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.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Eloise at the Eastern Bloc Plaza

The Hotel Pyramida looked like a giant cruise ship gone ashore on the side of a hill in Prague 6.

The pyramid-shaped monstrosity also looked like the love child of a bad conference hotel and a casino. This was my home for the month of July.

I felt like Eloise at the Eastern Bloc Plaza: riding up and down the elevators, calling the front desk at all hours with requests, and visiting the hotel restaurant for late-night snacks. Only the elevators were rattley steel-and-mirror death traps. The front desk rarely granted or solved my request. And the hotel restaurant had menu items like “Beef Goulash from the Military Kitchen of Archduke Leopold with bacon-flavored dumplings.”

My room had ugly blue carpet, yellow-painted walls, faux-wood furniture marked with barcodes, a plastic-bound bible translated into four languages, and bedspreads that looked like fabric from a tea cosy.

Still, after my experience in Trieste at the Hotel Filoxenia, I’d set some basic standards for hotels and the Hotel Pyramida met all of these: clean, some view of the city, soap in the bathroom, free wireless, and a good location with easy access to public transport.

Here was the view from my window.

The hotel piped pop music into the lobby and breakfast room, so that while piling my plate with sausages, crepes, and potatoes, I heard:

Sara Bareilles - Love Song

Or…one of their favorites, played over and over though it was on the charts over a decade ago:

Suzanne Vega - Luka

With the Kafka café on the first floor—decorated on the wall by a black and white scene of Prague in which Kafka’s effigy was larger than most of the buildings—the hotel seemed to be making fun of itself, but the expressions on the women and men at reception were dead serious.

It might take six people to get one extra towel (reception consulted with the concierge who talked to the manager who called housekeeping who contacted the individual housekeepers who dispatched the task back to reception, who ferried the towel upstairs) or three people for a single Becherovka and tonic (a signature drink), but this was all in the service of a more authentic experience.

As Eloise at the Eastern Bloc Plaza, I was given the non-royal treatment all month long. The staff went out of their way to make me feel like one of the masses, part of the proletariat, a flea on the butt of a stoic black dog riding the 22 tram.

As long as I stayed there, they made sure that I was inconvenienced, uncomfortable, and impatient as much as possible. Welcome to the Hotel Pyramida.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Premysl: Not a Diaper Rash Ointment (though it sounds like one)

Crossing over into Southern Bohemia, the landscape flattened and houses spread out. At one station, a man boarded the train, paced up and down the car, and poked his head through my “do not disturb” curtain. So tall he had to duck even in the train corridor and with his small green backpack, plaid short-sleeved shirt and glasses, he looked like an oversized schoolboy lost on his way to kindergarten. He said something in Czech and gestured to the empty seats (there were five free in my compartment—the body odor-afflicted man had taken up two, but now he was gone). This man looked like he had showered at least once in his lifetime, so I nodded and smiled hoping he hadn’t asked if he could rip the seats out and use them as projectiles.

He took off his backpack and waved through the window to an older woman on the train platform. She waved back, peering though the window at the compartment he’d chosen. I wondered if I should wave too, maybe lean out and tell her that her son would be fine, that we would have recess and naps in the afternoon. She had a look somewhere between fear and resignation as if she still hadn’t quite gotten used to saying goodbye. Though the mid-summer air in Southern Bohemia was mild, she crossed her arms and hugged herself as if trying to warm up.

He settled in opposite me and took out a book on political science (though the title was in Czech, I guessed the topic from a few of the words and pictures—of course he could have been reading about Latvian home decorating tips and I wouldn’t have known for sure). The train continued on and we left his mother behind on the platform. Bye, mom!

I wondered if I should try out the tips from CultureGrams Czech Republic, maybe thrust out my hand and chant my last name along with a formal greeting. Luckily, I refrained. A few stops later, a loud noise came from the next compartment. My compartment-mate and I exchanged puzzled looks, and then he said something in Czech.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t speak Czech.”

He shifted into English without blinking and we wondered out loud about what was going on in the next compartment. We talked for a while before exchanging names. His was Premysl—not a common named in the CR, but it was linked to the history of Prague. Premysl. Sounded like a diaper rash ointment, but his name could have been “Herbert” and I would have been equally enchanted. He looked like he often got his limbs mixed up and tied up pretzel-style just walking down the street. Pasty pale skin, completely unstylish wire-framed glasses, and a stutter that came out when he spoke too quickly. A complete nerd from head to toe. Ah, Premysl.

We talked nonstop until Prague. He was part of the Ministry of the Environment and spoke eloquently about how environmentally friendly practices were the only sustainable and economically viable option for governments in the long run. Sigh. I told him I was from New York and he lit up.

“I’ve been there six times!” he said, as if this were the most remarkable, impossible coincidence. We talked about his experiences in New York—he’d only been in Manhattan and spent most of his time there at the UN building. He told me about the UN meetings on environmental issues, how they took place in a windowless air-conditioned basement room with no hint of natural light. When the meetings took place in Prague, they took the delegates to city gardens and spots outside of the center. In New York they shuffled out of the dark basement only after the meetings were over.

Sometimes, meeting someone, you just click. Even if it’s not a romantic connection, the conversation flows from the first word. Though we were speaking with his second language (or fourth, since he also knew Russian and German—I felt woefully lacking with my schoolgirl French, conversation Italian, and hopefully adequate English), we didn’t reach for things to say or have awkward pauses. We didn’t talk about the weather once.

There’s a Josh Radin song, “Today,” that he wrote about a chance meeting on a train. The song fits the scene, though they didn’t play it on the train. Here he performs it live and tells the story behind the song:

"Today" performed live by Josh Radin

Premysl had also been on vacation in California where he drove on freeways and went whale-watching. This made me think of the Margaret Cho stand-up piece “Lesbians Love Whale-Watching,” but I didn’t share this with him.

Once we entered Prague, the train went underground. I’d had a romantic vision of seeing the Vltava river for the first time from the train, winding into the city on tracks above ground. No. My first view was the pitch black inside of the tunnel. And then the station: noisy, overcrowded, and fluorescent lit.

As we neared the stop, Premysl went over in great detail how to say “How much to go to the Hotel Pyramida, Belahorska 25?” in Czech. He wrote it out phonetically and went over price possibilities and what would be reasonable. But when we arrived, and I piled on my backpack and various handbags, he stepped in.

“Let me carry something,” he said and took a bag, not even cracking a smile at the sight of me piled from head to toe with luggage. We walked through the station and he helped me negotiate exchanging money and after an extensive consult with two Czech policemen (tall, burly blonde men who looked like Arnold Schwartzenegger without the tan-in-a-can) , we proceeded to the taxi area where he found me a taxi to the hotel for 400 Czech crowns (roughly $20). Ah, Premysl.

We hugged good-bye and he gave me his number “in case anything happened” during my stay and I needed help. He also aired the idea that we could meet for coffee, though I was too sweaty and exhausted to consider the idea. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I said, and was soon speeding over bridges and back roads, the city zipping by, possibly being kidnapped to some far off corner of Prague where I would be dropped into a work camp, left to chant my name and say formal greetings for the rest of my life among strangers in a language I didn’t know.

When the Hotel Pyramida appeared in all its glass and concrete fascist-architect-remnant pyramidal splendor, I exhaled. It existed. And despite knowing exactly zero words in Czech, I’d arrived (I did know “Ahoj”—pronounced “Ahoy” from letters sent from the Prague Writing Program office—and “Dobry Den” from the CultureGrams hand out, but that was all). When Premysl and I practiced the one Czech phrase on the train, “How much to go to the…”, I’d forgotten a key detail: even if I had managed to say the words, I wouldn’t have understood the response. So luckily, Premysl Stepanik, member of the Czech Ministry of the Environment and ambassador of the Southern Bohemian overgrown Kindergartner set, helped me arrive at my destination.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Czech Culture 101

In one town, a man with offensive body odor joined my train compartment. He took off his shoes and rested his feet on the seat across the way. I did the same, but I had showered in the past ten years. I was about to explore other seat options when he disembarked somewhere at the edge of Austria and the Czech Republic (woo-hoo!).

I pulled the curtain across to signify “do not disturb,” and went back to reading the primer on Czech culture I’d been given by the Travel Clinic at Yale before I left. This 4-page summary “CultureGrams Czech Republic" a.k.a. "Czech Republic in a Nutshell” included overviews of population (10.2 million), language (Czech), and religion (atheist, mostly). I also learned that I might not be too popular coming from the US as we’d recently built part of a missile defense shield near Prague (Thanks, US gov!).

The primer instructed me that when I met a stranger in the Czech Republic, I should shake hands firmly and say my last name, followed by a verbal greeting, such as Dobry Den (Good day). E.g.: “Bryant! Dobry Den.”

If invited to a home for dinner, I should bring an odd number of flowers for the hostess, but not chrysanthemums as those were used in funeral arrangements. Wine and chocolates were another alternative (Thanks, “CultureGrams,” couldn’t have thought of that one myself).

The guide also told me that “Few Czech men cook” and “When a baby is born, the mother and child receive flowers and presents, while the father often goes out to drink with his friends.” Hmmmm….when was this written?

After learning that “polkas and waltzes are popular folk dances” and the rare factoid that “daily newspapers are widely read, as is an abundance of other printed media,” I felt ready to face the people of the Czech Republic.

Ljubljana to Salzburg

In the Ljubljana train station, there were rejects from 80s hair bands milling around among the early morning travelers. Also, fashion accidents like the one below (notice the MC Hammer-esque white pants on the guy).

I locked my luggage in one of the lockers and spent the hour before my train’s departure wandering the streets near the train station, saying goodbye to the Hostel Celica and the playful graffiti.

I boarded the train with plenty of time to spare and found a spacious cushy seat in business class for only 15 euros extra. The train conductor stopped in to check on me now and then. He looked like a farm hand from my imaginary Slovenian winery: olive skin, blue eyes, brown buzz cut. He stopped by over and again before finally asking where I was from.

“America,” I said. “New York.” This was mostly true—for the last two years I’d been pretending that New Haven was an outer borough of New York. The Upper Upper Upper Bronx.

He said he could tell that I wasn’t from this continent. “Too beautiful,” he said, a line that surely echoed up the train as he moved from car to car. Still, he looked at me like I was an exotic creature from the mythical land of Atlantis. We exhausted the possible conversation topics with his limited English vocabulary (and my nearly nonexistent Slovenian vocab—how many times could I say “Hvala Lepa”?), and I went back to reading and watching the landscape pass outside the window.

Close to the Slovenian/Austrian border, the conductors switched and an Austrian woman with stiff cropped platinum hair came on. She did not shower me with complements or sidle up to my car and blink her wide blue eyes. She marched into my car and looked with disapproval at the state of upkeep. An empty water bottle leaned against one seat and the cloth covers from the headrests had fallen off. She replaced the cloth covers and plucked the water bottle away with an Austrian version of “hmph!”

In Austria, the views through the train window grew more dramatic.

We passed by towns nested between mountain peaks

and sheltered under wisps of clouds.

In Salzburg, I switched trains and the new train had smaller seats and more cramped quarters. Still, I found a compartment to myself and settled in. The mountains gave way to hills, but the green and the clouds stayed as the train continued on.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Train from Divača

The next morning, I had to leave Slovenia but didn't want to go. I woke up at five in the morning (a time that doesn’t even register on my clock) and darling Wendy woke up too.

Somehow I managed to pile everything back into the red backpack and again I looked like a pack mule. Along with all I brought, I now had a stack of books by Slovenian writers and six days full of poems, visits with Mao, near-death experiences in the white van, and a fish dinner that looked more like a pet than a meal. The bag felt heavier, but in a good way.

I heaved the bag into the blue van, a little sad that it wasn't the white van or the yellow van but fitting since I arrived at Vnck in a blue car. Kelly, fearless leader, managed to drive and stay awake without fifty cups of coffee in her. On the drive we talked about Prague and what lay ahead. I thought about what I would be missing: Laurie’s lecture and Mark’s, Domenic’s reading, Nick’s graduating reading and the mini-graduation ceremony, workshopping Nick’s poems, riding in the white van. The orientation for Prague would be on Sunday and it was an all-day trip to get there from Slovenia. Even starting out at 6:07 a.m. in Divača, I wouldn’t reach Prague until 8:11 p.m.

Ticketless and half-asleep, I landed at the Divača train station. Two people who looked equally lost, those less laden with baggage, crossed the tracks to the far side so I figured that had to be the arrival track. There were no announcements, no signs showing departures or arrivals. The clock on the platform showed I’d arrived a few minutes early

I waited and watched for the train

At some point a train official stumbled out of the train building, though he looked no more informed than I was. He straightened his stiff conductor’s cap and looked around the station, apparently saw that all was in order, and returned to his hiding place.

All of the trains in the station were sleeping.

The train station looked plucked out of Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Watched Trains, a book I read long before I thought about going to Prague. The book had special meaning for me since a friend and I found it in the St. Mark’s bookshop after a long time looking.

St Marks Bookshop

In Britain, the title translated as “Closely Observed Trains,” and here is the movie poster, though I never saw the film:

I felt like an extra on the set of Bohumil Hrabal’s imagination as I waited for the train. When it arrived, I climbed into the car with everything in tow and promptly fell asleep, waking only to buy a ticket and disembark in Ljubljana.

Luckily, the train terminated in Ljubljana. Otherwise, I would have slept all day. I tumbled out of the train, disoriented, but awake enough to buy a ticket to Prague.

The Yellow Van

On the way back to the parking lot, Nick and I found our dream vehicle. Part Herbie-the-love-bug, part yellow-submarine, the Yellow Van winked at us from across the road and we knew it was ours.

The small details—keys, ownership, a Slovenian or international drivers’ license—didn’t matter. We would leave behind the white van and the caravan and hit the road in our getaway van.

This plan lasted for about ten minutes, along with the sheep farm/winery/dance group idea, until we had to go. Nick gave up his spot in the white van so I could have one more turn as co-pilot before I left in the morning for Prague.

The Sea Creatures of Piran

Now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Nick in a bathing suit!

Iztok took us to the Slovenian coastal town of Piran and left us to fend for ourselves among the boats and sea creatures.

We knew about poisonous sea urchins on the coastal floor, so we decided to spend the afternoon swimming. Actually, the well prepared among us had water shoes. I had flip-flops. Still, after dipping my feet in the Adriatic in Koper, I was determined to swim. Also, the heat of the unchecked sun would have inspired anyone to go in the water.

From the main square, there are two options: wander further into town or go to the beach.

We headed to the coast

Where bright-colored buildings line the shore

along with stone buildings that rose up out of the rocks like sand castles.

The beaches in Piran are not fine sand beaches running for miles—they are rocky coves where people toss towels aside and dive into the water. Most lounging takes place on the stone boardwalk where people set up lounge chairs between the large rocks. Or used the rocks as lounge chairs like I did.

Wendy and I wanted to find a spot not overrun with people and picnics and kids. So we continued up the coast, walking until there was no more beach, until we were wading through the water, not sure of where we would end up.

Domenic was along for the adventure, though I don’t think he bargained for knee-deep water in transit or what we found around the corner.

It was a nude beach. Though sparsely populated, most everyone there was naked. But it wasn’t some Bo Derek scene from “10” with lithe Gazelle-like models loping across the rocks. Pale straggly figures balanced on rocks and most stayed in the water. Smack in the center of the beach sat a pair who could have been a walking advertisement against nude beaches.

With some discussion and voting, the rest of the beach would have either evicted them or thrown a blanket or tent over them. Both were burnt bright red and had amorphous bodies with Mr. Potato-Head-style mismatched parts. It was not pretty. But the point of such beaches is not a parade of Michelangelo perfection. So we focused on the goal at hand: swimming.

Bathing suits on, we ventured toward the water, more concerned about the sea urchins than our exhibitionist neighbors. I kept my flip-flops on initially, but soon they started to drag with the current so I tossed them back to shore. If I set my toes down, I might get a sting, so I stayed afloat, swimming around. The water felt silky and cool. Without the sea creatures, I would have been in heaven.

Eventually I got tired and went back to shore, sampled the topless option since I figured I wouldn’t have this chance in the States without having to go to some new age professional nudist camp where people spend a lot of time making focused eye contact and talking about freedom.

Then—why not—I went for the buck. It felt a bit strange, like I was in one of those dreams where your clothes are off and you’re in study hall trying to find a Biology book large enough to provide some cover. I only lasted a few minutes and no one else on the beach so much as blinked in my direction. Anti-climactic overall. Back in my bathing suit, I felt cozy and clothed. Back in my cover-up dress, I felt like a nun.

We headed back to the square

to find the rest of the group and go to the salt store that sold fresh salt from local salt flats. Not just your everyday Morton’s with the umbrella on the box. I bought salt chocolate (anything chocolate works for me, but the salt chocolate had a slightly bitter mineral taste that complemented the sweet perfectly).

Here is the lovely Lauren with her salt store loot:

We ate some chocolate sitting on the square

Then headed down the narrow streets

back to the seaside for dinner. Domenic went incognito with sunglasses on to ward off the mobs of fans.

At dinner, I ordered fish, not knowing that it would arrive at the table, blinking up at me:

Still, I bravely ate…

…all but the spine which I shared with Mark.

Nick tucked a flower behind his ear and I tried to snap a picture but by the time I got to it, only a few leaves were left, so it just looks like his ear had started to sprout green leaves:

As we ate, Nick and I plotted our master plan to split off from the group and start a sheep farm/winery/interpretive dance troupe near Ljubljana. We only lacked a vehicle (and some sheep, land, seeds, and dancers). We knew if we found, say, a yellow van, we would be all set, so we dreamed away as the sky darkened

and the coast turned a uniform blue and lights glowed in the water.

After dinner, we walked back toward the caravan. With Iztok gone, I would be back in the white van, co-piloting as ever.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Grožnjan: Crossing the Border to Planet Art

Iztok led the parade to Grožnjan, Croatia and this time, Wendy and I rode in his car. In the sunny back seat with jazz playing on the car stereo, I dozed off half-listening to Iztok and Wendy as they talked about music. Crossing the border in Iztok’s car took seconds—he bantered in Slovenian with the guards, made sure they stamped our passports, and sped through, leading the caravan down winding roads at the speed of a kamikaze.

When we arrived in town, Iztok gave a quick intro and let us loose.

Grožnjan is an artists’ community with narrow cobbled streets

faint strains of music

coming from open windows

galleries up staircases

and at street level

and an abundance of cats lounging in the middle of the street,

on stone benches,

and when possible, in the shade.

I stopped in a glass gallery

and found some beautiful glass jewelry. I bargained with the artist on the price and ended up with a deal of sorts. Here’s a pic of me with the artist, who was going for the just-escaped-from-prison fashion look.

The town is compact, but still I didn’t have a chance to see all the galleries

or shops

or hear all the music.

Stepping out to one side, grass-covered paths lead to a world of wildflowers and green

and rustic huts that don’t betray the secret treasures of the town.

The quickest food I found was soup at a local restaurant (when I asked what could be made in under 5 minutes, the waiter shook his head, then went into the kitchen and returned with minestrone).

Under the shade of evergreens, two Croatian writers, Natalija Grgorinic

and Ognjen Raden,

co-authors of Mr. and Mrs. Hide (and husband and wife),

gave a reading of their work and talked about collaborative writing.

Not just an experiment or detour from their usual work, Mr. and Mrs. Hide, an entirely collaborative project from idea to conception, represents Grgorinic and Raden’s pursuit and obsession. In the same spirit, they are pursuing a joint PhD at a university in the US, though they’ve returned to Croatia to work on the project while being supported by Natalija’s family.

Neither writes solo, and the result is a narrative that speeds in many directions at once, full of asides and flights of fancy. She writes the male perspective, he writes the female and they switch back and forth at whim. Instead of struggling with differences in collaboration, they see only possibilities, stretching boundaries as they write.

They co-edit a journal devoted to collaborative work, Admit 2:

Admit 2: Online Magazine

They strive for equality at all stages of collaboration, from brain-storming to editing. The act of editing itself, they pointed out, is an act of collaboration between writer and editor. The myth of the artist alone in a garret churning out work in streaks of brilliance is an image they seek to make obsolete or at the very least challenge in their work.

While presses are government-subsidized in Croatia, the pursuit of non-mainstream publishing does not yield enough revenue for big advances and sales. So the couple may be living with Natalija’s family for the foreseeable future. They are driven by artistic rather than economic goals and so this dependence doesn’t bother them in the least.

After their reading, the talk in the Grožnjan courtyard was animated and alive. The pair inspired talk about language and translation, process and theory.

“Every language is foreign,” Natalija said, a statement that rang true. Trying to put the world into words is itself an act of translation, making even English strange to a native speaker. In some ways describing the world in a foreign language is easier—you can step outside the words more than in a native tongue. After a week in Slovenia, I only grasped a handful of words but each held great meaning to me when I used them. I tossed around English like pennies but the Slovenian syllables were offered as gifts. “Thank you,” “good afternoon.” I said them, and I meant what I said.