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A Sentimental Journey to Prague
updated: Dec 26, 2009, 9:50 AM
By John McCafferty (aka McSeas)
Our visit to Prague was a sad one. Our dear friend, Milan Horak, a retired chemistry professor at Charles University there, died two weeks before we arrived. His daughter, Stepanka, emailed us the news while we were communicating with her about lodging in Prague, and the news was crushing. We had loved that old guy, and had brought him about $20 worth of amusing American stamps, which he used to bargain in adding to the expensive and rare stamps he collected from around the world. Somehow, those stamps made me sadder.
Tourists flock to Prague's medieval
While teaching in Prague in 1992-93, we had lived in the downstairs portion of Milan and Ruzhena's lovely home in the suburbs, where they and many friends had built imaginatively designed and attractive homes during the bad time of Soviet domination. The neighborhood, on a hill not far from Prague Castle, was a monument to free spirits and creativity.
We knew the address of the house, but didn't think we'd need a map. We were sort of right about that, but the city seemed to be somehow different from our stay there years ago. It seemed bigger to the point of vast, and it was shockingly crowded -- and a little dustier. The towering, centuries-old buildings downtown hadn't changed, of course, maybe been spruced up a bit, but - they looked different. It was probably we who were different. You can't go home again. You can, of course, but it will be somehow different.
Our internal navigating systems worked. We got off the train, and took a tram to the stop nearest the Horaks' neighborhood, and walked to a bus stop behind the tram stop. Sat there for a few minutes contemplating a popular bar, which still advertised that world-class beer, Gambrinus. It had been one of my favorite downtown stops until winter, when the windows were closed and cigarette smoke became intolerable.
Then we took a bus up the hill and past the soccer stadium, where we had watched police beating up drunken fans from Brno, got off at an intersection that had a nice pub on the left and a grocery store on the right. We were nearly there! Now: Where was Stareho Street? There were several streets leading off from the corner where the store was.
I asked three people: one didn't know, one didn't speak English, and one said she was a tourist as well.
"But," I told Sharon, "my subconscious is leaning toward that street on the right, and then up the hill, bearing to the left."
My subconscious was right. Ruzhena's other daughter, Anna, answered the door, after quieting a dog that hadn't been there in '93, and soon there were hugs, smiles and tears at seeing Ruzhena again. She was smaller than I remembered, but otherwise looked the same, a little muffin of a woman who liked to sit by the window and sew while she listened to music, mostly Handel and Mozart.
We didn't stay long. Suddenly I felt sad and weepy (I cry easily) that Milan was gone. There didn't seem to be too much to say, especially since Ruzhena spoke hardly any English and we spoke no Czech. She did speak German, but my college German was rather limited. She had slowed down, of course, this being 16 years later and she having reached about 85 years.
She showed us an album with photos from Milan's funeral, and the tears really flowed. Ruzhena looked at me curiously, as if she hadn't realized how much Milan had meant to us as our friendship grew, through our correspondence, along with our understanding of what was then Czechoslovakia (Slovakia split off Jan. 1, 1993, while we were there). It was time to go.
Out on the porch, the goodbyes were lengthy and I got weepy again. I'd never had this teary experience and didn't understand it. Still don't.
Finally, we walked away. Then I felt similar to how I'd felt at another friend's funeral -- something like accepting and purged of sadness, but still with a quiet feeling of loss.
We walked around the oldest part of the Old Town, and once again marveled at the crowds, even out on the Charles Bridge over the Vltava (pronounced Vltava) River. We had a Czech lunch of knedliki dumplings, and noted that the restaurants were more abundant than in '93, and everything else seemed more sophisticated too. Again, time and a gazillion tourists were passing.
We admired the towering buildings and, shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, took the obligatory photos of medieval rooftops. Fortunately for us all, Prague was spared the ravages of World War II, unlike Dresden, Germany, about 100 miles north, which was firebombed into rubble.
Somehow, we didn't feel like touristing there anymore. "Let's go to Poland", one of us said, and the other agreed, thinking the same thing. Prague wasn't "ours" anymore. We were just passing through. Our tie there, Milan, was gone.
We trammed to the train station, bought good seats for the next day's trip to Krakow, and I was pick pocketed in the crowded tram car back to the hotel, fortunately losing only about $25 and my driver's license. I had gotten careless, and hadn't bothered with the usual money belt under my shirt. We never even thought of pickpockets there before. They were yet another change in grand old Prague -- which seemed a little less grand to us now, just bigger, dustier and less friendly.
We felt the need to return again someday, and enjoy ourselves playing tourist.
Wenceslas has to be one of the world's great squares.
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