Letters Home – or to An Approximation of It
Seven years ago I’d written some family and colleague-friends immediately after returning to the hotel room from surveying Prague and environs for shooting locations over a full and sleepless two days and nights. Two versions were sent, and everyone said I should write and post more of that kind of thing. The requests continued and I agreed, so I’m posting one of my letters from Prague. Photos are forthcoming, and maybe some illustrations, too: I sketched those crazy Bulgarians and the beer-soaked concert on the corner. For now, though, I hope you enjoy reading this epistle written by a most – ah – tired, scribbler.
1 May, 2008
It’s been 25 years since I’ve seen this place, and the first thing noticed is how bright it seems now. Half the streets appear to be movie sets with just-the-right lighting to show things best at night, all lovely but merely façade, something to pass through but not actually stay in and enjoy.
It works, for Prague is ridiculously beautiful: up there with Rome, but grittier and with a piece of everybody’s culture in it. The work of invaders and other interlopers is often destroyed or reconfigured after they’ve left, but in Prague, despite a haphazard feel to the way everybody dumped their architecture and ornamental art right next to the other stuff, it remains and somehow cuts it. The city is loopy, or those designing or building it were: Angles everywhere, Dali on acid without a blueprint and six thousand dudes without levels or slakes but they sure did a helluva cool job. One moment you’re walking along a narrow street with cobblestones smooth as a baby’s bottom then you’re stuck in a street so narrow you barely fit until, popping out the other end, you’re faced with a looming, dark cathedral with seriously military towers. Lots of individually and somewhat dull, if competently rendered, statues hover along the Charles Bridge: too bad they didn’t go Harry Potter there, but it still works – collectively, and from enough distance, it permits suggestion and interpretation enough to provide wonderful effect according to one’s mood, intention, or desire. Towers and castles wait at each end but before you get there some lovely angles and perspective await: you can touch a second or third storey window just off the side of that seven-hundred-year-old bridge and so many of the streets and buildings have cantilevered or terraced effects that it’s like following some white goddamned rabbit just at the moment you realize that the brownies you ate were made of more than sugar, eggs, and cocoa. But should you persist riding the wave, well, after a good climb along an interesting road there’s a view of more spires, towers, cathedrals, and castles than just about any four mile stretch on Earth. This place is seriously made for tripping.
And you can sing here! Some wonderful sound possibilities! The walls are so close in these streets that a Fiat barely fits and voices carry extremely well. I had barely started exploring the city architecture and art by night – it’s well lit and excellently moody for film – when a group of drunken Bulgarians passed singing in, well, Bulgarian. But they were singing something I knew so I broke in on the next stanza in English. “Swing low, sweet chariot. Comin for to carry me home.” They broke into English and made harmony. I mean it: they harmonized. Beautifully! We sang about two minutes, shook hands and began to part but immediately an Arab fellow appeared around a corner, laughed, and said, “Everybody singing!”
“This town’s made for singing,” I said.
“Okay. Then I can sing, too!” he said. He sang and danced the dabke, an old traditional Lebanese dance that every Greek would know, while the Bulgarians clapped and hollered. Some Swedes, Danes, Germans, Americans, and Russians appeared and joined in the little street at the corner. For a little while we had quite a gathering, helped by a waiter who brought beer in serious quantities. We stood at the edge of a café terrace and managed to converse in a smattering of what the world is surely come to: a little of this and a little of that and so on, etc. You could call it manglish. But it worked, that mangled Russian-German-Arabic-French-English concoction, and the night and experience were both enjoyable.
But this isn’t a town just for stupid drunkenness. It’s good for more than that. Loving life, yes, but for those prone or open to it, reflection is available in a place so full of history-in-your-face. There are many such locales on earth, but this one is awfully good for ruminating about the dark and humorous mess we call the world and human condition. This city, or town, if you prefer, is not entirely the empty presentation of parochial history with little relevance or interest beyond local borders that one often finds, even in this era of oft-proclaimed diversity. Prague addresses a history rich enough in events and ideas and all that they imply that it, if you bother or like, provides you a chance to come away with something artistic and insightful – something other than memories of spiced sausage and tall glasses of beer, of leggy German, Russian, Czech or busty Swedish women with bright eyes and suggestive little smiles. Oh, they are wonderfully engaging, those splendid women whose homes you’ll likely never see, but there is something else to this lightness and dark, to notions of angels and demons, nearly-empty churches and overflowing dance clubs with armed Eastern cutthroats, and everywhere you look there’s someone or something already looking back at you, for every artist in Europe seems to have had his say with all these bloody carvings and statues. Look up and they smile, snarl, or spit, and one I noticed even gives the finger. How can one not love that? I could imagine the workman, pissed at his asshole boss or simply his miserable fate, muttering and hawking to the roiling street below the whole time he carved his timeless, universally understood message that even a disdainful, hands-off creator would admire. That’s the funny part: For all the humor the carvings are often realistic, too, from the goofy, fantastical, and merely satirical to the mocking, daring, condemning, militant, outright demonic statues, and sometimes I’d swear that if I said the wrong thing to the right person the bloody things just might finish drawing swords and send me off right quick.
Well, I’m exhausted and this damn German keyboard is slowing me down. I just adjusted to the bloody Czech one, and that took adjusting from the Danish one. They are not the same! Sorry for the occasional Ä#ß§m2″. German engineering my ass.
I look forward to seeing y#all again soon and hearing your stories. Jake, how’s Sir Ben? Kingsley’s a great name for a Lord, huh? Did you party with the man? All best, tschuβ, ciao, and cheers!