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Prague Journal, Part I


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Been a while since I scribbled you a journal from Prague — 2005, something like that? Anyway, it may be time for another one. I have been here for several days, and the centerpiece of this visit has been a Reagan centennial conference — actually, a series of Reagan centennial events, a veritable Reagan festival. I’ll tell you a little about that (if you’re interested) — and about sundry other things, too.

When I arrive at the Prague airport, just about the first face I see is that of Colonel Sanders. Is he America’s greatest export? Certainly Kentucky’s. A kindly face it is, too.

I remember scribbling a journal from Alexandria (Egypt, not Virginia). I said that the Colonel was ubiquitous. So was Tweety Bird — the image of Tweety Bird. Why, I don’t know. I speculated that archeologists of the future would surmise that the Colonel and Tweety were gods.

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Czechs like to refer to their country, in writing, as “CZ.” Kind of cool. “Hi from CZ!” And Czechs, when speaking English, are apt to say “Czech Republic,” rather than “the Czech Republic.”

Czechs, in common with other Slavs, have little use for articles, definite or indefinite. I remember saying to a Russian colleague, “Officially speaking, the ballet is ‘The Sleeping Beauty,’ in English. What do you think of that? Should we say ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ or just ‘Sleeping Beauty’?”

She thought for a second, frowningly, and said, “It’s all the same to me.” (Actually, I think she said, “It all same to me.”) (I’m pretty sure she doesn’t read Impromptus. Let us hope . . .)

A very hard language to pronounce, Czech. The “r” with a haček over it is murder, sheer murder. When you hear “Dvořák,” pronounced correctly, there seems to be no “r” in it — just a mysterious zee-aitchy thing.

A young Slovakian woman tells me that she herself cannot make this sound. “It’s supposed to be the second-hardest sound to make in the world. The first is something from an African language that comes from way back in the throat.”

Years ago, I wrote regularly for a publication that thought it insisted on diacritics, but used them half-assedly. I’d write “Dvořák,” and they’d print “Dvorák.” Drove me nuts. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I say — do ’em both, or do neither.

Be it known that Praguers — or whatever you call people who live here — don’t like it much when you identify their city, or country, with Eastern Europe. In their mind, it’s Central Europe, or West-Central Europe. They’re right, of course, from a geographical point of view . . .

The head of the Salzburg Festival likes to say — I have heard it from her many times — “We are in the heart of the heart of Europe.”

I must admit, the word “Czechoslovakia” springs naturally to my lips. I grew up with it. I need to train myself out of it. I find I have to catch myself, correct myself. Paul Johnson still says “the Lebanon,” which charms the hell out of me.

The aforementioned young Slovak says to me, “If you don’t have this experience, you are not so thankful.” What does she mean? If you have not experienced Communism, or other tyranny, you are not so appreciative of freedom.

Think of it: Babies born when Communism was collapsing here are 22 already — college graduates, perhaps. You can be 22 years old and not have experienced a day under Communism.

In the current National Review, I have a piece on Rodion Shchedrin, the Russian composer. He was born in 1932. He has recounted the ways in which he has been lucky.

When Stalin died — March ’53 — he, Shchedrin, was only 20 years old. He was just beginning his career. That meant that he could compose in relative — and let me stress relative — freedom. He missed the worst of it.

And when the Soviet Union finally collapsed, he was 59. Nearing autumn, or in it, yes — but with some time left. And he has made excellent use of that time. The end of Communism freed him up, let him move around, unlocked his spirit. More than a third of his output has been written since 1991.

Extraordinary.



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