Prague, Prag, Praha

September 20, 2009

It is rare that family members happen to be in Europe, just a few hours drive away.  When it happens, especially if one of the family members is your Grandmother who will be 90 this year, you go and meet them.

Thus, I found myself on a quick weekend jet set to Prague.  I got a ride with a Russian woman, who I got in contact with over a rideshare website, and her 11-year-old son.  Her German was even worse than mine, but it didn’t stop her from using what little she knew.  Her son was not impressed with her lack of German skills (he speaks Russian, Czech, German and some English), but I was happy to finally have a conversation where I understood every single word.  She worked for a travel agency, so told me all about the sites we passed along the way, including folklore about Prague as we arrived.  She taught me a few words in Czech (she lived in Prague for nine years), which I promptly forgot or couldn’t pronounce anyway.  It was a bit overwhelming to be in a city where I didn’t understand one iota of the language being spoken around me.  They have all sorts of accents (´, `, ˆ, ˚), so I couldn’t have even pronounced words I saw on buildings, street signs, etc.  But I had a blast nonetheless.

I was left off in the main town square, swarming with tourists, and my russian driver pointed in some general direction of an alleged metro.  I spent about an hour looking for the metro station and a bank to withdraw my first crowns and was finally directed to both (right next to each other) by a woman sitting in a “guided tour” booth.  I got on two wrong trains before figuring out that I was actually right on the tram line I needed to be on, so left the station and crossed the city above ground.  I had a low-key night, knowing I wanted to get up early to do some sightseeing before meeting up with my Grandmother, aunt and uncle, who were coming off a two week boat trip on the Danube (Donau) River.

The next day, before I was scheduled to meet my family, I visited the Museum of Communism.  It was surreal: the museum is in the same building as a casino and right next to a giant McDonald’s.  Quite the juxtaposition, as you might imagine.  They made a lot of fun of themselves, but the display itself was pretty serious, despite the miserable English translations.

The experience of so-called Communism in each country in the Eastern bloc was slightly different and yet creepily, uniformly the same.  They had to create a party that (seemed to) apply to their own culture and history, while still hanging red flags everywhere, putting hammers and sickles on everything, and making working people overproduce to prop up a suffering Eastern economy with talk of workers’ valor and  medals to reward merit and hard work.

The Czechoslovakians also apparently built the biggest monument to Stalin ever constructed, didn’t finish it until after he died, and then destroyed it out of embarrassment seven years later.  It was just over 50 feet tall and 72 feet long.  It was the largest group statue in Europe.  It was mammoth!  It was located in a park that overlooks the city, and they have put a metronome in its place that you can see from the city streets.  Oh, what it must have been like to glance up at the hills and see giant Stalin scowling down at you in all of his socialist realist glory!  From what I understand, the statue is regarded as one of the best examples of the ridiculous reaches of Soviet statue-dom.  See the wikipedia page for photos.

But the best part of the exhibit was an awkward documentary about so-called Communism in Czechoslovakia.  It showed incredibly powerful footage of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, when millions of people came out in the streets of Prague to protest the government, and were eventually successful in overthrowing it.  They faced fire hoses and secret police, planted in the crowd to pick out protesters and beat them up before arresting them.  But they knew they had no other choice than face such risks.  They congregated in Wenceslas Square and heard speeches by future government leaders about how to change the system that had oppressed them for so long.

I later met up with my family members and we enjoyed delicious food and wonderful sightseeing over the course of the next few days.  The Charles Bridge, Prague Castle, and a special tour of the Estates Theater, where Mozart directed the world premiere of Don Giovanni.  An ancient man, who turned out to be a former conductor at the theater, gave us a tour and played a few tunes on the piano.

I had heard mixed reviews of Prague.  Some people love it and think it is so charming and other people think it looks like Disneyland and has just about as many Americans.  Its true, there were a lot of tourists.  And tourist season is pretty much over, so I can only imagine what it was like earlier in the summer.  But it is lovely and the architecture is truly amazing.  It is one of the few major cities that wasn’t flattened during World War Two, so the original buildings, dating back centuries, have survived.  Also, there are several important works of Art Nouveau architecture, including one of the only Art Nouveau bridges, in the city.  I didn’t really think about bombing as a factor in Prague’s charm until I got there and learned a bit of the history.  It really struck and I was amazed at the ornate building decoration and the narrow cobblestone alleyways.  So if you can look past the Americans squinting at guidebooks and the guys asking you if you want to go on a bar crawl and the overload of Franz Kafka paraphernalia (he lived there for a while apparently and is now impossible to avoid as an adopted icon) and the tourist shops selling kitsch of unimaginable proportions, then you will find that historical beauty that makes Prague special.



  1. “It is rare that family members happen to be in Europe…”


    Your cousin

    P.S. Come visit Ireland sometime! And we promise we’ll get to Germany in 2010, so don’t go nowhere.

  2. Hmm.. A little Continental chauvinism?

    Great post. Myles closest male friend at school, Roman Hlatky, grew up in Prague. Another close friend grew up in Slovakia. I think Myles will get a big kick out of the descriptions of Prague’s attractions. (And he’s got time to read them, since he came down with the flu yeterday — quite possibly H1N1, although no one here seemes worried, since it appears to be milder than the seasonal flu, which is also hit here in force last week.

    But then people here don’t seem to get excited about much. WE, on the other hand, got quite excited about the newly dead, 18″ Coral snake on our sidewalk yesterday, since they are the most poisonous snake in North American. Neighbors had a ho-hum attitude, pointing out that these are very reclusive and non-confrontational snakes. (Probably a cat or bird had killed this one.) Isn’t it fun to live in a foreign culture?

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