Prague: The Birthplace of the Bohemian Life
Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is a picturesque town hugging opposite sides of the Vltava River. Its region of Bohemia gave us our adjective "Bohemian", meaning living an unconventional and free-spirited life. And modern day Prague has many Bohemian qualities about it. A tattoo parlor can be next to a cathedral, a school for the blind and a strip joint. I like the Bohemian attitide. It serves me well.
In another narrative I have previously documented the extraordinary efforts required for me to reach Prague. I took my daughter there around Christmas time, when the tourist traffic was heavy. Upon arrival I felt like a cast member for The Walking Dead.
My daughter’s friend, a boy that she had met online (we’ll call him Peter), didn’t seem to know a great deal about how to change money. The most efficient way to exchange currency nowadays is with an ATM card upon arrival in the local country. The fee is usually only about 1% of the transaction. This is an especially useful strategy for places like the Czech Republic, whose obscure currency, the Koruna, trades at a rate of about 25 to the dollar. The tourist who relies upon designated “currency exchange” places is likely to get treated like a dirty car, and to learn firsthand what it feels like to be “hosed”.
The airport ATM gave me some ungodly sum of Czech Korunas in exchange for $100, and a lady at a change booth broke down the high-denomination Czech bills into coins that the bus and Metro stations would take. After about 45 minutes the bus deposited us at the train station, where we were whisked to the Muzeum Metro station, about a 5 minute walk from our hotel, the Boutique Hotel Seven Days, on Žitná street near the New Town.
As soon as we emerged from the train station I saw a huge photo of a bewhiskered man, somewhat menacing in attitude, draped to the national art museum overlooking the park.
“Who’s that?” I wondered.
“Our former president,” said Peter. “Václav Havel. Still very popular.”
“What about your current president?”
Peter seemed a little embarrassed.
“Uh, you don’t want to know about him.”
I realized now the topic of the current Czech president was a sore subject, a little like the family member who just got busted on drug charges or the wayward cousin who went downtown and returned with a pink mohawk haircut and a tattoo of a skeleton smoking a joint just above her breasts. I knew from Peter’s attitude that this was not a subject I would broach again.
When we arrived at the hotel the clerk seemed offended because it was a little after 2 and official check-in wasn’t until 3. When I asked him if we could take a room then anyway he looked a little bit the way Peter did when I had asked him about the current president.
“I’m sorry but we can’t do that!” the clerk proclaimed.
I knew from the clerk’s attitude that this too, as in the case of Peter and the Czech president, was not a subject I would broach again. We were, however, allowed to leave our luggage behind the desk. We went out and walked around.
“Take us to the river,” I instructed Peter.
Peter led the way downhill along Žitná street through the New Town. At one point we passed a monument that was draped in flowers and I asked Peter what this was about.
“The Nazis murdered a couple of students in this location in 1939,” he translated for us. “It was very terrible.”
The specter of the war, the fate of Jews, even the legacy of the Iron Curtain was much more palpable in Prague than in other places in Europe where I had been. Prague is better preserved than the larger capitals and has had less recent development. The monuments of the past still seem current and relevant in ways that they do not in London or Paris.
We came to the scenic Vltava River where Peter pointed out the famed Charles Bridge (Karlův most). The current bridge was begun in 1357 and was the only span across the Vltava until 1841. Over thirty statues, all of them replicas of originals which were erected over 300 years ago, now preside over opposite sides of what is today a pedestrian-only bridge.
Peter walked across the bridge with us to the opposite bank, at which time I began to feel I was cramping his style a little bit. What young man wants to associate with a girl while her dad hovers around them? I decided I needed to do a disappearing act. But first Peter had a suggestion.
“We can take a free tour in English. It starts in the square.”
Back across the bridge now, we were within three blocks of the main gathering place in Prague, the Old Town square. A massive Christmas Tree was decorated festively underneath the ancient architecture of St. Nicholas Church and the Old Town Hall. We saw a multilingual assortment of tour guides who were raising their hands, each hoisting the national flag of the mother country of the language of the tour. We found a man whose sign had the flag of the United Kingdom on it.
Our guide, a wide-faced man in his middle forties (we'll call him Scotty), began telling us a little bit about himself.
“If you read my name you can see I’m not English. MacGregor is Scottish, so if you can’t understand my brogue, please ask me to talk slowly.”
Scotty then began what became a three hour tour, mostly concentrated on the Old Town. The highlight of the tour was the stop by the Jewish Quarter, where the cemetery, in the cramped yard behind a church, had a twenty-foot high wall surrounding it.
“Jews in Prague were not allowed to be buried elsewhere,” Scotty told us. “So the graves were piled up on top of each other, generation after generation, on this spot of ground, and hence the surrounding wall had to be built to contain them all.”
Near the end of the tour we stopped at a pub and went into the cellar for a light dinner with beer. Scotty sat next to me, my daughter and Peter.
“Czech beer is the best in the world,” said Peter. “The highest consumption of beer of any country is here.”
“That’s true,” said Scotty. “Per capita consumption is highest here, by a wide margin.”
Somehow Scotty began to drift off into politics and it was then that the sore subject of the current president, which I had carefully avoided during the previous few hours, resurfaced.
“A former Soviet puppet,” Scotty dismissed him with contempt.
Then Peter became quite animated. He pulled out his phone. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“He said the English word ‘pussy’ in a speech. I’m not kidding. I’ll find it on YouTube. He was talking about the Russian rock group ‘Pussy Riot’.”
I’m sure I must have been red-faced while Peter showed me a clip of the current Czech president saying the word “pussy”.
“That’s amazing,” said my daughter. I believe it was Peter himself that she actually found amazing. I knew that as soon as the tour ended I needed to walk across Prague alone and find ways to entertain myself solo.
When the tour group broke up on the steps of the Prague National Theater, I gave Scotty a generous tip for the “free” tour, then parted ways with my daughter, who, every time she looked at Peter, lit up like a Christmas tree.
“I think I’ll go back to the hotel now, Mary Grace,” I said. “I’m getting tired.”
“OK, Daddy,” she said, barely concealing her total glee to be rid of me.
© 2015 James Crawford