Thursday, November 5, 2009

A town stuck in a fairy tale

Halfway to Český Krumlov, it looked like the bus driver was having a beer. He tipped the silver can back, and from my angle it looked like a Czech beer brand’s logo.

This was the least of our worries.

Our animated self-proclaimed celebrity tour guide Milosz had gotten carried away in České Budějovice and our detour there ran an hour longer than expected. Our destination was Český Krumlov, a UNESCO Heritage Site and town near the Austrian border, and with the driver going along at the rate of a golf cart, we would barely have time to glimpse the town before our night at the opera.

Through the bus window, I saw a giant nest with storks. The spindly-legged creatures looked more ragged and brown-tinged than cartoon storks. One poked its head out of the nest, then thought better of it and tucked back into hiding. We passed rows of farmland. I saw a little girl rubbing her eyes and crying on a porch with her mother next to a massive field of wheat.

The forests thickened as we neared Český Krumlov. We parked in a lot outside of town as the cobblestoned streets are too narrow for buses.

We climbed out of the bus and into a fairy tale town. Narrow winding streets, wooden bridges, a sprawling castle, and stone buildings stacked close together under stormy skies.

Milosz led a tour through town punctuated with his usual gory details. He liked to add things about notable historical figures such as “and then he died of syphilis so he had to be cremated.”

In the middle of the tour, it started to rain. We were crossing a narrow bridge, staying close to the side so cars could pass. First a few drops and then the circling clouds gathered over the town center and the showers started. Did I mention that the opera we were headed to was outside?

We took cover under an arch with two tourist shops. Robin Hemley, the only faculty member on the trip, talked about how he was looking for a fanny pack. Who in their right mind would wear a fanny pack? I wondered if I should stage an intervention. Tell him that fanny packs went out of style with jams and parachute pants in 1991. Actually, they may never have been in style. Only grandparents wore fanny packs or people with pocket protectors. People who wore sensible orthopedic shoes.

Luckily, I didn’t have to stage an intervention as it turned out he was seeking the most offensive tourist garb on purpose as part of a new non-fiction project on pickpockets. Phew!

As soon as the rain lightened, Milosz ushered us back to the hotel to change for the opera. What do you wear to an opera when it’s pouring rain? I thought of Hana at the New York Metropolitan Opera surrounded by surly Americans in dripping raincoats.

Milosz had a bee in his bonnet about getting to the opera on time. He perched at the head of the bus practically tapping his foot until we arrived at the parking lot.

The rain came back again, following us like the rain cloud over Linus. At the gates to the opera, staff handed out blankets and ponchos. There we were: surly Americans in dripping raincoats at the opera.

When the show began, all the rain and misery disappeared. The scenes were set in the woods and grassland around the audience, and the audience, like a giant amusement park ride, swiveled 360 degrees in the course of the show. The show was Dvorak’s Rusalka. The woman playing Rusalka put the D in Diva. Here she is, hugging a tree:

Mostly the opera consisted of the Diva sashayed across a black plastic faux-lake pining after the unappealing steroid-popping alto who wore a puffy blouse. Luckily, Dvorak had added elements of the Little Mermaid tale to give a context to this spectacle.

The setting and effects worked like magic. Instead of black plastic, I saw a lake, and instead of women in floaty dresses, I saw sea nymphs. I didn’t want the seats to stop moving. Very late, when the rain had stopped and the Diva bowed at least twenty times, we were set loose back into the fairy tale of Český Krumlov.

Back at the hotel, we changed into warmer clothes (in other words, I put on every item of clothing I’d brought), and headed out in search of Český Krumlov night life. This consisted of one bar with a rotating multi-colored disco light playing bad music while no one danced. Everyone clung to the bar, including one man who was slumped over the bar, possibly dead, though no one seemed to notice or care. We found a wooden table and ordered “betons” until the music drove us out.

The next morning, I visited Egon Schiele’s regular hangout

…and ate buckwheat cereal with honey at a restaurant that served traditional medieval fare.

I also spotted Mao’s twin lounging by the river, though he was decidedly more sedate.

On the way back to the hotel, I saw people getting ready to go kayaking, dwarfed by the town buildings:

Milosz again was in a hurry to sweep us off to the next syphilis-riddled hotspot in Czech history so we piled back into the bus. I spotted another silver can in the bus driver’s hand, but I was too full of the land of Rusalka, honey mead, Egon Schiele and thatched roofs to care.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wegetarian Food

I’m not a vegetarian, but I might be a wegetarian:

“V” becomes “w” on some tongues and the linguistic twist makes new words.

In Prague, Wegetarians beeline for Lekha Hlava, or Clear Head, the mecca of wegetables and wegan delights.

Clear Head Restaurant

There is no goulash in sight.

If you’re a spiritual leader, you eat for free. If not, the check is delivered in a neat wooden box at the end of the meal, like a gift.

When Premysl and I finally met for lunch, I suggested Clear Head as a possibility.

“I don’t eat vegetarian,” he said. He pronounced the “v” carefully in his precise English. An odd assertion, but I went along with it, and we ate in the decidedly anti-vegetarian duck restaurant behind Charles University.

Goulash was plentiful and the dumplings stay with you for hours afterwards, possibly decades. I punctuated my visits to Clear Head with stops at traditional Czech eateries so I wouldn’t forget where I was.

Friday, October 16, 2009

All the Czech I Need to Know I Learned at the Convenience Store

“Odpouštím ti.”

This was my new favorite phrase in Czech. It meant, “I forgive you.” I discovered this on the wall of the contemporary art museum. Also at the museum, I found, “Na zázraky,” which meant, “I believe in miracles.” I collected these phrases though I could barely pronounce them.

I still gravitated towards the English bookstores in town,

not quite ready to browse the Czech titles at the main bookstores.

Without the language in Prague, I lacked a bridge to understanding.

If I spoke Czech, I could ask why this statue had a strange plasticine head over a metal body…

Or why the streets often wandered in the wrong directions…

…so that I ended up lost and surrounded by strange people.

I’d gone to the first week of Survival Czech, and learned how to say “I don’t know how to speak Czech,” but mostly I picked up words from reading signs and labels, often at the nonstop convenience store near the Hotel Pyramida, where many items were kept behind the counter.

I knew that “white” was “bílý” because I saw the word on my yogurt. Also, neperlivá was “still” in reference to water—another word learned at the convenience store. Banán was another convenience store word.

Most of the Czech I learned was in reference to food. While I ate my way through Prague, I picked up a few Czech words too…between bites.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hana at the Opera

On warm days, Hana opened the windows of our classroom, letting in the damp stone smell of the courtyard, where below I could see women taking a break from their work at the dry cleaner’s on the ground floor.

Hana told us a story of her own experience of culture shock in the US.

One night in New York, Hana Ullmanova dressed up to go to the Opera.

First, it was hard to picture her dressed up:


didn’t compute.

At the same time, it had the quality of an animal flip book with frog feet and a chicken head, so I liked the incongruous aspect. Dressed to the nines, she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera house on a rainy night. She checked her raincoat at the coat check and slipped into the audience in anticipation.

To either side of her were two people still clad in dripping raincoats. This would never be allowed at the Czech National Opera, where formal dress is expected and all coats are left outside. Hana sat miserably sandwiched between the soaking spectators, and endured her way through the first act.

During intermission, she went in search of champagne. When the bartender handed her a plastic cup of champagne as if passing out Dixie cups of juice at recess, Hana almost refused. Plastic cups for champagne? This would never happen in Prague. In the US, wingnuts using wine glasses as weapons ruined it for the rest of us. Now, for security reasons, there is no longer glass. Yet no one blinks an eye because of the informal atmosphere overall.

We export our relaxed attitude overseas, too. Tourists sometimes turn up at the Czech National Opera in jeans and baseball caps.

At the Met, Hana found herself in the reverse situation. With dripping raincoats, jeans, and plastic cups around her, she stuck out in her formal dress. As someone who was used to standing out—an “elephant” in her hometown—she must have handled the scene with grace. Still, she was not prepared for these strange customs of the US Opera.

Again, Hana was an elephant, even miles away from her hometown.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Words of Others

While in search of non-goulash food alternatives, I continued to bask in the “I know nothing” world of Bret Lott and the unsmiling light of Hana Ullmanova.

Now and then, Bret would pause in class and say with mock seriousness, “Now this is a dynamite book,” and pick up his own memoir on writing. He filled our heads with the words of others, though: John Berger, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Valerie Martin.

We read a short story, "1/3, 1/3, 1/3" by Richard Brautigan that was terse but resonant and included a line that encapsulated a character in one sentence:

"The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks, and cars with bad transmissions."

This could also describe many people I passed on the streets in Prague.

Bret gave us a section of Jerome Stern’s book Making Shapely Fiction, which includes mock examples of what NOT to do. Stern lists bad last lines such as

"And then I woke up."


"It's not a bad place to live--warm, dry, and nice padded walls."

He also talks about bad story ideas like the “Weird Harold Story,” in which the character is quirky for the sake of being quirky and no other reason.

Of course with every bad example, I could think of one that had worked.

There’s the “Hobos in Space” story, about two characters isolated from ordinary society, that he warns against yet is almost an exact description of one of my favorite plays, “True West,” by Sam Shepard.

Every rule presented had been at one time or another successfully broken. In the end, Stern says to throw out the rules.

In the morning, we tried to crack open each workshop story, to find the way to best break the rules to fit what the writer was trying to say. In the afternoon, I studied the rule-breakers of early American literature with Hana.

Meet Tomas

When it rains in Prague, the streets become a mosaic of umbrellas.

I played email tag with Premysl, bouncing notes back and forth. We tried to find a common time to meet, but obstacles popped up at every turn.

Cindy met a British guy, Nick, who promised to take us out and show us the seamy underside of Prague, the places where tourists didn’t go in their Charles Bridge-Prague Castle-Old Town Square trifecta.

One night, I set off in search of Cindy and Nick through the clusters of buildings in Prague 1.

I was as likely to get lost as I was to find them. I had the free map from the hotel and scribbled directions about subway stops and neighborhoods. In truth, though, I had no idea where I was going.

I took the metro to a strange neighborhood just east of Prague 1 and by some combination of luck and intuition, found Cindy and company. We found the night spot Nick knew, a multi-room maze of a bar filled with smoke, glass shelves of bottles and mostly men.

Shortly after we settled in and ordered Becharovka-and-tonics, which tasted like iced chai with a twist of citrus and a strigent gin-like after-taste, a medium-height man with dark hair and glasses swiveled around from the bar holding drinks and looking around for his friends and a place to sit. He spotted two empty chairs at our table and asked permission to sit there in Czech. I had a sense of what he was saying from his gesture and lost expression, so I nudged the chairs out, offering him the seats.

My knowledge of Czech had now expanded to “Thank you,” though I didn’t quite know how to pronounce it and often offended shopkeepers by saying the informal version. He knew English well, though, so we resorted to our common language.

Meet Tomas.

My second official Czech friend in Prague. He taught me the shorthand for Becharovka-and-tonic, “Beton,” and the secret of mixing dark beer with light.

Beer is the orange juice of Prague. People practically have it for breakfast. That night I stayed clear of the beer, though that seemed to be the drink of choice at most tables.

Tomas and I talked into the wee hours when Nick shuttled us across the Charles bridge to take the night tram. Tomas walked with us for part of the way and we shyly traded emails by the tram stop, an act that made me feel vaulted back to junior high. Cindy and Shara waited off to the side, pretending like they were caught up in a vital conversation at 2 a.m. by the tram stop.

As soon as Tomas left, we swarmed back together and traded stories of our nights. The tram never showed, in true Prague fashion, so we walked home up the narrow cobble-stone streets, the shortcut from Prague 1 to Prague 6.

Being good tourists, we stopped to snap a picture on the way up.

I felt better back with my friends who spoke the same language and shared similar landscapes and cultural references. Though Tomas and I both spoke English, we were worlds away from real communication.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Prague Food Part Two: Check, please

Most of my miscommunications in Prague took place in restaurants. Luka Lu’s “birthday” night was only the beginning. In one lunch place, I ordered a side of broccoli and the waitress returned with peas, carrots, and corn, the kind that come in frozen packets. She explained that they had no broccoli, but rather than ask me if I wanted something else, she brought what they had. Her offering seemed more like an admonishment: What we have isn’t good enough for you?

One day, in search of a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for the literature seminar, I found instead an Indian restaurant. Newly opened, the staff was unusually friendly. The smell of Indian spices filled the square near Anagrams bookshop, surrounding the restaurant’s outdoor tables. The tables faced a botanical shop where I later found lavender oil and baskets full of herbs.

A few nights after my discovery, Cindy, Shara and I went to Old Town Square for a jazz concert and I brought them back to the square with the Indian restaurant, Anagrams, and the botanical shop. There were other restaurants too, but that night a short elderly man from the Indian restaurant was out recruiting diners. Anyone who crossed his path, he tried to herd into the outdoor seating area and lure them with the promise of dinner specials.

We only wanted a quick meal before returning to the concert, but the phrase “quick meal” doesn’t translate into Czech. The translation of “quick meal” is “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” The translation of “quick meal” in a regular restaurant is “meal with no end” or “meal where your waiter quits his job mid-meal and never returns.” Translation is tricky in the Czech language. There are all those ever-changing endings to words.

We ordered a variety of things including papadum, which take approximately two seconds to cook. Our meal didn’t arrive for over an hour and the papadum came last. At first we just enjoyed the atmosphere, sitting out on the square:

After a while, though, we started to lose patience. At least could we have the papadum? After our meal finally arrived and we’d finished, it took another lifetime to get the check. The waiter appeared with the check, pointing vigorously at the tip line on the receipt, waiting for me to fill it in. I shook my head, explaining very plainly that we didn’t plan to tip. We went back and forth until he gave up. Though in Prague, the adage goes that “the customer is always wrong,” in the end, tipping is up to you.

After our meal, the jazz concert was over. We went to Pariscka Street for Becharovka and tonics. Parizska Street is a block of designer stores that is supposed to be like Paris, Prague-style.

A note on window designers in Prague. They did not go to the same school of design as New York or Paris where a paper bag can look sexy and transform into an object of desire. Window design in Prague involves dropping a handbag in front of the window where it sits plainly saying, I’m a handbag. Do you want to spend your hard-earned money on me? There is nothing Parisian about Parizska Street.

The bar where we went had a swarm of insects inhabiting the light fixture over our seats. When one dropped into my drink and I asked for a refresher, the waiter looked at me like, what? It’s free protein! He did replace my drink, but only after grumbling and consulting with two other waiters and a manager. Six hours later, the new drink arrived and we were ready to leave. By the time we got the bill, I was ready to change into my pajamas.

“Quick drink” has the same translation as “quick meal” in Prague. There is no such thing. If you want a quick meal, you should fly to New York and go for sushi. If you want a quick drink, buy a bottle at the non-stop. If you decide to go out in Prague, just bring a sleeping bag and the complete works of Shakespeare. You’re in for a long wait.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Prague Food Part One: Luka Lu

If you’re on a detox diet, don’t go to Prague. Unless you are on the heavy meat-dumpling-goulash detox diet. All goulash, all the time. After my first week in Prague, I craved vegetables. Though the food was filling, I felt hungry after each meal.

I started to consider writing a sequel to “The Hunger Artist.”

A combination of Google and random luck saved me. One day, riding the tram to a reading at the Ypsilon, I spotted “Luka Lu” through the window. I’d read about this restaurant on-line. Had I gone in search of it directly, most likely I would have found one of the many KFCs of Prague instead. But in true Prague-style, it popped up just when I wasn’t looking. Here is a blurry picture taken at night:

Luka Lu was on the 22 tram line, halfway between the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and the outpost of the Wild Things. Tables on the ceiling, upside-down cats, and lamps of all shapes and sizes.

More than a restaurant, it was a delight. Though the waiters were surly and humorless, the bright colors and abundance of birds made it a friendly place. Fresh fish, vegetables, fruits, and chicken “beg” soup that the menu claimed contained aphrodisiacs. Luka Lu won me over in my first visit with Cindy and Shara, and I returned the next night, and the following week, and many more times before leaving Prague.

Each visit to Luka Lu was unique, an adventure in itself. On my first visit, we sat out front and people-watched while eating. The waiter had a grim, indifferent expression as we exclaimed over the food in true American-style.

On my second visit, I went with the women who adventured with me to Cloud 9, and we were shooed into the back garden with the bird cages and other Americans. It was cold that night and they brought us soft fleece blankets as we ate.

At one point, when my friend Toni got up to go to the bathroom, she discovered that the back door was locked. The old lock-the-tourists-in-the-back-yard routine. Soon someone freed us so we could settle the bill and head to Cloud 9.

I felt like part of the Luka Lu family by my third visit with Becca, who was teaching English in Prague and had already been navigating the city for several months. The waiter seated us at one of the coveted indoor tables. The meal started off with the usual: “beg” soup, house wine, homemade bread.

Things took a turn mid-way through my grilled fish when the owner started to bring us free wine. He poured the wine like water and showered us with random complements. During one of his table visits, he announced that it was his birthday. He planned to celebrate after closing with drinks and treats in the backyard. Would we like to join him? This felt like an exclusive invitation—the owner of my new favorite restaurant inviting us to his birthday party.

Thus began our trip down the rabbit hole with backyard toasts, free food, and the owner of Luka Lu introducing us to his bird menagerie. All entertaining until Becca and I realized that no other guests were invited. Just us, the owner, and a random waiter with pointy gray teeth wearing a fluorescent orange spandex top. This party needed about ten more people and less spandex to qualify as an exclusive social event in Prague.

I helped retrieve the birthday fruit salad from the kitchen, and the owner made an unexpected overture while I tried to balance a heavy half-watermelon full of chopped apples, pears, melon, and grapes. I almost dumped the whole tray of fruit down his front, but I was more coordinated than I thought. I could balance a heavy tray of fruit, ward off inappropriate advances, and navigate the narrow kitchen of Luka Lu all at once. Essential skills for a night out at a restaurant in Prague.

He protested, “It’s my birthday!” The famous “It’s-my-birthday” school of seduction, known to woo women across the world. I stuck with simple, clear messages. “No.” Maybe my high school Italian teacher, Mr. Hammond, was right. Maybe “no” was the only necessary vocabulary for travel in Europe.

Later, when we’d finished the toasts, fruit, and bird-watching, Becca and I started to leave. At a party of fourteen, this would have been easier, but since there were only four of us, it was a bit awkward. The party was about to be cut in half.

The owner led us outside and showed us his winged chariot: a shiny maroon Subaru that flashed its lights at his command. At first he offered a ride, until it became clear that we were heading to the same destination. After holding a brief conference in rapid English, Becca invited me to stay at her apartment in Prague 1 and I accepted. This plan made the most sense given the late hour, the sketchy transport options, and the fact that my class the next morning was also in Prague 1.

He withdrew his taxi service offer with an erroneous claim that the bridge we needed to cross was closed to cars. Becca and I set off towards her apartment through the winding narrow streets. We didn’t have far to go, and the streets were well lit. Once again Prague had confounded us. We thought we were going for a simple dinner, but it turned into a bizarre adventure. Eating out in Prague: it’s not what you expect.

On my fourth visit to Luka Lu, I brought a bodyguard. Actually, I landed there after a weekend trip to Cesky Krumlov with one of my co-travelers. By the time we arrived at Luka Lu, I was so hungry I would have dropkicked the owner myself if he tried to approach me with any more advances.

Each time I brought someone new to Luka Lu, I felt like the ambassador to Wonderland, Charlie with a ticket to the Chocolate Factory. I pointed at the upside down tables and miniature shoes stuck to the ceiling, the little balcony populated with kid-sized chairs. The waiter brought out free fruit salad after the meal, an offering of peace to a now-loyal customer.

My fifth and last visit to Luka Lu was on Cindy’s last night in Prague. She’d spent the earlier part of the evening photographing the Prague Castle at dusk while I babysat her date, a dud from Alabama interning and studying political science in Prague. Maybe he wasn’t a dud, but I’d just had a week full of mini-adventures and laughs and books, time spent scribbling and staying up late. My last week in Prague was full of all the reasons I’d come to the city in the first place, and now I felt vaulted back to Square One in true Prague-style. I sat at a café across from Cindy’s date, trying to follow his outline of his political viewpoints as “culturally libertarian and fiscally Keynsian.”

When Cindy appeared at the café, I practically begged to go to Luka Lu (no pun intended re: beg soup). Going to Luka Lu, I thought I could recover some of the magic of my time in Prague. The date went along in part because of his bizarre mission to take a paper-doll copy of the picture book character, “Flat Stanley” (he carried it in his shirt pocket), to every corner of Prague. He planned to photograph himself with “Flat Stanley” and enter it into some obscure contest.

I ordered all of my favorite things on the menu, but something was missing on my last visit to Luka Lu. Maybe knowing that it was my last visit took away some of the magic. Also, going there on purpose with a set plan, when the last times had seemed like gifts. Luka Lu must be visited on a lark or a whim, with friends and without seriousness. Like the laughing gas in Mary Poppins, seriousness deflates the magic of Luka Lu. Still, the food was delicious on that last night, as always, and we sat out front people-watching as in my first visit when Luka Lu was new and strange and amazing to me.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Letter

In Prague, maps and guidebooks are useless—you’ll either look for something and not find it OR find something you weren’t looking for OR come across something you were once looking for when you no longer want to find it.

Very soon after I arrived, I gave up on trying to make sense of the city and settled for discoveries through happenstance.

I found this car parked on a square near the Hotel Pyramida,

though it didn’t quite compare with the white van of Slovenia (or the yellow van).

One day, walking through Prague 1 after a rain shower, I saw a rainbow near the Malostranska tram stop.

I was a little dazed, haunted by the film “Little Otik” I’d seen that afternoon about a couple who adopts a tree stump as a baby and it comes alive and eats everything in sight, including the postman and the parents.

I felt saturated by the week of workshops, readings, films, and the Survival Czech class. I’d expected empty hours for writing alone in my hotel room, but instead I’d arrived at Writing-Palooza. Much inspiration, but little time to apply it. Also, in the back of my mind, I’d been planning to contact Premysl in the hopes of being transported out of the American bubble.

That night, home late from the Lott/Eversz reading, I stopped at the front desk at the Pyramida for a new wireless internet password and one of the grim clerks handed me an envelope as if it contained a death sentence.

“To: Heather” the envelope said in slanted block letters. I wondered if a friend from the program had stopped by and left me a note. I rode up in the rattling death-trap elevator and when I got to my room, I opened the envelope.

“Dear Heather,

We met in the train (Joze Plecnik – Salzburg – Prague) on 4 July. I hope that your arrival at the hotel on that day was OK.

I wish you a pleasant stay in Prague and fresh inspiration for your writing.

I am sure you will enjoy the courses under the Prague Summer Program.

Perhaps , if you would feel like sharing your impressions of Prague, I will be happy to receive a message from you at:


Thank you,
With best regards,

Here, for the first time in Prague, something had worked. Premysl came to the hotel and left me a note, and it hadn’t gotten lost or mistaken for a tourist map by another hotel guest.

Wait…Premysl came to the hotel? I hadn’t given him my contact information or even the address for the hotel, though he seemed to recognize the name when I mentioned it. He remembered that I was staying at the Pyramida and went out of his way (the Ministry of the Environment was across the city and he lived on the outskirts) to stop in and make sure I was still alive and well. Premysl! My diaper rash ointment, my one friend in Prague.

I wanted to respond by carrier pigeon, but instead I used email. The certainty that the message would reach him took a little away from the excitement, but at the same time I was happy to know that a random meeting on the train could turn into something else.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Importance of Scowling in Prague

“Night is not night enough for writing.” – Kafka (in his letters to Felice)

These are the kinds of cheery quotes found around Prague. The myth of Kafka’s madness lurks on every corner. As Americans on a temporary stay, we infused the city with unnecessary superlatives and exclamations. We invaded dark corners with camera flashes and smiles.

As Hana Ullmanova explained in the literature seminar, if a Czech person went to see a play and liked it, he might say “oh, that wasn’t too bad,” while an American would say “that was sooooo good, that was amazing.” I shrank a little in my seat when she said this. I’m guilty of overusing the word “lovely” and sometimes I say “awesome,” though I haven’t lived in California for fourteen years. In my effort to blend in Prague, I tried to drop exclamations and overt enthusiasm. It didn’t last long.

Twice a week, the Prague Program hosted a reading series in the Ypsilon Theater, an old theater with cushy red chairs and the balcony for late-comers (me). The conversations after the readings were filled with superlatives: great reading! great job! great story! In this way we brought American culture with us, carrying our unwelcome excitement into the streets of Prague.

A bar upstairs from the theater sold beer and wine that could be carried into the audience. The mood was lively with people blowing bubbles and clinking glasses, feet propped up on the seats, and chatter about the day’s adventures. At Bret Lott and Robert Eversz’s reading, I sat smack in the middle of the audience, between members of my workshop and in front of a very tall guy whose foot I almost amputated with my seat (his foot was wedged into the chair’s hinge). I’ve crossed a picket line before to attend a reading, but I’ve never injured an audience member. That would have been a first.

Bret Lott read from his new novel with soft, melodious phrases that were the novelist’s equivalent of a folk song, lines like, “let the road be the road and me the traveler on it.”

Robert read from his latest mystery novel starring Nina Zero, a testosterone-infused femme fatale roving through Los Angeles, which he describes as “among the loneliest places in the world” at 3 a.m. Los Angeles, a city of sunlight, defines itself by day, he says. Nina comes up with lines that flatten her foes. Instead of muscle she uses language. “The way he looked at me…was like I was an open goal with no goalie.” She’s smarter than everyone else in the book, which is why she gets to have a number as her last name.

“Never write out of blank space,” either Bret or Robert said during the Q & A. “Fill your head ‘til it starts to spill out.”

The student readings took place on Fridays—two hours packed with flash-readings. En route to one, I ran into one of the teaching assistants for the program who acted like an overgrown camp counselor.

“Hey!” he said. “How’s it goin’? We haven’t had a chance to check in.” He wore band T-shirts and glommed onto groups of undergrads going out to four-story discos. On the first day of workshop, he snapped our pictures “so I'll remember your names.” On the Kafka walking tour he fell into step with me and chatted merrily while I tried to make sense of the gloomy Kafka versus the B-movie Kafka.

On the tram, I was a captive audience. I could try to get arrested for evading the transportation police but a) I had a tram pass and b) no transportation officials were in sight (not that you would recognize them since most resembled homeless people shuffling by with badges hidden in their tattered coats). Short of getting arrested, I didn’t see a way out. I was stuck with him until we got to the reading.

The tram trudged along through Malostranska and past the one Starbucks in Prague. I practiced my best Czech scowl while he told me stories of women he’d rescued in the New York subway. In one case, he beat off the offending miscreant with a rolled up New Yorker. Ah, the literary hero. Daring deeds committed with the latest Munro story in hand. Gag.

As soon as the 22 stopped across from the Ypsilon, I flew off the tram, though the doors to the readings never closed. I slid into a seat on the balcony as one reading ended and applause filled the theater. I overheard someone say, “That was really good.” A reminder that I was in Prague but at the same time I wasn’t. Our American bubble found a place in the city, but never a home.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Night Owl Sees the Sunrise

In my journal on July 7th, I wrote,

“In my dreams I still have to find my way over to Europe—booking flights, checking airlines. So far I know little Czech—actually none. The two words I know: Prosím and Ahoj. Yet I don’t know where/when/how to use them.”

Though I’d been in Slovenia for a week and slept through most of my jet lag in Trieste, I still woke up at odd hours of the night and early in the morning, ready to start the day. As a definitive night owl whose clock doesn’t register time before 10 a.m., I rarely see the sunrise. Shortly after arriving in Prague, though, one morning I woke up and saw the sunrise.

At first the buildings outside the hotel stayed in the dark

And then, gradually, they came into a muted light

Then I went back to sleep.

Meet Frank

Walking near the Philosophy Faculty building in Prague 1, I overheard an American girl with a group of friends telling them,

“So I was like, ‘I’m just going to call you Frank, because that’s easier for me.’”

“Frank” was probably Franz. I pictured her slipping into an anachronistic scene with Franz Kafka, telling him that his name was impossible, that she would have to call him by an Americanized version. Frank Kafka sounded like someone who fixed televisions, not a world-famous author whose stories inspired imitators and fans across the world.

In my notebook, next to Kafka’s name, I wrote “Southern Bohemian butcher.” Frank Kafka might fit that role better than Franz. I think the note may have referred to his father. Taking notes and following Petr Bilek through the winding streets of Prague was no easy task.

Petr Bilek, professor of Czech Literature at Charles University, led two literary walking tours of Prague during my month. He also gave a lecture on feminine archetypes in Czech literature in which I learned the origin of Premysl’s name (he’d mentioned on the train that it was linked to the history of Prague, though it wasn’t a commonly used name like “Jacob”). A side-note on this before we join Petr on a tour of Kafka’s Prague.

Princess Libussa was the mythical founder of Prague who fell in love with a shepherd Přemysl leading to the Přemyslid dynasty. She prophesied a large city that would “reach the heavens.” Her union with Přemysl ultimately brought Prague into being. Hearing Přemysl’s name in Petr’s lecture reminded me that I had his number in my wallet and should call at the very least to thank him for his help in navigating Prague’s central station.

Back to Frank.

The tour of Kafka’s Prague began at "Franze Kafky" square where at one time, in another shorter building on the same spot, Kafka lived with his family before the advent of plumbing technology. It took him nine years to leave home after graduating from the law faculty at age 24. I pictured his parents nudging him towards the door. Time to branch out, Frank….

A sculpture of Kafka looked out from the square, both gargoyle and icon facing the street and passing cars.

Kafka would not have liked being a statue. As someone who moved frequently, staying still would have been abhorrent. He lived in forty different apartments over the course of his life. One of them was in this gray building down a side street in the Jewish quarter.

We passed a Hebrew clock going backwards, more fitting for Kafka than his own face in statue form.

To get to his writing studio, he had to cross over the river Vltava: a literal passage that represented leaving the mundane world and entering the world of the imagination. In that world, clocks can move backwards and airplanes can sprout from stone.

The only thing “Kafka-esque” in his life was the political system that clamped down on individual freedoms. When he was alive, he didn’t stagger around Prague, wrapped in black, muttering incoherent aphorisms as the tourism bureau would have you believe. He liked cruising around on a borrowed motorbike, going to trashy B movies, and indulging in the pop culture of his time. He wasn’t alone in his room, Emily Dickinson-style, grasping for the perfect line or word.

Tourism bureaus don’t like contradictions. Perpetuating the myth of the insane, solitary genius explains the genesis of stories like “The Metamorphosis” better than picturing a thrill-seeking hedonist careening around on his motorcycle and occasionally writing about men who turn into bugs. Kafka’s adventures were more likely to land him in a stretcher than a padded room

but the myths persist. Would the flocks of tourists who snap photos on every corner be deterred by the truth about Kafka?

The tourism bureau won’t take the chance.

Joan Jett look-a-like contest

Do you look like you’ve entered a Joan Jett look-a-like contest? Good. You’re ready to go out on the town in Prague.

When in doubt, add something with rhinestones to your outfit, and if it doesn’t hug your body from head to toe, you might want to go home and change.

One woman in my workshop went in search of the perfect Prague outfit and this is what she found: A white T-shirt with a pink graffiti-style design, a black bubble skirt, a tailored cropped blazer, and a dark men’s almost-fedora-style hat tipped to one side. It was punk meets pink, 80s meets now, the Jetsons meet grunge.

I couldn’t help it that I’d tossed my fluorescent leggings back in 1992. I had to work with what I had. My first night out on the town in Prague, I wore black and tried to blend without much luck. It’s hard to blend when your conversation abilities stop at hello.

Also, my default expression is usually a smile and this look is the equivalent of donning a “Prague Drinking Team” T-shirt and running through Old Town Square shouting English expletives. Smiling is not the default expression in Prague. Still, it’s hard to unlearn thirty years of habit, so while I tried to look grim and defiant, I probably ended up looking like I had a mouth twitch.

After dinner, we took a bus past Náměstí Republiky to the edge of the Vltava in search of Cloud 9. I’d read a review of this bar and it claimed to break the mold of hotel bars and have a 360 degree view of Prague to boot. If breaking the mold means flashing neon lights and bad music, then yes, this place achieved the goal. I felt like I’d stepped into a Joan Jett music video only with bad techno and creepy old Czech men dancing with much younger women by the bar.

We stayed long enough to snap a picture in front of the hideous gold and red wall decorations...

...and advise the DJ to play some more up-to-date tunes, and then we sped back to the lobby and called the AAA cab service and a spike-haired woman cab driver shuttled us back to Prague 6 where the Hotel Pyramida greeted me with Suzanne Vega playing “Luka” at 1 a.m.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


The second I set eyes on Hana Ullmanova, my teacher for “American Literature from the Czech Perspective,” I knew I would like her. She had a grim face, salt-and-pepper hair, and varied her wardrobe between three outfits. Her favorite colors were black and white and when she smiled, it was usually by accident, such as here in a photo of us together:

I had an intellectual-style crush on Hana (see Edna O’Brien’s “Sister Imelda” or Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

On the first day, she gave us the publishing history of American literature in the Czech Republic. With Kafka's photo plastered all around Prague, I pictured the Czech people reading only dark, brooding subjects and did not expect these title to pop up in the mix:

During communist rule, socialist realism was approved for wide distribution. Libraries stocked Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath , but only library records would tell if people read them or if copies just sat on the shelves....

Much of American literature was viewed as suspect during the height of Communist rule in Prague. In 1985, when Hana first started studying American Literature, people like her were regarded with suspicion and as a possible threat to the government. She took a risk studying this taboo topic. Her father had to drive her to a school far from her village when she started studying American lit as local teachers didn’t offer such courses.

I liked picturing Hana the rebel off to study Henry James and Eudora Welty as a subversive activity.

Continuing her rebellious streak, Hana had children late, waiting until she was 39.

"I'm like an elephant," she said, referring to the views of people from her native town in Moravia. Most women in her town would be grandmothers, possibly even great-grandmothers at 39.

Hana the elephant. She said this without cracking a smile.

“I know nothing”

The morning Fiction Workshop with Bret Lott took place in the Scandinavian language room of the Philosophy Faculty building. The room had glass cabinets full of books in the Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian originals as well as maps of the countries.

Roughly thirty-six hours of my time in Prague was spent in that room. To get there, I had to first risk life and limb on the 22 tram, sprint across the bridge over the Vltava, dodge traffic on the main street in front of the Philosophy Faculty building, open the cloudy-glass front door, and run up the four flights of stairs to the top floor, at which point, I would arrive breathless, thirsty, starving, exhausted and generally ready for workshop.

Since I was heading to Norway from Prague, the location seemed auspicious. Here is Bret under the map of Norway, probably about to say the mantra that he repeated throughout our time together “I know nothing.”

Nearly every day he said this same phrase like a slogan from his own political party: "I KNOW NOTHING"

He gave us this quote from John Berryman: “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere because that’s always easiest.”

And many things to read, including a wonderful article by Valerie Martin,

"Waiting for the Story to Start" by Valerie Martin

The workshop was full of restlessness since all of us wanted to be out wandering the city. Still, we gave those three hours willingly, sitting with our faces upturned towards Bret like the uniformed girls in Madeline looking up at Miss Clavel. Even though he said, “I know nothing,” we never ran out of questions.

Fragment of a Letter

Much of Czech literature stems from the intersection of poetry and philosophy, and all of it is a catalog of longing. Photographs of the Charles Bridge are so diffuse, it’s hard to get a clear look at them. This poem by Jaroslav Seifert is a more effective snapshot of moody, dreamy Prague:

Fragment of a Letter

All night rain lashed the windows.
I couldn't go to sleep.
So I switched on the light
and wrote a letter.
If love could fly,
as of course it can't,
and didn't so often stay close to the ground,
it would be delightful to be enveloped
in its breeze.
But like infuriated bees
jealous kisses swarm down upon
the sweetness of the female body
and an impatient hand grasps
whatever it can reach,
and desire does not flag.
Even death might be without terror
at the moment of exultation.
But who has ever calculated
how much love goes
into one pair of open arms!
Letters to women
I always sent by pigeon post.
My conscience is clear.
I never entrusted them to sparrowhawks
or goshawks.
Under my pen the verses dance no longer
and like a tear in the corner of an eye
the word hangs back.
And all my life, at its end,
is now only a fast journey on a train:
I'm standing by the window of the carriage
and day after day
speeds back into yesterday
to join the black mists of sorrow.
At times I helplessly catch hold
of the emergency brake.
Perhaps I shall once more catch sight
of a woman's smile,
trapped like a torn-off flower
on the lashes of her eyes.
Perhaps I may still be allowed
to send those eyes at least one kiss
before they're lost to me in the dark.
Perhaps once more I shall even see
a slender ankle
chiselled like a gem
out of warm tenderness,
so that I might once more
half choke with longing.
How much is there that man must leave behind
as the train inexorably approaches
Lethe Station
with its plantations of shimmering asphodels
amidst whose perfume everything is forgotten.
Including human love.
That is the final stop:
the train goes no further.

"Fragment of a Letter" from The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert
Translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers
Passed along to me by Margaret Hartigan

Monday, August 31, 2009

Příští zastávka: Malostranská

On the first morning of classes, I had my first lesson in catching the tram in Prague. The 22 tram stopped across from the Pyramida between two lanes of traffic and sidewalk islands that held waiting passengers. There were three ways to catch the tram:

1) waiting on the sidewalk island until one arrived—a method that allowed for more time to get to know fellow passengers, such as the commuter carrying a flask in his jacket or the couples competing for the world’s longest kiss

2) spotting the tram up the block (or from the window of the nearby nonstop convenience store) and making it to the platform just as the doors opened

3) running into oncoming traffic and across the railings behind the train in a sprint likely to catch the attention of the driver who, unlike New York subway and bus drivers, would wait for the passenger to board

I preferred the third method, minted on the first morning by Margaret Von Steinen, Coordinator of the Prague Writing Seminars who spotted the tram barreling down the street as we exited the hotel and broke into a run. I followed and we hopped into the back door of the tram just before the driver lost his patience.

Other people I recognized from the reception the night before hopped on the tram, including an elderly playwright in an animated discussion on the importance of marketing all while his fly was completely unzipped.

At each stop, the melodious automated voice of the tram announcer called out “Příští zastávka,” over the speaker announcing the “Next Stop” after the doors closed. On the newer trains, the next stop was announced on an electric sign as well as over the loud speaker:

I preferred the voice—at the same time coy and efficient—that warned of the stop in advance and just as the doors opened. Here is a youtube clip featuring "Příští zastávka" that gives a sense of how far the Czech spoken language is from the written:

Příští zastávka

The stop for the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University is the Malostranská stop,

just across the river from the building.

After morning workshop and lunch, I crossed the street to catch the bus 133

that ran to Náměstí Republiky near the building where my afternoon literature seminar was held.

I rarely took the metro, which completely lacked the sexy “Příští zastávka” announcement, instead saying the Czech equivalent of “Next Station.” The steep escalators

and fluorescent lit waiting areas

were less appealing than the above-ground tram, but sometimes I did take them to get farther out: to the Prague Zoo or Vyšehrad.

On my last day in Prague, the taxi driver dropped me at the wrong station, and I had to navigate to the other station on the metro. While waiting for the train a couple spoke from across the tracks—they arrived at the station together, but were going in opposite directions (she’s the one in red, he’s the one in short pants—a popular fashion for men in Prague).

The couple’s back and forth exchange emblemized my experience of Prague—plans went awry, meetings were missed, and attempts to communicate often ended with both people confused and tumbling away from each other at high speeds.