Part of Lonnie Martin’s ongoing blog — Stranger in a Strange Land — where he tells us all about moving to Prague to drink beer and make arthouse movies for a living. His wife is also blogging about the experience.
The darkness settled in because I got lost in Prague. Again.
See, I was alone for the first time in the Czech Republic. My wife, Cindy, had left the day before for a two week sojourn in Scotland. The jaunt had been planned before we left the States. Yet before she left Prague, I had the impression she regretted planning the trip so soon after our arrival in Europe. Just as she was starting to get somewhat settled in one city, she was uprooting again and having to resettle in another.
Yes, wage slaves, I know. I hear the dripping sarcasm in your voice as you tell me how terrible it is that my wife has to go to Scotland so soon after arriving in Prague. While I agree it falls firmly under the heading “white people problems,” I’ll mention that we’re not just vacationing. We’re living, working, and studying here for an extended period of time. With the exception of one trip I had as a teenager, neither of us have ever left North America before.
So there’s a certain level of culture shock we’ve experienced, even if it’s largely been unconscious. Having each other around made the adjustment bearable and her leaving so soon was a scary but perhaps necessary stripping away of a safety blanket for both of us. It’s not easy being alone in a foreign country.
Though I suppose in my case, “alone” is a relative term. As I mentioned in my first travel blog, I came to Prague as part of a study abroad program offered as part of the film and electronic media MFA I’m currently pursuing at American University in Washington, DC. However, I’m not the only one here from AU. There are six other students from my cohort here, all of which I know well and two, Matt and Pat, that have been part of my inner circle since I began my MFA program over a year ago.
Cindy has it rougher. Scotland seems gorgeous and picturesque, but sometimes alone is alone no matter how nice the scenery. Nevertheless, both of us feel solitude, especially when travel and new experiences are involved, is enrichment for the mind and soul. Therefore we vowed to make the best of it.
So when Matt called and invited me to join him, Pat, and their study abroad assigned “Czech buddy,” Jan, on an evening excursion to Petřínská rozhledna, the Petřín Lookout Tower, I immediately agreed. Petřínská rozhledna is a large metal structure, very similar in design to the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Some Prague native told me that while only 63.5 meters high, the tower’s tip is the same height above sea level it’s French twin because it’s built on top of a hill rather than having the Eiffel Tower’s recognizable base.
I’d like to tell you more about it or show you a picture, but I never got there.
This time I really thought I knew where I was going. I had checked the tram numbers for the right one that would put me within a short walk to the tower, and after leaving the metro, I took it. That night there was a futbol match. (Never soccer in Europe. Never.) The tram was packed with fans of Sparta Praha, Prague’s most popular team. Rather than jerseys, futbol fans in Europe wear scarves that remind me of the house scarves from the Harry Potter movies, only instead of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, and all that nonsense, it’s the colors and name of their favorite team. To call these scarves incredibly cool is a vast understatement.
I got off at the stop after the stadium and quickly looked around for the street I needed to take. It wasn’t there. I scanned to see where I was, thinking everything seemed very familiar. Then I saw Fraktal, the Letna neighborhood bar near Matt, Pat and Jan’s apartment that I had been to with them a handful of times before. While happy to be somewhere familiar, the realization that I had gone the opposite way from where I needed to go angered me. It was unbelievable. It was absolutely, positively un-fucking-believable.
Dejected, I texted Matt telling him about my screw up and asking him to let me know their next move. He quickly texted back to let me know Jan had offered to cook us dinner at their apartment, which they’d be back to in about 45 minutes, more than enough time to have a pivo or two at Fraktal.
Fraktal is what I would refer to as a “local.” It’s a neighborhood bar frequented by the working class citizens who live in the Letna and Holešovice neighborhoods of Praha 7. Patio seating outdoors almost completely hides a stairway to the bar proper located beneath the street. Maybe it’s that way on purpose. I wouldn’t have thought to travel down the stairs had someone not told me it was there.
I went in, ordered a světlý (light) pivo in my broken Czech, and sat at a high table against the wall. Above my head was a big screen TV silently playing the Sparta match. Directly behind me was an old radio speaker from the 50s or 60s that had been hooked up to the bar’s stereo system. Some innocuous over-produced rock in a language I didn’t recognize was playing through it, but it made me long for one important aspect of my life that had been missing since coming to Prague. I had barely listened to music at all since getting here.
I took out my map. (Never leave home without it.) I know it immediately pegged me as a tourist to the bar staff, but I was intent on figuring out where I went wrong. It wasn’t that hard to discern really. While I took the right tram, I had taken it the wrong way. Lesson learned. Then I just studied the map, the realization dawning that I was starting to recognize different byways and landmarks. I was starting to make this city my own.
After a while I noticed myself humming along with the music. Somewhere along the line the playlist had shifted from modern European alternative to vintage American rock and roll. It was a taste of home that invigorated me. Elvis Presley accused me of being nothing but a Hound Dog, Scott McKenzie gave me advice for going to San Francisco, Three Dog Night reminded me that one is the loneliest number. I don’t know if the bar staff switched the music because I was the lone person in the bar or if it just happened, but I was deeply appreciative to have something familiar.
Right around the time Joan Baez was telling me how many roads a man must go down before you can call him a man, I heard the lead bartender say something in Czech which made the other members of the staff laugh. I glanced up and saw them all looking at me with smiles on their faces. In retrospect, I feel a good-natured comment about my singing and humming along with the tunes had been made. (That’s what I keep telling myself anyway.) In that moment though, a terrible sadness came over me and it took every ounce of willpower I had to keep from weeping. I was alone, an alien. I was truly a stranger in a strange land.
I quickly finished my beer, stumbled over my Czech trying to politely thank the bar staff and got out of there. With time to spare before meeting Matt, Pat, and Jan, I walked aimlessly, lost in my own head.
Over the years, I’ve embraced my unconventional nature and downright weirdness. Normal is boring. However, there are those who fear non-conformity, and the non-conformist is often treated as an outcast and a freak. I’ve gotten used to it over the years, and have learned to remove myself from situations in which the unique aspects of my life made me feel unwelcome. It’s in our nature to fear that which is different. Most of the time, it doesn’t bother me. Most of the time.
When I arrived at my compatriots’ apartment, Jan was busy preparing a sauerkraut soup. Native to Carlsbad, a small city in western Bohemia, approximately 130 kilometers from Prague, Jan was eager to cook for us and give us a taste of something truly native to the Czech Republic.
“Besides,” he said. “It relaxes me.”
The soup was a spicy broth in which he simmered cabbage, potatoes, and onions. Served with freshly sliced chleba, or bread, it was incredibly delicious and I had multiple portions.
Afterwards, we barhopped a bit before finally ending up at a “non-stop” pub fronting one of Prague’s ubiquitous casinos. Not all of them are real casinos. Many are simply just rows and rows of slot machines, not different from the “High Life Lounge” bars peppered around West Virginia where I went for my undergrad degree. The pub up front was inviting enough though.
Jan and I talked. We spoke of art and love, and he asked me what my life philosophy was. I explained that I believe in the symbiotic relationship between love and fear, how I believe they’re intertwined and that one can’t exist without the other. To know love, we must experience fear. Yin and yang. Sex and death. We can never know the light until we’ve been lost in the darkness. Love is possible, but in the end we’re all corpses.
Jan told me of a girl he loved who eventually fell out of love with him. He described this heartbreak with a candid detachment that was both admirable and sad.
I checked my watch. It was after 4am. It was then I discovered that the “non-stop” signs all over Prague was how Czechs communicated “open 24 hours.” I had a couple more beers to pass the time before the trams and Metros started running again at 5am.
The sun was rising as I rode home. It was the first sunrise I had seen a long time. Yet it brought no hope or wonder. I was too tired to enjoy it.
I awoke around noon the next day. There are those that say Czech beer doesn’t give you a hangover, and I can tell you without question that those people are boldfaced liars. Though the Czech hangovers do seem to be of a gentler variety than their American counterparts. Or maybe I just know how to handle them now. After a shower and some breakfast, I felt almost human.
I headed out to Nový židovský hřbitov, the New Jewish Cemetery, where German speaking but Prague born writer and arguable father of existentialism Franz Kafka is interred. I’ve only read “Die Verwandlung” or ‘The Metamorphosis,” considered by many to be his best work. His influence on playwrights and writers I’ve long admired such as Sartre, Camus, and Beckett is undeniable. I felt compelled to see his resting spot.
The cemetery is shrouded in trees, which allow some gravestones to be spotlit by rays of sunlight piercing through the tall canopies. It was gorgeous and peaceful, exactly what I needed after my dark, melancholy night. I had brought my camera, and took a variety of snapshots of the grounds and graves. After my self-doubt the night before, it felt good to capture the world as I see it. After a while I retired the camera and simply strolled slowly through the aisles of the dead.
I began to feel comfortable again with my solitude, my unique nature, and the place I now found myself. The serenity of this garden of the dead calmed my spirit. It reminded me that love is indeed possible; that time is a healer, and all things both good and bad pass. I found comfort in the unyielding march of growth and time.
And that we’re still all corpses in the end.