My left heel hasn’t been right since I tripped down the steps in the Bahnhof on the way to a beer festival a couple weeks ago, the traditional Bavarian Trachten shoes a half-size too big, making it that much harder to wear lederhosen in broad daylight and act natural about it, like walking around in a toga sober. We arrive in Prague after five hours on the Autobahn hungry but determined to get out by foot and explore the city, reminding ourselves we’ve lived in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia — we’re city people, still young.
And I remember my grandfather now because I feel like him in the small movements I make, double-checking my pockets to remind myself what’s there: the backup stash of euros buttoned in a back pocket, 4,000 Czech crowns in a front pocket, the hotel key and a photocopy of common Czech expressions in the other, my notepad in the fourth where it always goes, has now worn a hole through the denim.
And with us being in a new, foreign country for the first time that feels really foreign and it getting dark, I wonder if it’s OK, this “up and coming” neighbourhood called Žižkov, heading in what should be a northwest direction toward Old Town, everything covered in graffiti and the street names, all of the signs so very Russian to us, a cold war vibe, the names mainly consonants, accent marks that mean nothing to our Western brains, we can’t get a hold of the pronunciations and just slip right off. I try to say thanks in Czech (‘Děkuji’) but never get it right no matter how many times I try, like a cat flicking its wrist to get something off I can’t get it to come out, it just sticks.
But we tell ourselves despite the graffiti it’s safe: where we live in the States, graffiti signals a lawlessness, a sense of chaos and unrest, whereas here they just let it go.
We mark the spot by the astronomical clock where they beheaded 27 Czech noblemen in some dispute over the church, our guide tells us they hanged a couple others from the Charles bridge and let the bodies there for about 10 years — and then we learn where the word defenestration comes from, literally out or away from (de-) the window (fenestra), and we pause outside the Prague castle to look at what used to be a moat, where a couple governors and their secretary were thrown into the excrement and humiliated such that it prompted the Thirty Years War, and a new expression.
But after a day or so, we settle in to the Žižkov neighbourhood, discover just off the main drag the side streets are peppered with taverns, cafes, and grocery stores that remind me of New York, where you can get a decent bottle of wine for the same price as a Starbucks, or chocolates and lollypops made with real cannabis, since the city has decriminalised recreational marijuana — and it seems the same with absinthe, advertised with decals in many of the storefront windows in the tourist areas, which gives it an Amsterdam feel.
All the homes are fanned out, staggered in alternating pastels like macarons in a pastry case — the colours from a UNESCO approved paint palette of pistachio green, pale pink, soft orange, lemon chiffon, some browns and lavender — the backsides overlooking the courtyards scabrous from the peeling paint, what looks like a hardened veneer from 41 years of Communist rule, ending with the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
And it’s not just wild boar and baked pork knee on the menus: one night we’re able to get a carrot soup with mascarpone and toasted pumpkin seeds, a beet salad with caramelised goat cheese that looks like they put a torch over it — and everywhere, great, cheap Czech beer.
On our last night, Dawn and I buy tickets for a classical music concert in the old part of town, and settle into a 200 seat auditorium for an hour-long programme of Strauss and Dvořák, with ballet and a female opera singer.
At the end of it we’re restored from the stimulation of the city, and I take a moment alone in the auditorium with a large painting depicting figures on horseback with swords drawn, beating back Death with a torch; he’s just bones inside a robe with his head thrown back and mouth empty to the sky — and we catch the subway, the yellow line in the opposite direction home, toward Černý Most.