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