To the Heart of Europe — Day 5: A Day at the Opera

26 May
For the first time on this trip we have the benefit of a late start. I open my eyes at ten to find myself in a sea of green — the walls, the mattress, and even the counterpanes are green. Momentary concern that Wilson has overdone the drinking again is dispelled when I come to my senses: our apartment is themed after the four seasons of the year, and we have the spring room — or, as Dennis calls it, “the room of veggies”. It’s very well-equipped: there’s a kitchen, toiletries and even sanitary products for the toilet. What there isn’t, however, is food. We resolve to get breakfast before beginning the day.

An hour and no breakfast later, we’re sailing through the New Town on the trams when all of us suddenly spot a market at the base of the National Opera. In an instant we’re off the tram and negotiating three lanes of traffic — some things you just follow your heart in. Apparently there’s a market in the shadow of the National Opera every Sunday, and although it’s only 11 in the morning, thousands of families have come out to enjoy the warm, sunny weather (and, presumably, make an early start on their alcohol consumption). Things are very disorganized here: next to stalls selling baby’s shoes and second-hand clothes, we find game stalls, and more importantly for us, a store selling “homemade” apple pie and lemonade along with blueberries and cheese.

I eye the coffee at the stall next door. Despite all I’ve heard about the dangers of open-air consumption, surely a cuppa wouldn’t hurt. Just then, Dennis gasps. Something big must have happened, and yes: here is a number 23 tram hurtling down the road, its spartan Soviet livery striking a very different chord with the classical architecture. He rushes forward, camera snapping away like mad, and turns around beaming to announce that he will be riding the rails all afternoon.

(If the reader at this point feels that Dennis’ love for buses and machinery has been constantly exaggerated, please note that I have, if anything, been understating it. Earlier this week he contacted a community of enthusiasts in Berlin, asking to visit a depot packed with East German buses. Upon learning that said depot was only accessible on weekends — which we were at that moment spending in Prague, 350 kilometres away — he proposed to the man in charge that he take a four-hour journey by train to Berlin and back ON THE SAME DAY. The very bemused man wrote back to dissuade him from this plan, calling it (and I quote) “a little bit crazy.”)

Later. While Dennis busies himself with buses in the Jewish Quarter, Wilson and I are watching interestedly a bunch of tourists queueing to enter a cemetery. This area is filled with Jewish gathering spots, with one street home to no less than THREE synagogues, all of which have no shortage of clientele. I’d thought that Americans would be the most interested in Jewish history — but the group of visitors before us all have Eastern European accents, probably Russian. They all seem rather subdued as they enter the consecrated grounds of the Pinkas Synagogue.

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The talk here is all about the Golem, the Jewish equivalent of the Frankenstein story. A clay giant created to defend the ostracized Jews of Prague from pogroms, the Golem went rogue after (what else?) falling in love and being rejected by the girl he liked. After doing the usual killings and vandalism of public property, he was deactivated by the rabbi who created him, and was stuffed into the attic at the Old New Synagogue. It’s said that he’s still there, but no one’s dared to check on a legend since 1883. Like his English counterpart, the Golem is ubiquitous in Czech culture and tourism, and pops up in all sorts of places: from shops selling the usual tacky souvenirs, to the pub signs that dangle dangerously above our heads. There’s even a sign promising the “classic Golem experience” (which no thank you, if I want to be menaced by a tall Czech monster I’d simply go out to a Prague bar around midnight).

It speaks to how desperate the Jews of ancient Prague were that they put their faith in a clay monster instead of, I don’t know, God. Then again, history tells us that they’ve always been a handy punching bag simply because of their success and their tendency to keep themselves to themselves. As we walk past the umpteenth synagogue and turn onto Pařížská — “Paris Street” — a row of fancy stores suddenly appears before us. Gazing at Louis Vuitton, Dior and Jimmy Choo, all deserted in the Sunday morning sunshine, one can’t help but be reminded that the Jews have always been stereotyped for being money-grubbers.

Arrive at the Astronomical Clock just 90 seconds before the clock strikes twelve. The place is less packed than we’d imagined — you’d have thought that the most famous clock in continental Europe would have attracted hordes, but no, we have quite a bit of room to ourselves. As the bells from Old Town Square finish their tolling, a skeleton halfway up the starts pulling on a tiny bell — one, two, three — and we hold our breaths. Something great must be on its way. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.

And then nothing.

After a ten-second wait, the tourists scatter. “Is that it?” says Dennis, bemused. Nobody has any answer. Well, at least the clock is gorgeous.

Head back across the Square and into the narrow alleyways of the Old Town. Next to the Museum of Sex Machines (now there’s a good idea for a museum) we find a nice store that sells all kinds of memorabilia and kitsch mainly dating from the Soviet era. Dennis is quite partial to some model cars which were popular from the 1970s. Eventually I locate some chocolates thankfully not from Soviet times, though I can’t help raising my eyebrows reading their claim that they are “the best quality chocolate”. Seeking more model cars, Dennis gets chatting to the Asian assistant shopkeeper, a student from Myanmar studying at the nearby Charles University who gets more charming the more you talk to her. Her English isn’t simply fluent — it’s eloquent and breezy, possessing a frankness that anyone would envy. I can’t help but wonder if she’s already mastered Czech, a language where verbs have FOURTEEN cases. She seems perfectly capable of doing it.

Next door is Old Town Square, the heart of Prague and its olde worlde charm. We’ve had nothing but lovely weather since Day 2, but today’s scenery is in a class of its own: nothing but blue skies dotted by one or two perfectly-shaped clouds, classical architecture acting as a backdrop, almost zero tourists milling around — it’s literally picture perfect. A shout comes from behind, and we jump out of the way of a horse-drawn carriage, the open-top kind that’s somehow even better than the ones you see in Disney movies. It grinds to a halt, and a Cantonese-speaking couple descend from it, clothed in their finest wedding outfits and ready for their photo shoot. (Dennis takes a few clandestine pictures, musing whether he should walk up and slip them the pictures while the photographer’s back is turned.) Their looks may leave a little to be desired, they look no less regal or radiant than William and Kate on their wedding day, and even more in love with each other. How does she do it, I wonder? What brings all the dreamers to Prague, sooner or later? What IS it about her that can turn the real life within, for a brief moment frozen in time, into a living, breathing fantasy?

As the clock strikes two, we find ourselves outside the National Opera once again. This time, however, we’re here not to have a second helping of apple pie and lemonade — not when Café Slavia lies just across the road. Opened in 1884, this place boasts amongst its former diners Rainer Maria Rilke, Karel Capek and Vaclav Havel, and it’s been particularly popular with Czech dissidents who liked nothing more than to while away the hours dreaming up plots to overthrow the Emperor Franz Josef or the communist government. Of course, none of us really care about the history, what we care most for is the food and the envy we will generate by eating in this kind of café. We’re hopelessly unprepared for it, of course: besides the lack of respectable attire, we’re dangerously low on money and eating in such a famous restaurant hardly helps matters. That said, we can’t visit Central Europe without having communion with coffee culture, so to hell with financial prudence and proper clothes.

After we have spent the required amount of time respectfully gawking at the architecture, and with the waiter breathing down our backs, we order some random things on the menu. Our food comes. Dennis is for some reason VERY interested in my bacon and eggs, and decides to try one for himself. It’s a simple dish, but little touches in the presentation (a couple of whole chilis that spice up the whole thing, delicately arranged parsley) and it tastes much better than it has any right to be. The third member of the party, on the other hand, has had less luck: having ordered some sort of beef dish, the starving Wilson dives in far too quickly to notice that he’s got the wrong order. While the others grin sheepishly at the annoyed waiter, I shrug and tuck into my excellent sachertorte, a Viennese cake made from layers and layers of rich chocolate coupled with a sliver of marmalade. The river of fudge trickling down the side, the scoop of ice-cream on the edge, the mound of whipped cream crowding round the cake, all washed down with gooey, bitter hot chocolate — it’s a diabetic fiesta. But then again, I am on holiday.

After tea-masquerading-as-lunch, we part ways — Dennis to ride the trams all afternoon, Wilson and I to roam the streets of the old towns. Pass the Rudolfinum, an old concert hall that somehow has close to zero tourists around it, and cross the Vltava for the umpteenth time. People whiz past in their bicycles and Segways, the cool summer breeze breathing down our backs. Turn into the side streets, and in the small, twisting alleyway, opposite a pub marked “Svejk”, I find an unassuming peach red building.

Franz Kafka is often mentioned as a very Czech writer, but though he occasionally spoke Czech, both his writing and his daily conversations were carried out in German, even after Czechoslovakia had declared independence in 1919 and 90% of the population spoke Czech. (He worked in insurance, so he wrote more cheques than Czech.) In any case, the themes of desperation and futile fighting against a wooden bureaucracy was felt across the linguistic divide, and cockroaches are now synonymous with Kafka the way buses are synonymous with Dennis. When I first visited this museum eight years ago, I was so impressed with how the museum had represented his world that I had nightmares for ages and developed a deep obsession with “The Metamorphosis” that took four years to shake off. And now, I’m about to throw myself into the lion’s den once more.

Although my mind’s much less impressionable and the dark bits are much less frightening than I remember, it’s far from disappointing. The whole place is a twisting and turning voyage through a dimly lit house, filled with interesting little detours (a hologram of a woman singing a Yiddish opera tune, wrapped inside a vortex of gauzy fabric; a model of a tram riding through 19th-century Prague). Exhibits are many in number and lyrical in description: everything from the letters to his father to his drawings while employed in an insurance company all seem to hurtle towards one conclusion: the way they reflected his increasingly desperate, tortured worldview. It’s a fascinating read, and not at all heavy on the sentimentality — what I wouldn’t give, to be honest, to see inside the nooks and crannies of a mind this ingenious, this passionate.

Sit down to rest a bit and pull out my phone. A string of messages pours forth, most of them from Dennis. Apparently he’s run into a girl who looks suspiciously like the one we saw yesterday on Charles Bridge. He is ecstatic, not least because the girl — and not to belabour the point — is quite beautiful. Wilson is echoing his statements, and the two of them are having fun commenting on Dennis could approach the girl, perhaps chat her up for a bit. I say nothing, painfully aware of my own interpersonal limits.

The museum continues, delving downstairs and getting even dimmer, so dim that it’s actually impossible to read some of the exhibit descriptions, hidden in the shadows. Poor Franz himself is quickly dispatched — he died of starvation when his throat closed due to tuberculosis, and I can’t help feeling a chill thinking about how he had to live through the agony of slowly wasting away — and the place turns to discussing his works in a series of abstract settings. “Amerika” and “The Trial” are set within a narrow corridor filled with filing cabinets (complete with names slyly referencing Kafka’s works) and ringing telephones that speak gibberish at you (or maybe it’s just Czech and German). “The Burrow” is represented by a glowing wooden staircase that seems to reach down into the mouth of Hell. Strangely, “The Metamorphosis” is represented by a simple row of books which just baffles the average visitor — where’s the giant beetle gone? The final one is “In the Penal Colony” — the one which kept little me awake at night — and the mock-up of the execution device is still there, horrifyingly carving its way through a screaming prisoner. But my reaction is no longer one of morbid fascination, of abject terror that a living, breathing person could be subjected to such cruel treatment. Just temporary startlement, quickly replaced by sinking disappointment.

Hope it’s just maturity.

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Across town, Dennis has connected with the Chinese girl, who — surprise, surprise! — IS the girl we saw from yesterday. She’s studying at a university in the Netherlands and is taking her mum along on a trip around Europe. Much witty banter is being traded. I sit down in the room for “The Castle”, a mirrored cinema where an incomprehensible, wordless film set in the snow is playing, gazing wordlessly at the two screens. I’m suddenly feeling very exhausted.

Exit at closing time to a sunny Prague afternoon, the sunshine beaming softly on my face. While waiting for Wilson, I observe the statue in the centre of the courtyard. It shows two men unabashedly urinating on a map of Czechia, their hips swinging left to right and back again as if to ensure full coverage. It doubtlessly has some deeper meaning, but I’m unable to think of what it is because one of the pipes has malfunctioned, and instead of flowing the water is simply dribbling out impotently. To the casual passer-by, it merely looks like he’s incontinent.

A few blocks away from the Kafka Museum, next to a bridge overlooking a tributary of the Vltava with a water wheel and countless love locks, Wilson and I spot a monster of a tourist attraction. Most of us now think of Lennon walls as symbols of protest around Hong Kong, but the original in Prague has a story just as interesting. Originally a wall belonging to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (a relief organization that’s still somehow recognized by the UN as an actual country simply because its heads USED to rule Malta), the first lyrics went up in 1980 after the man himself was gunned down over 4000 miles away as a sort of commemoration. Later, the Lennon wall became a place where more than lyrics were disseminated — those against the Communist regime would write messages on it, poking fun at the government. The government couldn’t paint over the wall without risking a HUGE diplomatic incident, so they could only fume as students kept on doing it, their authority undermined with every new message that appeared.

Now in the shadow of Communism thirty years past, though, I can only find it faintly amusing and rather trite. The political slogans have long since been replaced by spray-painted ads and numerous proclamations by thousands of tourists that “I’VE BEEN HERE”, overlapping each other and barely making sense. John Lennon’s still there, but only his very sombre eyes are visible above the sea of graffiti, and he looks like he’s been up all night. There may be a million interpretations of “you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”, but right here, right now, it’s actually pretty hard to imagine any inspiration from the former Beatle.

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At 7 Wilson and I are at the foot of Petrin Hill, immortalized by so many Czech writers. Franz Kafka sent his characters here to walk and to ride each other (yes, you read that right), Milan Kundera sent his female protagonist here to dream of an execution. Only Wilson’s strong enough to give piggyback rides, and as far as I know none of us are earmarked for death, so as a substitute we ride the Petrin Funicular.

We’ve arranged to meet Dennis up on Petřín, but he’s taking his time, so Wilson and I take the opportunity to do some exploring. Being the leisure grounds of Prague, Petřín crams a dozen attractions onto a windswept hilltop. Besides a “mysterious grotto” promised halfway up (a sex dungeon, perhaps?), there’s also an observatory, a rose garden, and a cathedral here, though sadly all of them are shut for the evening. Near the crumbling ruins of the city walls we find the Petřín Tower — a cut-price replica of Paris’ great big Eiffel Tower that still reaches up to an awe-inspiring height. Think of climbing up this one and telling Dennis to meet us upstairs, but Wilson decides that his money could be better spent on the Hall of Mirrors next door. I remember being fleeced by this one last time I came (it’s not hard to find your way round a mirror maze when dozens of screaming children are running in the other direction), so Wilson goes in alone. “Not bad, actually,” he says when he comes out. “You should have a go, you might have a better experience.”

By this time Dennis has arrived and we spend time discussing places to go, the girl he’s just met, and of course camera angles. (There is much throwing around of the word “insane”.) An afternoon apart has proven fruitful for all of us — we’ve seen the Prague that we were all looking for. Dennis, the efficiency of Prague transport; Wilson, the beauty of classical architecture; me, the literary quirks of turn-of-the-century arts here. We sit there, comparing our Pragues, and regaling each other with the things we’ve seen, filling each other’s city in. To complete the picture, I suggest that we visit the Dancing House, a phrase which immediately lights up the others’ eyes (the fuzzy picture I pull up also looks somewhat attractive). I’m anxious to get there, yet the sunset here is such a beauty that the boys can’t help but stop every fifty feet, finding yet another way to shoot us all.

Alighting the tram with five minutes to spare, we’re distracted by something ominously familiar. Surprise, surprise: the National Opera and Café Slavia are just a block away from our destination, our Godot place in Prague. It’s our third time here today, and I can’t help rolling my eyes at the déjà vu: how is it that this building keeps on dragging us back into its orbit, forcing us to see more of it, like a clingy partner who draws you in for one more kiss?

Then again, with a partner like this, I don’t think we can be allowed to complain.

It’s barely quarter to nine, but the day’s performance has already finished and elegantly robed theatregoers, in their dresses and tuxedos, are filing into the sidewalk outside. Lost in a sea of Czech-speaking nobility, it takes us a while to find each other, and by the time we get to the Dancing House, daylight has turned into twilight.

As it turns out, though, twilight is the perfect time to visit this place. There isn’t really a better time to visit: nightfall basically renders everything in Prague dark and lonely, and in the daylight it’s just your average office building, filled with bankers and grumpy residents in the apartments above — and what sane tourist would allow themselves to be made exhibits for capitalists so easily? Only at the crossroads of those two extremes, with the sky slowly darkening and the golden rays of the dying sun reflected in the windows, does the Dancing House become a magical thing to behold.

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Opened in 1996, the Dancing House was an instant classic amongst Praguers, which is another way of saying that they all hated it. It stuck out like a sore thumb in antiquated Prague, which prides itself on clear-cut corners and delicate decorations. And yet, it’s beautiful precisely for that reason: amongst the forest of elaborate brick buildings, the glass cleanses the palate and leaves your imagination to fill in the gaps. The building’s also called Fred and Ginger, and you can see why: you can practically hear “Never Gonna Dance” playing in the background as you look upon this. Where Fred Astaire’s stodgy legs fail, he makes it up with irregularly placed windows that flow like notes on a stave; and I can’t take my eyes off sensuous curves that Ginger’s flaunting and that seductive outstretched leg. (Yes, I’m still talking about the building.) The other two, however, are more disappointed. “It’s just another building that’s got a mildly unusual shape, Chamois.” Perhaps it’s just that we have too many metal-and-glass buildings in Hong Kong, or perhaps I’m just an unsophisticated sot. Either way, it’s a pretty building.

By the time we finish our shoot, it’s way past nine and the sun has long since disappeared. We walk across the bridge, looking for dinner, but besides a carnival of mosquitos who are VERY eager for a snack we are unable to find anything good. We’re just about to give up and head back to yesterday’s place when Dennis notices the shabby entrance to what appears to be a pub. Going downstairs, we discover a comfortable restaurant. Wooden interiors and soft rock music playing, it feels like a cross between Bavarian beer house and ship’s cabin. Oddly, two-thirds of the clientele seem to be speaking Cantonese.

The menu is simple but filled with mouth-watering options. The roast duck — labelled a “classical Czech dish”, as if that means anything — is certainly tempting, but I’m slightly worried by the remark “280g” on the side: just how much, really, is 280 grams? Is it the weight of a pea, or will I find a whole duck quacking at me? The answer, as it turns out, is more the latter.

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I’ve recently become a big eater, but even this is beyond me. It might not be the vegetarian’s nightmare I expected, but the bread, sauerkraut and beetroot on the side is such a heavy combo that it still feels like they’ve emptied the entire kitchen on me. Glancing to my right, I see Wilson, who’s ordered a whole plate of ribs and basically nothing else (320g), similarly struggling through HIS mountain of meat. Dennis, who true to form has gone for the pasta dish, slurps his spaghetti contentedly and finishes long before we both give up, for once betrayed by our own small stomachs. Compensate by raising our glasses for a toast, glad that we’ve all made it to the halfway point without screaming at each other and thankful for everything we’ve seen.

Back at the Kingdom of Vegetables I try to indoctrinate the pleasures of the Beatles into my fellow travellers. Wilson has said that the only Beatle songs he knows is “Hey Jude”, but a couple of plays on “Something” and this time I succeed in convincing him that the Beatles are the greatest band of all time. He has the politeness to request more, so I pucker up my courage and play “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” three times in a row. Go to sleep imagining the spirit of George Harrison smiling on me.

(Writer’s note: don’t worry, this is the longest day I have. There’s so much to see in Prague… the remaining days will be much shorter.)

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