Saturday, July 20, 2013

Why I Love Prague

Someone asked me this week why I am so keen on the Czech Republic.  (I loved the C.R. before our Czech exchange student lived with us, and it was partly because of that that we chose Adam.)

I don't think I would have been asked that question twenty years ago.

In the early 1990's, people were talking about Prague as though it were the lost city of Atlantis suddenly coughed up from the bottom of the sea.

In the ultra-popular movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Daniel Day-Lewis played a young Czech surgeon whose complex personal relationships were in the foreground of Prague's Velvet Revolution.  (I thought Daniel Day-Lewis's character was unattractive and narcissistic and I did not like the movie, but that's beside the point.)  Point was, Prague was the new Paris.

I traveled with my first (not to say ex, not to say last) husband from 1992 - 1993, and I have the whining journals to prove it.  I have photographs, too, but they were pre-digital, so viewing them is like being very near-sighted.

The essential issue of my first marriage, the one that led, ultimately, to divorce, became evident early in our travels.

Dan's powers of reasoning, which were acute, were also exclusively sequential, and mine were preternaturally intuitive.

I saw an early Shakespeare play earlier this month, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.  In it, the two main characters were offering proofs for their every assertion.  By proofs, I mean, those "if this then that" proofs that you have to work out in Logic class.

And that's pretty much what my first husband, (let's call him Dan, because that is his name), wanted.  He wanted me to offer a coherent proof to support my every assertion.

Well, that was not going to happen, clearly.  

When I was working at Academic Press as a production editor, (in Central Square, Cambridge, 1994), I worked on a textbook on artificial intelligence.  What I read was they had figured out how to make computers (or robots) reason sequentially; if this, then that...  But they had yet to figure out how to program them to think intuitively.

I got very excited about this, because, growing up, I got the sense that intuition was a woman's intellectual currency, which was why we made only 52 cents on every dollar a man made, with his superior powers of sequential reasoning--aka, reasoning.

But hold on!  What I read in that book said something very different.

(Stay with me, we're on a train of thought going to Prague.)

It said that intuition was a process of simultaneously retrieving or recalling all of the relevant data in your mind, consciously and unconsciously; of weighing and measuring and eliminating and, ultimately deducing, from the sum of all of one's experience and knowledge, some kind of answer.

That answer may not be empirical or correct, but it has context and relevance, and, furthermore, the intuitive mind continues to integrate all new information and experience into the general rubric.

They could not, in 1994, program a computer or robot to do this, because it was enormously more complex than sequential reasoning.

Flash back to 1992.

"What is your basis for saying that?  Where did that come from?"

How do you explain the geometry of flying confetti?

The word alienated comes to mind, but it isn't sad enough for what we both felt in our mutual misunderstanding.  Let's just say, we were together, but we were lonely.

I think I was more lonely, because I became very depressed.

And then Mom came to meet me in Europe and we took a train from Munich to Prague.

(Sometimes, during our year of travels, Dan and I would split up for a while, go to different places, and then meet up somewhere and continue on together.  He, for example, went to Everest, while I chose to hike the "Apple Pie Trail" in the Annapurna region, for obvious reasons.  All this to say, Dan was not with us when Mom and I went to Prague.)

My mother is both sequential and intuitive.  She reasons all over the place, she's very good at it.  She's one of the smartest people most people who know my mother know.  I know this because they tell me so.

(Sometimes it's not easy, being the daughter of a mother like this, but most of the time it's fabulous.)

Whereas I was weary and discouraged from months of backpacking the Hippy Trail without substantiating proofs to defend my every thought, my mother was exuberant with nonjudgmental enthusiasm for conversation and travel.

We stayed in a bright airy room in a family-run pension a few subway stops outside of Prague.   There was bottled water and beer in a mini-fridge.  There were interesting photographs on the walls.  We thought it perfect.

It was October, and shades of orange and red foliage framed the Vltava River (here, in snow).  '

Physically, what I loved about Prague, other than the fact that it contained my mother, which put me in a very high mood, was it's incredibly broad spectrum of colors and moods. Above, you see the Karlov Most (Charles Bridge), flanked by thirty statues, all of them saints, all of them heavily larded with deep religious archetypes...Statute of the Lamentation of Christ...the Crucifix and Calvary...the Statue of the Madonna attending St. Bernard...St. Francis of Assisi...

Looming above and within Prague Castle, you see St. George's Basilica, circa 920.  Super Gothic, buttresses flying everywhere, gargoyles pouring from the corners of every gutter.

Within these fortified walls, Kafka metamorphosed into adulthood.

Here, within this tower, we first read the word "defenestration," which means, to forcefully de-window some poor soul within to without.


To recap, on one side of the great Gothic bridge, you have Prague Castle, St. George's Basilica, and Kafka.

On the other side of that bridge, you have "the Lesser Quarter," where you find a lighter mood.

The buildings have orange tiled roofs.  The palette is pastel.

In 1992, a glass of good Bohemian Pilsner in a partially underground tavern with vaulted ceilings cost about 75 cents.

Music seemed to be everywhere playing in Prague, free or cheap, for everyone to enjoy.  We heard concerts in basilicas, we heard music in the square.  Culture, high and low, to quote Seuss was everywhere.

At an English-language bookstore, my mother found a translation of Ivan Klima's My Merry Mornings that she thought I would like.  I loved it.

After my mother and I took the train back to Munich (to Munich's compulsory window boxes full of cheery red geraniums--they had to be red), my mom flew back to the States and I returned to my husband.

Dan and I resumed by train a route through Sophia and Budapest in Hungary; Bratislava, in the Slovak Republic; and Brno and finally Prague, in the Czech Republic.

On the way back to Prague, I read the book by Ivan Klima and somewhere found an autobiography of Vaclav Havel.  They wrote about life under the Soviet Communists, when writers and artists and free-thinkers in general were treated as criminals.  There was no freedom of expression or religion; thinking had to keep step with the party line.

Back then, I had no idea why this resonated so deeply for me.  But now I recognize that I was feeling somewhat repressed in relationship to Dan--not because he was physically or even emotionally overbearing, but because he just didn't get me at all. Conversation on all but the most superficial level had become impossible. I had reached the conclusion that there was something wrong with me.

If I had had other creative types around, if I had not felt so removed from those special friends who had always enjoyed my turn of mind--if I had not been for so long separated from them by thousands of miles--I would not have felt so desperately alone.

I was in Prague for my birthday, October 15. With great kindness and insight, Dan arranged for me to speak with one of my best friends on the phone. It was a complete surprise, tremendously restorative, and such a sweet and loving gift from my husband who, despite our present difficulties, nonetheless understood exactly what I needed most at that moment.

Anyway, for all of these reasons, I love Prague.  I sort of identify with Prague.  I love it's great spectrum of mood and feeling.  I love how accessible culture was when I was there, as though great art should belong to everyone, and not just an elite class of wealthy patrons, (as it seems to in the U.S.).

Prague's struggle throughout the twentieth century to restore and preserve its autonomy, cultural identity and creative freedom strikes a deeply resonating chord in me (as it must have done for many artists and free-thinkers in the late 1980's and early 1990's), in light of Vaclav Havel's celebrated journey from prison to presidency, as the leader of that great bloodless assertion of reason, the Velvet Revolution.

And now I have another reason to love the Czech Republic: Adam lives there.

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