Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Prague Obscura

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When I think of my trip to Prague, it comes back in fragmented images and memories. I see flashes of gold from Gothic architecture, I hear whispers of classical and baroque music, and I remember how nobody actually pays for the transportation they’re riding. I see gilded basilicas and taste La Boheme Coffee and locally brewed beer cheaper than water—or “Liquid Bread,” as they call it. I also remember being tricked into trading American dollars for Old Polish złoty on the streets, and accidentally paying someone twice the amount of Czech Crowns I was supposed to be paying.

On vacation in Eastern Europe with my dad and my uncle, our plan was to visit Prague and Budapest for two days each. Prague was our first stop. A small city that looks like a scene straight from a fairytale, it is hard to articulate the sheer beauty of the city’s architecture and townscape. Full of nooks and crannies with hidden alleyways stretching from the main town square, it’s an urban plan that seems to defy all logic. Hilly roads and paved cobblestones define and create a city that seems to have sprung from nature itself. I remember viewing the old city from an aerial view and seeing a spectacle of textured layers of vibrant reds, greens, and gold from old architecture that couldn’t have been more picturesque if an old renaissance master had painted it. 

Exploring the city in those two days, we must have circled the town several times, weaving in and out of market places and the Old Town Hall. We visited the famous Astronomical Clock, and I remember being forewarned by the tour guide to not marvel at the mechanical contraption for too long, because that was when thieves liked to steal our money. For the rest of the trip, I refrained from looking up at anything for an extended period of time in case someone would take a cheap shot at my vulnerable state of awe. Thinking back, it almost seems like a blur now. When I’m visiting a country I’ve never been to, something inside me snaps into action mode, and checking off everything the travel guide said were the “Top Things to do in Prague” suddenly becomes an absolute imperative—so much so that I almost end up missing out on the full experience. There is something about viewing objects and scenes through the lens of a camera that can make us forget to live and enjoy the moment of the images we are actually seeing. Instead, I remember things like the sheer stress of trying to decide on a restaurant with the most authentic Prague experience, later settling on a pizza joint that we had already passed by several times blindly.

I remember the people as artists, vintners, musicians,  and athletes, and I remember learning that mullets are still very in vogue. The best way I can describe the people of Prague is summed up in one memory. Prague is home to many ice creameries, and I enjoyed some of the best gelato I ever had on that trip. Most of the creameries charge by the scoop, usually about 30 CZK, so almost two dollars a scoop. My first time buying gelato at a stand, I asked the woman for three scoops of gelato. She proceeded to produce a tiny scooper the size of one and a half tablespoons, and every time she scooped, she would carefully scrape the sides of the scooper against the tub of gelato so as to give me no more and no less of the exact amount I paid for. This would happen every time I tried to buy ice cream. Perish the thought that I should accidentally get one extra mouthful of delicious gelato.  

When it was time to leave Prague, we decided to take the train to Budapest. The train seats were orange and plastic, and I remember the window shades were broken, so the balmy heat of the sun would come in and hit us directly on our faces. It was uncomfortable and hot, and everyone’s skin was layered with a light sheen of sweat. The people in our compartment were comprised of a multitude of different characters. Spain had just won the world cup, so our Spaniard seatmates spent the entire eight-hour train ride drinking. Another one of our companions was a medical researcher from Kenya who was making the journey to an AIDS conference in Vienna. He and my uncle talked with each other most of the ride. Sitting next to me was a young man from Switzerland named Willie, who was backpacking across Europe before starting college. I learned that he was eighteen and that his dream was to open up a martial arts school because that it had helped him cope when he was “young and fat,” as he put it. Looking at his muscular physique, I would never have guessed. He told me he just came from Barcelona, and that if he smelled, it was because he hadn’t showered in days. When my dad gave him an apple, Willie declared that he hadn’t tasted anything so delicious in a a long time because he had been living off cheap, weight-watchers ravioli his entire journey. He later said he would write in his journal about how he met generous people on the train. I also learned that Twilight was his favorite movie because it was one of the few American films that had made it to Switzerland. Our conversation kind of petered off after that. However, I would later describe that train ride as a great yet surreal experience where I got to meet people from all different walks of life, finding moments and connections with people that I would never soon be forgetting. 

That train ride made me think about what it actually means to travel. Juxtaposed with my earlier experience in Prague that consisted of blurry, stressful, and almost memoryless images of the sights, I had colorful, singular, interpersonal encounters transitioning from one place to another on a train. I don’t remember very much detail of any of Prague’s most famous attractions, and maybe that makes me a bad traveler in once sense, but meeting and bonding with the people on that train didn’t make me feel like “the other” that is so characteristic of being a foreign traveler. My most vivid memories were ones of interacting with the people, and those memories, even if seemingly insignificant, were the highlight of my trip. 

After arriving in Budapest, we spent the next day venturing through the city. Unlike Prague or Vienna, Budapest’s landscape isn’t one with sprawling, perfectly restored architecture or a vibrant tourist culture. There’s almost a smoky, grey quality about the city, but it’s the crumbling buildings and seemingly untamed territory that give it its character. The people are much like the land. Weathered, sun-soaked, and lined. They seem to live harder lives and it shows on their faces. I felt it was a place that was hyperbolic in its Slavic character. I was struck by the attitude and atmosphere brought on by the difference in nature of the people and the city. When we first made it to Budapest, my dad found a great deal on rooms in a cheap motel. My most distinct memories from the night were paper-thin walls and my next-door neighbor listening to Hungarian rap till four in the morning. My window didn’t have screens, so I was forced to choose between what I dramatically thought was either death by heat or demise by insects. I chose to open the window for a barely-there breeze, and then proceeded to spend the night squashing every bug to buzz into my room. I got so many mosquito bites on my fingers that, strangely, I couldn’t move them for the rest of the trip. My dad, who was in the room above, said he got the most refreshing sleep that night. My uncle said he didn’t sleep at all. After that, we cut our stay in Budapest short. We left the next day, continuing our adventures elsewhere. And from there, I had the time of my life, without worrying about capturing every little moment while forgetting to live it. Those attractions are just the details.  

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