Side Trip #2
Prague was an experience of extreme levity and extreme sadness. Heartwarming and thought-provoking. Bizarre and challenging. Here is my tale of Czeching into ex-Bohemia.
After a gorgeous five-hour train ride (with two full-mouthed Londoners and an Ipod-clad Korean-recently-turned-Irish citizen), we arrived at Praha hlvaní nádraží, the beautiful and overwhelming main rail station in Prague. After picking up some Czech koruna, we attempted to find our Airbnb host. After wandering around a bit, we realized that maybe, just maybe the plan “let’s meet at the station” was a bit on the vague side. Panicking, without her phone number or an internet connection (seriously, what did people do in the non-tech age?), we finally found an irritated English-speaking older woman, who had been looking for us while our Czech hosted stalled outside. Frazzled, all three of us crawled into the car, and we proceeded to listen to our host and her friend’s rapid Czech on the way to our apartment in Žižkov.
Žižkov presented some navigational difficulty late into night, after a few beers, but overall, the location was ideal. Far enough from the high-tourism areas, but close enough to a metro stop. Our location also made it easy to gawk at Prague’s ever-bizarre Television Tower. Designed by Czech artist David Černý, the tower now features crawling baby sculptures. Yes, crawling babies. I have nothing to more to say about this matter. Onto better and less creepy things. Near our apartment we found two different American themed restaurants. Now, this is not to say that we were those type of tourists who fear foods and environments out of our delicate “American” comfort zones as much as it is to say that we get very hungry and these places were open (and for the record, we only ate from the “Traditional Czech Cuisine” menu while we were there). One restaurant had a Rock n’ Roll theme. The other was simply the cloudy theme of “American.” Decked with John Deere paraphernalia and license plates mounted on walls, and an odd mix of classic rock and 90s/2000s jams bumping in the background, this place was truly funky. Something about seeing another country’s mimicry of American culture is seriously funny and seriously informative.
Now for my section that is unabashedly about Russian stuff in Prague. While wandering around our district, I noted a store that sold Russian snacks. The store sung of St. Petersburg and filled my little nostalgic heart with joy. My sunflower seed sticky bars were there. My beloved Kvas. Those sugar-coated and jelly-filled honey balls gleamed off the shelves. Needless to say, I bought a lot of snacks for our return train ride. In a more general (and quite obvious) observation, Czech has slavic roots, so I could, to my excitement, use my limited Russian knowledge to decipher some words in people’s speech and on signs. That alone, felt pretty rewarding.
Now here are some highlights of Prague–a fairly small and mangeable city, compared to, let’s say, Berlin.
New Town (Nové město): Mostly just walked around it and saw Wenceslas Square. Seemed pretty busy, a lot of shopping and museums. I’m sure there’s more here than meets the eye, but my eye did not meet it.
Old Town (Staré Město): The Astronomical Clock–the third oldest astronomical clock in the world and the only operational one–is pretty incredible. Similarly the Old Town Square, where the clock is located, is pretty stunning. A lot of the buildings are styled in the gothic and baroque fashion and consequently look quite old, but they are merely facades and the structural, unseen elements are the truly historical parts. Honestly, my favorite part of Old Town is the Spanish Synagogue and the notorious Kafka statue (an empty suit with a man propped on it’s shoulders) next door. Look up Kafka on wikipedia and you’ll get an image of this statue–I’ve seriously been looking at this picture since my last year of high school. More importantly, this area marks the once-designated Jewish corridor of Prague. Here lies an Old Jewish Cemetery, forced to maintain such a small perimeter that bodies were buried upright and stacked on top of one another until it created a wavy, hill-like top layer. Apparently this form inspired Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which also features an up-and-down floor.
Strahov Monastery/Monastic Brewery: I include the “/” because I really only experienced the brewery, but from what I saw, the monastery looked pretty incredible. So everyone talks about German beer, but what no one tells you is that it’s a lot of pilsners and lagers. Forget microbreweries. Forget IPAs. Another thing no one tells you is that the Czech Republic drinks more beer per capita than any other country. Under an enthusiastic recommendation, we came to this brewery. Not only was the beer quite tasty, but who doesn’t love the idea of a monastery that also brews its own IPA? From this brewery, you also get a wonderful view of the city and castle at night, and on your way down the hill, you can listen to the glorious sounds of glass clashing, loud merry voices, and general drunken belligerence from local bars.
As I previously stated, my time in the Czech Republic was a mixed bag. My traveling partner and I thought it was important to see a concentration camp at some point, and that goal led us to the sad town of Terezín. Terezín has endured a long history of subjugation. Most notably, in WWII when the Gestapo turned it into a Jewish ghetto, better known as Theresienstadt. Using previously built fortresses as holding center and transit camp, the Gestapo sent about 144,000 Jews there before being shipped off to extermination camps, such as Auschwitz. Although it was not an extermination camp, many died there due to awful living conditions and harassment. Furthermore, Nazis used Terezín as a propaganda tool, often producing posters for theatre performances and cleanliness standards to create the illusion of a prosperous community. Eventually, after the Nazis regime fell, the same fortresses held ethnic Germans, creating an almost too precise form of situational justice.
Seeing Terezín in person was difficult on many levels. The town was empty besides its sole attraction of a concentration camp–an extremely depressing reason for tourism. Then, of course, the mass grave sites, the small bunkers, the hard wooden beds that resembled nothing more than a few slabs of wood nailed together, the coldness of the white walls, the public outhouses in each cramped room for 40 or more. We had a scary adventurer’s moment walking through the damp and dark fortress walls. We saw the mass shower stalls, too reminiscent of gas chambers. Rusted corners with dripping amber like the yellow swab before a shot. Bird nests popping off walls. Statues commemorating the shooting range. There’s only so much you can and should say when you see history like this. I detest the idea of commercializing tragedy, but I think its equally important to face and understand our difficult past and our challenging present. Out of all my traveling during this trip, I am most appreciative of my time at Terezín and the realities I confronted there.
This posted is unofficially dedicated to my dear friend Trisha Remetir, who is currently living, teaching, and kicking ass in the small Czech town of Náchod. We miss you!