Come to Prague the City of Architecture

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“Of all the triumphs of life-haters today, of fun-haters today, of beauty haters today, of thought-and-love haters today, of the Forces of Satan, if you will, the one that most troubles my heart is the inducement of some Czechoslovak politicians and police to behave like cannibals toward the most humane and generous and gifted members of their society. […] These people are rooted like the saplings in a tiny nation whose people have created a major fraction of the Earth’s most important architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, imaginative prose and most recently motion pictures. […] If a flying saucer person were to ask me what Earthlings considered to be their most habitable city, architecturally speaking, I would reply without hesitation: Come with me to Prague.”

Kurt Vonnegut- Taken from an archived article in the Czeský Rozhlas 

Prague truly is a beautiful city. Architecturally speaking, I agree with Kurt Vonnegut (RIP). I will admit that I haven’t been to all of the cities of the world, and that there may be others more beautiful than Prague, but it would be hard to beat this city of spires. Even on a bad day it kept me going; I had a difficult time losing myself into the depressive depths of me because Prague’s buildings kept grasping my senses, and I couldn’t get away from how lovely it was to walk through its streets. I’ve been to Prague four times. Twice to visit and twice to live. The first time was in 1997 with two of my friends. It was a bad trip to tell the truth. It was filled with a lot of fighting. The kind of fighting with friends that I think you only experience in your early twenties. Your twenties are much more difficult then anyone ever lets on. We are supposed to be adults, but adult-ing can sometimes take a lifetime to figure out. You think you know it all, but you still have little control over your emotional reactive responses, and you haven’t picked up the many communication skills that can ease an argument. It’s just a lot of yelling, and the word bitch get’s thrown around a lot (or some other pejorative). Still, the arguments are filled with learning points. What kind of friends and people do you want to surround yourself with, and what kind of person do you want to be? Where do you focus your self-reflections? Do you reflect? It’s all learned as we grow (hopefully) or perhaps it’s learned in Prague. Even amongst the fighting, Prague still left a huge impression on me. How could it not? Its spiraling towers touch the clouds, and its angels reach for the soul.

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I went again in 1998. A much better trip, and no fighting with my travel companion. It was a very short trip that also included a visit to Budapest. In 2000, I moved to Prague. It was while I was there that I was inspired to write about this city in a book. Again, I returned to Prague in 2015. This time may have been even more powerful than the last because I felt I had built a family in Prague. A family who is still there. It was the only time I cried when I left a place. In my heart Prague is another home.

What is it that is so spectacular about Prague? So resplendent? Much of it has to do with the architecture. Prague was fortunate to not be bombed and destroyed during WWII (except for the snafu bombing by the U.S. military in 1945- way to go U.S.A) and because of this it has been able to retain the history that has been embedded in its streets, buildings and houses. You can find gothic, romanesque, renaissance, baroque, rococo, and if you visit the Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish quarter you can also see Moorish revival which was influenced by the Alhambra in Spain (another must see).

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Nearly every part of Prague has some incredible sight to see, but it isn’t only a walk through the histories of the far past, if you visit the Dancing House or any of David Černý’s strange and fascinating pieces hanging throughout the streets, you will be awarded with architectural modernism, post-modernism and contemporary designs. This building, The Dancing House, which is a hotel and hosts art exhibits, is an amazement of deconstructivist architecture. It was built in 1996 and is the site of the accidental allied bombing of 1945. It is also call Fred and Ginger as it sways like the two famous dancers. It’s crown is a metal birds nest.

Most people when they visit will stick to old town, and head up to the castle district, but in every neighborhood from Vinorady, to Mala Strana, and from Vyšehrad to my favorite neighborhood Žižkov (my heart belongs in Žižkov) there is beauty to behold. So please, take my hand, and come with me to Prague, because I plan to return.

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Hlavní Nádraží’s station was stunning. The prodigious dome, with its illuminated stained-glass windows, and the colorful matted walls with winding plants that undulated in whips of movement had caused me to pause for a moment. There were statues leaning from the corners of the walls. Their faces with carved blank eyes, all more than a century old, stared down at me. I was crossing platforms that had been crossed by hundreds of thousands of strangers. People just like me, and people nothing like me, but we were all traveling. The colossal doors with sweeping archways were framed by statues of supine women draped in stone fabric that looked to flow and breath. The marble women, with their down-turned mouths and closed eyes, curved like open yawns over the arched windows of the doors. The station was a reminder of a time when travel was ostentatious and reserved for the wealthy.  And here I was. I had decided to move to Prague because someone had told me that the Prague of the nineties was like the Paris of the thirties, and I was a romantic.

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Praying to Gods in Warsaw

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The day was sweltering. Thirty-seven degrees. That’s ninety-eight for the folks back in the U.S. of A.  In my humble opinion anything between thirty-four to forty is terrible. That all converts as nineties to one hundred which translates to hot-as-f*#k. It is meant to be like this all week. I suppose we can all thank the climate change that too many continue to deny or ignore. It troubles me that I am going to live through this horrific process. I would like to be as selfish as the rich and the ignorant,  and just expect it to all take place when I’m dead and gone. My nordic blood can’t take this shit. If I have nordic blood. Where ever the blood is from it’s somewhere where it was colder, and it isn’t adapting rapidly enough, but nothing is because unbeknownst to some the planet, and it’s inhabitants, are not software- not yet anyway. I suppose I should fall of this soapbox.

A fly dies at my feet, and I can hear the last buzz of it’s life as it’s legs bend in rigid rigor mortis. It appears to be a natural death, but I blame the heat. The other flies buzz in a funeral procession.

This day I have wandered to a Palace on an island, and a huge park in Warsaw. I left early in the morning in order to have some time outside before the heat. This is my fourth time in Warsaw, but I only have a day or hours to spend in the city so I have to see parts of the city in sections. I don’t regret the choice of going to the park. It wasn’t too difficult to wake early because of my hostel mates.

I’m staying at a shoddy but acceptable little hostel in a four room dorm. I had this ridiculous idea that maybe the four rooms which are a higher price would have less of a chance of having some party people. I was really tired after the first Angloville and in need of rest, but it was foolish of me. If I didn’t have to try and make my money last for six weeks- including accommodations and transportation- then I would have spent the money on a single room. Air-conditioning would be nice too.

When I opened the door to the room I knew immediately I was in trouble. The people were not in the room but the room was a disaster as if teenage girls had blown up in the room. I wasn’t too far off. Three young Polish girls- maybe twenty were having a party weekend in Warsaw. I forget about the weekenders. As if everyone lives like I do. I have to imagine myself as a twenty something going to spend the weekend in the city (which would be San Francisco) it isn’t all just for backpackers and travelers, people do live here. I foolishly continue to live my life as if it is in the center. In a way it is, but I pass through other’s centers, and judging by the glare and scowl of one of the girls on seeing me unpacking my bag in her room I had invaded their girl weekend. Feeling’s mutual love, I thought, our centers just collided.

Since they were young women on the mission to party I prayed to the Gods of Vodka and wished that the girls would hit the city at night and stay out until at least five in the morning, and the Gods answered my prayers, only I didn’t trust in the Gods at first. As I was returning to the hostel after wandering around the city, I passed the women on the street. They were heading out into the night. I smiled with a jubilant glee. If I could just fall into a deep sleep I should be able to get a couple of hours of sleep. Unfortunately, it was hot and I slipped in and out of restless sleep feeling anxious about not falling asleep before they came home. I kept dreaming about being woken up by drunks and I even had a dream that another bed was shoved into the room. I did finally fall asleep, but woke to the sound of someone struggling to open the door. Even sober the door was difficult to open so I knew they must have been having a hell of a time trying to get in. There was a dusty light in the room meaning that it must have been around six in the morning. Good job girls, I thought to myself, that was an hour longer than I had hoped. Only two had return and immediately they both feel asleep and I feel fast asleep too. I woke again at eight a.m. as the third girl came home. She tried to wake her friends, but they were not having it, and it forced her to go to bed. She climbed onto the top bunk and caught eye-contact with me. It was the scowling girl. She gave me half bewildered half scowl glare and I returned it with a smile. She had no idea how proud of her I was that she returned so late. The girls had allowed me the sleep I needed. The Vodka Gods answered. I got up soon after the scowler passed out. And prepared to leave for my day. I looked back at the three young women tangled in their bedding. They’ll be up around two I thought. I knew all this from personal experience.

As I walked out of the hostel toward the park I decided that I would make an offering to the party Gods; pour a shot out to the Vodka Gods, and pray that the girls have another all night away-rager. If only I could pray away the heat.

Another fly dropped dead as I typed. I looked down at the fly carnage. There were three dead flies. It’s the heat, I thought, or there is something deadly in the air. A small bird landed on a candle and began to eat the wax. I didn’t think this wax eating was good for anyone, but I had to let these things go and just pour the Vodka on the floor.

While on the Bus to Warsaw

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I woke to the sound of the bus as it slowed to pull into the gas station. I had fallen asleep for a few minutes during the ten hour bus ride from Prague to Warsaw. It wasn’t really sleep so much as that floating space in between being awake and sleeping. When your eyes are resting, and to some extent your mind is quiet because it is too tried to think, but still, you are not asleep, you are not resting, you’re just floating. I slipped in and out of this sleep/wake phase for nearly the entire trip. I’ve done this bus ride before back in November and in December, but both times I had taken the overnight bus, and the darkness had allowed me to easily fall into the necessary sleep that I needed to be able to fully function for the following days. This was my first time traveling the full ten hours during the waking hours. I was going to be very tired for the upcoming week. I could feel it.

I’ve found the the favorite part of my journeys have been the actual physical process of transportation. I don’t know why; when for many people this is the most exhausting part. It is in the decision making process, the planning part, where I think most people find joy, and where I have the most stress. I fill with anxiety over the what-ifs of the process, as if there is just too much on the internet to sift through, and I am not capable of doing it. I find it confounding that I can not seem to do the simplest part of the journey which is to plan ahead. I wonder how a person can carry so much worry, so much anxiety and still manage to cross the ocean and visit other places. I often think I am doing it all wrong. As if there is some kind of rule book to this whole life thing and I never got the book and I especially didn’t read the chapter, “The Accidental Vagabond: How to travel the world and not worry about it.”

“What do you do in your real life?” Asked a man on the bus who was sitting beside me. I paused a second in my response and then shrugged. “This.” I said.

I was on my way to Poland to a place called Zawidowice, three hours outside of Warsaw. I was volunteering with a program called Angloville. I had done it before in November. It is an English immersion program where Polish participants pay to stay a week in an isolated spa or hotel with native English speakers in order to converse for nearly ten hours a day all in english. It is a really interesting program and you can meet some very interesting people and it also does help to improve their english skills, but all this interesting was not my main motivation for signing up again. I did enjoy the program the last time, and I made some friends with the Polish participants, all of whom were adults with adult lives and serious careers and families, but, this time my motivation was about finding shelter.

I’d been living in Prague for nearly a year- give or take a few excursions to other countries for volunteer work or paid work. My time there was coming to an end. My work visa expired, and now I am back to the allotted 90 day tourist visa. Originally, I had intended to return to Portland in August in order to get prepared to move back to China, but I couldn’t find a flight back to the states that I could afford so I had to wait until I was able to find a price within my meager range. My return date is set for September 22nd, but my visa was up at the very end of July which put me in a bit of a predicament. I had no place to live, no visa to legally find work, and I had to make what little money I had made stretch for almost another two months. In my fantasies I took this time to just back-pack and travel around, but in truth I was worried that I didn’t have the money to actually do this, not with the cost of travel, and accommodations being so high at the height of summer.  I had a friend that was letting me share his room, but I knew his generosity would become strained, and that eventually I would outwear my welcome so I needed to find a way to have shelter and food, but to spend as little money as possible while having these necessary things. Angloville is a volunteer program, but if you are the “teacher”, but they put you up in a room and they feed you. They feed you quite well. I eat far better while I am at Angloville than I do on my own. I decided to sign up for two weeks meaning two programs.

My visits to Warsaw have been brief. I have a moment to check into a hostel, then wander around the city, but in a state of ignorance, not knowing what I am looking at or where I am going. This time I had even less time to visit. I just checked in; met up with a friend of a friend; had a couple of beers; went back to the hostel,  went to sleep, and then was woken by the other travelers who were leaving early. I got up. I grabbed my pack. I checked out. Lastly, I searched for the bus that would take me to the Angloville site. There were another three hours on the bus to go.

Although, I have done this before it won’t be the same because it is the people who create the environment whether they know it or not. The Polish participants will be taking a break from their lives to work on their english, their motivations ranging from the need to speak english for work, to improving for school or for personal growth. The English coaches come in different groups of intentions: Twenty-somethings on break from school or extending their travels their last summer freedoms before entering the work market. One or two people in the 30’s to 40’s range the rare group that is difficult to find because they are already in the work market or the family world, and the retired mostly former teachers. These are only the surface groupings, but over the course of six days the individual lives are exposed and then suddenly we say good-bye and return to the separate seas from where we came. Most of us will never cross paths again, but we will always remember each other because we communicated. Really communicated- and this for me is the beauty of traveling. It is difficult to allow fear to create a hate in your heart for a nation when you have communicated with a person from that place. When people speak of war against a place- you no longer think of some unknown place from far away, you see the face and the smile of that person you sat across from at the table; the one who you shared bread and the one with who you communicated.

I grew up comparing my life to others. “Oh their life is so much more interesting than mine.” Comparison only breeds envy and envy breeds discontent and discontent equals a pretty low perception of life. After awhile you can no longer see what is special or unique about yourself you can only focus on what others do and how they do it better than you. This comparing (that I have no idea where it came from) has sometimes attached itself to my life abroad; Facebook doesn’t help. Everyone’s life looks amazing on Facebook. This is something I’m working on this comparison crap. It is not healthy, and it’s ridiculous. Where it comes in is when I think my travels are not exciting enough or I don’t have anything interesting or worth writing down on this here blog. Ridiculous. This must change. There is no need for an exciting story there are plenty of exciting stories out there.  My stories are mostly about the people I meet, passing and greeting strangers in deep and thoughtful ways and then like the tide we pull apart and I find myself on another shore, or mixed in the silt of the ocean floor or in the belly of a seal. In many ways it is a very normal life. It feels like my daily life, but at times I am in a new country. Perhaps that is why I like the actual travel part and not the planning because it reminds me that I am going somewhere that I am indeed traveling which is not a daily activity. There’s no comparison to explain all the unique moments I have with people because every moment is different and this is enough. All this is enough, I’m grateful to have this much.

I’m curious as too how different this Angloville will be compared to the last. The only proper what to make a comparison. Will I make a good a close friend or will a do a lot of reading on my down time. Either is okay. I will find out very, very soon- as soon as the bus arrives.