Tuesday, January 8, 2013

21st Century Impressions: Prague

I'll be the first to admit that it's impossible to extract and articulate the essence of a city, a people and their culture in a week's visit. There's the history, the sights, the architecture, the food, the language - all the things that distinguish one place from another - great for the groovy Facebook photo album, the snazzy Instagram photos with the clever obnoxious captions, fascinating conversation that makes the traveler seem so worldly and sophisticated when there's a good possibility they spend half the trip on the can doing battle with some overly spicy schnitzel and one too many Czech beers. Like building dinosaurs from the cell of a mosquito that's been trapped in amber for millions of years, a week's worth of images and thoughts - impressions - can only breed generalizations. Here they are for what they're worth.
As I wandered around the City of One Hundred Golden Spires, the heart of the lands known for centuries as Bohemia, I thought of all the things I wish I had studied up on before I got here. Like the language! Holy fucking doo dads! Every word has several "marked" or accented letters, turning them into sounds different than your basic naked letter and making the idea of mastering even the basic phrases ridiculously daunting. There is one word - prosim (proseem) - that supposedly serves the all purpose function for please, pardon, excuse me, thanks, hello...you name it, though I never once remembered to use it, partially because when they throw the high speed gobbedlygook at you it's hard enough to remember your own name. Still it is one of the lovelier languages to hear: a musical combination of open vowel sounds and whooshing consonants that tumble off the Czech tongue like a symphonic allegretto.
I don't want to rip on the Czechs, but overall they don't seem like a super happy bunch. Maybe that's just an act to keep the turistas on their toes, or perhaps it's just the communist upbringing of the older half of the population - the fear that some apparatchik will hear them utter a rebellious thought, fear that they've passed on to their children - for the sidewalks, even at Christmas, are mostly a parade of blank expressions staring at the ground before them as they trudge purposefully down the ancient avenues. (Then again if I saw me coming down the street I would probably look at the ground and trudge forward to avoid contact too.) When I did try to get a Czech to smile with a little goose to the crotch they didn't seem to like it very much. But it did give me the opportunity to notice their teeth as they cursed me up and down, and I realized the lack of smiles has nothing to do with poor dental hygiene. On the contrary, the few smiles I did see were adorned with beautifully straight teeth, nary a hint of horsemouth or buck-toothed slobber. And it's not just the teeth that are good looking. The Czechs, and I imagine the Slovaks and many neighboring Bohemians are a handsome bunch, descended from the tall blonde warriors and dark eyed princesses that built Bohemia over ten centuries ago. But, unlike the Parisians and Italians, Czech fashion does little to compliment the good looks of the population. Walking down the street I felt like I was among movie stars, hockey gods, underwear models - all of them hidden in drab, colorless, frumpy winter outfits. Most young males wear a buzz cut which really makes them look like dolts. Handsome dolts but dolts nonetheless. The older guys generally have the Vaclav Havel mustache and accompanying paunch and their wives - the women in my general age range - look like they could sub for their husbands in the senior hockey league, though I imagine they have more shape once the leaves bud and terminal winter cloud lifts. The younger women are, of course, an entirely different story. Even winter fashion reveals a lotta shapely leg falling out of the miniskirts and under the various leggings, but displaying heroic cleavage doesn't appear as important as in the States, perhaps to avoid being the victim of the ancient Bohemian tradition of pouring beer in between the boobs until it froths over and can be toungued off by the hockey or futbol squad. And, though it was winter and most boobs are bundled up under sweaters and parkas, the ones I was lucky enough to observe were 100% natural. Not a phony boob in the bunch and I was paying attention. The truth is the eyes have it in Bohemia because it is there that the allure lies. Set between the famous high cheekbones, the sparkling blue/green eyes of the blonds and the liquid chocolates of the dark-haired beauties, shaped like almonds and often with feline mascara, can both melt and freeze the unsuspecting American cowboy in an instant. Naturally the only looks I got were more of the "what are you looking at, grandpa?" variety. I expect many of the girl's had flashbacks from local hero Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" when they saw my bug eyes popping out of my green, crunchy face.
I guess Function before Form is the watchphrase of many Czechs. No frills. No song and dance (unless there's an accordion and a lotta beer handy), very few smiles and even less laughter, at least coming from those unfortunate Czechs that have to put up with the tourists to make a living. The cab drivers in Prague are particularly grumpy, (and famously prone to ripping off tourists), as are a good number of folks with service-oriented gigs. I don't know what's on their minds or what they have to be particularly upset about these days, besides the oppressive winter weather which around here might feel like Communism revisited. The infrastructure of the city is sound, the metro is clean and safe, and there are outdoor bars serving all kinda booze that you can drink while strolling around town. The surrounding countryside is rolling, bucolic, and not unlike Wisconsin with lakes, rivers, farm houses and the ancient villages each with their signature castle or cathedral on the hill. Between Paris and Vienna, Prague is by far cheaper but also sort of "junior" in comparison, having had a pretty rough go of it since WWI. Still, they're surrounded by some absolutely heartstopping antiquities, architecture, art, music and literature as well fascinating, important history that defines Central European life and culture and it's like...who cares? Okay so the horses of Bohemian kings, princes, nobles, barons, counts, dukes and duchesses once clip-clopped up these cobblestone streets and across the 800 year old Charles bridge; men in armor with swords, spears and shields; ladies of the court with pointy hats and skirts trailing yards behind held by maidens in white headscarves - it was all happening here and the locals are like "Big whoop! Where's my schnitzel and beer!?"
When I come back I plan on doing a few things differently. First, though the Xmas season is a true Festival of Lights all around the city and it's nice to experience the holiday without Santa and his reindeer hijinks all over the place, it is absolutely jam-packed with turistas and locals out and about. I suspect every village and burg in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and points east empties out and heads for Prague, or at least it felt that way listening to the various incomprehensible languages being spoken on the squares and the streets of Old Town. I've heard October and May are nice times to visit. I would also stay in Mala Strana, across the river from Old Town (which is backwards, since Mala Strana was actually settled first). There are many pensions and hotels in the area and it's much, much less crowded and quieter on the west side of the Vltava River. But it's really a small town - you can walk everywhere - so lodging location doesn't really matter that much. That said, it's easy to get turned around on the winding, narrow cobblestone streets surrounded by 6-8 story buildings so it's good to have the smart phone GPS working and to get the map loaded before you lose the hotel WiFi. The major landmark is Prague Castle on the west side of the Vltava River which can help the babbling turista get their bearings. Also, signing up for local WiFi during your stay might not be a bad idea, especially for the translation app. English is not as commonly spoken as the travel guides would have us believe, and unlike French, German, Spanish, and Italian, the Czech alphabet has all sorts of modified sounds which make phonetic pronunciation near impossible. A translation app will not only show you the words but it will pronounce them for you as well - I can think of several times when that would have come in handy!
Like all the great European cities, Prague comes alive when you summon Mr. Peabody and the Wayback Machine and step into Medieval Europe, The Dark Ages, and the Renaissance. The early Celtic tribes started hanging out on the shores of the Vltava back when the Egyptians were building pyramids. They set up camp and traded with the folks sailing up and down the river. The camp became a city, the pagans got Christian and went on to build the Bohemian empire, and the great musicians, artists and architects gathered in Prague to create and preserve this majestic, magical, Golden City, without which JRR Tolkein couldn't have imagined Middle Earth, Walt Disney would've never imagined the Magic Kingdom, Shrek might've never seen the big screen (to say nothing of men turning into cockroaches) and Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" might have died an early death in Vienna. Viva la Cesky!


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