“So how was Prague?”
The question looms over my head. I can hear each of my aunts and uncles, grandparents and step-relatives poised to ask me this question over the flurry of Christmas parties to come. We got an e-mail yesterday from the Global Programs office at NYU detailing ways we could experience reverse culture shock. One of them was being unable to express how we feel or how we’ve changed, in the face of this all-encompassing question. Prague was……life for four months. You cannot sum up the life of sixteen weeks in small talk with relatives.
However, this course has, at the very least, prepared me with seventeen different ways I can answer that question. Unlike many of my fellow travelers, I had the opportunity every few days to gather my thoughts and delve into my feelings and decide how Prague was at that point. I think it has been very valuable to me as a writer, as a traveler, and as a person who is actively growing and changing, still using the world as a sounding board to figure out who he is and what he wants to do with his life. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, Prague is a place of melancholy introspection, and being able to express my view helped keep my day to day life a little more sane.
This being said, I did encounter a bit of a problem in both this course and my academics in Prague. Everything about this semester was somewhat more laid back academically. I was far away form my advisor, from the bureaucracy of NYU, and from the speedy intensity of New York, in a foreign country where I was expected to learn as much from my surroundings and experience as my academics. I found that everyone approached this balance in a different way. Some students, my roommate included, practically took the semester off. They traveled almost every weekend, they went out all the time, they complained when even the smallest assignment brought the least bit of stress. Others took the opposite approach and took everything as seriously as if every grade mattered more than anything else. I even heard one kid, in discussing when to have the final in his class say, “Have it on Thursday. They just want it on Tuesday so they can party.” My reaction was, of course they want to have fun. It’s their last week in Prague, and they want to remember it as a good time to the last. I admit, I had trouble, and would have liked more guidance from staff as to what the appropriate balance between experiential education and classroom education was.
I am not, however, in any way disappointed with my experience abroad or in Prague. I have done and seen what many people never have the chance to do. I think it’s only appropriate, as I started this blog with a story about my father, to close with one as well. Recently he said to me, “I didn’t get to go to Europe ‘til I was almost forty.” He said it half-jokingly, with some jealousy and some pride mixed in, but he said it because he wanted to remind me to appreciate what time I had left in Prague, and to take as much as I could from the experience because, who knows, I might not get back again until I’m almost forty. And that’s exactly what I did.
Here’s my advice on anyone planning on coming to Prague:
1. The Koruna is NOT Monopoly Money: It may seem like it is when the ATM spits out crowns in the form of hundreds and thousands, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Develop a sense of how much 100, 200 and 500 crowns are as quickly as possible and you won’t blow as much money in the beginning.
2. Go To The Castle When It’s Not Too Warm And Not Too Cold: Too warm and there are hundreds or thousands of people there, too cold and you’ll be killing yourself because it’s on top of a huge ass hill. It’s very beautiful.
3. Hit The Botanical Gardens/Wallenstein Garden/Letna/Petrin Parks When It’s Warm: Prague gets very gray and very dark very quickly in the fall and stays that way until like, April. These places are some of the most beautiful and green in the city, so make sure you take advantage of them when you can.
4. Don’t Take The Jewish Quarter Tour Unless It’s Free: The Jewish Quarter is very nice, and very close to campus. The tour though is about three hours long and you’re over it about an hour in. Don’t miss the Jewish Quarter, just don’t take the official tour.
5. Buy A Subway Pass: It makes your life much easier, and you can take any public transport at any time for however long you need it. It’s tempting not to get one, but chances are over a whole semester, you’re going to get caught, and getting caught once costs half the price of the 90-day pass.
6. Visit The National Museum on the 1st Monday of the Month: It’s free! And it’s worthwhile just to see how Czech museums differ culturally from New York ones, or even other European museums in countries that are more museum-friendly/have more money.
7. Go To The Narodni Divadlo/Rudolfinium: These are the national theater and ceoncert hall/opera house respectively. They are beautiful, cheap, and the performances are always great. Plus, Czech people love them so it’s a good way to experience Czech theater without the “tourist trap” flavor.
8. Find A Local Bar: Wherever you live, it’s good to have a place where the people know who you are on sight. This is especially applicable in Prague, where people often hate you.
9. Smazeny Syr: This could be the best or worst recommendation anyone has ever made to you. Yeah the beer’s good, the sausages are great, the goulash is amazing, but the crème de la crème of Czech cuisine is the drunchie food smazeny syr. You WILL get addicted and you will like it.
Thanksgiving in my family, as in most, tends to be a very polarizing event. Tumultuous family circumstances have always led to Thanksgiving becoming more of a three-day event than a holiday, and though I love the food, I’m usually over it halfway through the first day. Thus, I was almost excited this year to realize, rather belatedly, that I wouldn’t have to “do” Thanksgiving at all. A number of restaurants, hotels, and other touristy places were holding dinners; mostly buffet style for large sums of money, and some people went to these dinners. Some people stayed home and cooked and tried to emulate Thanksgiving. I have found that this generally doesn’t end up working out too well. Someone always gets too bossy, or ends up doing all the dishes, or cannot believe that these sweet potatoes don’t have marshmallows in them, and it all degenerates into typical Thanksgiving, with too much wine being drunk and people arguing.
So, my friends and I decided that in honor of Thanksgiving, we were going to go on a full day food binge, without the turkey, stuffing, etc. We started the day with eggs, bacon, toast and Irish coffee. After lounging for a little while, for want of that altar of culture, the television that seems to always be on during American Thanksgivings, we made our way outside. We wandered through the Christmas market that has sprung up outside of Namesti Miru, the square and church that serves as the entrance hub to Vinohrady, our neighborhood. It was a pleasant enough day, rather warmer than it had been, with the sun occasionally peeking its head out from behind the clouds. We meandered through the market but, unsatisfied with our food selection there, we headed down the road to McDonald’s under the pretext of “eating American” on this American holiday. After consuming a Royale with Cheese (yes they call it that here, I think it’s a Europe-wide phenomenon, but we couldn’t resist making the Pulp Fiction references the first time we went, and we almost always get them, it’s that entertaining) and a chocolate milkshake, we headed back out to the streets. We hopped on a tram and made our way towards Old Town.
In Old Town we stopped for a couple beers at one of our favorite bars, Chapeau Rouge, a curious place decorated in a kind of modern gothic, red walled style. Sufficiently inebriated to start eating street food at two in the afternoon, we proceeded to the Old Town Square, which is filled with all sorts of wonderful treats, the two of which I consumed being a kielbasa sandwich and a waffle drizzled with chocolate sauce. I don’t think that waffles are typical Czech food, but it was just as good as the more traditional Czech sausage. This style of walking and bingeing continued, the only food of note being a smazeny syr (fried cheese), which is something like a mozzarella stick patty on a bun with mayonnaise. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it, it will change your life. We rounded out the evening with another “traditional” American food, Chinese.
All in all this experience of Thanksgiving was liberating. It made me homesick, true, because I do love Thanksgiving food, and I love having it prepared for me and lounging with my family watching television, but in the end I felt somehow more cosmopolitan, more adult, separated from the stuffiness of family and holiday tradition in a way I never knew I desired. It was a little like Thanksgiving on a sitcom, you know where nobody seems to have a family and Chandler, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, etc. all celebrate together, or Will and Grace have a party that all their friends show up to. As fake as that situation is, I realized I was enjoying living the less glamorous version of this story, emancipated. Europe is going to my head.
“…there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last-” ~E.B. White, Here Is New York
“…Prague harbors more secrets of the magic, or mystical kind than any other city in Europe;” ~Peter Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold
On the very first morning of my freshman orientation at Gallatin, a breakfast was held at the top of Kimmel. At each place setting was an excerpt from a short book by E.B. White, describing New York as a place of three types of people. The first was residents, people who live and have lived on the Upper East Side, or in the heart of Brooklyn, for all or most of their lives. The second was commuters, those who enter the city, use it during the daylight, and travel back to the suburbs to live the rest of their lives. The third, and in this author’s esteem, the most valuable, were those on a quest, those who came to New York because they were following a goal or a passion or a road to someplace different. He claimed that they were the magic of New York, they were the people who create the aura of mystery and wonder that surrounds the city at all times.
I resolved very quickly not to let go of my questing status. However, after two years and a grueling summer of work in which I was commuting back and forth from New Jersey for financial reasons, I found myself longing for Prague in August. I wanted the thrill of Humboldt’s “marvelous world,” but even more, I wanted to reclaim the wonder that New York inspires in me upon my return.
Prague has of course been a marvelous world. However, for the first couple weeks of November I found myself bowing to the pressure of malaise, and the heaviness that permeates this country. It is only recently, as my stay here begins to draw to a close, that I have suddenly found myself feeling comfortable, at home, with habits and schedules and routine. I keep a small notebook with me most of the time, which I use, at home and here, to write about people and things I see in my daily life. I call it my subway notebook. This summer, one of the chief indicators that I was growing bored and not seeing New York in full anymore was the petering out of entries into this notebook. I filled several pages in the beginning with Prague-isms, but of late I find that I write in it less and less often. Prague is beginning to feel so much like home that I am beginning to lose sight of the sights.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Habit, much as it limits our view of the world, is useful. It provides us a bit of respite from having to think about every little detail of life all the time. Having habits means that I have organization, structure, and comfort. It allows me to relax and assess. But I agree with DeBotton, Nietsche, and deMaistre. There is much of value in stepping back, looking around, and simply “traveling” through your daily life to reinvigorate your soul. And I will try my damnedest for these last two weeks in Prague to soak up as much as I can, to mesh my comfort and habits with a reminiscence of the sheer mervelousness of travel, so that when I re-enter my life in America, everything will shine with the experience of these past months.
One of the few places vital to every NYU in Prague student’s life is the Old Town Square. I’ve made brief mentions of this place before, but have largely avoided it for two reasons. First, it is the place of my everyday life, more so than any other save my dorm. Second, it is always full of tourists and, much like walking on 7th Avenue between 28th and 48th Streets, is usually very hard to get through at speed. Currently there is a huge Christmas tree and market decorating the square, which makes it even more irritating and impossible to navigate. Yet, as I said, it has become the place where most of us NYU in Prague students spend out days in one respect or another, and so my grudging and growing affection for it deserves description and explanation.
The Old Town grew out of the merging of the merchant’s quarter and the Jewish quarter. Old Town Square started out as the biggest marketplace in Prague. Though across the river from the castle, and so home to mostly untitled people, it was also the home of the vast majority of the money in Prague. Thus, huge, beautiful palaces grew up packed tightly against one another on the square, and the rest of Old Town is riddled with small passages through former courtyards and underneath arms of these buildings, leading their twisting way to the square. As the centuries passed and the Jewish Quarter was no longer regularly ransacked, the rich Christian merchants acquired titles, and political intrigue forced the King to move across the river several times, Old Town and its Square became the focal point of the entire city.
Today, this remains true. Old Town Square is the tourist center of Prague, indicated by several factors including the widespread English, the first Starbucks to exist in the Czech Republic, the country’s Hard Rock Café, the Astronomical Clock (an underwhelming event to be sure), the most important Hussite Church in the world, and the presence of hokey horse-drawn carriages and old-style motorcars that you can pay exorbitant amounts to ride around in for half an hour. Despite the blatant Disney-fication of the place, and the steep difference in prices between it and most of the rest of the city, it remains beautiful. The first time I saw the Christmas market and tree, lit up against a clear midnight blue sky, with the ancient but preserved buildings and churches lit in soft white light and Jan Hus’s dramatically bright statue, I was struck again by how strange and beautiful the place I’ve been living is. The emotional impact was so similar to another, New York-induced feeling I’ve had that it took me a couple days to figure out what it was, and when I finally cracked it, I was stunned. The sight of Old Town Square decked out for Christmas reminded me of nothing so much as Rockefeller Center at this time of year. They look nothing alike, and yet, the touristy, bustling, “this is my home and not yours you fucking tourists” feeling of Old Town Square right now is exactly how I feel standing between 5th and 6th between 48th and 50th between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I’ve never felt more at home in Prague.
I just walked past a man with a beard, grizzled in the way that old man beards get. It was long, and came from all sides of his face and out form under his black-brimmed, flat top hat. His hair though, that was cropped close to his head. It reminded me of nothing so much as an Orthodox Jewish man. His wife however, looked perfectly modern and Czech, with dark lipstick, and a brownish-purple eye shadow layered on too thick over her cake of foundation and wrinkle-cream. I think that the lipstick may have been chosen to compliment her strangely dyed hair, which was also a darkish reddish color. She was berating him as he held what looked to be a joint, made out of a Marlboro 100, that he held and spun nervously in his old hands, fingernails yellowed with tobacco and age, and far too long, the way that old Caribbean man sometimes keep them.
He wasn’t listening to her and she seemed to know it. She was walking with that awkward sideways gait people use when they’re trying to face someone and not run into a fire hydrant at the same time. As she grew more agitated, his face became more and more placid, and the joint came closer and closer to his mouth, as if he were a long-suffering rabbi, and he knew that if only he made it through the pains that were given to him on Earth, he would be rewarded with Heaven.
This public display was typical of Czech culture in many ways. The public sphere is unusually quiet here. People don’t laugh or joke, or cavort with their friends on the streets. They don’t eat or talk on the subway. They don’t even get out of each other’s way on the street. Except, and this is a big exception, romantic couples. They feel no qualms about having public lovers’ spats, about making up from those spats wherever that happens to occur, about touching each other inappropriately in front of the eyes of the entire crowded tram. Whereas that old man’s wife would never have a fight with her sister, neighbor, or friend in front of me on Varsavska, she felt perfectly comfortable doing so in front of me.
Another aspect of Czech life that they exhibited was his joint. Weed is not illegal in the Czech Republic “in small amounts,” amounts which are not objectively quantified but subject to police discretion. He didn’t worry about the way the pungent scent wafted out of his marijuana cigarette strongly enough for me to smell it because he didn’t have to. This reflects a general laxness about rules here. Not only are there less of them, but those that do exist are persistently, even actively being broken. Everything from cutting lines to riding the subway without a ticket to blatantly and deliberately flouting the advertising codes to bribing politicians, it’s all taken without comment or question. It’s mildly disconcerting, but also intensely liberating. It’s one of the aspects of life here that most reminds me I’m not in Kansas anymore.
There is a saying here in the Czech Republic, that Communism took seven years to end in Poland, seven weeks in Germany, but here, it only took seven days. The beginning of those seven days was November 17th, 1989. That date marks the day a student march from the Charles University faculty on Albertov, swelling to thousands by the time it marched up the Vltava to Narodni Street on its way to Wenceslas Square, was brutally disbanded by armed police. The demonstration provoked such a huge response from the Czech people that within seven days, the entire Communist leadership had resigned. The saying is of course, misleading, as the Communist state was not fully dismantled for some time, but November 17th remains a seminal day in Czech history, and is now a national holiday, marking the beginning of the Velvet Revolution.
This past Tuesday, the 20th anniversary of that fateful day, the march was recreated, with thousands participating. I was among them for part of the way. Comparing it to marches and parades in the US is nearly impossible. In America there is always a lot of shouting, a lot of singing, and a lot of police presence. There was all of this during this parade, taking place slowly but surely as the sun set and we approached Narodni Trida, where a stage was set up for performers such as The Monkeys, the most popular modern Czech band. However, much was oddly subdued. In some places it was almost as if there was just a large crowd walking from the football stadium to the parking lots after a game. In others, young children gleefully held up signs referring to events they were to young to remember, or modern issues they were too small to understand. There were elderly people marching with their crutches, supported by their younger relatives, many of whom remember Communism only as a mild discomfort from childhood. There were no spectators. The parade route was not marked off by police barriers, banners, or balloons, but everyone knew where to go.
It wasn’t the drunken revelry of St. Patrick’s Day, the family-oriented event of Thanksgiving, or the patriotic, chaotic, togetherness of the 4th of July. It was a little bit of all of these things, true, and as we marched, we felt part of something bigger than us. But it was also a very isolated and isolating phenomenon. Strangers weren’t hugging each other or laughing with each other, singing patriotic songs, or crying. Many held candles, faces calm and contemplative, not speaking, as if they marched in a memorial procession, not in a celebration of freedom. In a way, I suppose they were marching in memorial. They were marching in remembrance of freedom from an oppressive, severely damaging regime, and the wounds are not yet healed. American holidays aren’t bittersweet. They are either bitter or sweet, and very few are bitter. But the rich dark chocolate of that night among thousands gathered in celebrative memorial was the only way to truly taste the Velvet Revolution.
St. Vitus Cathedral looms imperiously and somewhat scarily Gothic-ly over the city of Prague. It was only recently that I had occasion to make my way up the hill to the castle complex, and I went inside the Cathedral, largely because it was one of the few free things to do up there. It is a stunningly gorgeous building. The Art Nouveau stained glass windows were made by Mucha, the shrines lining the walls vary in size, age and décor, and St. John of Nepomuk’s silver tomb, which seems more a piece of statuary than a tomb.
One of the most interesting and visceral things I have learned from Peter Demetz’s book, Prague in Black and Gold, has been the stories of famous places and people that most tourists only get the guidebook version of. Demetz’s book is an in-depth history of Prague and her people, and though it is dense and spans the entire history of the city, which is in many ways the entire history of the Czech Republic, it is also intimately beguiling. The story of Johann of Pomuk, a Germanic Czech, though the nationalist borders were much blurred then, is the story of a vicious king and his Archbishop of Prague battling for power. John of Nepomuk just got in the way. He was Archbishop Jan of Jenstejn’s lawyer and financier, and when Vaclav IV (Wenceslas IV, yes like the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”) tried to capture and kill the archbishop, Jan was killed on the rack due to the king’s fury at failing to capture the archbishop. He was then unceremoniously dumped in the Vltava and washed up a few weeks later and immediately called a martyr. His story became mixed up with a story of the Queen’s confessor who, when a jealous Vaclav tried to force the Queen’s confession of adultery out of him, refused to tell and was drowned. Thus John of Nepomuk has become one of the earliest martyrs of the seal of Confession, choosing to die rather than breath the seal of confidentiality of confession.
This story rose up in my mind when I looked at the magnificence of the saint’s tomb, and I was gripped by its history. There were hundreds of tourists in that cathedral that day, and I was caught in a large group of stereotypical Asian tourists, each of whom snapped a picture of the tomb, and hurried on, following their guide who was shouting in rapid Mandarin. It is indeed a beautiful work of silver, but it is also a testament to the vast corruption of the Catholic Church throughout much of European history. This man is a martyr more because he was unwittingly caught in a political battle between his boss and his king. He holds sway over the chorus of one of the most beautiful churches in the world because of a petty squabble in the 1300s. Demetz’s book often reveals this darker side of Prague underneath its fairytale wonders and beauty, and has given me a deeper understanding of living with the history of a long, troubled past. The people of Prague often feel put upon by dark forces, but it would do them well to remember that there are equally dark forces in their own history. They’re lucky they keep that silver gleaming, because it would obviously, easily tarnish like mad.
This weekend was the first time I had visitors in Prague. My friends studying in the London program are on their fall break and since we visited them for ours, they’re here for theirs. Becoming the tour guide in Prague has been an interesting experience in many ways. Each time I take my friends somewhere, I experience the memory of seeing it for the first time myself, and my attitude towards it now.
For instance, this afternoon, I took my friends around Josefov, the Jewish Quarter of Old Town. There are a number of old and famous synagogues in the area, and when I first arrived in Prague I took an extensive tour of these sites of worship courtesy of NYU. They are mere blocks from the place that we go to school here, and they are indeed beautiful and interesting places. This afternoon, however, I couldn’t remember how to get around to each of them as I led my friends. We found them eventually, but each time, it was a rediscovery of the sort only accessed by a blank in one’s memory. As I led, I tried to take on the demeanor and knowledge of the elderly Jewish woman who led us back in the verdant green warmth of September. I found myself giving double explanations, both of what the buildings were and their historical significance, and also my own impressions of them, then and now. Prague’s ethos is most suited to the gray and damp that permeates November here, but I remember these synagogues in the warmth and the light. As I told the story of the golem myth, in which Reb Levy, a famous Cabbalist rabbi from Prague, creates a giant man out of mud and blood and sets it the duty of guarding the Jews of Prague, I began to remember the magic of Prague.
My friends have continually exclaimed over the beauty of Prague, a fact that is easy to forget as we inevitably translate even the most foreign places into the blurry background of our everyday lives. Seeing and hearing them this weekend has made me remember exactly why we called this place “The Magic Kingdom For Adults” for the first few weeks. It’s beautiful, steeped in lore and history, and this is a phenomenon worth remembering. The Golem, as I told my friends, was said to have climbed into an attic in the Old-New Synagogue, the oldest synagogue still holding services in Europe, to sleep until the Jews of Prague needed its protection again. It’s a wonderful story, a wonderful example of the magical, mystical character of Prague that so many have remarked upon over the centuries. Magic is foreign, however, and in the attempt to normalize this experience, to make it feel like home, where everything is familiar, the magic of Prague has begun to wear, and I am not alone in beginning to think, “I kinda wish I was at home.” But having new people here to show around and to revel in the experience with has made me remember why I love travel, and why I love magic. It’s not home, it’s new.
From the first page, MacCannell’s article is clearly outdated in its mode of thought as far as sociology and anthropology go. From his use of terms such as “primitive” to his insistence on denying the awareness of the ability to “‘participate’ in one’s own life,” it is clear that the postmodern terms in which anthropology and sociology are now discussed are not in his research. Though he acknowledges certain points of reflexivity and subjectivity of experience, I think that in postulating that the tourist is automatically on a quest for authenticity and that the tourist/intellectual boundary is a misconception, he reveals a shortsightedness that is unforgivable. With the rise of more recent research, it is impossible to lay out such black and white rules and ideas about any group of people, be they Amazonian aborigines or Americans on vacation. The general term “tourists” is certainly far to gross today.
I know that personally, my experience here has been plagued by a severe introspection that defies his continuum of front to back authenticity. I find myself questioning the authenticity of my experience most when I’m engaging in activities and settings that would probably be considered back regions, such as being led by my RA’s one evening into a small forest on the edge of Prague to roast sausages in the place that my RA Eva did as a child, or waiting in line at the bank or post office, surrounded by Czech people going about their days. At these moments I am not pleased with my authentic experience, I do not think of myself as gleaning an understanding of the people of this country. Instead, I am forced into a lonely evaluation of whether I even want to be there in the first place. By contrast, when on a tour of the Jewish Quarter, I happily listened to the tour guide, speaking in English, informing me of the history of Jews in Prague, much of which the RA who organized it didn’t know herself. What about appreciating the beauty of a place, or its historical value? Yes these are places that are only open to a public because they are tourist destinations, but to deny their authenticity as beautiful or historically worthy places is selling them far short of their true value.
In our consumerist society, often the value of the consumption is based on its exclusivity, and so a story that only you can share, a description of a place that only you know feels valuable, and though it’s true that there is an emphasis on unique and “authentic” experiences in tourism, I think that it is equally easy to be moved and enriched by Strawberry Fields in New York as it is to be moved and enriched by having a conversation with an old Chinese man running a fruit stand on the Lower East Side. This said, I believe that if someone wants to live in a culture or record a culture, then it’s true, the front to back stages of authenticity apply. When I realized where to go to get cheap food and beer here, or when I began to understand the Czech sense of humor, I felt that I had enriched my life and was more able to live comfortably in a foreign place. But the deep thrill I experience whenever I sit atop the hill at Vysehrad, the place that one of the largest student marches of the Velvet Revolution began and a common tourist destination, a beautiful, profound, historic place, has proven to be much more vital to my experience here than any conversation with a Czech person I’ve had. Fuck authenticity. I ain’t on no quest.