Thursday, March 25, 2004

Five Things to Avoid In Prague

5. The Museum of Communism

Opened by an American businessman, situated on Wenceslas Square (the most expensive and fashionable shopping area in the city,) sandwiched between a McDonalds and a casino, this “museum” is squarely aimed at western tourists who want to pat themselves on the back for being born in a capitalist country. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a defender of the trampling of individual rights that occurred under the banner of “socialism,” or of the Soviet occupation beginning in 1968, but when I go to a museum I expect to see a well rounded, fairly even-handed account of the subject in question: what were the ideals? How did the politburo work? What sort of rationales justified job placement or property redistribution? Instead, information is scant and heavily slanted (mostly along the lines of “the Communists were bad and everyone hated them”,) the exhibits are mostly life size dioramas with little explanation, and, other than a number of interesting propaganda posters, there is a surprising dearth of Communist era artifacts, and those that are there are placed without context. On top of that, it was expensive. Truly a capitalist monument.

4. McDonalds

Well, duh. Sadly, there is no lack of American fast food in Prague; Wenceslas Square alone has at least five McDonalds in a three-block radius. What is truly amazing is how many people flock to these places, and in touristy areas no less. I mean, the Czechs have an excuse, there is still a novelty associated with western fast food (although that novelty is rapidly diminishing,) perhaps there is still a pleasure in biting into that long-denied symbol of American freedom, the poorly cooked, extremely greasy, disgusting hamburger. But in Wenceslas Square or Mala Strana, it isn’t Czechs who fill the place to bursting, it’s the Americans and the British, who have traveled here, I assume, to experience a different culture, and wind up huddled inside a restaurant that serves the exact same food that they can find at home.

To some degree, I can understand; it can be quite scary to have to deal with a language barrier and strange unknown food. There is, perhaps, a certain comfort in the fact that all McDonalds look the same, are staffed by the similarly surly, acne-ridden teenagers, and there are no mysteries on the menu. But this is an act of desperation, plain and simple, a cultural cowardice that must be avoided at all costs!

One caveat, however: I’ve found that when one is in serious need of a restroom, there is no place better situated for running inside and not buying anything than a McDonalds or KFC.

3. Driving

Good God, they drive like complete maniacs here! High speed dragging down cobblestone streets, car glutted intersections with no traffic lights, narrow pedestrian stuffed alleyways, this city is a nightmare. And yet I’ve met people who drive here on a regular basis. Some Americans apparently ship their cars over the ocean, the other day I saw an H2 with California plates attempting to traverse the tourist-spill over in the maze-like and altogether undrivable streets of Stare Mesto. Freaking insanity.

Sadly, it can be quite harrowing to walk as well. The other morning I was almost run down by a car skirting traffic by driving on the sidewalk. And it wasn’t the first time either.

2. Museum of Medieval Torture

Okay, honestly I haven’t been there. But my first warning signal was that fact that, like the Museum of Communism, it’s sandwiched between a McDonalds and a Casino. The second was an advertisement for the museum lauding a “new exhibit featuring over 100 of the largest and most exciting scorpions and spiders!” I’ve traveled along Route 66 enough to know that that’s just bad news.

1. Bacon Flavored Popcorn

Looking over my list, I realize that this is the only truly Czech item that isn’t directed at tourists (well, maybe driving as well.) But it is something that must be avoided at all costs. It can be argued that Czech culture revolves around various forms of heart disease, so naturally when they go to the movies, this is what they eat. Courtney and I stumbled upon it by accident. We wanted cheese flavor, which is actually quite good, but wound up with this which is as bad as it sounds.

Avoid!

(shudder.)


Friday, March 19, 2004

Thoroughly Creeped Out

The honey-moon is over. I just realized that the little box above this journal is now displaying Prague related advertisments. I feel violated, I mean, I knew that the price of this "free" site was that ads could start appearing at some point, but I hadn't quite expected the Big Brother overtones.

Please ignore the box completely.

What To Read

Several months in a country with a fertile literary history. Long winter nights. A television that doesn’t work. Many book stores with a well stocked selection in English, a wide array of classics and history. A perfect opportunity to catch up on one’s reading.

So... what to read?

There are two thoughts on the subject. In neither can you escape the locale. Prague is, through its architecture, through its age, its political and yes, occult history, an undeniable influence upon the imagination. After all, these are the very streets Kafka walked down. These are the musty alleys from whence the Golem reached out his clay hands, this claustrophobic bar is where drunken Hasek first began to write down his stories of The Good Soldier Svejk You can’t escape this influence, your choice is to go along with it and stock up on Bohemian literature, or you can react against it.

I asked a friend, an American from Maine, if he had been catching up on his Czech reading since he arrived. “Oh no,” he answered, “I’m waiting until I go back. It’s just too cliché to be reading Kafka or Kundera here. I don’t want to be one of those people.”

He doesn’t want to be one of those people, at least until he goes back.

Sadly, I know exactly what he means. All it takes is one look at the crass consumerism in Old Town, just one look at the tourists wearing their Kafka tee-shirts, sitting in the Kafka Cafe, mulling over whether to buy the Kafka Beer-stein or the Kafka marionette, and suddenly I realize I can’t hold my head up high while purchasing The Trial from the local ex-pat book store. Plastic Svejk mannequins beacon from overpriced bars, Golem figurines are sold by the dozen in impossibly crowded souvenir stands pumping out Britney Spears hits, every possible manifestation of “Magic Prague tm” is exploited, drained of its integrity and crammed next to the “Prague Drinking Team” and “Czech Me Out” tee-shirts. The gag-reflex kicks in, and in much the same way that I continue to avoid a perfectly innocent foodstuff for months after ingesting it coincidentally before a horrible bout with stomach flu, so I am tempted to turn away from Hasek, Kafka, Meyrink, Kundera, and any other author that has been swept up in the frenzy of Commercial Prague.

But, there is a baby in that bath. The fact is, there is no better place to read the expressionist text of Meyrink’s The Golem than Prague, where you can still trace the labyrinthine streets of the vanished Jewish Quarter, still wander into narrow, blind alleys that “smell of the middle ages.” No better place to read about Svejk’s obstinate, peculiar rebellion through utter subservience, and to see this slow, surprisingly effective revolt reflected to this day in the Czech culture. No better place in the world to pick up even poor, oversold Kafka than Prague, where you can cross the ancient Charles Bridge on your way to the ever looming Castle, surrounded by endless ministries and bureaus. It would be a shame to sacrifice the opportunity simply to appease my self-consciousness.

The point is, I’m reading Kafka, but I won’t buy the tee-shirt.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

This is not a post

This is a reminder to have faith, and I will update this site with a *real* post soon. In my defense I plead too many new classes, too many lesson plans to write. And, of course, the fact that I'm reliant upon internet cafes for my access. Damn Cesky Telecom!

Yesterday a surly Czech waiter tried to Czeat us. Over-inflation of a restaurant bill is common here, especially in the more touristy areas, and English speakers especially are targeted. I was upset, angry, and ready to walk out when he dropped a tab for more than twice what we had ordered. We talked to him, and he lowered it (somewhat, we still wound up paying extra for a "cover charge",) but I hate it when people live up to your worst expectations.

Right, so, next time there will be more, I promise.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

Wandering

Well, the sun has finally started poking through the grey, and though it’s still colder than cold should be (at least for us spoiled South Westerners) the days grow longer and bird’s chirp expectantly and spring must, must, must be coming. Any day now. But even April will find you by the fire, so the Czech addage goes, so we will tighten our hoods and bundle into gloves and scarfs for a few more weeks now.

We wandered for hours yesterday through the Old Town, through Mala Strana below the Castle. The throng was out like we’d never seen before, people people everywhere, a band played blues in Old Town Square, bored faux blacksmiths perform for the tourists children gawking open mouthed at each spark-showering hammer blow, marrionettes swung from outdoor racks: Faust, Mephisto, Harry Potter. We stopped at every shop and pushed our way to look at decorated thimbles and stein after stein. We climbed the narrow stairwell (dark stones layered with graffitti, some hundreds of years old) of the gothic bridge tower and looked out over the Prague roof tops. We discovered a church with a miraculous wax effigy of the Infant Christ, said to have stopped the Plague from ravaging the city; in gratitude his doll clothes are changed regularly, and hundreds of velvet, silk, gold fringed dresses wait for him.

This is a city to wander in, some days with no care for the history, no concern for the who and the whys of the statues peering out at you from every corner, every shadow. Some days we make up their stories, some days we let them silently lead their old stone lives and make their mark on us as we pass by.

Here are some pictures, no real context. But this is Prague.