Thursday, June 24, 2010

Prague Pictures II

Hobby Centrum-Praha 4 (Krc[h]). This is the community center that S. originally was assigned to teach at, English classes being one of the hobbies offered to the neighborhood. Though she did not continue in that position the second year, due to the connections and warm feelings she developed for this part of town we continued to reside there--our apartment block was directly to the left of the photographer in this picture--and take part in various Hobby Centrum field trips. Visible parked inside the fence is the Hobby Centrum van, which (augmented by whatever private cars could be rounded up) served on many of these trips to the countryside, usually after several hours of preparatory tinkering on Friday afternoon before departing, after which a capable mechanic was still required to accompany it wherever it went, much as Mortimer Adler in his later years working the lecture circuit had to have a doctor waiting backstage in the not improbable event of emergency. For the annual trip to Austria, they chartered, or at least got, a more modern bus, the Hobby Centrum-mobile being one of those oddities that is endearing within the national family but would be a bit of an embarrassment if taken abroad. Besides that it would have been highly unlikely to make it up the side of the first Alp it came to.

English Teacher's Bedroom at Hobby Centrum. Hey, the German teacher had to procure his own accomodation off site.

This place was an excellent example of why workplace/institutional novels offer greater possibilities to authors in other countries than they seem to here. For one thing it seemed to employ about thirty people at taxpayer expense, albeit at very modest, even borderline subsistence, wages, though at the time this still enabled one to live within ten minutes of the center of Prague and within the context of a society where almost no one was remotely wealthy by the standards of New York or London. Such people as were succeeding somewhat in the capitalist system were not yet plentiful enough to have cordoned off large areas of both physical and economic territory within the society to themselves, though my impression is that this has taken place since then. The director, who had one of those European degrees which translates to a master's degree in this country but allows one to be addressed as 'Herr Doktor' or 'Pany Doktor' over there, could regularly be spotted staggering around the neighborhood raging drunk and spouting unpleasant greetings at strangers and people he recognized alike, on weekends always but frequently at three in the afternoon as well. Because of his qualification and title he was the highest paid employee, of course. He didn't seem to have to do much work. His wife I remember was not well and may have been institutionalized. Her daughter by a previous marriage worked at Hobby Centrum as well, I forget in what capacity, though she and her stepfather/boss were not on speaking terms during the two years we were there. This lady, whom I somewhat liked in spite of the fact that she had a lot of bad personal qualities, such as nastiness, duplicity, haughtiness, vast areas of ignorance about which she was so oblivious that pointing them out had no effect on her ego whatsoever, was also given the dubious assignment of being my personal instructrice in the Czech language. In addition to the English teacher, there was also in residence in an apartment on the ground floor an old lady whose function was a mishmash of sidewalk-sweeping, gate-locking and light-extinguishing. There was a very lesbian-looking older gym teacher straight out of the Sputnik era who ran the bicycling trips and generally spent her time screaming and ordering people around. She was one of those old school Communists/natural Europeans who, when it was time to change after a hike would strip right down in the center of a crowded room, mixed company or no. She's probably dead by now.

In Czech the "J" is pronounced as "y". 'Ahoy' has managed to become the standard informal greeting among Czech people despite the well-known circumstance that the country is landlocked and has no navy or substantial maritime culture or history. Legend has it that some Bohemian youths at one point in the not so distant past--the 1800s perhaps--ran off to Germany or somewhere and ended up as sailors for a time, bringing the expression back to Prague when they returned home, where, for whatever reason, it caught on in a big way.
While driving was not a foreign concept, even people who had cars tended to use them only for specific occasions, almost never on a daily basis. One of the things that struck me especially at the time was that gas stations were still so relatively infrequent that every one in the country, including within the city of Prague, was still denoted on road maps.

Right now we are in Slovakia. I could never figure out if the frog crossing sign was supposed to be serious or was one of those inside jokes of a place undesirable to and therefore largely excluded by the cool and powerful currents of modern life.

Slovakia was to the Austrian Empire approximately what West Virginia is to the rest of the United States, to Czechoslovakia what northern Maine is to the rest of New England--or at least to southern Maine. At this time its president was a former boxer who was given to favoring politically incorrect initiatives directed against Gypsies, Hungarians and other undesirable/threatening minorities within the Slovakian territories (something like 11% of the population of Slovakia is actually Hungarian). It was an embattled little place with a terrible inferiority complex towards the Czechs and Prague, let alone the rest of Europe. Very interesting to pass through, to walk about in, however, because it was about 50, sometimes even 80 years out of date in terms of its living arrangements, economic activity, etc.

This jaunt to Slovakia took place over Easter Weekend. Slovakians are Catholics, though apart from very old people no one appeared to be especially devout. On Saturday night there was a girl at the pub who was something of a good time girl, I guess you could say, leather and black eyeliner and signaling availabity to certain of the men--some might use an expression such as slutting it up, but that would not be my choice of words. Anyway, the next morning, Easter, at mass, guess who should come into the church side by side with her babushka-like grandmother (probably mother, for all that), still decked out in the leather jacket and black eyeliner, walk straight to the altar, cross herself and drop into a completely submissive, prostrate kneel before the altar cross and remain in this very intense state of total devotion for about five minutes before slowly rising as if in a trance and wandering back to take her seat in one of the pews. Extraordinary.

This is back at Prague, the church at Vyshehrad, which I mentioned in the previous post. This castle/park was a very beautiful and peaceful, though still urban spot--you had a good view of the river and some of the iconic sights downtown--and as before mentioned was quite close to our part of town, so we hung out there a good deal.

The Grand Hotel Europa was still actually kind of seedy at this time, the bar had video gambling machines and such, though there were plans to restore it to its former elegance. I'm not sure now why I included this picture over several other ones taken that same day on the same jaunt around town.

Statue of Jan Huss (formerly known in English as John Huss) in the Old Town Square, Prague. Huss was famously burned at the stake for heresy in 1415 on the spot where his monument now stands. He and his followers were (less fortunate) forerunners of Luther who were in rebellion against the hypocrisy, luxury and general decadence and organization of the established church as well as differing in various points of doctrine. The square is quite beautiful and dynamic and as such is a popular tourist attraction, and it was already mainly given over to them even at this time. In the Christmas season though there was still a pleasant but fairly modest fair or market set up which seemed to cater primarily to local people, at least at the food and beer stalls, and the St Nicholas Day festivity (December 6) was a big event that drew lots of families and such into the square.

One of the Statues on the Famous Charles Bridge. Gratuitous, but not to have any pictures of the more famous sights also makes it seem a little incomplete. Even in the books of the avant garde photographer Josef Sudek he slips in a few pictures of the most famous attractions of the city, albeit from unique angles, with odd lighting, etc, etc.

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