Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Prague, 29.6.03: At the Sign of the Big Boot

Forgot to say the trip to Josefov was a total washout. We hadn’t thought how everything would be closed on the Sabbath—the synagogue, the cemetery, all.
Sitting now in the window looking more carefully at the green ridge behind the German embassy. It extends all the way behind, on both sides, a bit of countryside in the city. I had no idea this was so close, and regret we haven’t had (and won’t) a chance to walk there.
A bell ringing over and over, monotonally (or is that the precise meaning of monotonously?) It must be the consecration. A half hour ago, at 6 on this Sunday morning, I heard the bells ring the faithful in. So many bells, and hard to figure out where these ring. Perhaps at a nearby convent we’ve seen that, as well as we can make out, belongs to the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo.
Its central door has humilitas painted over it in gold letters on a blue background. Humilitas for the sisters and ? for the fathers? Dignitas? Auctoritas?
At the Manes exhibit, the attendant came running as we were retrieving our bags, and said, “Zweite Stock!” pointing upstairs. Did she think we were German? Or did she not speak English and assumed we’d speak German?
The puzzle pieces now fall into place. We’ve walked one last time to Karlovy Most and the Hradcany overlook. At the latter, I realized the hill I glimpse behind the German embassy from the Big Boot window is the same one we see from the overlook, with terraces on its end, as it reaches the Vlatava. On the right extremity is the Strahov Monastery, beautifully situated on a hill, with twin towers.
We didn’t visit Strahov, but walked up to it yesterday and looked over its wall into an orchard. Apricots ripening, apples and pears still green. It was bucolic and lovely in the middle of the city. Under a fruit tree a man lay reading.
Across from it, a strange exhibit of art in what looked like an old farmyard, behind a wall, full of rusted old tools and red roof tiles. The art was a mix of that 1960s vestige of Cubism you still find here, and Chagallesque items, interspersed with little clay figures made to look primitive, like something dug up from the ground.
The artists seemed to be a commune of young people, one of whom sat in that sodden Slavic drunkenness that frightens me. On the table in front of him were empty glasses.
+ + + + +
On the train now headed to Olomouc. Its ultimate destination is Warsaw. We’re in a first-class car whose air-conditioner has just now . . . quit?
Train station in Prague a nightmare. Man in some orange waistcoat—thus presumably an official—comes up, grabs our bags, squires us here and there at a clop despite Steve’s protests, and then, when Steve “tips” him 50 Kroner, tells us his “fee” is 100.
I go to scary WC and am informed there’s a 2 Kroner charge. Go to buy water at a kiosk. Prominently displayed are large cans of beer, 50 Kroners. Water’s in a cooler, no price. I’m charged 75 Kroners for the bottle of water that’s smaller than the cans of beer.
I realize we’re talking about tiny bits of money, but it’s that surly (and fulsome, with phony obsequiousness) way you’re ripped off that makes it so unpleasant. I also don’t like being treated as the rich American.
Before we leave, Jan Rippl talks with us about how his wife Charlotte is a translator. He speaks of the difficulty of translating Czech into English, how the literal translation misses the meaning.
Charlotta helped translate the post-communist constitution into English. He says the challenge is that English words are precise, where Czech ones aren’t. Plus, since the document’s a legal document, one has to be even more precise.
He says that in the communist period, people developed deliberate linguistic evasions. You couldn’t say yes or no without creating problems for yourself. As he said, people would “swim” with the language.
But, he says, for the legal document, green is green and yellow must be yellow. It can’t be greeny yellow or yellowy green.
All this preceded by a grand entrance of a thin woman who had stayed at Velky Boty, gone to Warsaw, and was returning by night train—arrived at the b and b at 7:45. As she herself said, she positively screamed Jewish from the moment she entered—talking, talking excitedly, thin face surrounded by an uncontrollable frizz of gray hair. As she announced, I don’t have to tell people I’m Jewish. She was immensely alluring.
And entertaining, though how to carry on a conversation with someone who talks non-stop? Luckily, she choked several times on her cornflakes—as she said, talking and cornflakes don’t mix—and we were able to say a few words.
She spotted us for teachers, as I did her—women’s history, American history. She talked about how she tries to inculcate respect for difference and otherness, about how her Russian Jewish maternal grandmother imparted a sense that no nation or culture is, after all, worth ultimate loyalty. We exchanged contact information, after which she drew Steve and me into a goodbye group hug, holding our hands and giving us a kind of blessing as we left Prague.

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