Thursday, September 23, 2010

Kafka and the Hot Air Balloon

Cindy and I had seen the balloon bobbing over the Charles Bridge and wondered what lunatics thought that being suspended over the Vltava was a good idea. And then, after a long wander through the Prague castle, trying to avoid swarms of tourists, we decided to take a ride. Maybe just to be able to see Prague for once without having to look over the shoulder of some beer-guzzling Brit or American:

To kill time while we waited for our turn, we went to the Kafka museum, an over-the-top festival of alienation and despair made up of giant file cabinets and dark echo-y sounds.

The high school photo of Kafka looked like an ex-boyfriend, a staunch atheist and mathematician with Eastern European features, though his family was Italian, he would be right at home in Prague and now I had proof. Young Kafka was his mini-doppelganger.

The room with the file cabinets reminded me of a safety video I had to watch when I worked at the Yale Law School in the Library. In the film, there is a dramatic reenactment of someone tripping over an open file cabinet to show the dangers of leaving file cabinet drawers open in an office. In these rooms, there were drawers permanently stuck open with glass on top and letters or photographs underneath. Some of the letters complained about working in an office. Others talked about his life as an artist. I never knew that Kafka drew. Here are his views on art school:

“I was, in another time, a great sketch artist, but I learned to draw in a scholastic system, under the direction of a mediocre woman painter, causing the loss of all my talent.”

Here is the blurb that the museum wrote about Kafka’s drawings. It gives you the sense of how understated the museum descriptions were:

“It is a tribute to the daily descent of Kafka’s soul into the abyss of the blank page.”

One room showed a black and white film of a shadowy figure cast onto the white walls as a depiction of Kafka’s The Castle, a novel about a man who arrives in a village to take up a job for which he is no longer needed.

My favorite Kafka quote was from a letter to Felice on his readings of Chinese art and philosophy:

“Deep down I am Chinese,” he wrote, “and I am going home.”

The Kafka museum ended up being a good primer for our ride in the hot air balloon. The balloon operator strapped us into sling-like seats that attached to the giant white balloon. It was more like bungee jumping than a real hot air balloon since we were suspended by wires instead of riding in a basket. He showed us the little radio walky-talky and the button we could press if we wanted to come down early.

Once we rose to the farthest point from the ground, the wind picked up and swayed us back and forth between the Charles Bridge,

and the buildings on the shore where I could see the giant K from the Kafka Museum:

At times it seemed like we would sweep so far over the buildings our feet might touch the roofs. When we swayed back over the Vltava, I clenched the wire grips.

Cindy and I agreed that we’d had enough so we pressed the button but got no response. A few minutes later a scratchy voice came over the speaker babbling in Czech.

I tried the button again. Nothing. By now, mildly petrified, Cindy and I tried to distract ourselves by snapping more photos. This worked, and reduced the Kafka-esque sense of impending doom.

After we gave up and resigned ourselves to a night suspended by wire over the Vltava, we noticed that we were closer to the buildings than before. The giant “K” outside the Kafka museum was getting bigger. Slowly, the man at the other end of the wire had started to lower the balloon.

A wave of relief filled me. As soon as we reached the ground, we forgot our white-knuckle Kafka experience of being tossed around by the wind and remembered only the exhileration of being lifted off the ground.