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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Thinking of Henry Miller

I’ve moved rooms, again. I’ve moved five times since I’ve been in Prague, and I’ve only been here four months. It’s really not all that unusual for me to move so often, but I’ll save all that moving talk for another post. This is about Henry.

I’m currently staying in a hostel. This hostel names their rooms after colors. My last room was “Beige”, and now I have moved into “Ruby”. I’ve also stayed in “Lavender” and “Purple”. Funny enough, my “Beige” room had lavender painted walls; not that that means anything, but I like to pull connections out of nothing. The night before I was to move, I had been lying in my bed in the “Beige” room, and sort of mentally writing. I do this a lot. I imagine that I am writing. Sometimes I am smart about it and actually write these moments of genius thought down, but not often- so my genius is often lost. I was thinking about the first time I had ever read Henry Miller. I’ve been reading Big Sur, by Jack Kerouac, and I was thinking about the part in the novel when he mentions a possible visit with Henry Miller. That’s all that is mentioned in the book, but I know what happened because I had read all of the other accounts from other writers. Maybe it was Carolyn Cassidy or maybe it was Henry or perhaps it was Kerouac himself that had told the story. The plan was for Kerouac to sneak quietly into San Francisco, and meet Ferlinghetti, and together they would drive to Big Sur to have dinner with Henry Miller, and then Kerouac could settle into the cabin, but it didn’t happen. Kerouac came roaring into San Francisco with his bourbon and drinking buddies, and never made it to dinner. Kerouac was already deep into his alcoholic depression, and going to Big Sur was his attempt to try to clear his mind and confront his demons, but he didn’t succeed. He ended up drunk, disoriented, and threatened by the dramatic coastal environment. Where Miller saw life Kerouac saw death.

The book is depressing, even without the part about ditching Miller. It’s depressing because Kerouac is loosing it, and I can recognize the serious depression, delusion, and alcoholism that he is experiencing. The depression is too familiar, and as mine is increasing in its strength, I feel like I don’t need Kerouac, I need someone else. I need Henry.

The first time I ever read Miller, I was staying in a hostel in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was the Princes street hostel, and it was 1998. I had been trying to find work but couldn’t get a job anywhere because of not having a work visa. I had paid for a full week’s accommodation, and bought food for a week, but once that week was up I had no money. I had managed to find work in a hotel, but I was fired after two days. I had never been fired in my life, but I didn’t make a very good maid. I wasn’t fast enough in my cleaning. So far it remains to be the only job I’ve ever lost. I was feeling dejected and nervous about what to do next. There was nothing for me to do, but to wander the city, and go to every museum because they were free. I would sit under the castle and want to cry because of the upcoming homelessness and winter, but it was too beautiful to cry. It was a desperate time, but there wasn’t much I could do except look for work, wander the streets, go to museums, and read.

I had been sitting on the top bunk aimlessly staring out the window when I had noticed Henry Miller’s, “Tropic of Capricorn” on my flatmate’s bed. I was curious to read him only because I had been told I wouldn’t like him. My boyfriend had said that to me when I was 20. He had been reading Anais Nin and Henry Miller. He had told me I wouldn’t like Miller that I would think he was too vulgar, but that I should read Anais Nin. He had felt she was more my style. I ended up reading Nin, but I didn’t care for her writing. Too flowery and perfumey: vagina’s like petals, and sex like every bed had silk sheets. It didn’t appeal. He was wrong about me liking her at that time, but I still trusted his judgement on what I would like and not like so I didn’t try to read Henry Miller.

But, that was five year’s before, and he was, in ’98, engaged to another woman, and I was alone traveling and poor in Scotland. His opinion no longer mattered. Henry was waiting for me. My flatmate gave me the book, and as I read I found myself laughing out loud at his vulgarity, and his boastings and rantings. I remember thinking, “how can a person write like this? How can a person be so free in their expressions. How can a person love life so much?” He spoke to me. I wanted to be as free as he demanded I be— that all people be. To not live among the dead that walk around in the “daily processes”, but to soar with the living. Don’t just get by. Do more than get by- live.

I think in many ways the dead can speak to us through their writings. They tell us to get up, to keep going, to have some passion, and to not give up. To wake up and see the world. The real world not the illusion of the world. I had thought about being a writer. I had written stories as a young girl, but I had felt insecure because really what did I have to say. Writing was for the “intellectuals”. I put all my energy into acting when I was young, but the moment that I read “Tropic of Capricorn”, and saw the way that Miller wrote, I knew at that moment that I wanted to be a writer. In a small way he changed my life. He crossed over the barrier of death and shook me, and gave me permission. I haven’t read a book by Miller in a couple of years, but he comes to my thoughts every now and then.

My move to Ruby was tedious. I only had to move down three floors, but I didn’t bother to pack so it took too long. It should have been a lot easier than it was but the close proximity of rooms made me lazy. I had managed it though, managed to make the chaotic move. The new room has several beds. I could have a huge slumber party I have so many beds. The beds have the graffiti of people who have traveled through Prague and stayed in the hostel. On one of the beds in huge black permanent ink is written, “READ HENRY MILLER NOW.” At one time someone passed through this place that was like me, someone who also was changed by the writer. Someone who also felt that Henry Miller was needed to be read. Now.

An unknown stranger writing on a bed in a ruby room. Look at us talking to each other, and we’ve never even met. See, connections out of nothing, and yet, it’s still a connection.

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My First Christmas without Mom

Christmas time has come to Prague. Not to be a grinch, but I’m a bit bah humbug about the whole affair. Christmas was a special time when I was a child. My mother would wake me early and start with a stocking, then it was time to open the presents. She loved Christmas. Occasionally, I would spend Christmas with my dad, and my grandparents. They switched off. I’m not sure how they came to the agreement of who-gets-the-kid-when, but I’m sure it broke my mom’s heart not to have me with her.

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The idea of “the family” was so important to her, so idyllic. She really wanted the white picket fence, the little house, the nuclear family, the perfect Ozzy and Harriet holidays. I imagine when she was a little girl living in the anger and depression that surrounded her and her big sister that she would watch those 50’s and 60’s television shows, and dream about how when she grew up she would have that kind of life. It didn’t work out. There was never a picket fence- not of any color. My mom’s desire for this television life only grew more desperate as she grew older. Her body aged, but she grew into more and more of a child.

When I left home at 18 Christmas kind of ended for me. I would occasionally visit mom, and sometimes my dad’s side of the family, but once grandma Ogin died I knew that the Ogin family Christmas’s were over. I remember one of my cousin’s saying that very same thing. It was grandma Ogin who held that family together. I don’t know why I grew so cold to Christmas. It just didn’t mean anything to me. I’m not religious, and “family,” well, it wasn’t like television. I like the lights, I think it’s pretty, but that’s about it. When I see images of Black Friday and other mania missions of purchasing, I think it’s a fairly gross holiday. Still, I understand that it matters to people, and it is a special time for them. It had mattered to my mother.

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This is my first round of holidays after my mom’s death, and all I feel is regret. Regret that I didn’t make more of an effort to go home and spend every Christmas with her- no matter how stressful it was at times- I still should have done it. But, that’s what death does it brings up all the should haves and could haves that the living has to deal with and settle alone. Christmas doesn’t change anything.

I’ve gone to all of the markets in Prague and I buy the hot wine, have a sweet treat, take pictures of the trees and the lights and I try to feel something. I don’t, I don’t feel anything; not joy or grief. But, I am in Prague, and when I can pull myself out of my misery to see beyond my grief I am aware that not everyone gets to be where I am right now. Death or no death I’m still experiencing life, and to some my life is glamorous because I am traveling, and death be damned.

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So, I’ll continue to force myself out into the lights amongst the smiling strangers, and the children, and the sweets smells, and warm steam rising from cocoas, hot wine, and late night coffees. I’ll climb towers and snap photos of picturesque images. But, honestly, I found more joy spending time in the Kampus museum looking at paintings and collages than I did wandering in the markets, and I think that is okay. It is okay to see it as just another day especially when each day should be held as spectacular and precious, and just because my mother is dead it doesn’t have to hold anymore power of grief over me than any other day of grieving.

And, look at that castle, my mother would have been so impressed.
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Now, if it snowed…maybe the Prague Christmas would seduce me. And, I always appreciate a proper seduction.