Collisions of old and new captivate me. For instance, Prague is packed with ancient architecture but also boasts sundry latecomers—skyscrapers, modern office buildings, and structures that could only be considered oddities. If one were to venture east to quaint, quiet suburbs like Vinohrady or Žižkov, one would be greeted by sweeping fin de siécle apartments and the notorious Television Tower, a bizarre erection that looks like something out of a bad 70s sci-fi flick, complete with statues of alien babies crawling up its exterior. Many purists rue such encroachments as eyesores detracting from the rich landscape, but I find them infinitely absorbing. All of these incongruities haphazardly slapped together only embellishes the magic and whimsy of this city I loved.
Still, anything old holds a talismanic enchantment over Americans, toddlers of the civilized world. There’s something Romantic and alluring about a beautiful city that has seen rich historical events from the Prussian Wars to World War II. It’s almost as if you’ve been transported to a Disney World for history lovers. It’s such a marked difference to move from the humdrum urban American life to the magical, enchanted surroundings of the equally urban Prague. The Charles Bridge, the spires of the Old Watchtower, St. Vitus Cathedral, the Astrological Clock, all of it transports a visitor to a wonderland of picturesque antiquity and charm.
I’ll admit, even at my age it creates a daily sense of awe. I’ve seen everything, done everything there is to do in Europe, and I without fail return to Prague. Guess I’m just another annoying American tourist.
Staré Mĕsto, the Old Town Square, is situated in the shadows of the gothic towers of the Týn Church. The sprawl of jaw-dropping façades, cobblestone streets, and succession of historical buildings dates back to at least the fourteenth century, when Semele would have only been a couple of millennia old, around the time she once told that me she stopped counting the years. The area hasn’t changed much since the first time I walked through, equally awestruck. That would have been circa 1935, and even then I didn’t want to leave. I could have remained after the Nazis took it, through the Spartan decades of Stalinist Communism, as the Velvet Revolution ushered in a new era. Frankly, I preferred the Staré Mĕsto of ‘35, minus denizens of haughty tourists who can’t fathom that having money doesn’t equate to having culture, without the tawdry souvenir shops that mar the medieval rows of buildings.
Semele wears a sleeveless dress, cut mid-thigh, that clings to her Junoesque stature. Like her hair, it’s shimmering black, crisscrossing mauve stripes complimenting her painted lips. To rob the brisk Czech air of its nip, she wraps a stole around her shoulders and tucks it in the bends of her elbows. Not sure what fur, but, knowing her—animal rights activists be damned—it is genuine. It’s as if she’s stepped directly out of a 50s movie, an old-school elegance the world was used to seeing only in black and white, her golden Ionian skin now in vivid Technicolor.
But she also shares my thirst for the new. Her retro ensemble is capped with a pair of white-rimmed sunglasses so trendy they could be snatched from a page of the latest fashion rag. They’re enormous, the type that more than covers the eyes, comically oversized if not sported by such a comely face.
It’s that little splatter of nouveau that makes my 2500 year-old mentor unique, with a flair all her own. It’s all that packaged with sybaritic sultry that turns every head, male or female, passing our alfresco table.
Despite her flair for fashion, her talent at blending the best of the new with the mystique of yore, her silence unnerves me. For decades, she and I were inextricable, thus I knew her as well as any who’d accompanied her during her elongated stint of time on this mortal coil. One thing I’d never accuse her of was being taciturn. She ordered her espresso at Café Montmarte, but she’s yet to lisp a syllable in my direction.
It’s one of those crisp, brilliant Eastern European days, where the dying notes of autumn’s swan song threatens to move to the somber dirges of winter. Though still a couple weeks away, the anticipation of seeing Wenceslas Square dusted with the first snowfall electrifies my core. I love beauty in all forms: women, art, landscapes, music. The glamor of a snow-covered Prague is beholding Nature cap the pinnacle of human aesthetics with her own special touch. I recall a time she could sense the anticipation and feed off it. If she sniffs it now, she sure as hell isn’t letting on.
My obsession with Prague stems from the Velvet Revolution and Stephenie Meyer.
I recall, as a sterling 12-year-old lad sitting in front of my TV tray, shoveling dinner into my maw while my dad took in the evening news. Dan Rather was abuzz about the crumbling Communism in Czechoslovakia. The sweeping camera shots broadcast crowds milling through narrow streets. Aerial panoramas captured the jam-packed red rooftops and ornate facades. I swallowed the lump of mashed potatoes and boldly declared: “Woah, I’m gonna’ go there one day.”
My mother was a gold medalist in patronizing. “Mhmmm, honey. That’s great.”
Flash forward 17 years. I was dating a brilliant woman whose macabre taste in literature complemented mine. A stickler for the old tomes, I had introduced her to M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Sheridan LeFanu. She in turn kept me current, filling my reading list with Poppy Z. Brite, Clive Barker, and Susan Hill.
When she was practically giddy about a new discovery–a fresh spin on vampires and werewolves, she asserted–I had no reason to doubt her taste. Thus began the tedious hours wasted rifling through the leaves of Twilight. I mean, I’ve always steadfastly opposed the burning of books, but if that one happened to “accidentally” topple on to an open flame …
I’m guessing she didn’t anticipate the vitriolic diatribe I launched into the next time we met, slinging slobber as I bemoaned the tired, worn-out notion that all 21st century monsters had to be at least redeemable if not lovable. Anne Rice and Joss Whedon did it well. No one else came close. Certainly not these neutered abominations.
I slammed my fist on the table to punctuate my rant. “Why can’t someone just write a novel where the protagonist is an unrepentant villain and still make you root for him? That would be an accomplishment.”
She hung her head, stung by my overt dismissal. To her the novel still sparkled like a bare-chested Cullen in the sunbeams. “Why don’t you try it?”
I’d like to think the fact we broke up not two weeks after that conversation was mere coincidence, but …
One thing I did take from that ill-fated relationship was her exhortation. I began crafting my masterpiece, Resplendent Creatures. In late-19th-century New Orleans, a guttersnipe named Julian haunts the streets and bordellos around Storyville. Past ensconced in mystery, he meets a seductive older woman who opens his eyes to his destiny. She is a succubus, an ancient demoness with 2 1/2 millennia under her belt, who sees him for what he is: a half-breed, a cambion. His father was an incubus who seduced his human mother. In the arms of his dark mentor, he comes to realize the latent power within.
The remaining 2/3s of the book was to take place in present-day Europe. Julian is now on his own, plying his infernal craft of seduction in some romantic city. Only when he gets into a scrape that is too much for his immortal abilities is his old companion compelled to return.
But what city? Where could I set the grand-scale romance and pageantry playing out in the warped movie screen in my noggin? London didn’t cut it. Paris was overdone. Berlin hadn’t yet become fashionable. What magic municipality would uncannily titillate my demon with the same preternatural prowess he had to woo women?
I stood in a bookstore, perusing the travel section when my index finger brushed the spine of a book that screamed “Obvi!” $21 lighter in the purse and invaluably richer in the imagination, I began to devour every word of the guide. It not only transported me back centuries as I read the history, it also took me back to my childhood and a long-forgotten promise.
100,000 words and two years later, I put the final period on my book. As the astute reader can gather from the putrescent purple prose excerpted in the introduction, I bailed on editing shortly thereafter. I still think the plot was decent, the characters vivid, and the themes salient. The writing itself, just ugh.
Maybe one day I will return those haint-filled streets, though age seems to have mellowed my penchant for Gothic yarns. Over-educated, arrogant alcoholics sitting round pontificating philosophical quagmires now seems to by my go-to.
What is clear from the snippet above is how much the city captivated my imagination. These paragraphs aren’t the only time parallels to Prague and human sensuality are drawn. The medieval metropolis of the Czech Republic oozed with matronly seduction, haunted my dreams like a Jocasta who didn’t in turn spark a bevy of Freudian neuroses.
About that time the term “bucket list” became popular. Everyone was making them, and what am I if not a follower of trends? I never took time to fully develop or formally record it, but I could rattle off my top three in a pinch:
- Get a PhD
- Publish a novel
Go to Prague
I ain’t ready to kick off any time soon because those first two are nowhere near being fulfilled. I have managed to cross off #3, or–more accurately–replaced it with “Go to Dubrovnik.”
But on a Sunday afternoon in Lausanne, Switzerland, having only been in Europe for four days, dizzied and dazzled by culture shock, jet lag, and delectable eats, I seated myself in an oversized yellow bus. After 10 cramped hours trekking across Germany, I would spill out onto Czech soil, standing in a train station surrounded by bleak, bland Communist-era architecture, scratching my head as I pondered the multi-colored spiderwebbed map of the Metro.
I’d carried a torch for this beautiful woman since 1989, dreamed of being enveloped in her arms as I drank in her perfume. All I had to do was decipher the unpronounceable names and I would be on an underground bullet shot towards the heart of the majestic civilization, measuring the cozy images conjured in my mind’s eye against the reflection and refraction of light in my literal rods and cones.
The hissing subway belched me out with the rest of its human refuse, and I rode the escalator until I once again emerged from underground. (Podzemí in that language that still baffles me. I know this because, in my novel, it’s what I named the demon bar located in the bowels of the city. Thank you, Google Translate.)
The early morning sunlight stung my eyes. I drug my rolling along the cracked sidewalks, fought with my messenger bag flung across my shoulder. Pedestrians were sparse, and a fog was rising over the Vltava River giving the entire scene an otherwordly feel. I paused to peek my head between the narrow wrought iron fence and marvel at the Jewish Cemetery.
Then it was back to business, finding my hotel, located on Náprstkova. Only in that moment, I couldn’t remember that. I just told myself I’d find that one “N-street” that intersected the “K-street” (Křižovnická). Turns out ever bleeding street in Prague starts with either a K or an N.
I continued walking, following the path of the river, waiting to see a street sign with the “N-street” I’d memorized and forgotten in my itinerary, too stubborn to take out my documents and look like a tourist. When I was looking at the Tančící dům (“Dancing House,” or as they loving call it “The Fred and Ginger Building”) I realized from the maps I was now in the Nové Město, the New Town Square, blocks away from my headquarters for the next four days.
The first Prague scene in my novel opened with my incubus running into a fresh American expatriate who’d lost her way. He guides her to her flat and begins planting the seeds of his seduction. At this point, I was praying for an incubus, succubus, vampire, or any infernal species to guide me, even if my eternal soul was the price.
Doubling back, lugging my belongings as the temperate morning gave way to unseasonably warm weather, sweat now dotting my brow, I zigzagged through the labyrinthine corridors. Floating amid the imaginary city during creative flourishes were hardly as taxing as the harsh physicality of pounding the concrete.
Miraculously, I turned a corner and saw one of the crimson plates denoting the street name. Náprstkova. I think that’s … holy shit, there’s the Old Prague House. I made it.
Unconsciously, I’d meandered in a circular pattern, closing in until I’d hit paydirt. At that moment, I was convinced it was cosmic kismet. The universe was testing my mettle but eventually paying off.
It was apparently off-peak season. The proprietor of the establishment met me in the vestibule, fervently shaking my hand and thanking me for my patronage. A quick swipe of the Am-Ex and a once-over of the ground rules at her establishment, and I was free to go out and experience the town.
I took a cool shower and settled in for an hour-long nap.
So the first few hours whiled in the city of my dreams inhabited the middle ground between pleasant and nightmare? There was much more to be experienced. All I could do is learn from my mistakes and sally out into the realm of experience.