A temporary return. So, WordPress offers this fantastic service of sending the site owner all of his/her posts in a zip file in the event that the site is going to be closed down. I took advantage of that service only to find that the file is only useful if you want to publish the posts again on a new WordPress site. Not so fantastic after all. Well, it’s going to take some time for me to go through all of my posts and copy and paste them into my own document file. I have until April to finish the copy and paste. I’ve been in Europe for three weeks now and while I’m writing, I’m certainly not doing any copy and paste. That’s for when I’m home watching sports.
We quit the main room of the Reduta Jazz Club just as the band began its final song. Best to miss one song and skip the line at the coat check. Coat check at the Reduta is mandatory. The place is small and customers are sitting cheek by jowl at small tables. No room and no tolerance for bulky coats or backpacks. As we waited in line to check our coats a man in front of us argued so insistently to be allowed to keep his coat with him that one would have thought he had a kilo of blow hidden in the lining. In the end he harrumphed and walked out.
As we were waiting to get our coats after the show, a woman in front of us snatched her coat from the clerk and remarked, “The music was not so good tonight. I don’t know if I will be back.” Well why did you stay for all three sets? The young man behind the counter offered the woman a disinterested shrug, as if to say, “I just man the counter, man. Got a beef about the music? Talk to the band.”
Contrary to the opinion of the critic, Cora and I found the show to be good, club worthy music. The band isn’t ready for a stadium tour, but how many really are? A mix of New Orleans Jazz, some old jazz standards, and a dusting of blues and pop from “back in the day”; “the day” being the musical genres during and before my childhood. For a time, I enjoyed the music that my parents listened to until “the day” passed and I discovered The Beach Boys and then the bands that came with the so-called British invasion. That was when I entered my teenage years and became a music “critic,” much in the vein of coat check woman, dismissing my parents’ music as “not so good.” When I hit my forties I had an epiphany and realized that I’d been nothing more than a twenty-five years long music snob.
Cora and I step outside into a crisp night where a crowd, mostly young, and mostly smoking, is milling around on the sidewalk on Národní, a major street, busy with cars, buses and trams. This is a different world from Stare Mesto, the old town. where our hotel is located. Národní is asphalt and modern. It reminds me somewhat of San Francisco’s Market Street, but only in a physical sense. Both are wide boulevards with buses and trams, and both are well lit. That’s about where the similarities end.
In a human sense there’s no comparison. Narodni has life. It has a soul, and vibrancy. There are no discernable threats, no shady looking characters here, nothing to raise the hairs on the back of your neck and put you on alert. Market Street, at almost any hour, is a boulevard in need of a biblical flood; a multitude to wash away its crime, its strange denizens and its overall filth. Businesses on Market aren’t waiting for the flood. Tired of criminals and weirdos, they’re closing shop and moving out. I feel safe walking Narodni at night. An evening walk on Market Street feels like a suicide mission. Prague, like the other European cities I’ve visited, Madrid, Barcelona, and Granada are in full vigor. San Francisco is on a ventilator.
In a few meters we turn onto Na Perštýně; back to narrow, cobblestoned, fourteenth century streets. The old world cobbles are charming but a full day of sightseeing raises hell with your ankles.
The fourteenth century philosopher, theologian and martyr Jan Hus, an icon of Czech history, wouldn’t recognize today’s Na Perštýně. He might appreciate it though. Hus became famous for being an iconoclast.
A scholar and an ordained Catholic priest, Hus, through his teachings, defied both the church and the secular leaders of his day. When he refused the church’s orders to come to heel, Hus was excommunicated and eventually went into self exile. In 1414, Hus, duped into coming out of exile, was imprisoned, and in July of 1415, was burned at the stake.
Hus’ followers, known as the Hussites, broke completely with Rome and the Catholic Church, a move that resulted in a fifteen years long series of wars between the Hussites and forces backing the Catholic Church. In the end, the Hussites prevailed, making the Hussite religion predominate in the Czech Republic. Still, the Czech Republic is considered by the residents that I’ve talked to, to be the most agnostic nation in Europe. That would make it a haven for those like me who find no grace, saving or otherwise, in religion.
Jan Hus is memorialized in a massive black statue in Staroměstské Náměstí (the old town square). The statue depicts Hus, standing defiant in the flames of martyrdom, surrounded by his followers.
Na Perštýně is the mostly pedestrian thoroughfare that links Stare Mesto with Nové Město (New Town). Even late into the night, Na Perštýně is packed with a winding, throbbing caterpillar of humanity; tourists mostly. It’s a narrow, twisting lane, lined with souvenir shops, cannabis shops, candy stores with domed barrels of dayglo candies, and mini-marts with row upon row of liquor bottles, from minis to the giant economy sizes, in window displays.
While there’s no perceptible crime on the streets, thieves do abound. A clerk in any one of the mini-marts is as likely as not to extort an unwary, thirsty traveler to the tune of 256 Czech crowns (about eleven dollars U.S.) for a bottle of the Czech equivalent of Gatorade.
Because there is no such thing as an appropriate hour to turn down dessert, the trdelník shops are in full force. Trdelník is a street sweet made of rings of dough that are cooked on a spit and then joined to form a cone that’s filled with ice cream.
Along the way we pass Thai massage parlors that don’t appear to be rub and tug joints; that is unless there’s a nefarious black lit room hidden in the back. The doors to these places are wide open and reveal customers, mostly old folks, having their weary dogs kneaded by massage therapists. The only happy ending these customers are looking for is podiatric relief. They probably want the privacy of having the doors to the outside shut. Like the man said, “and people in hell want ice water.”
There’s no dearth of absinthe shops on Na Perštýně or any of the other lanes leading to the old square. They’re all lit up with bright green neon lights that cast an eerie emerald reflection on the wet pavement. It’s been raining in Prague, making the stones as slick as if they’ve been doused with oil.
As we approach Staroměstské Náměstí, I put Google Girl to sleep (though throughout our stay in Prague, she’s been of little to no use). By now I’m familiar with the landmarks and streets that lead from the square to our hotel, the Hastal, on Haštalská Street. The hotel is just a few blocks from modern, busy Revoluční Street, a boulevard that is more or less the border between Stare Mesto and Prague’s largest district, Městská část Praha.
We pass a landmark that’s become the most recognizable for us, the one that tells us that we’re a mere few meters from the madness of the town square. It’s the Sex Machine Museum, and don’t ask, because we didn’t visit. Time constraints forced us to choose between the Sex Machine Museum and the Museum of Communism. In the end, we chose Commies over thigh high boots, handcuffs, dildos and butt plugs. What can I say? We’re old. At our age butt plugs are more commonly known as suppositories and can be found at any drugstore, rather than the adult novelty shops.
A few more steps past the Sex Machine Museum and the narrow lane gapes into the square.
The restaurants immediately near and within the old town square are still busy pumping out goulash, roast pork knee, garlic soup, sausages, and various forms of dumplings.These joints mostly cater to the tourist trade and we’ve tried to avoid them like the ripoff plague that many tourist traps seem to be. Beware the restaurant that has a telephone book thick menu with gigantic pictures of their food. This is Prague’s version of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, where tourists pay extortionate prices for a small shrimp cocktail made with shrimp that was farmed in some other far flung part of the globe.
We’ve found a place called The Blue Duckling, which is still within the touristy confines but is hidden away on Michalská, a quiet lane that’s escaped the touristy madness. The Blue Duckling is a prim and proper place with white tablecloths and serious, matter of fact waiters. It’s a short menu at The Blue Duckling that’s heavy on game meat.
Staroměstské Náměstí is still thick with people. Immediately off the narrow street we negotiate through the usual flock of out of towners taking selfies in front of the Astronomical Clock, while waiting for the new hour to strike. That’s when the clock puts on a short mechanical show that features a parade of the twelve apostles. One afternoon as the clock struck and the show began, I turned my camera on the crowd to take an image of the throng turning its collective gaze upwards.
This mechanical marvel has survived nine centuries, and that includes damage done in May of 1945 by the Nazis. With the war in Europe winding down, and the Reich doomed, an element of the remnants of the German Luftwaffe bombed the town square as a reprisal for an uprising in Prague. It was a vindictive stunt perpetrated by a nation that was down to sending boys and old men to be cannon fodder during its final last gasp days.
The Nazi bombing wasn’t the first that struck Prague. Three months earlier on Valentines Day, two American bomber groups, 62 B-17’s, headed for Dresden, a mere 120 kilometers distant, in Germany, mistakenly dropped 152 tons of bombs on the Czech capital in less than 10 minutes. The mistake cost the lives of 701 people and destroyed or damaged more than 2,000 homes.
As we make our way past the Astronomical Clock I look to the other end of the square, where the dark, twin towers of the old Gothic Tyn Church are bathed in floodlights, giving the already eerie looking church a more sinister, yet beautiful, expression than it wears during the day.
With the Hus statue as a backdrop, vendors are still out hawking brilliantly lit balloons, hoping for a few last sales before calling it a day. Their business dwindles as the hour grows late, when fewer families are out, and there’s a dearth of kids tugging at dads pant legs, begging for a glowing balloon. Any hope of a last minute sale rests on the impulse of a random late night couple who’ve had a few too many Czech beers or the ever popular, burnt orange hued, Aperol cocktails. In the morning they’ll wonder why in the fuck a lit up balloon was leering at their groggy morning sex from a corner of the ceiling.
As we clear Staromestske Namesti, we pass Caffrey’s Irish Bar, where you can get bangers and mash, fish and chips, and that old Irish classic, chili con carne – and then wash it all down with shots of Proper Twelve. Why oh why would any tourist go to an Irish bar in Prague? Nothing against Irish bars, but seriously, every city in the world has one. I’m in Prague and I can guaran – fucking – tee, that I’m not eating, Chinese, Korean, Italian (which is in abundance here), Thai, French, or Brit unless I’m starving. And especially not McDonalds. Old Ronald McDonald is all over town; one of America’s biggest exports. Even more prevalent are the Kentucky Fried Chicken signs featuring a smiling chicken colonel. Hell I guess I’d smile too if I was raking in all of those dollars, euros, crowns, pounds and yen, by schlepping marginally bad fried chicken all over the free and unfree world. Nothing like putting your best foot forward Uncle Sam.
Well clear of Staromestske Namesti the streets again constrict and turn silent. Knots of young people hang out near little hole in the wall bars, smoking and chatting. We pass a group of young men laughing, chatting, huffing on cigarettes, and sipping from mugs of crisp Czech lager. As we approach they step aside and we pass through the wisps of cigarette smoke. After a few days in Prague, I think I’ve smoked a pack or two worth of second hand smoke.
As we approach Hastalka, the street where our hotel is located I find myself looking down at the front stoops of the doors. I’m looking for two Stolpersteine that were pointed out to us by a local guide. A Stolperstein is a small concrete cube, imbedded with a little brass plaque, that sits before the last known home of a holocaust victim. At first sight, the pair of plaques chilled my blood. Even more chilling is the notion that, as of four years ago, according to an article in The Guardian, there were only 70,000 of these little “stumbling stones,” as they’re called, in existence. “Only,” because there are millions and millions more to go. German writer, Marion Papi, says of these memorials, “I find it much more moving than these colossal or labyrinthine memorials, which to me feel quite bombastic and anonymous. The Stolpersteine are so much more vivid and personal.”
I never did find the two little blocks. All that I remember is that they memorialized a husband and wife who spent their final days at Treblinka.
We’ve turned onto Hastalska, the street where our hotel is located and it’s peacfully silent until we hear the clop-clopping of horse hooves on cobblestones and the trundling of wagon wheels following us. It’s one of the tourist carriages, likely from the town square, where the drivers gather to wait for fares. The carriage passes us and I notice that unlike most that are open, this one is a closed carriage with curtains drawn. The closed carriage, the cobblestones and the old buildings bring a Dickensian image to mind. I could never ride in one of those carriages. I feel sorry for the horses who should, by all rights, be grazing in a green field somewhere in the country.
We pass a little bar that advertises halal, and pizza by the slice. It’s an interesting combination made more so by the fact that some of the pizzas are topped with slices of pepperoni and sausage, which I imagine are made of pork. Anything for a buck, I guess. Here you can buy an eighth of a slice of pizza. An eighth? Who does that? A look at the pizza in the window and one wonders who would want even one bite. The slices look shop worn, the cheese appears pasty and the slices of salami look pale, as if they’re dying of old age.
A trio of young women, smoking and gabbing, are milling outside of the pizza/halal shop. One of the women, a blonde talking a mile a minute, wears a stylish looking tan fedora, tilted at a rakish angle. As we pass she gives me a provocative little smile. Goofing on an old man, huh. Goofing or not, the women step aside politely to let us pass. Common courtesy is a common thing in Prague. That is unless you’re a mini-mart owner hawking sports drinks at red wine prices.
We pass a little restaurant called Food Lab where late night diners are listening to a singer/guitarist. A few more steps and we get to our hotel. The hotel bar, called The Bankers Bar, is alive with gaiety. It’s an interesting looking bar, with a classic collection of whiskeys, gins, vodkas and aperitives. Everytime I pass that bar I have an urge to have a drink. An urge that I quickly stifle. Or, should I say, my cardiologist has stifled. Fucking doctors take all of the enjoyment out of life.
The desk clerk at the hotel, a bearded young man wearing a knit cap, who has the look of a university student, asks our room number. “Twenty-two,” I tell him.
He hands me a key with a fob that feels too heavy. He’s given me forty-two, the same mistake he made last night.
“No, twenty-two, please. This is forty-two.”
We share a laugh. “Didn’t we do this dance last night?” I ask.
“Yes, we did. I keep hearing forty-two,” as he hands me the correct key.
Cora takes the elevator, I take the stairs and beat the lift to the second floor yet again. The night has been memorable. Over time and increasing age the details will naturally wear away. For now though we have sweet memories of old and new Prague.