Prague Journal, Part II


Shall we continue with these jottings from the Czech capital? For Part I, go here. I’ll just wade into Part II.

An attraction, downtown, is the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments. Such instruments are still in use in some parts of the world, I’m afraid. Also, the sadistic mind of man keeps “improving” them.

The word “medieval” is interesting, in its common usage. People use it to mean “benighted,” “barbaric.” Once upon a time, this drove a young colleague of mine crazy. I think she had studied the medieval period at Yale. And she hated the equation of medieval times with darkness and savagery.

But it did amuse her that some gangsters would say, “I’m ’bout to go medieval on yo’ ass.”

I hear a lot of Italian on the streets, from tourists, of course, and it’s Italian of various kinds — from various regions. How nice that Italian has not gone all homogenous.

Is that happening to American English? It seems so, darn it.

For years, there have been black Africans — Senegalese, I’m told — standing at the foot of the Charles Bridge (or one of the foots, or feet). They’re dressed in sailor uniforms. They’re hawking boat rides. They speak to each other in French and the passersby in English.

Do they speak Czech too? I would think, some.

On the bridge, I see a particular beggar, several times — different days, different times of day. He is in the same pose — a new one on me, and I know something about begging techniques, having lived in a few big cities and college towns. He is on his knees, and his forehead is on the ground, the pavement, the stone. In his outstretched hands is a hat, turned over for money.

I don’t ever see him depart from this pose. The physical demands must be extraordinary. In my various encounters with him, I see the startled looks of those who themselves are encountering him. He makes a terrible, pathetic sight indeed.

Not long ago, in New York, I had lunch with two Russians. One is in his thirties, the other in his sixties. The first one had just been to Prague, and had had a funny sensation: shame, over belonging to a country that had invaded the country he was in. (We can talk about whether the Soviet Union and Russia are the same country.)

The older man remembered ’68 — he said, “It was one of the worst days of my life. I cried and cried. How could we be doing this?” As he related this memory, his eyes filled with tears — right there at lunch.

Something to contemplate . . .

The girls of Prague have been much written about, much celebrated, much sighed over. I won’t add much here. Someone says to me, “They are the Parisians of Central Europe: beautiful, stylish, mean, and hard.” Well, just for the record, I know some Prague chicks who are perfectly lovely! (Parisians too, for that matter . . .)

I talk to a Prague man about immigrants — he mentions Vietnamese, who are extremely hard-working. “They opened stores, and kept them open until 11. No one had ever done that. They were courteous, too, unlike our shopkeepers.”

And they had a positive effect, according to my informant: The Czech shopkeepers started keeping their stores open till 11, too, and they got a little nicer.

Ah, sweet, beneficent competition!

I see a Hotel Neruda. My heart clutches a little: An honor for a Commie, here in Prague — even one who wrote nice love poetry? The hotel was established in 1348.



UPDATE: Dumb me, as a friend of mine used to say (about herself). The Neruda is Jan, a 19th-century Czech, not Pablo, the 20th-century Chilean Red (gifted, alas). And Pablo chose his name — his pen name — after Jan. When my grandmother learned of a fact she didn’t know, she’d say, “I was absent from school that day.” I was absent when they told the others about the Nerudas. Forgive me!

Tourists interested in photography know when to visit the Charles Bridge: early in the morning. They have the place to themselves. Indeed, practically the only denizens of the bridge are five or six people with tripods.

I have had this experience many times in Europe, in cities all over: When the sign says “Don’t Walk,” they won’t, even if there’s not a car in sight. But if you, the American, walk — they may well follow, shruggingly, guiltily.

Want an instance of local chauvinism, or pride? This may amuse you. A musician friend of mine, who lives in America, played Prague. He was being interviewed on the radio (I think it was), and mentioned the three big Czech composers: Dvorak, Smetana, and Janacek.

The interviewer said, “There are four! Mahler!”

I think my friend kind of stuttered. Mahler, though born in Bohemia, was about as Czech as Schubert.