Absinthe Nights

Trip Start Nov 01, 2004
Trip End Dec 07, 2004

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Monday, November 29, 2004

We are about to leave Prague. I am not displeased to desert the asphyxiating brown coal and the street venders selling New York hats and crystal. I will not miss the whorehouses and the 18, 21, or 22-year-old hostellers who visit them. I will miss the energy here, historic, cultural, youthful, wasteful, and of freedom that emanates from the fading days of revolution and hangs in the maze of alleys and ripples in the Vltava.

1990's expats came to Prague to experience a dynamic place. History was present and tangible. It was in the cafes and on the streets. It was the day's news.

2004 is a long way from the 1989 revolution. The Czechs exist in a place between the rocky harbor of communism, and the vast ocean of the global economy. Drugs are everywhere in the travel culture. The kids at the hostel told me that there is no better place in the world for good music, inexpensive sex, and great drugs than Prague.

Drug culture included, Prague is a phenomenon. It is literally bohemia, and the arts are booming with expats from all over the world. After thirteen years, Prague is dealing with the effects of the revolution that is slipping farther into the past. Casinos line the streets; Herna bars (where one can play slots) are more common than the classic European café. Pickpockets and beggars rob the relatively wealthy tourists. Some tourists spend more than a hundred Euros a day. The average income in the Czech Republic is equivalent to five thousand Euros.

Disillusionment has grown amidst the optimism of the past. Just ask Zdenek Adamec, and six others who burned themselves alive in 2003.

The last days in Prague have been hard on my stomach lining. I chose absinthe as my vice. On Saturday night, Kelly and I met a Scottish- Australian couple at the Hostel Elf. Damien was a fragile, soft-spoken Australian who looked like he had voluntarily abused his body for years. Sarah had a slight Scottish accent, burning amber eyes, and told stories of all night debauchery and drug induced excess.

In Prague, every corner store sells absinthe. Sarah's lisp caused her to pronounce the word absence, a more accurate description of what Absinthe does to your mind. The process of imbibing Absinthe involves a spoon and a flame. I felt a bit like a junky as I dripped flaming sugar into five potent shots.

We walked from Zizkov to Václavské náměstí for 80's night at Lucerna, a club in Wenceslas Square, the sight of the 1989 Velvet Revolution- the same place where Jan Palac experienced a flame unlike that of the absinthe drinker, when he self immolated to protest soviet rule in 1969.

There was no mystical journey into my soul or trippy revelations of truth induced by the absinthe. The effect was more than that of being drunk; the drink brought a slow clarity that accompanied my stumbling about. Originally, opium gave absinthe its hallucinatory effect. Wormwood, a psychedelic herb, is used today. We were able to get some top-quality stuff, thanks to Damien's English-Czech dictionary.

Absinthe is eighty per cent alcohol. My stomach reeled for three days and I ate nothing but soup. The experiment weakened my immune system and I had a cold for the next week.

Stumbling, and not thinking about capitalism, or cold war history, or burning students, I walked through the dark cobbled streets of Prague with Kelly, Damien, and Sarah. The night was cold in late November and the walk took twenty-five minutes. We would have taken a taxi, but a cab driver had already taken advantage of us once on this trip when he realized we were foreigners.

We left the graffiti covered walls of Zizkov and entered Old Town by the Opera house. We navigated thought the narrow streets with nineteenth century architecture crowding the night sky overhead. I looked up at the stars. They swirled through the sky like time-lapse photography. The wormwood was taking effect.

We reached Lucerna, paid the two hundred Crown ($8) cover charge, and made our way through the dark smoke and the teeming crowd to the bar. The girls went to find a table and Damien and I waded to the bar for drinks. He bought me a Heineken and we brought back vodka drinks to the girls. From where we sat, we had an elevated view of the warehouse-like space. A stage close to us was crowded with dancers on pedestals and spiral staircases to nowhere. Two screens hung as a backdrop playing music videos. The dance floor was massive and teemed with sweat-shiny bare-chested guys and girls in bikini tops, glittering tank tops, and vinyl pants. Make-up was extravagant on both males and females alike.

After a few drinks, Kelly and I got up to dance. Damien and Sarah followed. The night was a blur- bar, toilet, empty glass, dance floor, table. Music blared from American to unknown Eastern European techno- Vanilla Ice and dancing with Kelly to Van Halen. East met West in drunken gyrations of bombastic sexuality and youth.

Finally, I found myself on the stage dancing with Sarah wondering what had happened to Kelly. My eyes scanned back to our table and I found her talking to Damien. The alcohol from Sarah's breath invaded my nostrils. Her body was close to mine and I could feel her stranger's warmth. I saw in her eyes reflected the entire club; the strobe lights; the flashing screens; the skin; the haze of smoke; the dance floor alive with sex, the flames of freedom burning.

Is this freedom? Is this what the students who died in 1968-9 and 1989 had in mind when they thought of life without the stranglehold of Soviets? Perhaps not entirely, but nights like these must have been part of the vision.
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