Prague, Czech Republic
I stood in Prague’s airport waiting for my ride. The place is small enough to exit the international arrivals door and just about trip over a line of taxis waiting with eager drivers washing you with broken English and promises for outrageous fares into the city.
I was in Prague for a six week writer’s workshop; I had chosen to be in the class taught by famed Czech writer Arnost Lustig, a man whose stories of his Nazi death camp survival—four times he escaped execution—continue to flower in my mind with vivid detail. STORIES: Prague has many. Historical, cultural, religious, literary, musical, bloody, royal, scientific—there seems no end to them. I hadn’t come for “old” stories, however; I wanted to find a Czech whose life was now, living amongst its continued transition from Communist border country to seat of dynamic energy in all forms of art, education, and culture.
Her name was Ivana Statny. She was a college student working for the Central European University, an English language institution housed in a former hotel. Ivana is a petite girl with shoulder length black hair and a contagious smile. She held that perpetual youthful look that pretty women have, and those classical European chiseled features that really separate Europe from melting-pot America. She spoke perfect English, just one of the four languages in which she was fluent as a comparative literature student.
“A driver is supposed to be here,” Ivana said after our introductions. She looked around with anxious eyes. “Somewhere.”
“How did you get here?” I asked, and looked out the windows at the parking lot.
“I took the bus,” Ivana said, still holding the sign on which the CEU’s logo had attracted me. Her eyes stayed on the mirrored doors hiding the international arrivals area. I looked too and saw our reflection. “There was another flight from Frankfurt that was supposed to have other people on it,” she said, looking at me. “I guess I’ll have to make another trip out here. It doesn’t look like they made their connection. How tragic.” She checked her watch. “The driver was supposed to be here already. I’d better go telephone him. Here.” She handed me the sign and asked if I could hold it up in case someone did come out the doors.
I said sure, why not, but knew the effort was hopeless. The bags from my flight had moved swiftly onto the carousel and every one was picked up and their owners quickly made it through immigration and out the door. I looked up at the arrivals board. The next plane would not land for another twenty minutes. No one was coming out those doors. I let the stick holding up the sign slide through my palm and felt the cardboard rest on my shoulder.
“Fucking Czech inefficiency!” I heard a female voice screech. I turned and saw Ivana standing next to me. I asked, “No driver?”
She shook her head. “Oh, this is tragic.”
“Why don’t we take the bus,” I suggested. “I just have these two bags and … how far can it be?”
“No, I cannot do that to you,” she said. She broke into a stream of Czech, from which I guessed at the menacing expression on her face that she was swearing at someone. Hearing the Czech language from a human the first time—and not the language tapes I’d practiced with for a few weeks—it sounded like a wood sculptor working with chisels, files and saws: a lot of blending “Z” and “S” sounds and hard “K”s and multiple slurs from crowded consonants. I wanted to ask her to teach me a few of those words for choice situations, but since we barely knew each other I didn’t think it was appropriate. “We will take a taxi and have the university pay for it,” she decided with a sharp nod.
I picked up my bags and we walked outside. “So how long have you worked for the CEU?” I asked.
“Two days,” she said. More Czech swearing. She looked at me and smiled. Her lips were enticing, that smile devilish.
Ivana and I gravitated toward each other over the next few days. She was the writers’ host, our link to the university and scheduled events. To me she was this exotic woman and we were close in age. She was fun, liked to talk, had lots of free time to take us around (though few took her up on this), and she liked to have a beer in the afternoon. We quickly became friends.
But on that first day when our paths had crossed, Ivana was vexed with airport duties.
“Thanks for picking me up, Ivana,” I told her after getting my key from the desk clerk at the dorms where I would stay. “I hope you don’t have to go back to that airport.” I felt bad that she had to come all the way out there just for me.
“I’m going back there right now,” she said. Her red-painted lips pressed together. “I’ve been there ten times since yesterday. And I will be there at midnight tonight to pick up the last person. This is tragic.”
Seven of us went to a nightclub near the end of my Czech visit. While in the club, huddled around a single table, I asked Jan, a Czech man also in the writing program, whether or not the communists had built or done anything that was good for the country. “We have a good transit system,” Jan said. He didn’t smile at this.
Daniella nodded her agreement. “Yeah, they did well to get people off to work.” It was a joke and it wasn’t a joke. Ivana came off the dance floor and stood over us in the half-dark. “Let’s go camping,” she said. Daniella and Jan chattered in Czech, their enthusiasm bubbling up. I made myself look excited, too, but wasn’t quite sure if I was or not. Jiri and Helen came off the dance floor and when they were told of our plan they literally jumped for joy. Alright, I thought, these people are serious about their camping.
We left the club in a flourish of excitement. I had no idea where we were going on our camping trip. My idea of camping was going up to Wisconsin from Chicago. The six of us piled into Jan’s car, a beat up Skoda that comfortably fit three. With supplies and blankets crammed to the ceiling, the only person able to see through the window was Jan, who drove. The highway travel was rough, but off of that it nearly ruined my kidneys. We finally stopped somewhere in the hills surrounding Prague.
It was a campground that catered to travelers, and all sites were primitive. You simply paid a twenty-Krown fee and went to find a flat piece of ground amid the brush and pine needles. The trees were mostly tall, soaring firs that were two feet thick. Jan had picked a good spot. In the car’s headlights we set up three two-person tents on a thick bed of soft pine needles. We dug a hole and set rocks around the rim as a fire pit. I volunteered for branch collection.
The half moon provided just enough light in which to see my way through the trees and brush. Walking in the darkness, I began to wonder what was missing. I wasn’t tip-toeing along a golf green, this was a crunchy forest ground, and there were plenty of trees around. Where was all the wild life? I didn’t hear any birds fluttering through the branches. Nothing scampered away as I plowed headlong through the brush. When I got back to the camp, I saw a flickering fire just starting beneath the dimming headlights of the Skoda. Jiri and Hana were feeding the young flame twigs and pine cones to build a glowing bed to fuel the larger sticks that I dropped next to the pit. Ivana helped Jan set up the tents. “Why don’t I hear any animals around here?” I asked.
“Because there aren’t any,” Jan said. Ivana came back from the car. “All the animals are gone because people ate them,” she said.
“Ate them? Birds, squirrels, chipmunks?”
“Anything that moved,” explained Daniella. “People couldn’t afford a lot under the communists, so they came out and caught their food.”
“There wasn’t anything left to reproduce,” Jiri said from the fire. “It’s all gone. You can walk for miles around here and not hear a bird chirp or see a squirrel.”
“But I saw birds and squirrels in the city,” I said.
“So that’s where they all escaped to,” Daniella said. Everyone laughed. Jan pounded in a stake and looked around at me. “You can’t shoot guns in the city, so that’s where the wildlife is left around Prague. Like a zoo.” They seemed so blasé about the loss of their animals. I didn’t want to ask if they or their families had eaten robins and chipmunks and squirrels to supplement their diets. I guess I feared the answer. Their reluctance to talk about it, only to joke, was answer enough.
With the tents set up and the fire crackling nicely in its hole, we sat around the flickering light on blankets. We sang some old Bob Dylan songs, none of us quite catching the words or tune correctly, but the essence was there along with no lack of effort. We drank steadily and the stars rotated overhead. Hana, who hadn’t spoken a word all night, it seemed, fell asleep in Jiri’s arms, who wasn’t far behind. I realized how lost I would be without my new friends’ ability to speak English.
Without a word to us, Jan and Daniella made off for a tent. Ivana rested her head on my shoulder. I don’t know when it was that I fell asleep. I was talking with Jan and suddenly I was waking up with Ivana wrapped in my arms. We had slept bundled in our blankets under the stars, using each other for warmth. I moved and Ivana awoke. She smiled and kissed me on the cheek, a “thank you” for keeping her warm, she told me. She stood up and stoked the fire for the sausages we’d brought for breakfast. “Are you sorry you are leaving?” she asked, knowing I had only a few more days in Prague. “Of course,” I said. “It’s so unique here. It’s nice to feel foreign and … out of place, sometimes.”
“Why don’t you stay?” she said. “You can get a job teaching English.” I admitted that I liked her idea, but I reminded Ivana that I was in the middle of a college program in Chicago. I had a dog who was waiting for me back home. I had spent lots of money to call the friend who watched my dog, just so I could hear the mutt pant and let him hear my voice. Yes, this was silly.
“What will you do when you get home?” Ivana asked.
I thought about this.
“Go back to work,” I said.
She shook her head. “How tragic.”
The National Museum sits imposingly at the top of Wenceslas Square, overlooking the bronze statue of “Good” King Wenceslas (as opposed to the “Bad” King W, who liked to stick countrymen’s severed heads onto pikes for public display). The museum was founded in 1818 and holds 14 million artifacts of natural history, art, science, history, music, and books, in 10 separate locations. This main building has been its major exhibition center since 1891. You can also see bullet holes in the building’s façade, remnants from the Prague Spring when Soviet tanks and army rolled into town in 1968. Open Mon-Sun 10am-6pm. Admission 110CZK. Vaclavske Namesti 68; metro, Museum; tram #11, Museum.
(read more about the Prague, Czech Republic highlights here)