The City of Spires, Chapter 2: “The Faces You Will Meet”

“For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.”
–T. S. Eliot
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
During my circular slog through the unfamiliar medieval streets of the fetching city–before realizing I was astray, before the panic and fatigue of schlepping my belongings for miles, before finally sweat-soaked reaching my elusive hotel–I had my first unforgettable moment.
The 7 a.m. chimes yet to resound, I emerged from the underground station and dawdled down the worn sidewalks. The remnants of the evening’s nip still clasped the May morning, shimmering dewdrops still clinging to the grass, only sporadic passersby ambling past. I approached one of Prague’s most famous attractions: the Charles Bridge.
It unfolded over the sapphire Vltava. Thirty statues lining the 15th century marvel that connected the Old Town with Prague Castle were silhouetted in rolling waves of fog wisping from the water. The rays of sun behind me streamed through the soupy obscurity.
The universe was begging me to fish out my camera and preserve the most picture-perfect scene I’ve ever beheld. I dawdled, drinking it in. Shrugging, I thought, “Get checked in, put my stuff up, come back, get the shot.”
I didn’t know it would be two hours and a load of frustration before I was able to locate my digs. I didn’t realize by the time I saw the bridge again it would be teeming with humanity: tourists, vendors, beggars. Crossing required one to wade through a shoulder-to-shoulder tide with throngs of people.
prague-charles-bridge
This was a couple of days later, during one of the “down times.”

The tour guides are quick to warble superlative praises of the wonderland that is Prague–rightfully so–but they never mention how bloody crowded it is. Hotspots are jammed-packed, redolent sweat from the crammed bodies offending the olfactory.

Like most tourist destinations, it’d be so much better without all the damned tourists.

When I finally got to see Golden Lane, a narrow, winding street bursting with old-world charm girdled within Prague Castle’s walls, where Franz Kafka once rented a flat, I was eagerly awaiting a great photo op.

Prague_-_Zlata_ulicka.jpg
By Maros M r a z (Maros) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=222315

Here’s my attempt:

prague-golden-lane
Attention: If you could all just step out of the frame for a moment.

People, the bane of my existence. My cousin Frank had been obliging, taking off the Thursday and Friday before to whisk me to Lyon, France, to the see Roman Ruins and then the Rhône-Alpes so I could tour the Grand Chartreuse, the monastery which inspired Matthew Arnold to write his great poem. He wanted to go with me to Prague, but work was just too hectic the next week.

Rolling solo, a familiar lot when I roam, something I’m comfortable with … in America. The most French I can muster is recitations of lines from Charles Baudelaire. Thus, Frank was invaluable in rural Voiron where few spoke the lingua franca of English. I could have used his knowledge of Europe on my trek.

I was afforded no such luxury, yet I survived.

Being alone in this strange land was no different from a solitary march through American cities, language barrier excluded.

You’re going to be annoyed by the droves of gawking masses messing up your shots. You’re going to meet a few douche canoes. You’re also going to run into some spectacular, influential people on the same journey.

***

From my Travel Journal, 13-14 May 2014

Never been able to sleep on a plane thus far. Thought this red-eye, trans-Atlantic jaunt would change that. Half hour later, I’m still browsing the in-flight selection. Thank goodness there’s at least one non-family-friendly film selection. Vive la France! Liberté, égalité, fraternité!

2 Hours LaterWe’re the Millers is the 2nd worst decision Jennifer Anniston ever made. The first was saying to Brad: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a great screenplay. I hear Angelina is a peach.”

6 Hours Later: Audrey Tautou is adorable. I don’t know what the hell any of those Frog bastards mumbled in this flick or what the ending meant, but that smile! I just want to pinch her cheeks!

10 Hours Later: That snoring granny beside me has a hair growing out of her ear. Her ear! It’s like one of those frayed edges you’d see if you were installing a surround sound, but with a pig-tail curl.

12 Hours Later: The French language is not beautiful. It’s mouth farting. If this woman beside me doesn’t stop flapping her yap to the fight attendant, I’m going to offer her an invite to the Mile High Club and flush her the second she walks in.

Dear Lord Baby Jesus, I need sleep.

***

Traveling is as much about meeting people as it is experiencing new places. Why is it that the ones I get stuck with on public transportation represent the worst of humanity?

I discovered I can’t sleep on buses either. Guess I’m weary of letting myself be vulnerable. I might snore; I might fart in my sleep.

I was excited when a portly German boarded in Zürich and was seated beside me. This was an excellent chance to practice another language.

I asked where he was going. I told him this was first time in Europe. I feigned interest in his occupation. I covered all the topics any polite American would when seated on a plane with a fellow wayfarer.

Eventually, he threw his arms up and said, “Lass mich in Ruhe!”

Later I was informed Germans are completely comfortable on public transport without making small talk. At the time it seemed rude, but, in retrospect, I think we Americans should consider adopting the practice.

I watched an animated comic book movie (DC, if that tells you how desperate this Marvel fan was), 5 episodes of The Big Bang Theory with Czech subtitles, and finally settled on listening to Roxette’s entire playlist.

***

Not everyone you meet traveling is a winner. Others are.

My second morning in the great city, I stumbled out of my room into the commons, head aching from too many offerings of the city’s blue-chip brews, to find a crowd around the continental breakfast. I poured a cup of joe and nabbed a liberal sampling of sausage, bread, and cheese.

Both hands full, I scanned the room for a table. A young man in the corner gestured me over.

Thanking him, I settled in. Raymundo was honeymooning with the lovely woman at his side, Camille. Resting beside his plate was a worn paperback titled Fiesta by Ernest Hemingway.

“Wasn’t aware Hemingway wrote a book called Party,” I said.

“I don’t recall the English title, but it’s different. Longer. It’s set during the Spanish Civil War.”

“Oh, The Sun Also Rises.”

He nodded. “Know it?”

“Read it in grad school.”

That led to a long discussion of occupations, life in America, life in Chile, travels. They had arrived late the night before on a train from Berlin. Both insisted if I had time and opportunity, it was not a city to be missed.

They were in the room next door to mine, I discovered that afternoon. We’d all returned to rest. I also needed to charge my phone, only then discovering I’d left my AC travel adapter in Switzerland. Camille graciously offered me hers.

That evening, we again passed one another, both on a mission to freshen up and change into our nightlife attire.

“We were going to try to find a place with authentic Czech cuisine,” Ray said. “Any suggestions?”

This was my second day in the city, and I’d read an entire guidebook a decade earlier, so I guess I was the expert. I told them what I’d discovered: go into the tourist areas (a bloody Chili’s of all things, is in the heart of Old Town Square), then turn down one of the narrow side streets and meander a few blocks. The gems were buried there.

“Was about to head northeast myself. If you’d like to join me …”

I was being polite, not because I didn’t want their company but because I figured the honeymooners would want to disappear into a shadowy romantic joint and whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ear over a bottle of red. Instead, both agreed.

On a constricted side street–probably one that started with an N or a K–we uncovered a bijou joint called Cafe Romantica. Down a winding set of stairs in a brick-lined hall, the restaurant opened into an underground palace, desolate save us, dimly adorned by candle light.

10330301_10154265822435045_1317257976797320921_n
Nice Ambiance. Also, that figure in the left-hand corner is the only pic I have of Ray.

From the German on the back of the menu, I gathered its history: once a wine cellar for the stately residence that existed here in the 17th century. Either way, we gorged ourselves on beef ribs, garlic soup, and two bottles of red wine.

I kept thinking I shouldn’t be there, that they deserved to have that place to themselves to bask in the glow of new love, but they were gracious.

We emerged on ground level once more and meandered until we found ourselves at the Charles Bridge once more. At night, it radiated beneath the street lamps and wasn’t as crowded.

Midway through our crossing, we were able to get close enough to the statue of St. John of Nepomuk. I didn’t recall the entire story, but I knew he’d run afoul of Queen and had been tossed into the Vltava. Legend had it that if you touched the plaque on his statue, you were guaranteed to return to Prague. Obviously, they were as in love with the town as I, as we all brushed our fingertips over the granite before making our way back towards the hotel.

Camille turned in an odd direction. Not wanting to mansplain, I tried to nicely nudge us back on the path. Ray informed me she had a preternatural ability to navigate foreign towns. Sure enough, she showed me a new shortcut from the Charles Bridge to our quarters.

I paused in front of Krásny Ztráty. “Buy you two a nightcap?”

I think Camille ordered a glass of red wine while I talked Ray into trying absinthe. I’m not sure if he didn’t get enough of the flaming sugar in it or if it was just a shock at how bitter the emerald ambrosia is on first gulp, but he did not enjoy. He wretched and writhed, retreating outdoors for cool air on his face.

I went out to check on him and brought him back inside so we could all enjoy some non-alcoholic loose-leaf tea before retiring.

Two days later, as I rolled my luggage out, bound for the metro then the train station, I saw them for the last time. I hugged both and told them “Vaya con Dios.” It was the most fitting valediction my limited Spanish afforded.

He and I are Facebook friends, and I take great joy in trying to translate his posts, in seeing the pictures of their life and their beautiful dog. One day, if I ever get to Chile or they, for some inexplicable reason, decide to visit Alabama or its nearby reaches, I hope I will see them again.

Even if I don’t, those few hours of fellowship with my new friends will never be forgotten.

***

It’s my third straight night at the Krásny Ztráty. I have no idea what that means or how to pronounce it. What I do know is that it’s a great place to stop for a pint or a sip of loose-leaf tea. I also know why I am compelled to visit: it’s literally fourteen steps from the door of my hotel, stumbling distance when one enjoys a liberal serving of their absinthe.

The bartender is a young woman, peroxide blond with doe eyes so large they seem inhuman. Her face is chiseled in a aesthetic commonly seen in models. What they say about the women in Prague is true. Whether it’s genetics or bone structure or just a ridiculous blessing of eye candy from the architecture down to the population, everything in this city is visually arresting.

She’s been amicable each time I’ve come in. (It has been frequent. A liter of bottled water runs about 3 American dollars. A half-liter of beer is about $.60. Frugality.) Even though I’ve conversed with her in both English and German, even though I’ve barstool danced when Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart” or “Joyride” came on the jukebox, she eventually pegs me.

“American?”

“Don’t hold that against me, please.”

Even her titter is mellifluous. “Why would I?”

“You know.”

“Ah, not all Americans are like that. You aren’t. I love Americans. I spent some time there, you know?”

“Really? Where?”

She leans over the counter and strikes a match on the bartop, igniting the sugar hovering above my absinthe. Slow night. “Seattle.”

“Must have loved the Super Bowl, huh? Go Hawks.”

“You’re close?”

“Nowhere near.”

Absentmindedly, she tipples a little green fairy in her own glass. “Where?”

I sigh. “Alabama.”

She waves the glass in the air, snapping her fingers with the other hand. “Sweet Home Alabama,” she croons.

“Know the third verse?”

For a moment she pauses. Then, thick with accent, she belts out the tune. I guess god wasn’t satisfied with making her the pinnacle of human beauty. He also had to give her perfect pitch and a roiling soul when she sings. “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers!”

“Grew up in Muscle Shoals.”

“Ty vole! Did you know the Allman Brothers?”

I tell her Duane died before I was born, but my dad once saw him at the Big Dip eating an ice cream cone.

She raises her viridescent glass. I clink and we down the bitter potable.

Slamming it on the counter, she throws her head back and bellows. “Sometimes I feel … Sometimes I feel … Like I’ve been TIIIIIIIED to the whipping post!”

Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying.

Here I am on another continent, far from the hustle and bustle of home, in a city I’d dreamed of visiting since I was a youth. In that magical municipality, one of her denizens dreamed of planting a foot in my backyard. To me, she is living in paradise. To her, I am the point of fascination.

She offers another glass of absinthe, on the house. Can’t say no.

After pouring it, she runs off. The pounding speakers of the bar abruptly switch from “Blue (Da-ba-De)” to Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman’s impeccable cover of “Hey Jude.”

When she returns, she wants to take a selfie. None of her friends will believe it otherwise. I oblige. When they see this ethereal creature with her cheek nestled against my fat face, they’ll know I had to be American and special.

We down another shot and sway while trumpeting: “Na na na na na na na. Na na na na. Hey Jude!”

She wiggles the half-empty bottle of green. I decline, knowing that I won’t make it those fourteen steps if I do. Understanding, she hands me the tab. I pay and leave her a 200% tip. (In truth, it amounted to about $25 dollars at home.)

She reaches across the bar, hugs me, and kisses my cheek.

“Tomorrow?”

She wasn’t wrong. I capped off my next evening there too.

***

Ironically, Old Town is a spot for young folks once the sun descends. The clubs, discotheques, and strip joints start hopping, pulsating from the succession of bass emanating from the speakers. I’m not what one would call youthful any more, so I decided to head for quieter thoroughfares.

As I turned down one of the narrow side streets, a pretty young woman wearing a skin-tight dress stepped in front of me.

“Hey, sexy. 300 koruna, you have all this.”

“No,” I said as I side-stepped her and continued on.

I didn’t want to sound too gruff. I wasn’t offended by the offer or looking down on her and what she did to survive. It’s just that I had found out the hard way that the more polite “No, thank you,” is problematic for those who don’t speak much English. Sometimes, the person only hears the “thank you,” missing the “no” and assuming it’s an affirmative.

Then I did the math in my head. That equaled about $15. I paused, wondering if I should turn around and apologize for my curt rebuff and take the opportunity to encourage her to have a little more self respect. Surely she could fetch three times that, if not more.

Instead, I continued on, assuring myself a shrewd businesswoman would adjust for inflation.

***

Crammed into the bus headed back to Lausanne, Switzerland, I introduce myself to Kristýna and her Cheshire smile. Like many others I’ve met on my travels, she is fascinated that I am American. She tells me she’s studying fashion design at the university and dreams of going to New York City and walking down L.A.’s Rodeo Drive.

As we pass the Fred and Ginger Building on our way out of town, she points eagerly.

I nod. “Saw it. Amazing architecture.”

“Go inside?”

“You can go inside?”

A proud Praguer, she rattles off other places a visitor should experience. Aside from Prague Castle and the Astronomical Clock, I missed a lot. The Prague Metronome, the Lennon Wall, the KGB Museum, the shoulder blade of St. Valentine, the Comic Book Museum.

Wait, what? Prague had a freaking museum dedicated to my favorite medium and I didn’t even know.

“No worries,” I say. “I’ll be back. I touched the statue of St. John.”

If possible, her grin widens. She points to her temple and bobs her head.

We both plug our earbuds into the screen on the back of the headrest and select a terrible movie with Anthony Hopkins as a priest exorcising a demon. Periodically, we glance at each other and laugh or crack a smarmy comment. During the third act, I turn to her, about to rattle off a zinger only to find her head slouched against seat, peacefully in slumber.

When she exits in Munich, I shake her hand and wish her all the best. The seat beside me will be empty for the final 4-or-so hours of my trip, affording me the luxury of stretching out and letting the blood begin to circulate to my ass again. I would prefer the company.

“St. John is never wrong,” she says slinging the messenger bag over her shoulder. “I will see you soon.”

***

I will be back; my life is incomplete lest I visit the Comic Book Museum and the Museum of Alchemists and and Magicians. It’s doubtful I will run into Kristýna in a city of 1.2 million. Even if she still resides there, if our paths did accidentally cross, I suspect one wouldn’t recognize the other.

Today her face is fuzzy, ensconced in shadow as time gradually wipes details from my gray matter. Connections like that aren’t meant to be permanent, seared into memory. They serve instead as a reminder to live in the moment.

I have no pictures of Kristýna or with Ray and Camilla. I never thought to ask that bartender (whose name I want to say was Eliška) to let me snap a selfie for myself. Comparatively speaking, I have very few pictures of the majestic city itself, far less than I should have for a place so picturesque.

It didn’t matter that I missed my photo op of the Charles Bridge obscured in early-morning mist. I can close my eyes now and recall. It would’ve netted countless likes on Instagram, but I prefer the ethereal canvas only I can see.

Yet our brains are malleable and imprecise. As the seasons pass, we alter events, unconsciously bend them to fit our narrative, as I’m certain I’ve done in this recollection. Maybe the smoky bridge wasn’t so breathtaking. Truth and fiction seamlessly blend until one is indistinguishable from the other.

And those faces you will meet are characters in the yarn of your travels, your life’s narrative, just as you are in theirs. You can learn from them, be entertained by them, but you can never fully know them. The best you can hope for is to exist as a small flash, a blur that dances across their mind’s eye when they recall that time.

I may not remember them precisely, but I will certainly never forget those mentioned here. I hope they too remember that American who flitted in and out of their lives so briefly only to fade into oblivion like billowing fog from the Vltava.


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