On the day I crossed the border into the Czech Republic from Germany things seemed to loosen up in a way they hadn’t since the beginning of my 2016 trip. It’s hard to explain. Czech’s can have their problems in the world. But there is a sense of things being relaxed in way that France, Scotland, England, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany are not. Not that the Czechs are like the Polynesians or the Caribbeans. They certainly don’t have that tropical insouciance. It’s just that the rules, if they are at all known, don’t seem to always apply. I didn’t have a train ticket to cover the stretch of track from the Czech/German border at Děčín to Ústí nad Labem (about a fifteen minutes travel). I also wasn’t really concerned about it, not like I would have been in Germany. And sure enough the conductor didn’t come to punch my ticket until after Ústí.
Being my fourth time in Prague, my arrival at Residence Green Lobster in Malá Strana (the Little Quarter) below the castle, the Hradčany, went off smoothly without event. I was back in Praha now for ten days. At first it seemed like I might have too much time on my hands. In the end I was scrambling to get everything done, and due to an unexpected fever near the end I had to simply give up on a few things.
After a stroll over the relatively uncrowded Charles Bridge, which can be an absolute cattle crossing, I walked into the Old Town Square, passing the booths being set up for the Czech Easter Markets, and found the only truly reputable currency exchange in Prague. As a rule you should only get your money directly from a banks ATM. Generally when in Prague you have to be extremely cautious about currency exchange rip offs. Once in 2005 I was taken badly by a dishonest shop advertising CHANGE. I looked into it and discovered that this situation is epidemic in the city. They have dozens of little tricks to weasel bad rates out of you when you think you’re getting a fair rate. You literally can’t win. It’s like three card monte. But the place called EXchange.cz on Kaprova Street is indeed reliable. And so I took the euros that I had and turned them into koruny. And then after buying a month long transportation pass I was ready to start circling Prague ca. 2016, a deal for effortless travel around the city and even to the airport.
Things to do: There were plenty. Among the first was to make contacts with various friends and acquaintances. There was Nina Malíková from Loutkář (Puppeteer) Magazine, Radek from Buchty a loutky (More on them in coming updates.), Eliška whom I met working at the Alchemy Museum in 2012, Nina who translated my interview with Jan Švankmajer in 2012 and Jue from China who was a composer who had found me online and realized I would be here where she was studying. Not only that my translating French puppet friend Paulette was going to drop by for a couple of days on her way to puppet festivals in Greece. So lot’s of communicating needed to get done. I also saw that there was an interesting Czech horror film, Polednice, or Lady Midday, about the Czech legend of the Noon Day Witch, that screamed to be seen. Plus there was music to locate, films to hunt down on DVD and of course puppet shows to see.
One thing I did early on during my Prague sojourn was to visit Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic at the Galeria Narodowa w Pradze (Prague National Gallery). (Mucha is pronounced moo-kha – the ch is like the ch in Bach.) This massive undertaking by Art Nouveau artist Mucha was made in his later years and tells a poetic version of the great moments in Slavic history. It had recently arrived in Prague after years of wrangling. And when I say massive I mean it. Twenty immense painting take up a room the size of an airport hanger. Being part Polish and Ukrainian myself I could only feel the passion Mucha must have felt trying to impart a sense of the importance of the Slavs beginning millennia ago as a tribe out on the Steppes.
Another thing that always strikes me about Prague is the fascinating street performers and music particularly clustered near the Old Town Square. One man did and absolutely brilliant performance as puppet baby with a swazzle in his mouth for good measure. The swazzle is a device put in one’s mouth during a Punch and Judy show to give the voice a high pitched humorous rasp. In fact more than one living statue had added this accessory, which I had never seen in Prague before. Then there were the guys doing an Indian levitation trick. They just sat still seemingly impossibly hanging in the air. Musically I made one exciting discovery of a Czech musical unit called the Bohemian Bards, who played Scottish war pipes, a double necked acoustic guitar and an African drum while doing Medieval inspired dance music and Czech folk songs at a breakneck paced. I immediately bought their CD and talked to the guys between sets.
And they played during the Easter Markets which I soon discovered happened everywhere in the Czech Republic and featured Old Czech Ham roasting on spits, painted wooden Easter eggs, special cakes, honey wine, hot wine, very salty cheese, thick sausages on grills, local students dancing and even an Irish Setter competition, among many other possibilities.
Many discoveries were made during my time in Prague. Polednice, turned out to be a quality Czech film with favorable similarities to the Babadook. I discovered excellent Czech Baroque and folk music in the stores. Several satisfying local meals were digested. And I discovered in a Czech mall, to my horror, that images from 3-D cameras could be fed into into a 3D printer to create miniature versions (idols?) of real people… which had many strange implications.
But most importantly it was a time for puppets.
Chopin Airport Warsaw, Poland
Waiting 8 and ½ hours for a plane to take me to Georgia.
So I arrived back in Prague staying at a cheap hotel, that confusingly goes by two names, in the Smíchov district. I received a couple of separate messages from two erstwhile Haines folks who wanted to get together with me that evening. One, Blair, was only a river guide for one season back in 2005. He’s now married to a Czech girl and has been in town a little while. The other, Shawn, has been circulating in the guide world in Haines since at least the time I moved there in 1996. Most recently he’s been working in heliskiing, those trips into the jagged mountains to drop well-heeled skiers down the untouched vertical slopes of the Chilkat Valley. Shawn has more than a touch of the jaded about him by his own reckoning. Prague, with its millions of tourists, reminded him a bit of Skagway on a five ship day. He’d already had his big Euro-experience in Munich having his wallet, laptop and soul gobbled up by Oktoberfest. But in fact flying under the radar as he does, he was none too worse for wear.
Blair met us at the Jan Hus statue and knew of a place to go for beer and food, a real Czech hospoda called LoKal. The place was jammed with over a hundred Czechs in a smokey cacophony of conversation and laughter. Blair bought us a round of their unfiltered beer on tap as we waited for a table. An affable Canadian girl, Carmen, sitting alone, gave without to much difficulty to Blair’s pleading. And soon the four of us were talking and sampling things from the menu, including the infamous Moravian cheese, which I should warn all cheese fans has the weirdest aftertaste of any dairy product I’ve ever tried. It is cured evidently on rotten beef, or something like that. I would say you get the picture, but you probably don’t. I ate more of the headcheese. Finally I bid them all adieu as I wandered back to my hotel to get some rest after my first day in Prague. How odd to come back to Prague to meet people you know from Alaska.
The next few days were for getting reacquainted with Prague as I waited to find out about my interviews. There was the endless parade of tourists to just get around, in more ways than one. And the endless means of bilking them out of their euros, pounds, dollars, pesos, yuan, rubles, francs and yen. Yes the endless trinkets, the shiny glass baubles, the bad authentic Czech art, the ripoff money exchanges and, of course, the truly inferior puppets made in the Balkans to sell to the euro-rubes.
But what really struck me this time was the shopping malls. In Krakow, Berlin and now Prague I found huge, sleek, 21st Century malls feeding a hunger for all of the same crap you can find in any American shopping Mecca. There are food courts, cinemas and franchises that certainly are replicated around the world now. All the big American movies were here. The most frightening aspect of traveling now is that you can feel that you haven’t actually gone anyplace at all. And these malls are not for the tourists.
I was getting antsy to find the real Prague away from all of this bling and glitz. I knew it was here but I just had to search it out.
I’ve been to Prague a couple of times before. I know my way around. This time I bought a month pass and just hopped aboard anything that moved my direction. Mostly I was using the trams. Speaking of shopping, I did have some things to look for while I was here. There were a couple of musicians I wanted to seek out on CD, some visual material on DVD. I am loath to download things if I can get a physical copy. So I found a CD by Radůza, an accordion playing Czech singer I’ve listened to for years. Then I looked Jana Vebrová, also an accordion playing wench, but much more abstract and intense. I lost out on that. But I would continue to hunt around. Sadly it seemed not much of the kind of Czech puppet animation I was looking for on DVD was to be found. Trnka, Barta, all seemed unrepresented, though they had recently re-released Švankmajer’s feature films.
I met my previously online only friend Silvie. She is a multi-talented Czech who sings and paints and we finally bridged the virtual barrier by hanging out at a café for a while talking into the late evening. She’s been quite helpful in trying to get me an interview with Jan Švankmajer. (But there are some kinks there! More on that in the future.) I also met Eliska, a guide to an alchemy museum. An interesting discussion about reality in the 21st century was forthcoming. (Hint: Being an Alaskan is a real plus over just being from America for starting conversations.)
Which reminds me… there are the sites and exhibits and other things. And what about the puppets? Yes there was an alchemy museum and a museum of haunted Prague. These were just little tourist traps. But the kind I like: Weird mannikins and homunculi, strange dioramas, odd facts, the past faked with dummies and puppets.
Then there is for me one of the most interesting places in Prague, the Strahov Monastery Library, which besides having a fascinating book collection also has some truly peculiar curiosities in their old cabinets and shelves. And if you really look at the unlabeled items on display, if you get down on your knees and survey the ground level, if you pay attention to what is in front of you you you might see a dried baby dodo bird, books made of wood, a portrait made entirely with seeds, if Švankmajer hasn’t investigated this place carefully I’d be really surprised, and objects that defy any obvious classification. This is indeed the Prague I come to find.
I finally found one DVD featuring the strange animated art of Karel Zeman at a small hole in the wall establishment connected to Kino Světozor, the art film theatre. An intelligent Czech girl named Lucie, helped me navigate around the riches of Czech Cinema, giving me more than a couple worthy opinions, and restoring my faith in the small specialist store of over mega monsters. (But still no Jana Vebrová.)
Finally I went to see a puppet show over at Říše Loutek, which is also the National Marionette Theatre where they show the classic Czech puppet version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni every week. (There is another inferior Balkan version in town, watch out!) The title of the children’s show was Kašpárek in Hell. For me that’s a promising title. And it was enjoyable. But alas Kašpárek as seen better days. He was now just a little rascally hero. Not the sarcastic truth telling fool of the past. Nevertheless the devils in the piece were worth a watch. And who better to start my Czech puppet shows with than with Kašpárek, the quintessential Czech figure.
But ironically the real puppetry display was over at the Czech Museum of Music. They had a serious exhibition of mechanical musical instruments and automata. Many of these creations from the last three hundred years were marvels of ingenuity. There were player pianos, barrel and pin band organs and various humanoid puppets and animals… including cousins to the puppets that Švankmajer used in the opening scenes of Rakvickarna (Punch and Judy or The Coffin factory). Engrossing.
More and more I was seeing Prague through the tourists. I didn’t mind them anymore. Let ’em wander. Maybe some of them will actually begin to see the statues on the Charles Bridge or be tempted to stroll off down a forgotten corner or a twisting alley, and there are more corners here than there are tourists. I felt at home in this haunted city.
Oh yeah… I almost forgot. After going to one CD store after another, no one had the Jana Vebrová album. Finally I saw one more place off the tram out of way. I found it again later. I looked through the racks and didn’t see it. Finally I asked. There was a pause… Yes! They had it. What can I say… A moment of victory and worth the effort to find.
Prague, Czech Republic