Thursday, February 26, 2004

Today We Are Lonely

Today we are lonely, a bit of homesickness creeping in. Courtney and I both feel it, we both woke up with it, missing friends and family, the pervasive uncertainty of our lives right now takes its toll. We haven’t really made many contacts here and it’s quite difficult to start from nowhere and meet people. We hang out with Martina, and that’s nice, but we don’t want her to be our sole means of social support. The other expats that we’ve met through the school have seemed somewhat standoffish, and I understand; they’ve been here for a while and have a developed clique. Or perhaps they catch a desperate glint in our eyes and keep their distance.

But it is important to remember that aside from the beautiful sights and the touring around, this is also why we are here, to test ourselves away from the safety nets we’ve learned to rely on back home. Quite simply, you learn about yourself when you are lonely. Step away from the elaborate constructions you create to tell you who you are and what are you left with? Who you really are, assuming you can pull yourself away from the disorientation long enough to take note.

So who are we really? It’s unexplainable, in the same way that all extremes or absolutes (whether they be the misery of heartache or the joy of love) are at their root truly unexplainable; we are who we are, as is every one else; we are the same as everyone, yet utterly unique. I’ve been thinking a lot about this juxtaposition, how the transcendent and the banal nest so close together, actually taking on the same form, just viewed from different angles.

Case in point: in Kutna Hora, a baroque encrusted town 100 km east of Prague, there is an old chapel, so much like all other old chapels from the outside. Inside, however, there are the skeletal remains of 40,000 human beings interred over a few plague-racked centuries. Apparently, the cemetery ran out of lots early on, and so the medieval care takers simply started piling the corpses up haphazardly around the property until an utterly ridiculous number of bones littered the place: bones between the graves, bones scattered across the lawn, bones piling up by the door, bones inside the door, bones inside the chapel itself, bones on the altar, bones in the vestibule, bones under the carpet, bones-bones-bones. At this point, sometime in mid 1700’s, I suppose the church started to find the situation rather embarassing and sold the whole biohazard charnel house off.

And so it sat until the mid-1800’s when the new owners of the chapel decided that, for god’s sake, something, anything needed to be done. But what do you do with the remains of so, so many people?

They hired a local wood carver to “do something” to tidy the place up. So he did: logically, he began his project by boiling the bones, removing any remaining scraps of parchment-like flesh from them and doing his best to disinfect them. And then this artisan with unique vision set about doing something , indeed, a bricolage of grand guignol proportions. He created bone goblets, bone pyramids, he wrote in bones, signed his name in bones, made a bone chandelier (an example of every human bone occurring at least once in its construction,) he strung skulls from the ceiling, recreated grisly scenes with bones (in one corner of the chapel, a "Turk’s" eye is plucked out by a raven, both elements Turk and raven constructed from bones,) he rendered the coat of arms of the owner in hip bones, finger bones, foot bones, ribs-

Can you imagine?

I’ll answer that for you: No, you cannot.

I couldn’t. I read about the place and tried to imagine it. I thought about it quite a lot, actually, trying to guess at the sheer macabre intensity of such a spectacle, to predict how I might feel in viewing it. Words rolled around in my head: morbid, horrific, grisly, ghastly, grim, grotesque. Would it be a spirtual moment? Would it be frightening? What meaning would I find there? And then, I went.

Yes, you can pay your 2$ and pick up a laminated sheet in broken English explaining the site, then walk down the stairs and see it with your own eyes. I did, Courtney was there- and I tell you this, I was completely surprised by my reaction.

You cannot imagine how normal you feel looking at this utterly ridiculous assortment of skeletal decoration. Everywhere in that room there are centuries old skulls leering at you, skulls that once had a face and loved ones who were grief stricken, who were torn apart by their death, physical evidence all around of the most profound transformation, of the most transcendent fact of life, and yet it is not dread, horror, spiritual epiphany, or any emotion that you the reader imagine yourself feeling. You feel normal; you look at these 40,000 skulls and think to yourself, “Well. So that’s what 40,000 skulls look like.”

40,000 skulls look like 40,000 skulls.

Death is transcendently boring. After all, everyone does it, so how exciting can it be? When I’d heard my father had died, the same feeling was upon me, the incontrovertible fact of that moment countered any feelings of metaphysical intensity, of profundity, of transcendence that I had imagined one must feel when facing the death of a close loved one. And even when grief overwhelmed me it was grief before a fact of such banality that I could no more be transported by it than the incontrovertible fact of a chair or a table, or the very presence of my father in the first place.

But, here’s the catch:

Transcendently boring is still transcendent . Death is the very definition of miracle, the transformation from one state to a completely other state, even if you believe in no after-life at all the transfer from a state of being to a state of nothingness is utterly miraculous, you break the bonds of the human condition and the bonds of human understanding. Yet it is at the same time an inescapable fact, an every day occurrence, a universal experience, utterly ordinary. If the most miraculous aspect of your own life, its cessasation (or its instigation, no real difference,) is in itself boring and banal, well, think about all those other boring banal underwhelming facts of your existence; the miraculous and transcendent is hiding within them as well.

The point is this: here we are, lonely and bored, forging our selves in the crucible of incontrovertible, banal fact, transcending who we were into who we are, moment by moment, breath by beautiful breath.
Pictures from Kutna Hora. I know everyone will want to see pictures of the inside of the ossuary, but I couldn't bring myself to take any. Sorry.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Working Stiffs

It’s been a busy week for us. Officially this is our second week of work, but enough new classes have cropped up for both of us that every working day feels like our first day again. Next week, even more will be scheduled, so it will be awhile before we get a chance to get used to this.

I’m teaching adults only; all of them (so far) fairly advanced speakers of English whose main difficulties lie in pronunciation and conversational flow. As far as I’m concerned, this is perfect. The only difficulty is in finding lessons that are not too basic for them, as they are easily bored. I only have three classes this week; two of them are individual students, which is quite a new experience for me. It is strange to teach one on one, a little too easy too slip into comfortable conversation, which may not be as challenging as needed.

Courtney has three classes of small children, ranging in age from 6 to 9. These kids barely speak a word of English, so she has found it to be quite challenging to attract and maintain their attention. She must be doing it quite well, however, as the director of Polyglot, who attended her first class, was so impressed that she took classes away from another teacher and gave them to Courtney. Courtney also has a few adult classes, which have also gone well.

The only downside to this whole teaching business so far is that we both have classes in far off Mlada Boleslav, a factory town about an hour away. Oh, we have a ride there, our classes are at the same time so we do have each other’s company on the journey, and the students are nice and enthusiastic, but the commute requires us to get up at 5 in the God-awful-A-M and stand shivering on the sidewalk, exposed to a cruel Bohemian February well before any sane person would even think of rolling over in their sleep much less trekking off to teach a group of automotive administrators the nuances of the linguistic train-wreck we call English.

Ah well.

I put up some pictures of our Saturday trip with Martina (Zach’s fiancĂ©.) She and her mother were scouting out locations for the wedding and kind enough to let us accompany them. Neither of them care for having their pictures taken, so the few I have of them were snapped surreptitiously and thus the low quality.

The first place pictured, the big pink building, is an old Chateau once occupied by decadent aristocrats of the Mannsfeld strain. Lots of lovely furniture and so forth inside. The second is Krivoklat Castle, some 900 years old and perched on a rocky crag over a sleepy little village. Can’t tell you much about either place cause the Chateau tour was in Czech and there wasn’t an available tour at the castle. She settled on the castle (lucky you, Zach,) and I’m sure after seeing the pictures you won’t need me to explain why. The last couple of pictures are from the bungalow where the reception will be held. Quite lovely, and good food to boot.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

The Sights of Prague: Hrads and Otherwise


The nationalist bookends of Prague, the two Hrads (castles), lie upon either end of the historic center of the city. Upon the south eastern bank of the Vltava lies the hilly ruin of Vysehrad, The High Castle, the spot where legend says Libuse, princess of the wandering Slavic tribes, first prophesized the great city of Prague and compelled her people to settle here. North through Vinohrady, New Town, Old Town and across the river, is Hradcany, known simply as the Hrad, still the political nerve center of the Republic; the spires of the St. Vitus Cathedral in its third courtyard are visible from nearly anywhere tourists such as ourselves would care to go.

According to the legend, Libuse told her people to explore the western bank of the Vltava until they found a man building the threshold (prah, hence the name of the city, Praha,) of his home. They did so, and on the spot constructed the first fortification in Prague. I’m afraid that I don’t know what happened to the man or his house, though I like to think that he was very lonely and quite happy when a tribe of wandering castle builders asked him kindly for permission to found their great future metropolis where he had been intending a breezy porch suitable for sipping lemonade and staying out of the sun. I suppose it’s just as likely that they used his blood to paint their nice new castle walls, however. Regardless, the Castle was founded, and, with only a few brief exceptions, it’s been the center of the Bohemian world ever since. Today it still houses governmental administration offices, the Presidential apartments. and is surrounded by embassies.

Charles IV (remember him?) made the most visible additions to its grandeur, especially with the initial construction of St.Vitus Cathedral in 1344, supposedly on the site of a pagan altar. The Cathedral, which was not completed until 1929, houses the royal crypt wherein lies, among others, St.Vaclav I, known to Anglo-Saxon ears as Good King Wenceslas, the first Christian ruler (Duke, actually, not King,) of Bohemia .

In contrast to the stately, lively and above all official grandeur of the Hrad, Vysehrad offers a much more meditative pastoral aesthetic. The High Castle, founded by a separatist off-shoot of the Premyslid dynasty in the 10-11th century, is long since ruined, and even the magnificent palace Charles IV built here in the 14th Century was neglected, burned, and ultimately demolished by a string of political and revolutionary events, not the least of which was the Hussite Uprising in the 15th century. The battlements and fortified walls still remain, making it the most well defended picnic grounds I’ve ever been to. Within the maze of grassy pathways, St. Martins Rotunda, in fact the oldest building in Prague (early 10th Century, perhaps even earlier,) still stands. There is a church, a cemetery where Dvorak and others Czech musicians and artists are buried, and, in a copse of trees, a prehistoric stone monument of uncertain origin.

When We're Not Freaking Out, We Love This Place.

Unfortunately, sometimes we freak out. Sometimes walking down the eight flights of stairs and into the skidding honking streets of Nusle is more than we want to deal with. Sometimes we are overwhelmed by the frustration of not being able to speak the language, of not being able to ask for proper change, or for directions, of not being able to discern what the cashier is insistently telling us over and over, of having to mime our desires if they’re more complex than a simple purchase transaction.

At the end of long days, or sometimes before the day can even start, we hide in our apartment. It feels safe, we can retreat here, hide out until we can once again gird our girdables and face the Weirdness Of It All. Usually, we can leave our culture shock at the door.

But the other night, Culture Shock came-a-knockin’.

In this case, Culture Shock took the form of a very excited, very loud older gentleman, whose stocking cap stood straight up like an exclamation point for each of his Very Important Indecipherable Announcements. He pounded on our door at 8pm, barged in upon its opening and proceeded to regale us in very fast, very loud Czech.

“Uh... Nemluvim Cesky,” I tried, adding, without much hope,“Mluvite Anglicky?” I don’t speak Czech, do you speak English?

“Eh--” He said, looking disappointed. He took a deep breath and once again began to speak, still in Czech. Only now he said everything louder. And faster. He filled our apartment with a torrent of consonants, we were drowning in c’s and z’s, panic began to set in. What did this terribly excited person want with us? How would we ever find out? Then, almost in self defence, I began to speak in English.

This was a breakthrough. Suddenly we were on equal footing. Instead of him speaking and me trying desperately to understand him, we were both speaking and neither understood. For a moment or two, I felt comfortable even though I was no closer to getting hi meaning. At the very least, the language barrier was mutual.

At this point, we entered the pantomime phase.

“Okay, you’re pointing at the sink again and again. Uh... Water? Water? Something about the water... Hmm.. you’re miming something, I’m not getting it... Something about the water though, do you want some water? You?” I pointed at him, “ Want?” noncomittal gesture, “ Water?” I gestured at the sink, “ No? Okay.. what then? Yes. Water. Got that part. Something about the water...”

And then, with one word, he bridged the communicative gap that had yawned between us. The word was :


The water was Kaput! I understood!

“Oh! The water is Kaput!” I exclaimed, and his eyes lit up as I pointed to the sink and then chopped with my hand, saying that magical word over and over again “Kaput! Kaput! The water is Kaput!”

“Ano! Ano!” He affirmed, chiming in with my Kaput refrain, both of us very excited. Then, with the benevolence of chance and fortune, he added, “Kaput zitra!”

Zitra! One of the few words in Czech I understand, Zitra- Tomorrow!

The clouds did part, the harmony of an angelic chorus filled the room.

“Ah!!” I said, relieved, “Ne water zitra!”

We both sighed, relieved, and smiled. He left me then, filling up bottles and other containers with tap water in preperation for our waterless tomorrow.
Still no internet connection at home, and chances are we'll not have one for the duration of our stay. There's no phone jack in our apartment at all and Cesky Telecom charges an arm and a leg for installation, so we went and did the unthinkable. We got a cell phone. Yep, we're one of those people now. Actually, considering almost everyone I know has a cell phone, we're one of you people now. Don't worry, it's good company to be in. The point is that once a week is probably the most regular that can be expected for us to answer e-mails, and certainly to update this site.

Courtney and I both have jobs at Polyglot now. Betka Sulakov, the woman who hired me, was desperately searching for someone to teach a few classes of young children. Courtney, all levels certified in the state of Texas don’t you know, was a sudden ray of hope for her.

She’s off teaching now. Wish her luck.