We took an introductory walking tour of the city, learning about each castle and cathedral, and the notable people who had lived here. Mozart enjoyed his visit to Prague - his opera "The Magic Flute" had been disdained by most Viennese but was well received by the Czechs. Franz Kafka experienced a difficult life here as a German-speaking Jew; those who have read his novel "The Trial" will understand its genesis in the tortured paths and many dead-ends of the old city. Famous composers Dvorak and Smetana lived here; we celebrated their creativity by attending a concert of their work. Below is a beautiful old Jewish temple in Prague.
In contrast to
36% of the new enrollees on the unemployment lists are recent graduates - young people who have gotten themselves educated, but have nowhere to use their energy and talents. Many of the Czech people seemed dour and unfriendly, and spoke little English. Fortunately, others were cheerful and helpful, and spoke heavily accented but quite good English.
Everything else, however, was very inexpensive. For example, a ticket on the efficient metro was only 12 Kc (35 cents) and could be used for any number of trips around town during a 60-minute period. A large mug of very good Czech beer cost only 18 Kc (60 cents.) We're talking about Budvar, the original Budweiser; on tap it's MUCH better than the American version. A huge and hearty Czech dinner - salad and a big platter of sauerkraut, beets, potatoes, dumplings, roast duckling and pig plus a stein of beer - cost under $15 for two. Woe to our waistlines!
A HOME VISIT
We arranged to have dinner with a Servas couple. We thought the plan was to meet at their apartment, and we'd take them out to a local restaurant. Accordingly, we ate a skimpy lunch on the run - an apple for Lou and a bowl of soup for Joan. We bought a spray of orchids for our hosts ($3 at the metro flower stand) and arrived in a ravenous condition. We rang the bell of a shabby apartment building and a few moments later our host opened the door and ushered us into a cobblestone courtyard. The interior of the building matched the exterior. The walls were cracked, peeling and stained with age, the mailboxes broken and rusty, and the courtyard "garden" was dank and mossy concrete surrounding a few struggling trees. We climbed two flights of stone steps in semi-darkness and then went along a narrow passage half-filled with junk. Our host ushered us in the last door, and we stepped directly into a small kitchen crowded with a tiny gas stove, an even smaller sink huddled in a corner, and - between the stove and small refrigerator - a 6" deep enamel shower pan, complete with hand-held shower head! After removing our shoes, we moved into the only other room in the apartment. Perhaps 12x15', it contained a double bed on one side, and a table and four chairs on the other. Lining the walls were bookcases, rows of record albums and a modest television set. Both rooms were impeccably neat and clean.
From our host's remarks, we estimated that the rent of this flat was only about $50-75 a month. He had made many improvements - including the shower in the kitchen. He mentioned that the communal toilet was in the courtyard - two floors below! On the plus side, besides the extremely low rent, a Czech landlord cannot easily remove a tenant. The landlord would need to provide a comparable apartment at the same rent in the surrounding neighborhood. The rent is semi-controlled, rising only 10% a year in a city that has high open market rents.
Our host, who was born in
After some 45 minutes, our host asked if we'd like coffee or tea. By this time we were faint with hunger. His wife soon arrived bearing plates with rolled up, sugared crepes. Not quite what we'd expected! These proved absolutely delicious, however, as they were filled with homemade apricot jam. After we'd exclaimed over them, she shyly asked her husband something in Czech, and he told us she wanted to fix something more for us. We heartily agreed, since he'd mentioned when we arrived that we wouldn't be going out to eat after all. Another half hour passed, and she appeared with small salad plates for each of us. On each were a mound of subtly spiced, minced, cooked cauliflower topped with strips of carrot and 3 narrow strips of lunchmeat plus 2 small wedges of tomato. These were offered with a basket of sliced bread and glasses of bottled water. Dessert followed - a red apple for each and a handful of walnuts. These were easily the tastiest apples and walnuts we've ever eaten! This was a VERY simple repast in a humble setting - yet offered with quiet dignity, real warmth and no apologies.
host spoke of watching the Russian tanks rumble into
As we left, our host commented that we seemed different from most Americans - meaning those who stay at the Sheraton or other big hotels. We cringed somewhat to think of the vast gulf separating the American standard of living from that of Central Europe, and how much we take it for granted. In some ways our host and his wife are living richer lives than many Westerners who consume and consume and still are restless and unsatisfied.
For our final Servas visit in the
Our host met us at the train station with outstretched arms. We thought he was going to weep with joy at seeing us. We might have been long-lost relatives! He spent nearly three hours driving us around the town, jumping out at each of the town's highlights to explain it in quite good English.
SKULLS AND BONES: Our first
stop was the "ossuary" - an ancient Catholic church which had a very
small cemetery next to it. So small, in fact, that a couple of hundred years
ago the cemetery was dug up to make room for fresh burials. Three major plagues
erupted in the town over the years, so this meant digging up the bones of some
40,000 people! In contemplating the huge pile of bones, some rather creative
monk began to use them to create art - of a sort. Today, you can visit the
church and, for a small fee, gape at the macabre creations.
After this eye-popping introduction to Kutna Hora, our host took us on a looping journey through the village - to see a stunning Gothic cathedral, Medieval burghers' houses, the town square, a tower and the town hall. We reached his home in time for lunch with his wife. Equally friendly, but a bit more reserved - perhaps because she spoke less English than her husband - his wife is a dentist. She sees some 20-25 patients a day in her cheerful red-and-white dental office, created by remodeling the family garage. Lunch was simple and delicious. She had picked fresh mushrooms from the fields the day before and combined these with noodles, cream and onions. This was accompanied by a dark local beer. A friend had contributed fresh Chinese cabbage from his garden for a simple salad. Dessert was spiced, poached pear slices. It was peasant's repast fit for a king! (Below, the dentist/mushroom-picker and her husband.)
"PROPAGANDA": We spent the rest of our six-hour visit with
elbows on the dining table, discussing the effects of the change from communism
to capitalistic democracy. Our hosts say it is wonderful to be able to travel,
speak and read freely - but that the average person is worse off economically.
The unemployment rate is very high and there is great uncertainty about the
future. When the Czechs broke away from the
We had fun trying to communicate with the Czechs, many of whom speak some German - but few of whom speak any English. When we tried to buy some shampoo in a rather elegant parfumerie, Lou decided to get exactly the right kind. (Joan would have been happy with ANYTHING, as long as it was shampoo and not shoe polish.) He persisted in trying to communicate with someone who didn't understand one word of English. Finally, Lou held up his three middle fingers, putting down first the one on the left and saying firmly "Oily. Nein!" and then putting down the one on the right and again saying "Dry, Nein!". This left him showing an obscene gesture at the poor clerk - who had no way of understanding that Lou was trying to say that we didn't want shampoo for oily hair or for dry hair, but something in between. Finally, someone else in the shop called out "normal!" and we all had a good laugh.
We had a four-day visit to
We took a day trip to the
After hiking back up the hill in the dark to the old train station, we were picked up by the "train" - a single tram car tooting toward us out of the dark. For much of the ride, the two of us passengers equaled in number the two employees - conductor and engineer - and saluted by red-capped station masters at each nearly deserted station along the way.
During our lunch in Kutna Hora, Lou had asked our host about the Czech perception of America. His answer was thought-provoking. We thought he'd be judgmental about U.S. meddling with its air power in nearby Kosovo, but he was far more concerned about the impact of Western culture. Interestingly, he compared the Soviet government's centrally-directed propaganda with the America's decentralized, market-directed "propaganda" - via film, television, brand-name goods and franchise businesses. In our American naiveté, we wouldn't have thought of labeling both political and economic pressure as "propaganda." Our friend held up his hand with fingers spread and extended in front of his face and, looking between his fingers at us said, "Sure, we Czechs will be like the Soviets"; and later, "Sure, we Czechs will be like the Americans." He seemed to be saying that this overlay of foreign ideas is a mask laid over the Czech identity, and also that it creates a prison that restricts Czechs from determining their own destiny.
Certainly, this small country with relatively meager resources has been overrun and exploited by others many times. America never has faced this in-your-face challenge to its identity. While we don't have easy answers to the problems raised, we value these open discussions about how others perceive the U.S. and their reaction to our enormous power and influence over them. We're beginning to realize how little we have looked at the world from any but our own perspective. Virtually all maps sold in America place the U.S. in the very center, as though this was the way the entire world is oriented. It was a bit shocking to come across a map in New Zealand that made America look "upside down."
After returning to Prague, we took a train
we took a train to POLAND
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOK: Central Europe (Lonely Planet)
BACKGROUND READING: The Trial by Franz Kafka
FILMS: Kolya; The Shop on Main Street
PRAGUE: Our conveniently located studio apartment was $40/night. The apartment owner's name is Jan Muller; he has several rental apts. Fax: 00420 2 225 18734 firstname.lastname@example.org
CESKE BUDEJOVICE: Penzion Centrum. Na Mlynske stoce 8. Well-located small pension with reasonable rates, including breakfast. Ph: 038 520 30
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com