Friday, June 11, 2010

Prague Pictures I

I've been thinking a lot about my days in Prague lately--that was pretty clearly my Brideshead period for better or worse, and enough time has passed now (since 1996-97) that the pictures have acquired a decided air of a lost yesteryear that is never to be regained about them. I have never been back since the afternoon I left my apartment down the road from Pankrac station for the last time. By now surely the atmosphere and most of the places I frequented that made the deepest impressions on me are either gone or unrecognizable. Of course most of the coolest, or least most authoritative, people from the advanced capitalist countries considered that whatever magic the post-communist city had had offer was already finished as early as '93, by which time its interesting Milan Kunderian character had already been hopelessly compromised and trampled by Western influence. But there were still a few corners that this latter infection, or blessing, as many doubtless regard it, had not yet penetrated much at all in '96, and not all of these were entirely desolate of curiosities for the moderately intelligent inquisitor. The myriad flaws of this world have many chroniclers, and it is no interest to me to recount or much to consider them here. At the time I was looking, as many people do, for the kind of beerhall and cafe and theater and streetcar life, all at affordable prices, that the great cities of Europe offered about a hundred years ago, which the cities of the post-communist central and east, with their primitive economies and the preservation of many cultural habits since 1939 in a kind of sooty amber, approximated as closely as it was likely I would have been able to find anywhere.

There was a fair amount of talk at the time about the American expat crowd in Prague in the 90s being akin to that of the Lost Generation in Paris in the 20s, and there was some guarded expectation that this would bear artistic fruit of a kind, though as the years began to pass and no one had yet managed to emerge as a remotely viable Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald or even Alice B Toklas-like figure, these comparisons quickly began to be thrown about much more in sarcasm than in earnest. I mention it because I was there, and writing and other artistic pursuits were something that clearly people were doing, or at least thinking about doing, though not for the most part openly, including myself, and it is not I think an insignificant chapter in the history of the general literary failure, particularly on the part of middle class male writers, of my generation, embarrassing and humiliating as the ever growing sense of this failure is to me personally. The furtiveness of so many of the male American would-be writers is very telling, I think, in that they knew the first exposure of their 'work' or learning or approach to writing to any kind of rigorous examination would immediately blow their fragile pretensions into so many pieces that they would not even have a point from which to start anew. Better to nurse that novel like a sickly infant far from the air and light of life and at long last burst forth, unassailable with your masterpiece in your hand. But as we all understand now, with extremely rare exceptions, that is not how literature works.

I thought about putting these up on Facebook, but there is something a little too lifeless and ephemeral about the effects that seem to happen to old pictures there. There is a little more intimacy here, I have a little more control over the presentation--these pictures evoke a lot of strong feelings in me even so many years later, happiness, sadness, nostalgia, regret--apart from my schools, it is the only place I've ever lived where I really felt like I was at home. When we went to Italy for ten days or whatever it was in the middle of our time there, we returned to the city very late, around midnight on a Sunday, and we came into town, past all the gloomy junkyards and grey Soviet apartment towers, and I had really enjoyed Italy too, but I was also excited to get back to my little Prague apartment and my Metro stop and have a bottle of Czech beer and look forward to doing all the things in town in the upcoming week that I liked to do. There was a lot to be said for it.

We Are Now in Prague. The film used on this picture looks like it may have been a remainder from the communist era.
These are the Vanderbilt Sorority Girls. I believe I mentioned them once in another place. They were with the same teaching program that my wife came over with. This picture has a kind of ghostly air about it too, since I actually only met these people myself about three times, yet here they preserved forever are on a beautiful September day in Prague in 1995. This picture is taken at Vyshehrad Castle in Prague, overlooking the (Vltava) river. It was a little south of the center, within reasonable walking distance of our apartment. The castle is actually gone except for the walls which surround the hill it is on, within which there is a very striking 19th century neo-gothic church on the grounds of which many prominent Czechs are buried (I believe Dvorak is there) and a park.

Now We Have Moved Down to the Austrian Border, Somewhere in Sumava (the Bohmerwald).

It's a small country, and a lot of the people who live in Prague love the countryside and go there frequently, often several weekends a month, especially if they have cottages, which, as with the Russians and their dachas, and us and our Vermont bungalow, many people manage to do even though they are in no way wealthy.

Anyway, this building was a church more or less right on the Austrian border--it was literally fifty yards away--that the communists trashed and used for some military purpose, which I forget the exact nature of, during the cold war. As you can see it was still awaiting restoration in the mid-90s. The writing on the wall says something like "Now that life was taking shape as an endless long watch, to forget life, this was." I assume this is in reference both to the building's military function and a general statement on the various states of absurdity which the Cold War reduced individual and largely disinterested persons to.

The Outside of the Same Church

Interior of the Church

A Girl With a Blue Scarf Posing Before the Czech Lion in Petrin Park, Overlooking Prague. There are some people who just make life look--I'm not sure of the word I'm looking for, but less problematic, and certainly more pleasant, than it ordinarily appears. It is not that such people are less complicated than all the people who contribute more to the misery of the world than otherwise, but they actually possess a wonderful gift, and that is for reducing potential problems to manageable sizes so that their solutions appear much clearer and simpler.

At various low points in its history this park had the world's largest statues both of Stalin and Michael Jackson (unfortunately not at the same time) though both were eventually removed.

A Welcome Sight. This is "Michael's Tavern". Another country bike trip, this time in another section of Sumava, on the western edge of Bohemia along the border with Germany. Unlike in the United States, where the hobby of bicycling requires a lot of serious training and equipment and is primarily fitness oriented, in the Czech Republic a day of biking means gathering in one's regular outdoor clothes at the agreed upon meeting place around 9, passing the vodka bottle around a couple of times, riding in the woods or along a country roads for a couple of hours, perhaps if you come upon a village stopping to look at the old church if there is one, finding a pub around noon or one for lunch and a couple of beers, more vodka, another session of riding among the byways of rural Bohemia until 4 or so, at which time one returns to base, showers and dresses and gets ready dinner and a full evening of drinking and often music or some kind of game or other. I suppose you have guessed which country I have actively biked in and which I have never gotten around to actively biking in.

Sumava Woods. I must have an ancestral memory of these kinds of forests, because I always found them extremely calming to walk through (though I suppose they do have an eery quality as well because of the association they have with the political calamities of 1938-89 especially). Besides my Lithuanian great-grandparents someone who has recently taken up of their own volition looking into my ancestry has found a great-great-something German-speaking grandmother from Silesia, which is now primarily in southwestern Poland, and is very near the places in the pictures above and below. And then I really felt oddly comfortable when I was in that part of Poland (Wroclaw), though apart from the beautiful Polish college girls it was an unrelentingly dreary and somber place.

Castle Ruin. Between October and January the sun pretty much never comes out in that part of the world. For real.

Iconic Prague Sights in Winter. The New Town and the Prague Castle. In December there are only about 6 hours of daylight.

The Famous Charles Bridge and the Old Town. The one with the statues on it.

Charles Bridge and Vltava, with Petrin Hill (where the park is) Looming in the Background.

These last three I put in mainly to try to give a feel for what the winter looks and feels like. In Prague, and apparently in much of the world, the weather will remain exactly the same for two and three weeks at a time. When it's cold and drizzly it stays cold and drizzly, likewise when it drops below zero, or in the spring when it is beautiful and sunny.

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