Why do people come to Prague? I mean that as a serious question. Yes the architecture, the bridge, the castle. But why are so many people here? So many that even in the first week of December it is impossibly crowded with people who truly aren’t seeing what they supposedly came to see. I ran into this problem at the Louvre facing the Mona Lisa. The same problem exists here. People are told you should go to Prague. I’ve told dozens of friends the exact same thing. Yet I would always add but don’t go in the summer. But now I’m wondering when to go. Early December is obviously just as problematic as the summer would be. Is there a rainy season in March? But I’ve been here in March too. This is my 5th time visiting. And it won’t be my last. And yet the maw of tourism only grows.
I first came in 2000 at the exact same time of the year. It was wonderful. Yes there were tourists then. But I didn’t need a battle axe to cut my way through the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Today that Market is a kitschy festival of shoulder to shoulder tourists drinking hot wine out of plastic cups and chewing on trdlo, a fake ‘Old Bohemian’ sweet rolled bready thing baked on a spit over coals. (It looks much better than it tastes.) In fact if you want to sell anything to tourists just slap the words ‘Old Bohemian’ on it. ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal is a good example. There are probably hundreds of these ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal stores all selling exactly the same kinds of bling glitz to people who wouldn’t recognize fine crystal ware from a plastic sippy cup for infants.
One truth I’ve come to see about industrial tourism over the years, whether in Alaska, Paris or New York City, is that tourism syphons the realities of a place off into a simulacrum of itself. Making it difficult, nearly impossible for most people coming to this place to find the reality that attracted people in the first place. Yes you get an economy. But at what cost? Most true tourist destinations are often stocked with workers unrelated to the sights they came to see. And Prague is a classic example. You see Russian nesting matryoshka dolls, even matryoshka dolls in the shape of American football players. (Why?) You get classic car tours, at exorbitant rates, in fake classic cars at that. And you can ride a horse drawn carriage through the impossible pedestrian congestion. And you can pay ridiculously high prices for the privilege. Oh yeah you can get a Thai massage. I won’t point out the obvious here. That this isn’t exactly Thailand. Nor will I ask any further questions about how similar these institutions are to their Thai originals.
You want food? Watch out. Anything near the main arteries of tourism could be a trap. You could pay $50 for a single meal. Although just as ironically a good Czech restaurant could be buried in the mix. My most expensive Czech meal this trip was around $15 and it was tasty. (Duck, sweet red cabbage and dumplings, with beer!) My cheapest meal was $5. (Pork, cabbage, and dumplings.) And again watch out for the stalls selling ‘ Old Prague’ ham. I was ripped off once by these in the past. And seriously watch out for the ‘Change’ or ‘Exchange’ bureaus. These are probably the most evil currency exchanges in Europe. (I’m putting links below to videos that will help you navigate the tourist traps. I highly recommend Wolter’s World and for especially for Prague, Honest Guide.) And those sites that people came to see? The old town square, the bridge and the castle. They are mostly to be seen from a distance or endured. So many people clog these places that they have become unpleasant in the extreme. And the sharks? Oh they are there!
Do you want a real Christmas Market in Prague? I found the one in the Smichov district at Andél quite enjoyable. With genuine and inexpensive Prague ham on a spit too! In other words get away from the obvious. (Actually my favorite Christmas Market on this journey was in Lüneburg Germany while visiting my friends Carsten, Rebecca and their three daughters. But I digress.)
But then I come back to the question why do people come to Prague? Or more specifically why do I keep coming to Prague? Well one thing I can tell you, my Prague is not the tourists’ Prague. And I feel bad for those who come for ‘it’. I mean really what are they coming for? They don’t understand the history of what they looking at. The lines at the castle are too long. The bridge completely loaded with folks who aren’t really seeing anything. Oh yes you can take selfies here! Wow! How exciting! The old town square? Jam packed like a cattle car on its way to the slaughter house. So no, those are only valuable if you stay up late enough or get up with the chickens. Or come out in the rain. It’s not worth the effort to come see those things anymore.
But Prague is a special place indeed. It has a life that goes far beyond the crowds on onlookers. It has a unique history. It has a deeply creative side. It has art. It has the strangest assortment of outdoor sculptures I’ve ever seen. It has creepy puppets. (No not the cheap ones festooning that crowded tourist street.) And most importantly it has Czechs. That’s my Prague. My Prague is mysterious and filled with hidden symbolism. It is the place of the Golem and Faust, of Rudolf II and Vaclav Havel, of Trnka and Švankmajer. Prague in communist times was a gray decrepit city. I would have loved to have seen it then. Prague now is a harlot to the masses, with the Russian and Serbian underworlds counting coin behind the windows of hundreds of cheap gaudy whoring façades. One puppeteer I spoke to, who was old enough to remember the gray days, and was appalled by the cannibal culture of tourism, told me that she wished that there was a time after the Soviet Era collapsed and before the tourist explosion when Prague was cleaned up and belonged to the Czechs again. At least to have as a memory. But such a time was not to be. Sadly, unable to turn down the the cash Prague struck a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles of tourism almost immediately. People couldn’t wait to exploit her. And exploit her they did. At least in Paris the tourism seems somewhat organic. But here a massive vacuum was begging to be filled. And suddenly the vultures swooped in. To be fair not all of the tourism is on the carrion level. There are indeed many reasons to come here. Alas though, it’s not for the three major attractions. The story of Faust remains central to the mythology of the city: The man who sold his soul to the devil.
My friend Nina Chromečková, translator from my interview with Jan Švankmajer back in 2012, had told me that there was a puppet version of Faust playing at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palace shortly after my arrival. She bought tickets and met me at the palace entrance shortly before the play. We ascended a couple of flights of stairs and arrived in the empty shell of Hapsburg Era splendor replete with mirrors and filigree on the walls. We passed through haunted room after haunted room until we arrived at a makeshift puppet theatre behind a homemade stage, reminiscent of Buchty a Loutky in their classic period. And there in suit and tie stood Tomáš Procházka, former Buchty, now one of the creators behind tonight’s show by Handa Gote (Japanese for ‘soldering iron’). We greeted each other warmly and I knew instantly that if nothing else it would be an intriguing show. Tomáš said I could film the proceedings, so I set up discreetly off to the side near a window looking down on the Royal Road below me. In that darkened room it was hard not to be awed by the black silhouettes of statues on the Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora across the narrow alley peering down on this darkened drizzling night as the hoards continued their mandatory strolls across the bridge. They never do look up to see the figures like beacons of the last judgement illuminated by the lights from below, as the trams pass on the tracks with regularity across the glistening cobblestone streets.
The show, a fascinating experiment, was done much in the way a show might have been done 150 years ago. Instead the usual theatre tech, with the exception of light bulbs, 95% of the devices used for music or special effects could have been seen before the age of electricity: a hand crank player piano, a music box, a whirring machine to make wind, a sheet of metal for thunder, old style linden wood carved marionettes with a rod in their head, painted back drops, cloth curtains and most surprising of all, a bellows stepped on occasionally to blow powdered tree resin into a hidden candle flame to produce a ball of fire on the small stage. A rare treat to behold. And the kind of performance that fills me with wonder, all the while wondering if the little stage would catch the flames.
Not only were the devices antiques, but so was the play itself. And while this may have made the entertainment a bit longer than contemporary distraction permits, (Let ’em squirm!) it was fascinating to watch the rhythms of this Faust and the strange archaisms. The elaborately carved medieval devils had their tongues drooping down their chins for instance. Now and then they spoke gibberish as though they couldn’t control their speech. (Švankmajer captured this strange sound perfectly in his version of Faust.) Also this followed a variation of Marlowe’s Faust, not Goethe’s. So there is no redemption for Faust at the end. But being as this is the Czech version, there is also not much of a damnation scene either. Instead in this version Faust is whisked off by the devils and then a long anticlimactic comedy with two guards continues as if not much has happened. As if to say people go to hell everyday, what’s the big deal? Life goes on. And eventually the two guards have more problems with a dumb Austrian bully than they did with the devils. (Obviously when this was written it was a subtle dig at the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had for so long stripped them of their language.) Another major Czech addition, Kašpárek, the fool, who tries everything after Dr. Faust does, becomes a black humor version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
I also had a chance to meet my dear friend Nina Malíková at another traditional performance of Faust at Říše Loutek. The puppets were similar to the traditional Don Giovanni that ran at the same theatre for over 6000 performances and counting. And so while this wasn’t Faust antique it was Faust trad. And it was in fact the same classic Czech text, edited more, and minus the antiquarian touches. It even had the German bully scene at the end, about 15 minutes shorter. And it also had nice explosive effects and lots more traditional Czech devils.
Watch this now to understand what I’ve written!
Now truthfully I arrived late. I committed the classic boneheaded American blunder of confusing the 24 hour clock time of 16:00 with 6 o’clock. (Usually I’m better than that.) But before I could rectify my mistake I had missed the first half of the play. Nina however showed me the old puppets in the basement of theatre that most people don’t see. And again I marveled that the Prague I inhabited was so very different than the Prague of the tourists. Not that a visitor couldn’t have found this. After all they do find this theatre for Don Giovanni performances. It’s just that the rest of the repertoire of the theatre isn’t hawked as aggressively. And most folks don’t do enough research to find the real Prague. (Hint!)
Prague, the city of alchemists and puppets. Today’s fake alchemists don’t seek either a purification of materials or of souls anymore. Instead they lurk in chintzy doorways looking to turn unsuspecting tourists and their base tchotchskes into financial gain. But those who come to Prague willing to do a bit of digging will find much more than they ever expected. Be one of those people. Come to Prague. Look for puppet shows.
I’m writing this while on train during a day of German strikes when I am not sure when I will get back to Paris, nor what indeed it will be like when I get there after weeks of violent protests.
But next time we continue our Prague stories finding more puppet folks and more hidden gems beneath the surfaces.
On a German train somewhere beyond Berlin but not quite at Karlsruhe.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
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