Reflections on Prague and Russian Spy Movies

August 19, 2008 in Czech Republic, Europe, Travelogue

Family Travel Prague

Sometimes I don’t see a place fully until I’m gone.

I’ve been trying to write about Prague for days now and the words have not come.

Maybe because it seemed a schizophrenic place to me: sunny one day: rainy the next two, beautifully painted and sculptured buildings: around the corner, a derelict three story, with windows smashed out, turned “homeless high-rise.” The town gorgeous to walk is hellish to cycle. The tiny shops and kiosks that line the streets are alternately filled with quaint handmade items and pornographic playing cards. I have decided that there is no “one” Prague. Rather, there are many Pragues and the one you see depends on the day, the weather, your mode of transport and of course, you.

I walked alone in the rain a lot in Prague. Back and forth to the post office to collect the box that turned up back in NH the second day I looked for it. Back and forth to the bead store, which was inevitably closed and yielded no beads for Lois. Back and forth to the over priced English language bookstore with the seductive little red leather cafe in the back. It gave me time to observe, and time to think. I needed both. Alone time is in short supply on this trip. I kept trying to form an overall impression of the city. I kept trying to like it. I failed on both accounts. The castles are lovely.

We spent a long day touring the Hrad in the center of the old city… the biggest castle complex in the world.

The kids were disappointingly unenthusiastic. For children who’ve been humming the Christmas carol from the back of the bikes for a week and a half they were completely non-plussed by the castle of King Wenceslas. Ez was able to get excited about the cathedral. He’s into “gofick” (gothic) architecture these days and was excitedly pointing out the gargoyles, “pointy things” (spires), arches and trying really hard to say “tri-partite symmetry” to impress Hannah with a big word. He didn’t like the mosaic over the door… the one of Christ judging the world in which half of the people are rejoicing with the angels and the other half are being dragged off by purple demons toward fiery doom: “Mama, why’d they put that over the door of the CHURCH? That’s kinda mean!” What can I say, I’m not a medieval catholic.

Gabe and Elisha managed to muster up some boy joy over the archer’s residence, complete with rotating logs with slits in them to shoot at the enemy in any direction. Hannah just wandered through it all with a critical eye. Seen one castle, seen ‘em all, I suppose. I remember being just her age, the child who lacked perspective, and rolling my eyes and dragging my feet as my parents hauled us out of the van to climb yet another crumbling pyramid, half a mile back into an over grown jungle, on the Yucatan Peninsula, so I cut her some slack. On the other hand, as the parent with perspective, I dragged her through another castle.

Family Travel Prague
Better than the Hrad was the Vysehrad on the other side of town.

Behind it’s imposing walls hide gorgeous parks, art galleries, quaint little restaurants and the site of the castle of the first Czech King. The cathedral bells sing lovely songs that roll over the most interesting cemetery we’ve ever been in as originating in heaven itself. Among the sculptures and monuments lie many Czech greats… among them Smetana, composer of the songs the bells were singing, and Dvorak… whom the kids know from listening and whom Hannah is writing about in her report on Prague. If I had to choose between the tourist ridden Hrad on the other side of the pedestrian clogged Charles Bridge or the peaceful green spaces of the Vysehrad, the choice would be easy.

Family Travel Prague
After much debate we’ve changed our route.

Instead of pushing off south toward Cesky Krumlov and yet another fairy-tale castle, we’ve hopped a train for Brno. We’ve been invited to stay the week with a family of American missionaries on a Word of Life camp north of town. Getting to the train was the logistical nightmare we’ve come to expect of post-soviet eastern Europe. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice to say that it involved more cobblestone, smiling politely and posing for a picture for a very lovely Brazilian lady who was far more excited about our bike loading fiasco than we were. Pushing our bikes through an underpass that was a heroine den by night… as evidenced by the needles etc. under foot. “Don’t touch ANYTHING boys!” and pushing our bikes up two flights of stairs, fully loaded, natch, and down another flight to the train station. Oh yeah, without Daddy and I having eaten breakfast because we were too busy hauling bikes and too many bags down five flights of stairs.
The train situation in the Czech is exactly what one would expect for soviet-era construction and trains: drab, utilitarian grey, dirty, peeling and designed, it seems, for maximum difficulty in getting from point A to point B. And that’s assuming you’re NOT hauling bikes! That being said, it could be worse. We got to the train with ten minutes to spare, which allowed us to remove every stitch of baggage, at the insistance of the conductor, to go in the passenger car with us, while the bikes, ironically, went into the baggage car while another 120 Ck changed hands to ensure safe passage of the bikes. Fortunately, the children are getting to the point that they could manage train travel without us and they resembled an Olympic bag relay team in their efficiency in loading our gear.

We’re on the train now. Thankfully, it is a straight shot, without need to repeat the loading fiasco in a language we don’t understand. We’re divided into two compartments… the kids in one, and the parents in the quiet one. Lunch is being had and the kids are in seventh heaven.

The train itself is like something out of a Russian spy movie: Read pleather seats for eight in each compartment, sliding glass doors and windows that open so you can hang the whole upper half of your body out of the moving train. The children tried this at the station. We’ll kill them if they try it while moving… assuming the train doesn’t. The bathroom, as usual was the first thing the boys tried out. “Mama!!!” We hear Ez screaming from the bathroom. “There’s NO FLUSHER!!!” Sure enough. Why flush when eventually the weight of the product in the bottom of the toilet will amount to enough to open the flap and deliver it below? And where does it go? Take a look down the hole and you’ll see… the tracks racing by below. Nice.

There is no sense trying to write post cards… it is too bouncy… easily as exciting a ride as the kiddie coaster at an amusement park… and then there is the squeal of the brakes. I thought this was added for effect in the old black and white movies… after all, the trains we’ve ridden elsewhere have stopped smoothly with relative quiet. No indeed. The screech is pod-cast worthy.

Time to go… the former Comrade has come to punch our tickets.