Czechoslovakia – a land of mystery. A place that for many years existed only on a map and in the creative memory of my Grandfather – a man who, years after his emigration, still had a child’s point of view of this place. A child’s view, grown older.
For my entire life, really up until I set foot here, the city that my Grandpap Bures claimed as his true home was a dark and deeply mysterious place to me. It was a no man’s land that was eternally shrouded in the blackness of night, surrounded by a curtain made from one of the earth’s heaviest elements, iron. Before my arrival I pictured no stars in the sky there, no light of the moon. Even shadows were obscured and hidden by the darkness. My family knew it only as the place that we considered to be our source, our wellspring, the place from where we came.
As a child I imagined that heavy iron curtain as a heaving, swaying, sheet of flowing grey metal hung from a rod that enveloped and contained every Communist thing in the universe. A black hole of Communism. It was a curtain that separated me from a place I should know. My mother told me many times that the curtain was imaginary, that it was just a metaphor, a way to describe an abstract political situation. But in my young mind’s eye, I had always imagined the curtain to be very real, very heavy and very dark.
While growing up I was also repeatedly told that I would never be able to visit the real homeland of my Grandfather because there would never be a way to get through the curtain. And what if I did? Would that real homeland be real? Would it be there as my Grandfather had remembered it and described it? Or would it have been changed forever more, unrecognizable, by the time and the politics that had passed over the country?
I arrived in the Czech Republic on a beautiful spring day, as a passenger on a train from Berlin with a freely and cheerfully given stamp to enter the country in my passport. The train bumped to a stop as it entered Praha Holesovice train station and I grabbed my bags and stepped out onto the platform.
My DNA had come full circle. Even though it wasn’t myself that had left here all of those years ago, the story of it was a part of me. It felt like a bittersweet homecoming. One that my Grandfather would have loved to have made himself.
The streets of Prague were much lighter and brighter and pastel than I ever thought they would be. At least on the surface. Every building had some sort of detail, something to make it unique. Whether it was The House of the Three Violins, The Two Suns of Jan Neruda’s house, the sculptures of the strong, muscular, hefty-thighed Bohemian men supporting the doorways, or the detailed trims and murals on the facades, the architecture presented a Prague that was sweet and delightful, bold and strong. It was a massive city, yet it felt small. One of only dozens of dichotomies I observed during my visit here.
Throughout his life my Grandfather kept as much of his Bohemian culture alive as possible, including his language which he spoke with family and friends. He didn’t live long enough to see my love of language appear or to teach me to say anything more than Ahoj!. He also handed down an intense love and respect for music, although somehow while my mother’s creative gene made itself visible via the accordion and her beautiful voice, after a few years of studying the piano, mine translated itself into visual art and written word. So it was no surprise to me to see that the culture of classical and Bohemian music alive and well in Prague. As I walked the streets, searching for cityscapes to photograph, concert hawkers thrust fliers into my hand advertising one of the many concerts scheduled for the week, each one different, held in a different venue.
As I walked down the streets of Prague, especially the back streets, the ones the tourists never seem to see, I sometimes caught the scent of my Grandfather and it would make me smile. I would turn and see no one in particular, his scent just lingered in the air. His smell was unique, I don’t ever smell him at home, but here in Prague I can sometimes sense that he is here. It’s a strange smell, and probably one that non-Czechs would complain about, one of pivo and tobacco, sweat and probably a kind of dirt that lingers on a man when he works underground for eight hours a day, like my Grandfather did. When I smell it I am immediately back on my swing that hung from a sturdy tree branch in the front yard, my Grandfather pushing me ever higher, or sitting next to him on the barcalounger watching TV while he drank his beer and ate sausages.
Taking Tram 22 up to the top of the hill I gave up my seat to an old man who had gone shopping. Dekuji, dekuji, dekuji, he said as he sat with his fistfuls of plastic bags, smiling, as if I was the best thing that had happened to him all day. Everyone else on Tram 22 was staring blankly into the back of the head sitting in front of them. Walking down the hill I had a lot of time to think. The sun had come out, the lilac was beginning to bloom and perfume the city, coloring it a sweet lavender, and the birds were singing. With the cityscape in front of me – winding streets on one side of me, Petrin Park on the other, crisp blue sky above me – I walked and thought about my expectations, my goals, my everything that I wanted from Prague but could not find.
I struggle in frustration with the language because I think it should be easy for me. But more than the language I am frustrated by an invisible separation of people that is brought on by my inability to communicate. I shuffle through pages in my Anglicko/Cesky dictionary, searching for words that might mean something. The things I want to talk about are so complicated, mere words do not suffice. I need sentence structure, verbs and adjectives. I need conjugation. I need to know more than the word pivo.
When I look in the mirror I can see my Grandfather. My eyes, the shape of my face, are his. His laugh and his happiness are things that I look for as I walk the streets of Prague. But for all the days that I searched for the happiness that I thought was in my Czech nature, I spent the evenings contemplating the fate of the Bohemian people. A happiness, if it was ever here, is definitely not here now, worn down by years of suspicion and looking over their shoulders, never trusting anyone. The Czechs that are my age look twenty years older and the furrows around their eyes are not from smiles.
I came to Prague with a number of expectations and looking for a lot of answers, but I think I will be leaving Prague with even more questions. Prague does not give up her answers easily. As I walk I take a long hard look into people’s faces as I pass by them, and I don’t smile because I have finally become so angry. Did I feel for half a day the way all people here feel every day of their lives? How could they bear feeling that way constantly? That so much anger and negativity is the normality that everyone strives for. Or, maybe they don’t strive, maybe they accept it as normal. Maybe they don’t even notice it? I could never accept feeling that way for an entire lifetime.
My Grandfather had such a sense of pride of being Bohemian and coming from a place that had a rich intense history of culture and music and art, and a legacy of fierce independence. I see none of that pride here. I see none of the independence. What art I have seen has been for tourists. What pride was here has evaporated. I see emptiness where these things should be. And where does that leave me with my genetic culture? Should I just go home and go back to dreaming about the possibilities for the Czech people and hope they find their way? Or should I just accept them as they are and be glad I was raised somewhere else?
The evening before I am to leave this place I sit on a barstool in my favorite Prague bar, U Ujezd, and drink my pivo in silence. Punk music comes out of the speakers and Czech guys covered in tats sit around the room with their girlfriends, drinking beer, smoking, and chatting in that language I cannot quite grasp completely although I recognize it deeply. I thought that I would be happy to leave this place, it had so worn me down, so deteriorated my happiness. But I found myself a little wistful, thinking that what I found here was only the beginning, that there was much more here for me to discover.
Prague for me was not about finding beer, sex, or the next great bar. It was not about stopping for a few days on the way to somewhere else. Prague was about discovering something about my family history and where I sort of came from, following my Grandfather’s footsteps, and experiencing in some small minute way a life that I may have had.