe? Not as far as I can recall. You were raised in post-WWII Manila, where America was defender, protector, savior, hero, a dream! As I was growing up, you were already an American, although it wasn’t until the year you died, at the tailend of my adolescence, that at last the American embassy gave us the go-signal to move lock, stock, and barrel as a family to California. Alas, you died—the dream proved too much. It wasn’t meant to be.
Who knows how life might have panned out if it didn’t happen the way it did, but, well, here I am, not an American, still a full-time resident of the country you sought to get me out of (and by now on a train bound from Vienna to Budapest, yet another former communist and once a Nazi stronghold) wondering how we could have discussed Eastern Europe as father and son if we weren’t all eyes on America? Maybe I would have had the chance to see Prague earlier when it was still backwater in the European cityscape and not now when, if you happened to be one of those guided by tour group flags, it might appear to be no more than a showcase of the failed Marxist-Leninist model, replete with the cold communist trails American retirees follow with a victorious glint in their eyes.
One of the best surprises was wandering into Shakespeare and Sons, a bookstore on the charming street Krymská below Charles Bridge. I left the bookstore, after an eternity reading in the cellar, a few hundred crowns poorer and with shoulders more heavily burdened with the likes of Franz Kafka’s The Sons, Timur Vermes’s Look Who’s Back, and Anna Novotná’s The People of Prague Understand Me on W. A. Mozart.
Walk to your right from the bookshop and you end up at the Franz Kafka Museum and in the heart of the city Kafka both loved and hated, with sculptor David Černý’s irreverent fountain of two men pissing on a map of the Czech Republic, to boot, in the middle of the square outside. In a letter to a friend in 1902, Kafka wrote: “Prague does not let go. Of either of us. This old crone has claws. One has to yield, or else. We would have to set fire to it on two sides, at the Vyšehrad and the Hradčany; then it would be possible for us to get away.” I read his “Letter to His Father” in my copy of The Sons while on an hours-long coffee break in the shade of the hedges at the Wallenstein Garden, where a peacock and his harem of peahens surrounded me.
Maybe, this is why some folks fondly call the city Pragatory, though to me if this is purgatory why bother ascending to heaven? Some claim that alchemists helped build this city, especially during the reign of King Charles IV, when he had the Prague Castle all in gold. Legend has it that to turn the Czech Republic’s rich metal to gold, so much sorcery as well as the black arts was involved. To this day, there are alchemy tours in Prague, their booking offices housed in ancient taverns. It’s all part of the city’s charms, haunting as they are.
Turn left from Shakespeare and Sons and, crossing a small bridge, you end up dissecting graffiti on the Lennon Wall on Velkoprevorske Street. The wall came to life in 1980 in protest of the assassination of The Beatles frontman John Lennon the same year in New York. It has been painted over many times, such as in 1988, when attempts to rid the wall of its subversive messages in the name of “Lennonism” led to a clash between communist authorities and hundreds of student activists on Charles Bridge. On the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in 2014, the wall was whitewashed and only the phrase “The Wall Is Over” was left. The Knights of Malta, who owns the wall, threatened to file criminal charges, but later changed its mind when the culprits, a gang of art students, came out to say that, rather than vandalism, it was an art project. The wall is now deep in a year’s worth of fresh graffiti and, on my visit, the most prominent of the scribbles was, as I read it in a sing-song voice in my head: “(All we are saying is) Give Peace A Chance,” (parentheses mine).
Prague does not let go. Of either of us. This old crone has claws. One has to yield, or else. —Franz Kafka
I have more to share with you about Prague, in which I continue to dwell in the same way that every conversation with you back in my youth would carry on enough that I always had much to say in class discussions, though, I might add, my references were purely American—The Beach Boys rather than The Beatles, for instance, Broadway rather than the West End, Ernest Hemingway rather than Kafka…
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing but gratitude for you. America or your dream of it has left me attuned to how vast this world is, and though I seem to be moored in my own country from which all your life you wished to break free, I can be everywhere else I want as long as I keep that door open, which you opened for me.
Your wandering son,
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