Of Things Unseen


Here in Prague, I didn’t get to see a few things.

I wanted to visit Terezine again; the museum which was a Jewish Ghetto in which the subject of my reading, Arnost Lustig, had been interned as a teen. It is an hour north of the city by bus, and I simply didn’t plan on it.

Also, I wanted to see the ballet. I’m not a big ballet fan, to be sure, but I am a music fan, and one of my favorite pieces, Swan Lake, is playing at the theater here, but I opted on a symphony at Dvorák Hall. I’m not complaining; there simply isn’t enough time to do the things you want to do once you find them, as Jim Croce pointed out.

Then there are the things I didn’t get to see because they can no longer be seen. For years when I came here, statues of Golem were everywhere. Golem is a mythical character in Prague Jewish folklore, and it is a long story but the cultural result was statues everywhere–in front of bars, restaurants, and for sale in small form in shops throughout the city. The history of the character goes back to the Talmud, which mentions a man-like creature created by rabbis to use as a servant. Up until recently you couldn’t take a picture without finding one in the frame. I even have a photo of William Hurt standing next to one from my first trip in 2000. They’re all gone. It seems commercialism created a battle over who owns the rights to use the image, and Old Golem has gone into hiding, except for one in the Jewish Quarter.

Worst of all the things I didn’t see is my tea room at Nerudova 19. This quaint shop had seven tables, soft music, a wide variety of herbal teas, amazing strudel, and inspiration. It had been there for decades and decades. Milos Foreman shot several scenes from Amadeus inside. I used to go there every single night on every one of my trips and order a pot of Irish Creme or Apple spice tea and, sometimes–often–strudel. I wrote the draft of Penance over the course of eight evenings at a table near the window, and it was my safe place. No matter how well you know a place, it is nice to have somewhere familiar–a tea room, a pub, a small shop–to go to so you can regroup, get centered to face another plethora new experiences. In Prague, Nerudova 19 was that place for me. It is an ice cream shop now. I asked the owner what happened and he shrugged and said, “Same thing happening everywhere. Technology. People like you used to come here to do work but you always ordered more food, more tea. You understood it wasn’t a rest area. In the last few years people came with laptops for the wireless and order only one cup of tea and sit for hours and hours. I had no turnover. I started asking people to leave after thirty minutes if they didn’t order more, but then word spread you couldn’t spend time here unless you bought something and they all went to Starbucks. So, ice cream. You’re welcome to stay at a table as long as you like you know!” He still has a copy of Penance near the register. I bought a double-size cone of ice cream and left.

The excitement that was Prague during the Havel presidency is gone; the folk scene is tucked away past the university instead of along the banks of Kampa Island. Even the guitar player near the Lennon mural didn’t know the words to “A Day in the Life.’ So sad.

Things change; I get that, and so much here is the same, the deep art culture, the thriving literary scene amongst all age groups, mulled wine, beers at the Golden Tiger, and apple strudel. And music, which pulsates beneath the streets of Prague and moves through her people like plasma, as if the Velvet Revolution was personified and moves about the city as a shadow, like a new mythical creature, hiding–yes, but present just the same, making everyone move through the streets with some unknown energy.



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