Prague Travel Blog› entry 11 of 29 › view all entries
March 24th, 1997 – by: jsbuck1
Monday March 24
Vienna was only a stop over on the way to Prague, mostly as a necessity because we could not get from Venice to Prague in one day on the train. So, Monday morning we grabbed an early train and headed for Prague. After we arrived, we found the place to buy our seven day transportation passes and headed for our Pension outside of downtown Prague. As advertised, it had a great view of Prague and Jana, our innkeeper, was friendly and effusive. They were re-habbing their breakfast room, so the first day we had breakfast in our room. A true treat, to open our door and find breakfast waiting for us on a tray.
I am beginning to find it difficult to be an observer all the time, a voyeur. When I was in Europe with Dance Collective or at the artists’ colony in France, I was participating in something, making something happen. While there is a vast amount to see and learn as a tourist, it is hard to feel active or creative in the sense that one does in one’s normal, albeit hectic life. Just before we left home in January, we found out about an international peace organization called Servas through which people all over the world host travelers in their homes. We rushed the application process, letters, and interviews so that we could participate in this group during our six-month sabbatical. After a failed attempt at getting the host-lists through Costa Rican mail, we got them as we were leaving for Europe. I thought that by spending time with families and being in people’s homes we would have a richer experience than being in hotels all the time. However, because of constantly changing telephone systems in Europe or one thing or another, we have not linked up with any Servas people yet.
Being able to communicate with people makes a huge difference in how one experiences a foreign place. We did spend a fascinating two hours with Rusina, a Czech woman, an Internet contact, and her elegant 72-year-old friend, Stanura who spoke English. She has had a tragic life, losing her husband 10 years ago, and then her only daughter and her daughter’s fiancee were killed in a fire. Her husband had been a representative for Czech artists abroad; her apartment was filled with a provocative array of art as well as antiques and heirloom furniture. “Stan” was in the Czech ministry of foreign affairs, serving in Copenhagen and Tokyo until 1968 when the Russians took over and he and a few thousand like him lost their jobs because of not buying the party line. He talked about the long history of foreign domination of the Czech Republic. For 300 years of Hapsburgs, they were forced to speak German, then again under the Nazis; then they were supposed to speak only Russian, with English and German banned as languages of capitalism. There are only ten million Czechs in the world, about the population of NYC, but the history and culture of these people is very strong; at least it appears to be in Prague.
He also talked about an American invasion. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, so I asked him whether he meant tourists or business. Neither, he said, movies. Hollywood movies are probably our largest cultural export, even more so than fast food. What a shame that Hollywood with its preponderance of films aimed at the affluent teenager now represents us abroad. And what a shame about the cultural damage that it does. Nevertheless, Stanura was very proud to tell us that a Czech film had won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for the first time ever only the night before.
He was a wonderful man to talk to. He told us about his trip to the United States. He went with a group. They flew to Los Angeles and took a three week bus trip through the South of the country to New York City. The stopped in Las Vegas, San Diego, Texas, New Orleans, Florida and Washington, DC. What a strange sample of the USA. He was very excited to have an opportunity to hear opera at the Met in NYC, and told us that he carried evening clothes the whole way only to be disappointed in not being able to get tickets. He also related a story about a friend looking for school for his son in the United States and being horrified by the lack of discipline in the schools. Stanura felt that we had too much democracy in our country. I think he meant too much freedom. At first I found this strange coming from a man who had suffered from the lack of freedom in his own country, but on some thought have realized that to love freedom you don’t have to love absolute freedom.
The people here do love freedom. We asked Jana how long she had had her Pension. She replied that she started it after Communism fell and that it would have not been possible before then. As she said, “I thought we would never be free”, her face expressed a radiant joy almost childlike in its purity that nearly embarrassed me, a member of the world’s oldest democratic country, who like many of its citizens, takes for granted its fundamental wonderousness and focuses on its trivialities.
As we were getting ready to leave Rusina’s apartment, I realized that the part of me that generates fantasies was excited by two things. First, some of the paintings that were on the walls were of Rusina and her daughter and it seemed oddly romantic to be in the same room with the art and its subject. Second, it occurred to me that Stanura had been working in embassies that perhaps were sending spies into the United States. Maybe he himself had been a spy master. He looked the part of the cool, handsome East block diplomat. By cold war standards perhaps he had been a dangerous man. All that was thrilling, but what was more thrilling was feeling all that politics and propaganda melt away in the warm presence of the man in his own free country.
It may be hard to believe this of Dawn and Stephen, but we had been starting to doubt the value of art, having been in so many museums owned by the wealthy and filled with portraits of the elite, and having witnessed the many excesses as well as the profundities of Italian religious art. Then we went to see “Tosca” at the State Opera House in Prague. Now my Norwegian grandmother was an opera singer-an “amateur” because in those days it wasn’t considered proper for a woman of a certain stature to be a professional entertainer. However, for some odd reason, I don’t remember my parents taking me to the opera . We went to dance, music, theatre, and Broadway musicals. I suffered through “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met in NYC early in my married years with Larry and his parents, and I went to the Met’s touring version of “Madama Butterfly” when I was a Wellesley student; it was at the Hynes Auditorium so you can imagine how lovely the acoustics and ambiance were there. And I did see a wonderfully bombastic version of Aida (for tourists, no doubt) at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome (1965) with lots of elephants, etc. I always thought that I disliked the theatrics of opera, all that sentimentality, all those extreme plots. I was happily taken by surprise, sitting in the top row of the second balcony (for a $6 ticket) with perfect sightlines and acoustics, and moved to tears when the Czech diva sang, on her knees, the aria “Vissa d’Arte.” Fortunately we had researched the plot on the Internet, so even with the Italian lyrics and the helpful Czech surtitles, we knew what was going on. The character of Tosca IS a singer. She lives for art and love. She sings this aria when she realizes that the vision of her life and her vision of beauty will be shattered when she is forced to succumb to the seduction of the bad guy (Scarpia) in order to save her lover. It was sublime. It is the music that makes the opera. Theater notwithstanding, the music is simply beautiful. (For those of you who want to know the rest of the story, Scarpia allegedly writes an order for the executioners to use blanks instead of real bullets; then Tosca kills him with a knife so he can’t seduce her. Then it turns out that he double-crossed her and her lover really got killed; then they come to arrest her for Scarpia’s murder, so she jumps into the Tiber.) A gruesome plot; I guess you had to be there.
I cry in mediocre, sentimental movies too. So what is great art? A question philosophers have grappled with for centuries. (Nelson Goodman, where are you?) It’s a question that Stephen and I are grappling with too. Not only what is great art, but what is the relevance of art in general? Here I’ve been allegedly making art for 25 years and teaching at an art college for 20 years, and now I’m doubting the value of art. How many art experiences have changed my life? Certainly as an adolescent, seeing Martha Graham’s works and Jose Limon’s pushed my life in a particular direction. Also, seeing some visual art like Picasso’s Guernica or Rembrandt’s portraits truly moved me. (not to mention Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony-perfect for adolescent rapture.)But there’s so much out there that is technically proficient decoration, and so much out there that isn’t even that. And adults are not quite as impressionable as adolescents, although the Rembrandts I just saw in Vienna still moved me.
Then we come again to music. We sent home our walkperson and tapes along with our ski clothes to lighten our luggage burden. So we haven’t been listening to any canned music- something we normally do daily at home. We have been going to concerts instead. When we went to the Prague Chamber Ballet, we were, well, shocked, to hear recorded music again. We had just gone to hear the Mozart Requiem two nights before, with chamber orchestra, chorus, and soloists. This piece couldn’t be more different from Puccini. It was beautiful in its own way, profound and spiritual, and to my ear, unpredictable. We’ve been living like “the old days”-before recordings, only able to hear music when it is played. All of which makes me feel like if I ever choreograph or perform again, it will have to be with live music. In spite of all the bad music out there, I am beginning to think that music may be the truest art. I have always loved the language of movement, but the older I get, the more the narcissism of dance bothers me. Is it possible to perform a dance without a trace of self-glorification? Is it possible to perform simply as an instrument of the choreography? I don’t really know, and I don’t know exactly why this issue has become so important to me...maybe it’s old age, that there’s not so much left in my personal instrument of dance to be narcissistic about.
Prague is a mysterious, elusive city and for the most part it eluded us. A combination of the cold weather that continued from Vienna, the fifteen minute ride into the city from our pension, a beautiful guide book that was beautifully illustrated but in fact un-illuminating, and mid-stream doldrums that settles on us every once in a while, made the city itself remain aloof from us. It is definitely on our list of places to come back to. It will certainly be different as the place fills with the energy of new opportunity.
Sometime during the week we cleared up my confusion about what train station we were leaving from. Both stations start with the same letter and are abbreviated in the schedules and I had jumped to the wrong conclusion about our train. So, bright and early Monday morning we were off to Strasbourg, a city we picked out of the guide book as another half way point. An easy ride even with three train changes and we arrived with plenty of daylight left because we have changed along with all of Europe to Daylight Savings Time. We took a nice walk made sort of embarrassing by the noise our luggage wheels made on the old paving blocks of the streets.
We have yet to take a taxicab in Europe. We have opted for subways and buses and have managed the intricacies of each city’s systems pretty well, even if I thought that the official on the Prague tram was trying to sell me a piece of ceramic when in fact he was asking to see a valid ticket and showing me his badge.
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