Vaclav Havel was still alive, barely. I stayed briefly in a Charles University dormitory in Old Town’s Petrská quarter, and more frequently in the now defunct Gold Horse Inn on Úvoz almost below Prague Castle, finally moving to Palmovka in Prague 8’s Libeň district. At the dorm I had a lecturer’s room, slightly better than a student one. Once my successful Hamburg doctor friend, visiting Prague like a proper tourist, picked me up in her taxi and brought me to stay in Old Town’s four star Iron Gate hotel. I felt like a male Popelka.
“They don’t eat healthily,” she said, watching students at the Jinonice campus cafeteria before my guest lecture.
I wasn’t living so healthily, either, but I had fun. In spring 2011 and 2012 I descended nightly from my rooftop room at the Gold Horse to U Zavěšenýho Kafe, The Hanging Cup Café, with its mix of regulars from dissident days and foreign invaders like me. Most tourists didn’t make it quite this far up the hill, so you could establish yourself, though here I first learned how Czechs keep a distance.
“My dad is exactly like that,” one Czech student told me. “He’ll be friendly to foreigners, but he maintains his sacred little Czech world.”
It was so different from my backslapping gang at North Portland’s Mock Crest Saloon, where if you penetrated the inner circle after a few invitations you were really in.
Here I learned fast from some curt reproaches – just saying “čau” to the wrong person or joining the wrong table — that with Czechs you didn’t quickly get “in”. Once in June 2011 I joined a convivial street party at U Zavěšenýho celebrating its dissident heritage, with people spilling into Úvoz and a band playing in a garage across the street. In Portland after two hours of lingering on the fringes, smiling tentatively at people, I would have been pulled into the circle. Not here.
I was hardened to the hardness already, having lived in Bratislava during that year’s first half. There I walked daily from my flat to the Pedagogická Fakulta where I taught, smiling like a proper West Coast American at passersby. Slovak men already seemed grumpy, but these guys actually ducked away.
“They probably thought you were mentally ill,” my office mate said.
Nonetheless Slovakia had won my affection, and so I reached Prague somewhat hard-hearted. At first my misgivings were confirmed by Nerudova’s tourist mob hindering my path to work, Malá Strana’s and Staré Město‘s permanently annoyed waiters and storekeepers, even my new Bar 20 Narodní drinking friends who could turn suddenly from alcoholic warmth to an incomprehensible lashing bitterness. In Nové Město I especially disliked supercilious young Czech hipsters.
In spring 2012 I was invited back to Bratislava to join a poetry reading with three young Slovak “digital poets”. They used projected images and disassembled words, but I just read my old-fashioned melancholy free verse. I got the biggest laugh with one called “Nenávidím Prahu” – “I Detest Prague”.
At first I buried myself in Prague’s underbelly, drinking its ugliness fully. At Wenceslaus Square I studied dealers selling that awful Czech homemade meth, “piko”, until one glared like he wanted to put a knife in me. Who were their customers? They looked just a step or two behind the dealers themselves in their disconnect from emotion and empathy, except that they believed in the high that awaited, while the dealers clearly believed in nothing.
After that ominous dealer’s glare I transferred my research to the neighborhood drunks in Palmovka, where I’d moved. They were kinder. A half dozen used to hang out on the wall adjoining the Albert supermarket parking lot, four weekday ones supplemented by a weekend pair who must have had jobs. On May Day 2012 I watched them chat with a couple policemen who’d pulled up alongside while they drank, checking their citizenship cards. No tension filled the air; the cops drove off inconspicuously and the drunks scattered for Rokytky creek to resume the party.
Until 2013 I still stubbornly spoke what a Bratislava grad student had called my “kitchen Slovak”. It made me a novelty in my new drinking hole, Palmovka’s Vinárna u Hrabala, occupying 20th century writer Bohumil Hrabal’s former address. Excerpts from his writing hung on the wall. Its 10 or so regulars belonged to the last century, too, like me. Their stories and their dated jukebox gave me historical grounding. One had been a near-victim of a famous serial killer; another answered my question about what happened to all the Communists with a surprise.
“I was Communist and I’m proud to say I still am,” she said defiantly. “Do you know that some old people have to steal bread from the stores to survive in this brave new capitalist society?” The near-victim, though, gave me a Czech-English edition of Havel’s Občan Vaněk trilogy about Communism’s assault on the human spirit.
Mostly we laughed, and I learned that you can indeed enter Czech circles. One night I entered to find everyone in either hospital gowns or medical uniforms, a costume party. They sat me at the bar, taped an IV to my arm and plied me with wine and then slivovice, photographing everything. On my next visit I found displayed a photo story relating how their American friend arrived feeling ill, was given alcohol therapy including an emergency IV, and left happily. Actually I’d left – as on a couple other evenings – holding onto building walls to get home.
Another evening at Bar 20 Narodní my friend Pavel, a genuine Staré Město resident with a long family history there, beckoned to me.
“Come on, I want to show you something,” he said. We wove, tipsy, down Narodní and turned onto Karoliny Světlé. He stopped at the corner where stood the Romanesque Rotunda of the Finding of the Holy Cross, which dates to about 1125.
“This is something I can’t explain to you.” He tried anyway. “This is Prague for me. The 12th century,” he said, sweeping his arms to show all the centuries since, how they lived in him.
My feelings toward Prague were changing. Oddly, given such an irreligious culture, they were nudged along by Noc Kostĕlní, the Night of the Churches. Already during spring 2012 I had discovered Sunday morning Mass at the church of Our Lady of the Snows in Jungmannovo Namĕstí, amid joyous charismatic Catholic Czechs, singing like Protestants.
I started Noc Kostĕlní at Our Lady before Týn, Prague’s two-towered queen of churches looming over Starometske Namĕstí.
Paris’ Notre Dame Choral had been imported for a 7 p.m. performance. A big crowd, half tourists, filed through. Seated tightly together in a pew up front, some visiting women’s and men’s church groups’ sang, their voices rising to the light-drenched ceilings. Old Town’s madness was tempered in the cool June night.
St. Giles Church on Husova was different, somber and Dominican, with that order’s shadowy 18th century art and authoritarian poses. That night, though, its dark beauty soothed my soul. I could see why director Miloš Forman set several Amadeus scenes here.
I took a wrong turn on Husova, as usual, only noticing as the tourist crunch heading to and from Charles Bridge got crunchier.
I reversed and headed to St. Bartholomew’s church on Bartolomějská. Here were almost all Czechs. In 1950 the StB, Czechoslovakia’s secret police, expelled the Grey Sisters and moved in. Vaclav Havel spent time in these cells, but now it was back in the nuns’ hands.
Next door, almost, I discovered Kino Ponrepo, the National Film Archive showing films from that era. Afterwards I quickly became a regular, joining film school students and teachers, learning how much more I had still to learn about this nation.
Across the street loomed the former StB headquarters, now home to Prague’s criminal police, where student demonstrators were dragged after being beaten on Nov. 17, 1989, sparking the Velvet Revolution. Soon afterwards, again, I started bringing my American study abroad students on a tour of those places. Czech history was seeping into me.
A few doors down stood Vzorkovna, signless, looking like an abandoned building, but inside hopping with student life, its walls caked with smoke from student lives past. I stopped for a Becherovka, sipping it while a tourist on the street leaned into one of the burned glass panes with her telephoto lens and I posed like a Czech, scornfully. Then I wandered cooly through the maze to the last room. Some students, impressed that a prof would hang here, joined me and we listened to an odd experimental duet of electric bass and horn until 2 a.m.
That June 2012 I finally discovered Prague’s treasures beyond the central tourist haunts, and the love affair became complete one evening when I passed Libeň Synagogue in Palmovka.
Prague’s center has beautifully preserved synagogues: ornate Klausen synagogue, the Moorish Spanish Synagogue and the hoary Old-New Synagogue — so called because it’s really a “new” structure built in the 12th century over an earlier one — but Palmovka synagogue was decrepit and forbidding. Sharp wire bunches sprang from its barred windows and its exterior Star of David was cracked and peeling as if the last Jews left in a hurry sometime around 1942, which they did.
This evening, though, a crowd stood outside its open doors, and I paused. A woman noticed me and smiled, so I approached. The event was a concert promoted by Prague 8 community group “8jinak!” (“8 differently!”), some of whose members have since opened to me many doors into outer Prague’s mysteries.
Since those days a mere decade ago, Prague and I have changed, for sure. U Zavěšenýho Kafe has moved up close to the Castle complex on Loretánská and now includes the Pokračuje theatre. The great old posters celebrating its dissident history are still displayed but now it’s a clean and airy space attracting more tourists, at least when there were tourists. Maybe the pandemic will restore some of its old grittiness.
Vzorkovna has moved to Národní Třída and become a private club, but it retains its alternative edge and packed crowds. In its old place on Bartolomějská, preserving the full edgy student experience, is multicultural club Zázemí.
I don’t visit Nové Město’s Bar 20 Narodní or Palmovka’s Vinárna u Hrabala so frequently anymore, but whenever I do they always welcome me warmly.
“Andrej,” someone always says at U Hrabala, using my Slovak name, “You can speak Slovak with us. We understand you.”
I tell them that now I speak Czech much better, but it seems to please these old Czechoslovaks to hear my Slovak. It seems that though you must work to enter Czech circles, once in you are in for good.
And once this damned pandemic ends, you’ll find me back at Kino Ponrepo with the film-obsessed students and the old prof who sits in the front row at 5:30 p.m. screenings, soaking up more of this endlessly fascinating nation.
You can purchase Andrew Giarelli’s travel book “American Romanista” here: https://www.amazon.com/American-Romanista-Andrew-Giarelli-ebook/dp/B00AH1HUNW