13 June 2018

Breakthrough

The weather settles into a cool and rainy week. The humidity has condensed around the cornices of Žižkov, rolling past the rooftops toward the Old Town. The rain comes and goes for a few hours here and there, and at night lightning reaches down to zap whatever poor television antenna can be found between the parapets.

On Wednesday, I spend the early morning coming up with reasons to stay inside, washing clothes and sweeping floors and making eggs. All the windows in my apartment are open, periodically slamming shut as the draft changes, drawing in spits of rain from outside. The air is fresh and dark. Breathing it is a pleasure.

I have been sketching, taking very few photos as part of a deal Logan made with me: draw something every day. So far, we are keeping our promises, filling our sketchbooks with visions of the city. My sketches lack something—they lack light, or perhaps shadow. I scour the internet looking for books on sketching cities, and read them with a cup of instant coffee.

At 10:30, I head out to Coffee Room, on Vinohradská, probably the best small café in the neighborhood, and without a doubt the most overstaffed. Three separate employees—each different shades of millenial-European-chic—participate in the delivery of a single cup of black tea to the counter where I'm trying to draw something outside. The tea is delicious, but the drawing sucks.

I stay for an hour or two. It's raining harder outside. I am cooped up, and I want to leave.

The weather settles down for a moment, and I decide the problem is my pen. This is a common line of reasoning for me, and the illusion that prevented me from ever advancing past frosh-soph level basketball in high school: I am the shoddy workman who blames his tools.

Only this time, it really is the fault of the tools. And I can prove it.

I stomp down Vinohradská and pass by a small art supply shop. It's a hole-in-the-wall by any standard, and the sort of place where none of the merchandise is displayed; instead, there's a long wooden display case and a woman who will retrieve whatever it is you're looking for. There's probably three feet between the front window and the counter, and when I walk in, an elderly couple who have just finished arguing with the cashier about paintbrushes must squeeze by me, soaked and dripping with water.

This is the kind of store I love—a knowledgeable proprietor who can recommend exactly what you need based on your problem. For me: I have a ballpoint pen that runs too much and doesn't make it very easy to draw fine details or small shapes. Problem is, she doesn't speak English (the real problem is that I don't speak Czech, but...). Here we go again.

"Pen," I say, "too big — velky, ano?" She nods.
"I need — Chtěl bych něco malé."  
I am positive this is not correct. I sound like a two-year-old. 
She nods again. "Dobře," she says, okay, "Micron?" she says.
Perfect. 

Two new Micron pens in my bag and seventy-two crowns poorer, I set off to find something to sketch. The rain returns and I find myself in a metro station not far from where I need to end up later in the day for a meeting. I hunker down in a corner, on the foot-bar of a broken public telephone, and set to work. 



11 June 2018

Vítkov

There's another street festival today. I can't think of another city with as much public programming concentrated into such a small area. It's hard not to have something to do. Even if that something is watching sixteen-year-old thespians try their best at Macbeth. 

Today, though, there's plenty of music, and for those who are managing to stay dry, it's a perfect way to wander through the city. Or in my case, wander up and down the city. 

By three in the afternoon, the rain has really started to fall. I retreat to the interior of a pasaž just off Vaclavské náměstí, where there is döner and a little less water (though the rain is still seeping in around the edges). Logan and I sit for a while, play cards, and eventually work up the courage to move on to our next destination. 

Vítkov hill is crowned with an imposing monument to Czechoslovak statehood and the foreign legions who fought for its independence during World War I. From the flats below, I climb a hundred rough hewn stairs and set foot onto the plaza, the mounted figure of Jan Žižka staring me down. The stone is slick, grey, cold; the trees are parched—it has not rained like this in weeks. No one is up here. It is overcast, and the sun is setting behind the storm. 

We meet up with one of my hosts and explore the interior of the monument, a museum to Czechoslovak statehood—in addition to Music Day, it's also Museum Night. A small elevator carries us to the roof.

This is about as high up as one can get, except for Žižkov tower (which doesn't count, in my mind). It would seem in a city with no skyscrapers that getting above Prague's "canopy" would be difficult. I've found the opposite is true. Even a little hill makes for a big view. 

I climb the last ten steps to the catwalk atop the building. As the rain falls, the city fills the basin of the Vltava, splashing up onto ridges and into adjacent valleys; pooling neck deep in Smíchov and Karlín; the waves of Žižkov and Letná threaten to break, washing away the flats below.  

In this sea of buildings, of squares and railway lines, of steeples and red-tiled roofs, Vítkov is an even-keeled ship from another, grander era. And for a moment, I am at its helm.

The helm of the city.

Crow's nest.

10 June 2018

Day 16: Sketches

There is no better way to understand what you're looking at than to try and draw it. If what you're looking at is a city, the logic is the same. I have been trying to sketch something every day while I've been here, and I've taken the last few days' sketches as examples of how difficult it is to faithfully capture what's all around us. I've added street view and maps where possible so you can judge for yourself. 

Vojtěšská, street view

The view from my tiny balcony

No street view; Ha Noi Quan restaurant

Nitranská, street view

Inside the courtyard of a café in Malostrankská.

07 June 2018

Day 15: Olšany

By now, there is a kind of routine. I am trying to wake up earlier, but because it's bright here long into the evening, I find it hard to go to sleep. I tap snooze more times than I care to admit—those close to me know I rarely do so—and climb out of my loft-bed at about 8:00.

Today, I have resolved to take a walk first thing and complete a Czech lesson. Something about being here makes it difficult to stick to my pledge to do a Czech lesson per day—I am constantly awash in the language either way.

Nevertheless, today, I stick to my goal, walking a mile and repeating after the narrator of a Pimsleur tape. I am drawn to the closest green space to my house, which happens to be the westernmost of the Olšany Cemeteries, a set of contiguous graveyards that comprise the largest burial site in the Czech Republic. I have visited large cemeteries before, but few that are simultaneously so large and so dense. There are 65,000 individual graves, many of which serve as markers for couples or entire families. In total, about 250,000 people are buried at Olšany, about the same number as rest in Brookwood Cemetery outside London (among the largest cemeteries by area in all of Europe)—in a country about 85% smaller than the U.K. in terms of population, and in an area squeezed between two large residential neighborhoods.

The Atrium Flora mall, eight stories tall, towers over the cemetery's south-west wall. As I walk past family crypts and note the length or brevity of the lives commemorated, I can see shoppers picking outfits and waiting in line at KFC.

It is rush hour, and the cemetery is surrounded by major streets on the two sides I can see, but I can't hear tires on cobblestone or clattering trams; no, there's only a vague sense of movement beyond the cemetery's high walls. Life goes on outside. In here, there are so many names, and so many dates, so many flowers heaped in a trash bin through which a bearded man is now sorting; a widower collecting a bouquet.

I repeat the instructions of a disembodied narrator while wandering through the graveyard. "Imagine you are an American man meeting a Czech acquaintance," says the narrator, "ask him if he wants to have lunch on Vodičkova street". I stop in front of one of the Dvořáks and pose the question. No answer.




Day 13 & 14: Žižkovské pivobraní

This weekend brings to the good people of Prague the annual Žižkovské pivobraní, a festival of small brewers and Czech bands in a park not far from where I am staying.

I go with my hosts to enjoy the music, the weather, the beer, and the people.

It is a simple pair of relaxed days, about which one can say very little other than: may we have many more.

05 June 2018

Day 12: Hlavní nádraží


It was not so long ago that I made my first, tentative trip to Prague. I had been in Braitslava for about a month and was eager to have a trip ahead of me and meet two family friends—Slovakia's capital is a ghost town on summer weekends, and it feels doubly so to an out-of-towner. 

I remember leaving work early to catch the train to Prague. My journal says it was June 24, 2016, but it felt like spring in Bratislava, which was overcast in the mornings and cool at night.

The train left Bratislava at 6:30, and crossed into Czechia at the River Morava, about an hour after that. After stopping in Brno, the train wound its way through the rocky Žďárské vrchy and the Iron Mountains before descending from the Bohemian-Moravian highland into the Bohemian Basin.

The arrival into Prague's main station by westward trains is achieved by means of a pair of tunnels underneath Vítkov Hill. After its four hour journey, the train passes through these tunnels before emerging to a triumphant view of the ridges above the river Vltava, rounding a final bend, and coming to a halt under a magnificent wrought-iron and glass canopy originally constructed in the Austo-Hungarian era. I remember grabbing my backpack, gazing upward, and padding down the stairs to the metro. If Hlavní nádraží is a testament to middle European-imperial tastes above ground, its underbelly is a monument to Socialist Modernism, all salmon marble and rectilinear columns; solemn, contemporary fonts with grandiose scale and generous tracking.

I cannot imagine a better way to arrive in this city.

And so, on Friday, I find myself drawn back to this place that so fascinates me; I shoot photos for two hours, record sounds, and watch people board trains to Warsaw, Graz, Berlin, and beyond.

Travelers rush to catch a train at Prague's main station.
I see lovers embracing before a weekend apart; men and women rushing to catch their train to Austria (the next one isn't till tomorrow!); brief moments of panic and deep contentment as passengers find their trains. The loudspeaker, in a constant barrage of Czech and English, is the disembodied choreographer of a vast, informal ballet, shouting from the wings the dancers' steps.



"Ladies and gentlemen,
 please board the international express train
 number nine-zero-four-six for Břeclav
 scheduled departure at
 two-oh-five
on platform three."

Finishing paperwork for an afternoon regional service to one of Prague's many commuter towns. 

Then, the announcements stop. It's 3:22pm. For a whole minute, I hear only the sounds of steel on steel and the hush of rain. I wonder, has the whole system has come to grinding halt? Is it over? 
The station will close. The conductors will loosen their crisp collars, and smoke their last cigarettes, and throw the paperwork from the delayed EuroCity into the puddles that have collected between the rails, and we'll all go get a beer, and—

"Ladies and gentlemen,
 this is the last call for passengers traveling 
to Prague airport via the Prague Airport Express.
To reach the bus stop,
please follow the
bus pictograms."

The station has been recently renovated; at least as far as platform six, where signs and tile work from the late 1970s are still visible.
The station's imperial grandeur has been retrofitted, expanded, spit-shined, and more in the century-and-a-half since its construction.



* * *


Day 11: What is a speakeasy?

Thursday.

By the end of the week, I'm running out of energy. There's been a lot of walking around in the heat, hurrying up to wait, and grinding other people's gears because I can't speak Czech.

I contemplate setting aside my work for the day and going to find a lake to jump into (metaphorically and in a literal sense).


But I instead head back down to the University to listen to presentations about urban geographic issues by some of the students and faculty at Charles. I listen to a Czech millenial give a presentation on the nature of speakeasies during American Prohibition, which he gets about halfway through before someone sitting next to me whispers in my ear, "What's a speakeasy?". A good reminder to start with the basics, even in a room full of smart people.



Later, I schlepp up the hill to Holešovice to meet up with Logan, and we wind up spending a couple hours sitting outside Veletržní palác after a misunderstanding with the waiter results in another round of beers instead of the check.



I head home just as the sky is fading to dark, the streetlights flickering on and off.



02 June 2018

Day 10: T-Three

I am invited to go to a conference happening in one of Prague's handsomest neighborhoods, Bubeneč, and I arrive a half hour early to explore the area. Bubeneč was a Russian enclave neighborhood before World War II, but its outer quarter is today home to embassies and private villas. I am on my way to Villa Lanna, the stately Austo-Hungarian summer house where the Czech Academy of Sciences hosts visitors and conferences. On my way, I pass Slovakia's embassy (world's easiest diplomatic posting?), Egypt's, and the embassy of the People's Republic of China, which comprises at least three houses and a pair of tennis courts on a massive, walled-off compound.

Large, black S-Classes come and go. 

But two villas on this block puzzle me: the first, an opulent, unmarked house with high fences and no flag flying; and the second, a seemingly abandoned embassy in total disrepair. 

Because I can't let a good mystery go unsolved, I later visit Czech online property records and determine the first house is owned by the United States and is probably the ambassador's residence (he has tennis courts too, by the way). The second house is owned by South Korea, but is not their main embassy, which is located elsewhere in Prague. A fixer-upper for another time, perhaps. 

When it's time to go, I stand at the Hradčanská tram stop. It's overcast, cool for the first time in days. And to my great delight (though it's no surprise), when my tram arrives, it's a Tatra T3.

The Tatra T3 is as close to transit perfection as I believe one can get. See, these old hands have been in continuous operation since 1960 when they were first manufactured here in Prague. They are reliable, simple, functional machines that rarely break down and are easily fixed. They do not pollute, they carry one hundred passengers per car, and there are thousands of them still trundling around cities from Riga to Tashkent to Sarajevo. 

ČKD, the state-owned manufacturer of Tatra trams, produced 15,000 T3s from 1960 through 1989. For comparison, the New York Metro has under 5,000 train cars in its fleet. Moscow bought more than 2,000 T3s. Prague has about 1,100. Though they are increasingly being replaced by larger, newer trams, the T3 is still common on the streets of major cities throughout the former Soviet bloc. 

I'm not sure I can think of another machine that is comparable to the T3. Maybe a well-built camera (a Leica?)—but even the most functional, reliable cameras from sixty years ago are obsolete. A great old car? Too finicky; gas guzzlers. 

No, even if there are thousands of them, the T3 is one of a kind—and here in Prague, it's as much a part of the city as Wenceslas Square. 

The T3s were on the streets in 1968 during the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact. They were here in November of 1989 when the Iron Curtain was collapsing. And they're here today. The T3 is one of the core modes of experiencing the city, moving through it, coming to understand its spatial makeup. Pubs are opened and closed according to where the tram stops; amorous glances are exchanged between passengers (perhaps they see each other every day; perhaps they will meet; perhaps, perhaps, perhaps!); whole lives, whole generations of lives, have revolved around the tram. And not any tram, but this particular kind of tram! For more than half a century. 

The T3 is not a set piece, or a background extra; no, it is one of the stages on which the life of the city unfolds. 

Protestors crowding a Tatra T3 tram on the streets of Prague during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. 
Another. 
A T3 in Prague
Amorous glances on a renovated T3 in Bratislava.

A T3 in Bratislava




01 June 2018

Day 9: Sapa #1

Today is the day I have been waiting for. Today is the day I finally see Sapa for myself.

I began this research project more than six months ago, and I wake up nervous that whatever I find it will never meet my expectations. The whole way down to the market, this thought is in my head. On the metro, ABBA in my headphones; on bus #113, baking in the morning sun, I pass rows and rows of old panelaky (prefabricated panel buildings), every one situated just-so, according to some rational central plan whose result is profoundly disorienting. Yet as I approach my stop, I can't help but smile when I spot the wholesalers' entrance. It looks like an improvised border crossing (in a way, it is), complete with flags, barricades, and an official who does not look official.

Bye-bye, centrally-planned hellscape. Hello, Sapa.

I hop off the bus and meet Tereza, my contact, who has been working with this community for about a decade. Her personal contacts are unmatched by any other academic, and she is among the few non-Vietnamese outsiders who are trusted friends of Saparia, the company that owns the market space.

She is outgoing and friendly, shepherding a group of younger CU Boulder students through the market's many warehouses, semi-streets, and sidewalks. She rattles off facts about the market like a character in an Aaron Sorkin script: at ease, confident, and by far the smartest person in the room. I hang back and take notes. The pace of new information is too fast for me to capture everything, so my handwriting reverts to a scrawl even the most seasoned teacher would struggle to read.

I can't really take photos (it's frowned upon—I manage to snap a few), but the market is rich with visual material. There are signs in Vietnamese and Czech, with bits of Russian, English, and Chinese thrown in here and there. Street vendors smash frozen water bottles with geologic hammers to make crushed ice. Porsches and Range Rovers are mixed in with every conceivable variant of the European delivery van: Skodas and Renaults and Fords and Dacias and on and on. Each storefront is a world unto itself, and as Tereza later tells me, each owner competes relentlessly against the others. The whole complex, all sixty-six acres, runs mostly on cash and verbal agreements. I am told merchants from the Saxony-Bohemia and beyond show up with hundreds of thousands of Czech crowns ready to buy anything from sweaters to handbags to potato chips by the thousands.

But it's not just small businesses: big businesses increasingly want to establish a foothold in this prosperous and vibrant enclave. I see offices for Vietnam Airlines, a few bank branches (though Tereza tells me the banks have difficulty succeeding in this cash-first environment), and perhaps the biggest business by revenue, Tamda Foods.

Tamda is a wholesale warehouse store (a cash & carry) with two locations in Czechia, in the capital city of Morvaia, Brno; and here in Prague. Tamda was founded just seven years ago, and in 2016 Inc. ranked Tamda #39 on its list of the 5000 fastest-growing companies in Europe. And they don't accept anything but cash—580,000,000 Czech crowns' worth of cash in 2014, according to public information. This is one to watch.

And the market is only growing. Anecdotally, merchants are traveling farther to get to Sapa and buying more than ever. The trucks that arrive from around Europe are getting larger and more numerous. The demand is so great for Vietnamese food specialties, Tereza tells me, that farmers here in Czechia are now cultivating thai basil, perilla, lemongrass, and other essential herbs for the European market. Tereza tells me that Vietnamese women can be seen from the highway outside Prague working in the fields and wearing nón lá, the iconic conical Vietnamese leaf-hats.

Unlike their counterparts downtown, Vietnamese restaurants at Sapa tend to specialize in just one dish. Here, there are three options: fried duck, boiled duck, and fried pork. 

The World of Haribo inside Tamda Foods

The loading platforms at Tamda are increasingly visited by larger vans and trucks. 

The pedestrian entrance to Sapa

Sapa is on the site of what used to be a meat processing plant

Low-rise industrial buildings have been repurposed as one of Europe's largest wholesale markets.

Three levels of businesses compete for sign space—and parking.

There is an on-side pagoda, which had plenty of visitors while we rested on the floor next to the shrine. 

Sapa is situated amid traditional socialist-modernist towers-in-the-park. The clock pictured at top-left is another phenomenon about which I'd like to write more. There are more public clocks in Prague than any other city I've visited. 

Day 8: New Faces (Not Pictured)

I'm going to keep today short, because you can't say something interesting every day. 

I go down to Univerzita Karlova (Charles University in Prague founded 1348!) to meet with some of the sources I'm consulting. I am going to omit their names from this public blog for the moment, but they will perhaps make appearances later. Suffice to say they are a kind group of people, and they give me a workspace and a warm welcome at their offices in Albertov. 

It's hot, probably the hottest day so far, and I am sweaty when I arrive at my meeting. The office is on the top floor, and there's no air conditioning (to be expected). The reprieve comes only when I am led up a small spiral staircase to the top of one of the building's corner turrets. From the perch I can see over this whole district of Prague and up to the Vysehrad. It's breezy and cool up here. 

I take the tram up into the center of town and wander for a little while. It's evening rush hour, and Masarykovo nadrazi, the main commuter railway station, is shoulder-to-shoulder as I walk by. Logan and I find a great place to have svíčková, beef in gravy with boiled bread-dumplings and cranberry sauce. Delicious.

The walk home is full of photographic moments, most of which escape me. 





Day 7: Soup and Brutalism

Today is my first bowl of pho of this trip. It has taken a few days in Prague to get my act together, but I recruit Logan to join me, and we find a little storefront inside a pasaž just off Narodní: Pho Viet Restaurant

We order two bowls of pho bo at the counter and they arrive immediately. The soup is flavored to Czech tastes: not spicy, not sour. Limes and chiles solve this problem. It's strange to see Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha sitting on the table. You travel 6,000 miles and the sauce comes from Irwindale. 

I am about to knock over Logan's beer trying to reach the Sriracha.
The menus at pho places in Prague tend to cover a broad swath of cuisine ranging from familiar Vietnamese recipes to psuedo- and pan-Asian (and sometimes South Asian) foods: sushi (usually with cooked fish), egg rolls (pork is a favorite), masala curry. I am collecting menus because I suspect there is a relationship between how close a pho place is to the center of town and how much non-Vietnamese cuisine it serves. I will write more about this some other time. 
We finish lunch and take care of an errand that feels mandatory but really isn't: buying a data SIM for my phone. Wired in, we set off to shoot photos of whatever urban set pieces we can find. We walk through a few pasažy, past the cubist lamp post (Tourists are taking photos reminiscent of Chris Burden's Urban Light at LACMA), and onto Wenceslas Square, which is probably the most photographed place anywhere in former Czechoslovakia. In November '89, somewhere in the neighborhood of one million people gathered here to demonstrate against the Communist Party over the course of five weeks that came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. Now, there's a KFC and a Sberbank Branch. It's hard to read into the space that exists now any profound urban-spatial conclusions, except that business is booming and there are tourists everywhere. 

We walk up (or is it down?) the square and come upon the brilliant midcentury brutalist Transgas building, next door to the Český rozhlas headquarters. Textured with dark cobblestone reminiscent of the inside of a mineshaft, its imposing cantilevered control room hangs over the sidewalk. The sunken plaza, that great sin against urbanism, is doubly bad because it's also a parking lot for about six cars. The control room is connected to the main building, a vast glass-and-steel complex, by two gas pipes large enough to walk through. Built by the Czechoslovak government to serve as HQ and control room for a pipeline delivering Soviet gas to the rest of Europe, the building was finished in 1978. The latest news suggests that the whole complex is set to be demolished to make way for a new office development, which is a profound shame. There aren't too many buildings like this, and I promise whatever replaces it will not be as strange and haunting as the current structure. 

An undated photo from Wikimedia Commons; the VZP (General Insurance of Czech Republic) sign is no longer present.

View from the sidewalk on Vinohradska


Mezzanine level, looking northwest.

Mezzanine level, looking northeast toward Vinohradska

The control room is a machine for working in, and its human fuel is taken in through large gas pipes. 

The decaying fountain around back

28 May 2018

Day 6: the Egg Man and What Stalin Left Behind

It's a bright Saturday morning, and I make the trek down six floors of stairs (that's twelve flights; thanks for nothing, high ceilings) and down Vinohradská to Nám. Jiřího z Poděbrad, where I've been told there is a good farmers market. I am hesitant to try to buy something, because something about embarrassing myself this early in the morning seems unfair. This is a passing reservation. Friends of mine will tell you that in fact, I love embarrassing myself.

I need essentials, so I approach a middle age stand keeper to whom I will refer as the Egg Man, and just like my Pimsleur tapes taught me, I begin,"Dobrý den, rozumíte anglicky?"  

Hi, do you understand English? I have been waiting for this moment for months. I can feel my heart beating in my chest. 

"Ne." No.

Usually the tapes don't go like this, but I have prepared for the possibility. "Rozumíte francouzsky?" Do you understand French? I ask. 

"Ne." Again.

"Rozumíte rusky?" Do you understand Russian? asks the Egg Man. Of course. This guy is fifty-five years old. They weren't teaching "Business English Basics" in school back then. 

"Nyet. Ne. Prominte." Nyet. No. Sorry! I say, and he lets out a big, barrel-chested laugh. 

Well, why would you? he seems to say. 

It's at this moment that we both realize how silly this whole exercise is. 

I am a man in front of an egg stand. I'm not here to read a gas meter, or deliver a pizza. I want to buy eggs. 

"Tak, dobře, rozumime. Vejce. Velké nebo malé?" So, okay. I understand well enough. Eggs. Small or large? 

Small, thanks. 

I buy three more items, and the only person who does speak English tries to upsell me organic asparagus for $10 a bunch. I leave the market with an air of confidence, two apples, a head of lettuce, and twelve small eggs. 

* * * 

Later in the day, breakfast made, clock ticking toward noon, I text Logan. Logan lives next door to me in Carrboro, and just happens to be in Prague at the same time as me. I make my way down the hill into the flatter part of Žižkov, passing some classic socialist modernist architecture on the way:


Peace out

Hollister is somehow very popular here

Žižkov tower

We meet up near Letná Park, home to a popular beer garden that overlooks the whole of the city from atop a hill. We sit at the picnic tables, hearing plenty of English mixed in with the unwholesome jeers of a large group of Czech teens, whose afternoon plans are some combination of drinking beer and catcalling women. One woman goes and sits down next to them and lights a cigarette, which to me reads as a power play for which the teens are totally unprepared. Not long after, the teens get up and slink away.


View from Lentá Park

Logan and I have pints of foamy Staropramen, served by a surly bartender who seems intent on leaving the plastic cups a third empty. I joke that he'd be soaked in beer if there weren't so many tourists here.

The park swells with throngs of people and the kebap stand runs out of shwarma, so we take our cue and walk further up the hill to the Metronome. 

Built atop a salmon-colored marble pediment where once stood a statue of Stalin, the Metronome was installed in 1991 to remind Praguers of the time gone by under Communist rule, and the rhythm of the present. It's a beautiful, 75-foot art-machine-monument, but what I'm interested in is happening underneath its swing. 



The entire area is tagged from head to toe, covered with street art and territorial claims. Bottles of Club Mate and cigarette butts litter the ground. Flitting around on skateboards are dozens of kids, teens, and a few old-timers. Where Stalin once stood, now no one is in charge. The whole place is a big middle-finger to authority, in the most poignant spot in the city. 

It seems to me that these kids aren't here because there's nowhere else to go; rather, they are a kind of informal representative of the people, elected to perform an important ritual. They desecrate this place to sanctify the rest of the city; they kick-flip and grind away the marble Stalin left behind. I plan to come back and talk to these kids—what do they know about the space? What was it like ten years ago? Twenty? 

27 May 2018

Day 5: North by Northeast

We wake up around 7, finally overcoming our jet lag. I make tea and we sit on the terrace for the world's smallest administrative cabinet meeting. Optimal times to depart for the airport are discussed. Breakfast policy is developed, including the possible contingencies if we fail to find suitable café on our favorite square. Banter is exchanged, but not too much, because it's early, and no one likes a sarcastic bedfellow.

Today is a travel day, which is an odd middle ground between a real day and no day at all. It is a day of always having another half hour to kill.

We go back to our local café for breakfast, buy yellow-ribbon pins from a Catalan storekeeper, and pack up our bags to insure the Guarda Civil will find no liquid out of place. We say goodbye to Enric, leaving a thank-you note in broken French.

We kill a half-dozen half hours before fleeing the scene by metro around 11:00.

We arrive at Plaça Espanya around 11:15, and wait briefly for the bus to the airport. Goodbyes are exchanged (tears are not shed; this has already taken place) Aisling makes her plane to Dublin and I mine to Prague.

In an hour, I am high above the Mediterranean, watching the Spanish coastline turn shades of French before disappearing beneath the clouds. When I again spot land, we are above a coastal city, whose identity I can't know but can speculate about; I will later find out it's Marseille and not Trieste, whose role as the southern terminus of the Iron Curtain would have made for far better symbolism.

takeoff

the alps

landing


The Mediterranean coast rises into the foothills of the Alps; before long, I can see nothing but peaks, ridges. I want to recognize the mountains below me, but I can only guess. I can only guess, that is, until I spot Mont Blanc, which is too big to miss. Picture a gigantic mountain; it looks like that.

The seat belt sign is turned on as we pass over its ridge line, and the Czech men mulling about the galley and flirting with the flight attendants must return to their seats. As the turbulence subsides, we turn east, and with the sun now behind us, descend into high plains of Bavaria, over tidy Austria, and into the Czech lands. It is said that whoever controls these rolling hills and fertile plains controls all Europe; the modern reality is less romantic: whoever controls this land presides over a significant portion of Europe’s auto manufacturing; a growing services economy; a rich cultural heritage; and perhaps the finest lager in the world. I am told there are six hundred breweries in this country of just over ten million inhabitants

Looking down from 30,000 feet, I know when I’ve crossed into the former eastern bloc. Though the turbulence once again sets in, I don’t think it’s the rumblings of un-atoned totalitarianism that give it away. No, it's something else—the farms.

It's relatively easy to spot the difference. On the south-west side of the Bömerwald Mountains, in Bavaria, Germany, there are thousands of small fields under cultivation—all different colors, shapes, and sizes:

Small farms surrounding Osterhofen, near Deggendorf, Bavaria. Eye altitude: 30,151 ft.  

Cross the Bömerwald into the Czech Republic and suddenly, the small-hold farms disappear in favor of fewer, larger fields:

Large fields surrounding Horazdovice, near Plzeň, Czech Republic. Eye altitude: 30,920 ft. 
Why the difference? Collectivization.

The short explanation is that the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia instituted a policy of agricultural collectivization in 1949, and after decades of underinvestment in agricultural production in favor of heavy industry, encouraged in the 1970s further industrialization of agriculture, leading to additional farm consolidation. As part of West Germany, Bavaria never underwent collectivization, and so more traditional agricultural arrangements pervade.

* * *

We land, and I make my way to meet my hosts, who are lovely. We visit a church in the neighborhood—it's open-house night for churches in Prague—and walk up to the top of the clocktower. I take photos. We have a beer. I am exhausted.