Politics & Policy

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.

‐Here in Prague, I tell about this interview to a young intellectual. She smiles: “Oh, yes. We claim Mahler, Freud, and Kafka” — German-speaking Jews, born in the Czech part of the Austrian Empire. “It’s kind of pathetic, but there you have it. Actually, Kafka, there’s a case for — Prague was important to him.”

‐I have a memory. Some years ago, I wrote a piece in which I referred to Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, and Georg Solti as “Hungarian-Jewish conductors.” I got several letters saying, “Why did you have to bring religion or Jewishness into it? Why couldn’t you have just said ‘Hungarian’?”

I was astonished at these letters, because I would have thought the reason obvious: At the critical hour, the fellow Hungarians of those men did not consider them their fellow Hungarians. They considered them . . . something else. And why should Hungary get the glory of association with them now?

Perhaps this is oversensitivity. I don’t think so, though.

‐A Prague friend of mine recalls going on vacation to East Germany, on the Baltic Sea. This was in the old days. Her father spent hours staring at Denmark through binoculars — just wondering, wondering, dreaming, wishing.

‐I spot a poster for Esperanza Spalding, the jazz musician from Portland, Ore. She performed at the Nobel ceremony for Obama. Each laureate gets to pick one musician, to perform at the ceremony — and the prez picked her. (Jimmy Carter picked a soprano from his home state — Jessye Norman.)

‐I hear a young Czech refer to “the revolution.” He means the Velvet Revolution, which overturned Communism. It’s so pleasant to hear the word “revolution” used positively. I’m used to hearing it in the Cuban context.

‐On a hill overlooking the city, there is a giant metronome — its arm swings back and forth. You know what was there before? A statue of Stalin. He was there from 1956 to 1962 (as I understand). People still say — to this day — “Meet me at Stalin.” They don’t say, “Meet me at the Metronome.”

‐On the other side of the river stands the Intercontinental Hotel, a hideously ugly thing, in a city of beautiful, beautiful buildings. The hotel, of course, dates from the Communist period. The city has decided to preserve it as a landmark: to show the ugliness of Communism. Or so a local tells me.

Michael Jackson stayed there, the local says, for this reason: It has a helipad.

‐I know I’ve mentioned before in Impromptus the Charles Bridge Jazz Band. I soak them in for a few minutes on this visit. As usual, they’re sweet, modulated, unaffected, and pure. They fill the air with happiness, is all I can tell you.

‐More music on the bridge? A young Czech woman plays a little wooden whistle — she’s playing a British tune, “Scarborough Fair.” On the other end of the scale, a man plays a big ol’ mother of a wooden tube: Thing sounds like a foghorn.

‐More music? Outside Prague Castle, a flutist, an accordionist, and a double bassist are playing Bach — very well. They bill themselves as “The Smallest Orchestra in the World.”

‐Some distance away, a man is playing the violin — well. Correctly and soulfully. He looks in his seventies, maybe his eighties. Is he playing on the street for pleasure, or because he needs the money — the crowns?

I shudder to think.

‐Downtown, a fur piece from Prague Castle, another small, small orchestra is playing — this one consists of an accordion, a double bass, and a bassoon. These guys are very, very good.

I wonder: Why is the street music so much better here than in New York?

‐And why are the bakeries? After frequenting about four of them — mainly to pick up pastries and whatnot for orphans, you understand — I think, “Our bakeries suck.”

‐Looking at a store, I think, “That’s got to be the most elitist — the most illiberal, the most anti-democratic — slogan in the history of advertising.” The store is Girard-Perregaux, fancy watches. And the slogan is: “Watches for the few since 1791.”

Thanks for joining me, friends. I’ll continue tomorrow with some notes on Reagan centennial hoopla.




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