Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

I fell in love with the charming hamlet of Salzburg the second I stepped off the train and when checking into the pensione on the banks of Arno in Florence I asked to extend my stay before I even put my bags down. The exotic allures of Istanbul swept me away immediately and as I opened my terrace doors and looked out over Hanoi's Old Quarter I swooned. Other cities took longer - there was no coupe de foudre in Paris where it took me over two weeks to be seduced, Moscow didn't thaw for five days and Cairo had me vacillating in an abusive relationship that lasted for weeks. Prague balanced itself out and metamorphosed in five.

To deny this city a gush on its visually arresting aesthetics would be a blind man's folly. It's gorgeous and lush and is haughtily aware of its illustrious charms. However, "distant", "unfriendly", "cold" and even "rude" were adjectives I conjured trying to describe exactly what sort of feeling it exuded. I came up with myriad excuses for why I felt this way. Perhaps I hadn't devoted enough time to learning enough Czech or maybe they sensed my hesitancy in responding and thought I was being rude when I was only trying to remember the proper response. Maybe it's their history: first it was the Nazis then the communists and now the irritating tourists. I asked two other travelers with a pejorative inflection in my voice what they thought of the Czechs. They confirmed what I suspected but hadn't wanted to voice, "They're rude" one said. Another chimed in, "The city's beautiful but I think they're not very nice and anyway we've got a prettier cathedral in Boston than that Saint Vitus." I nodded and while I agreed I still didn't want to give up on Prague though I had to admit that I'd seen better cathedrals. I then proceeded to go on a rant about how with the exception of the Alphonse Mucha window the rest of the strained glass designs were garish and flat. When their eyes rolled back in their skulls and their jaws unhinged like Pez dispensers it was clear that they weren't getting my references or my effete disgust so I took my leave.

I was looking for a fight the next morning as I headed to the neighborhood pastry shop for breakfast. I was mentally scribbling a vitriolic rough draft for my travelogue as I leaned into the cold wind on my way up the hill. These people are assholes. No, that's too harsh. Try again. The first people I ever met from Prague I met in my hometown of Aiken, South Carolina. I was waiting tables in the chicest restaurant in town when I was in high school where I met Maria the pastry chef and her husband, Joseph the manager. I adored them. In the three years I worked there they gave me my first taste of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild and my first alabaster spoon of caviar as well as my first sofa and coffee table. My Aunt Margaret was convinced that they were spies and not to be trusted but then again she swore that people were siphoning the gas out of her tank nightly by using a cut-off garden hose as a straw. All I know now however is that they were the last pleasant Czechs I've ever met. No. That sounds clunky but I'm on the right track.

I opened the door and against my better judgment greeted the lady behind the counter and paused waiting for her to ignore me so I could pounce. What the hell do you mean? Where do you get off anyway? You slags are bitter and hateful! I'll hurt your feelings! So help me God I will wring your damn neck if you so much as look at me wrong! TRY ME! "Good morning" she smiled and then asked "are you going to have one or two pieces of medovnik today?" What the hell was that about, I pondered? I responded in Czech hesitatingly unsure of her intentions and then smiling said, "Yes, perfect -two slices, please". She's mocking me isn't she? I'm sure of it -- she's making fun of my overly friendly and cheerful attitude. She thinks I'm a cake-eating lard-assed American! She must really take me for a complete mongoloid and I'm not about to stand for this I can tell you that right now! Nope, not today little sister! NOT TODAY! I have had my fill of it! Who the hell does she think she is? This little skank just hooked up with the wrong one today, by God! I ate my two pieces of cake and sipped my cappuccino and stared out the window rehearsing all the spiteful things I was going to say to her. KEEP IT UP DAMNIT! So help me God I'll come back there and I will put my foot on the back of your neck and pull your hair out! I hate your guts! Then I'd begin to sob as I was shoving cake down her throat and pinching her nostrils shut. Look what you've done! You've ruined the last few days of my trip! You're the reason I've become the monster I am today! That's it! You made me this way! Eat that cake! You eat that cake!Eat that CAKE! I shook the daydream off and gathered my purse. I slowly rose to leave and cutting my eyes in her direction waited for her not to acknowledge me so I could lash out. I took a step toward the door. One more step and that'll be it and then I thought, I'm going to beat your ass! I saw movement in my peripheral vision. I jerked and with a downward squint I snarled in her direction. She was waving and saying "Goodbye! See tomorrow! Okay!" Great, I thought now I have to think of a new opening line for the next entry.

I still wasn't convinced and left my claws out just in case as I barreled down into the subway. Unlike yesterday when I'd had a virtual mental meltdown trying to understand how to buy and time-stamp my ticket I breezed through in less than one one-hundredth of the time. I love Prague's subway. The communist left little behind of any value except fantastic well-planned mass transit systems, Moscow's is brilliantly designed and Prague's is chic and achingly hip. I half-expected to see Shirley Bassey performing the title song from "Gold Finger" in front of the metallic tiled walls. I'd already studied my destination on the map at the hotel and remembered where to transfer and which exit to use. As we pulled into Muzeum station I also remembered to press the button for the doors to open. During the ride I thought about how nice the pastry shop girl had been and my faith in humanity was gradually being reinstalled. As I ascended the steps up into the plummeting temperatures I was slowly warming to Prague. I looked around at all the sumptuous architecture and breathing in a waft of grilling sausages I looked up at a beautiful grey and blue mackerel sky and thought I'll give them another chance.

I spent the better part of the day at the fascinating Communist Museum, enthralled by the in-depth research and artifacts that lined the well-curated exhibits. I was moved by the documentaries and marveled at the layout and period rooms and large Lenin and Stalin statues. I was reminded just how much the Czechs and Slovaks had suffered under the yolks of Hitler and Stalin. I was also greatly impressed by the tenacity and intense desire for democratic independence and the how hard they'd fought their oppressors. I definitely admired them and now was even beginning to like them. Afterward I went for a typical Czech lunch of roasted pork in gravy, sauerkraut and fluffy bread-like dumplings and enjoyed two glasses of Riesling. The pleasant waiter couldn't have been nicer and when asking for my second glass I requested "only a half glass" he nonetheless brought a full one and only charged me for half. Things were certainly on the upswing.

Tipsy I strolled about Wenceslas Square down to the old town square for hours looking in shop windows and visiting a terrific exhibit on propaganda posters. I passed several people hawking classical concerts and passing out flyers and toyed with the idea. "Don't go to those things" Ruth from Cairo had warned, "they're terrrrrible and don't go near 'A Night with Mozart' it's pornography! Oh, it is!" I noticed the open doors at Saint Nicholas church and recalling that Mozart had played the organ there while in Prague I walked in. The interior was a baroque bon-bon of sculpted marshmallow cream and lady fingers lit by crystal chandeliers and framed with gentle frescoes. At the entrance a lady sat with a stack of programs for the evening's recital and comparatively the admission seemed reasonable so I bought a ticket and took a seat.

The gas heaters were barely warming the chilly little church as I watched it fill up with tourists. I studied the detailed beauty of the mid-1700's plasterwork and then glanced at my program. I grew alarmed when I noticed there'd be works performed by six composers all in one hour and Ruth's admonitions rung like church bells in my head. It'd be a sampling to be certain or maybe more like a curious amuse bouche for those looking to just pop it back and "get it over with". The organ trembled a bit of boisterous Bach as one chandelier dimmed and another near the altar softly glowed and I found myself beaming as I took in the atmosphere. The intricacies and flourishes of a large pipe organ reverberating in a hollow church can cover up a multitude of sins. With a race up and down the scales, even an erroneously struck key can be easily masked by the plucking of a bouquet of pulls. Frankly I couldn't have told the difference if the person was talented or not but the visuals combined with the acoustic rumblings were initially sensational. Then the next snippet came and then the next and yet another jarring classical morsel and then a soprano surged an 18th century Latin trill. It began pleasantly enough and then she attempted a coloratura in the next little hoary nugget. The chop of her voice was ill-prepared for what should have been smooth upward scaling. She punched her notes with such brutal force she was practically screaming. The effect was so that it seemed she was playing a game of musical chairs wherein every other seat was filled with cocktail forks and toenail clipping. I empathetically winced as she yelped in pain.

I looked back to gauge the audience's reaction. Easily half the victims were in deep slumber and some had even curled up while others still were hopelessly fighting slumber their heads bobbing like fuzzy dashboard hounds. A quarter of the crowd glanced gleefully at their watches then lowered their wrists back to their laps as their faces drooped in disappointment. Conversely the others gazed rapturously ceilingward like starved mutts begging for table scraps. I stifled such uncontrollable laughter that I almost threw up a side of sauerkraut.

It was nightfall as I was walking back to my hotel. I took the long way strolling along the banks of the Vltava and past the Charles Bridge. I sat on a park bench and watched as the tourist boats plied the blue-black river and I heard the tolling of distant church bells. A tram sped by, the clacking flash of the cables illuminating the roof as the passengers below stared glumly through the pilsner-colored lighting. I forged on through the streets and found a cozy restaurant near my hotel and went inside.

I lifted a finger to a passing waitress to indicate I was alone. Frazzled she shook her head violently as though I'd asked for scalp of her first-born, "NO, NO!" Oh God, here we go again! The hits just keep on coming ladies and gentlemen! A bearded Australian expat got up from his table and approached me, " I see that you're wearing a monks bag." I told him he was correct and then he offered me to join him and his friends. Considering that the waitress wasn't about to help me find a seat I happily consented. The expatriate's two friends were Czech, one a horticulturist and the other a policeman and another traveler, a Polish man had joined them. Finally after flagging down the waitress by performing jumping jacks and violent windmills I got my glass of wine. We were discussing cultural differences and making sweeping generalizations of various groups of people. I noted that Mark Twain had said that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness" and then we wondered if it actually just helped to narrow certain prejudices. My point of reference was that, not all Egyptians are conniving, abrasive irritants but all of them, without exception who approach you on the street are. I was asked what I thought about the people of Prague.

I weighed my words carefully while defending the very people whom I was saying were "a bit cold or distant maybe." I went on to say that, "but I think they must get really sick of the tourists who are seriously irritating for sure." I was motioning for another drink and the policeman to my right piped up, "Oh no they're even ruder to us - they're actually nice to the tourists because they have more money." I expressed relief as I continued to try to flag the waitress down. "What?!" she barked breathlessly. I lifted my empty glass and said, "Another glass of..." She clipped me short, "No, not now busy! Later!" We looked at each other around the table and burst into laughter as the other Czech at the table said, "If it had been me maybe she would have hit me instead."

I considered myself lucky.

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