Prague and the Power of Mulled Wine
My college-freshman daughter and her online friend, “Peter”, the Czech boy she’d flown halfway across the world to meet, had plans which didn’t include me. I imagined that they would be having exquisitely good times together while I, the old man, trudged coldly across the Vltava River and uptown to my early bedtime in the antique hotel on Žitná street.
The suspense about what the youngsters might be doing would have been killing me if I hadn’t considered myself already mostly dead. It was amazing that I could even walk or breathe, as old as I had begun to feel.
Why, I imagined that I heard a shovel in my brain, that the sound of steel was plunging into dirt, and that another large scoop of mother earth was soon to be added to the ever-closing pit where my remains were lying. There was no point in even trying to deny it. It was O-VER for this old man.
The ghost of Franz Kafka, the tortured Prague bourgeois Jew who had written a story about waking up in an insect’s body, began to give me the creeps. While I limped through the town square, nearly weeping, hearing my eulogy in the funeral home of my mind, I noticed a mob of people in front of the Tower in the middle of the Old Town Square. They were waiting for the hour to strike nine, for the statues of the holy Apostles to come out and dance. I waited with them and found it to be the lamest thing I’d ever seen.
“They waited for that!” I said, feeling cynical and youthful again. “There must be a shortage of things to do around here!”
But this was hardly the case. A festive air was everywhere around me. Mulled wine was being hawked by pushcarts everywhere, rolls of sugary dough were being turned and baked above hot wood fires, and tame white miniature show horses were eating oats directly out of the hands of little Czech pixie girls. The problem was that I needed to get with the program. Forget all these Kafkaesque morbidities and do something exciting.
I remembered that I still had a ticket in my pocket that I’d bought earlier in the day for 150 Korunas. Six dollars. The ticket entitled me to enter the clock tower and climb 300 steps to the top. For thirty minutes I had stood in line that morning on the stairs in the lobby of the tower, surrounded by teeming high schoolers. Realizing I wasn’t moving at all, I had given up and left. Six dollars down the drain, I thought.
But the after-dark crowd in the square was different. Adults were predominant. Instead of being surrounded by people who were thirty years younger than I was, I was now surrounded by people who were fifteen years younger than I was. The Germans, the Swedes, the French, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Nigerians, even a few stray Americans—the adult tourists of the world were put off by those 300 spiraling steps up the shaft of a 700-year old building. There was no line at all to get in.
I plunked down 80 Korunas, quickly downed two large cups of hot mulled wine to get my blood stirring, and entered the basement of the tower. It seemed everybody else was going in slow motion while I blew by the field of aging race horses. Step after step, with bionic force, I was going so fast that the out-of-shape tourists were feeling wind-gusts from the drafts of my ascending bulk. I decided if Popeye ever got reincarnated he wouldn’t be eating spinach to turn into a monster of force. He’d go for the mulled wine instead. Hot, spicy, Czech mulled red wine.
When I reached the top the ecstasy of the world was mine to experience. Surely no urban view on the planet can duplicate the spectacle of classic Prague draped in Christmas lights. The crowds on the landing clung to the narrow ledge as the ancient building seemed to shake and rattle in the cold wind. The space was too narrow for people to stand in front of each other, and so we formed a single file and proceeded clockwise. Frosty fingers fidgeted with touch-screen cell phone cameras, trying to hold them steady to capture the brilliant radiance of the festival cityscape. Those who fear heights need not apply.
To the east lay the 14th century gothic Church of Our Lady before Tyn, overlooking a massive fir draped in strings of white lights and colorful flashing ornaments. Just across from there to the south was the 18th century Kinský Palace, a stucco exterior in Rococo design, now part of the national art museum. Bathed in yellow light, above the Palace, was St. Jacobs Church, originally built in 1232.
Every part of the panorama added a new historical detail. St.Nicholas Cathedral, though surrounded by scaffolding, was garnished by a lit procession of bare-limbed trees next to the memorial to Jan Hus, the first of the reformers to the Roman church, a Czech martyr who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his opposition to tyrannical Vatican rule. A thousand years of violence, struggle and triumph were everywhere spread out beneath me, bathed in the holy light of the season.
Many of the winded pilgrims that I had blown by on my way up the stairs had now reached the top and I thought my time was expired. I could have stayed there for hours, or until I grew dizzy and fell over the railing. Perhaps fearing this possibility, particularly in light of all the mulled wine I’d quaffed to turn into Popeye, I carefully gave up my spot and went down the three hundred steps.
The effects of the wine were starting to wear off. I was feeling sentimental again. This was my last night in Prague. I didn’t know when I would return again. I started worrying about where my daughter might be now, what sort of trouble she might be in. I was flabbergasted when I returned to the hotel and saw that SHE HAD PRECEDED ME THERE.
“Where’d you and Peter go, Mary Grace?” I asked my happy daughter. I noticed that she didn’t seem anywhere near as happy as I had expected her to be.
“We went to McDonalds. Then we went to Peter’s apartment and hung out with his roommate. Then we played video games on his computer.”
I don’t know which was more remarkable, the fact that she would tell me such a story or the fact that I totally believed it.
“Well, I hate to tell you this, Mary Grace,” I said. “But I had a lot more fun than you did.”
© 2015 James Crawford