Originally posted September 8, 2011.
For our final stop on the European vacation, we traveled to Prague in the Czech Republic. For a long time I’ve wanted to visit Prague. I’d heard that it was a gorgeous city, a standout in Europe because it was spared from most of the bombings in World War II. Plus, my father’s family descends from the Czech Republic. That’s why I had Czech pancakes (palacinka) for breakfast when I was little. But Prague was a little bit different from what I was expecting.
As soon as we drove over the border, you could tell that it wasn’t Germany anymore. For one thing, no more hops for beer growing by the side of the road. The shops and the gas stations didn’t look as welcoming anymore. I guess even decades after the Soviets, you can still tell they left their mark. But once we got into the city, I could see the influence of a culture much older than the Soviet Union or the Nazi occupation. Even though we were zooming around tiny little cobblestone streets, I couldn’t help snapping pictures of every building that we passed. The architecture of every building had it’s own charm and even though I knew all those pictures would turn out blurred, I couldn’t stop myself from snapping more.
It surprised me how much of the city we could see in just two days. On the first night we ate dinner in Wenceslas Square and walked across the famous Charles Bridge. Then the next day we took a walking tour that took us all over the city. So by the second day we were all wracking our brains for what to do next. Partially this was because we were so tired at this point. After pushing our way through tourists groups and visiting tourist sites in Europe for two weeks, the entire family just didn’t have the same will power to put up with it any more. In some ways, this made Prague seem less exciting than some of the other cities. Because I was so tired, it didn’t wow me like I’d been expecting. Of course, this could also be the cause of so many rave reviews. Sometimes when everybody builds up something to be awesome, I raise my expectations so high that the real thing pales in comparison. I would definitely like to revisit Prague when I have more time. Then I could get away from the tourist sites and take more time wandering around the city. Maybe then I could see the inspirational, musical, theatrical, ancestral Prague that I dreamed of before my first visit.
In spite of the crowds and the occasional tiffs with my family, some sites still captured some of Prague’s magic. I loved just sitting in the middle of Wenceslas Square. There were so many people just wandering around with friends. My dad and I sat down amongst the crowds and just watched for about 45 minutes at one point while my sister and mom shopped. We even saw a couple on the two-seater bike that had just been married. They were cute. I also loved seeing sites attached to the Velvet Revolution, especially the John Lennon wall. It’s a wall over near the Charles Bridge where Czech rebels began painting graffiti after John Lennon’s death. The Communists would paint the wall white everyday, but every night, the rebels would only paint it all over again. And finally, the Communists gave up and left the John Lennon memorial alone. At first, the wall disappointed me. Today you can’t see many of the original graffiti because so many tourists have painted over it with their own meaningless marks. But then my mom grabbed the can of spray and painted our last name and “J” on the wall. That changed my attitude toward the wall. I’ve never been tempted to tag a building—way too much of a rule follower—but I’ll admit that seeing my name on the wall gave me a sense of pride. Someone else has undoubtedly already covered over it, but I like the idea that my family made our mark on Europe.
Another awesome piece of history: the site of the defenestration of Prague. I’ve been a big fan of the word since I learned it at writing camp. I use it whenever I have the chance. I thought it was hilarious that the plaque said it was “a miracle” that the Catholic governors survived the fall. The guidebook tells the real story: they fell into the manure pile. But, I must say that my dad and I both felt some vertigo standing next to the railing. It was a long fall.
And finally, Kafka. Before I left, I joked about Kafka being everywhere in the city and I was happily surprised to find that I wasn’t exaggerating that much. I thought it was simply a tourist draw. All the stores carried memorabilia with his face because he was quite a literary character. But in actuality, Kafka was all over the city because he lived practically everywhere in the city. We found at least two plaques commemorating places he lived. When we got up to the castle complex, we found at that he even lived up there in one of the tiny, tiny rooms on Golden Lane. If you are going to Prague, the best Kafka place to visit is the Kafka Museum. They displayed a lot of information about his life, but in one of the most apt ways I’ve ever seen a museum present material. In every room they kept the lights dimmed and played eerie noises. After they finished presenting the timeline of Kafka’s life, they presented the background on his works. My favorite part: a short maze of file cabinets with the names of his characters printed on each drawer and the sound of a telephone continually ringing. It was the core essence of The Trial and it made my day. The museum helped me learn more about Kafka, but it also combined art and the distribution of information. Plus, it even piqued my dad’s interest.
Even if it wasn’t what I expected, Kafka made it worth the trip. I hope next time I go to Prague I’ll feel more of the old world magic.