Sunday, July 30, 2017

On the Road: Reflections on Prague - Then and Now

Sometimes, this blog is about movies... and sometimes it's about the life in between them.  As regular readers know, that life in-between occasionally involves travel.  Here is the first in a series of observations from my recent trip to Europe - a performance trip made by my community choir.

But I promise - I'll find a movie association for every one of these post!

I first visited the Czech Republic in 2001; my memories of that trip are spotty and impressionistic now, but the overriding, lingering impression I retain is of a country not yet entirely comfortable with tourists - especially American tourists.

In Prague, you could sense the aspiration to attain (or, more correctly, regain) status as a world-class cosmopolitan city, but there was still ample evidence of the austerity and deprivations of the Soviet era. I recall our cab driver pointing proudly to an abstract sculpture on the site where a statue of Joseph Stalin had once stood. "Stalin, bye-bye!" he crowed exultantly and waved. The hotel to which he delivered us was spartan but clean and comfortable, and gave the distinct feeling of having been converted to lodgings from some other kind of establishment.  The tiny baths in our rooms were obviously converted closets that one had to step up and into from the room where we slept.  The hotel dining room resembled a high school 'cafe-torium' and the breakfast buffet food was portioned out in plastic bowls and cups arrayed neatly on humble trays.

We took a dinner cruise on the Vlatva River.  A trio of men played Sinatra tunes and I think some people danced.  The buffet featured a desultory array of dishes and ample supplies of fresh apples, bananas and pears.  A hostess explained to us that the fresh fruit was still seen as a great treat, having been so hard to come by during the years of Soviet occupation.

One Saturday night while we ate dinner in quiet pub, I watched a television variety show hosted by a pair of middle-aged women: one an aging, ditzy blonde and the other a sturdy, sardonic character actress. Imagine a sketch-and-music show co-hosted by Goldie Hawn and Margo Martindale and you'll have some idea of it.  They sang a opening song about being buddies, performed a comedy sketch in which they played witches.  I didn't - and still don't - understand a single word of Czech, but I could follow the comic beats in everything they did.

The formula for a television variety series may have been universal, but our face-to-face interactions with Czech service people were far less intuitive. English wasn't widely spoken there at that time; if a Czech person knew a second language, it was more likely to be German. So maybe it was the language barrier - or maybe it was the vehemence with which the teetotalers in our group refused the complimentary shots of becherovka proffered at every meal - but we managed to piss off a whole series of waitresses, clerks and ticket agents.  Their surly glares felt personal at the time, but in retrospect, they probably weren't. This, after all, is a country that uses Franz Kafka as the iconic face on its tourist trinkets.  Even our tour guide at Prague Castle was dour and gloomy, muttering his dissatisfaction with Vaclav Havel's government as he led us into the courtyard. I joked to my friends that the Czech tourist industry needed a little instruction on guest relations from the folks at Disney , but privately I felt rather embarrassed at having, however unintentionally, offended our hosts.

Still, the city was as incredibly beautiful as I had heard - a mixture of perfectly preserved 18th century Baroque buildings and gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture, all trimmed with endlessly interesting decorative details: murals, statues, religious icons, wrought iron frills and flourishes.  Here's an example (and no, this is not where we stayed - then OR now):

I also recall a perfectly delicious dessert we consumed at a café in Old Town Square: a crepe filled with fruit and ice cream, drizzled with chocolate and topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream.  In retrospect, it doesn't seem a spectacular concoction. But it was the whole experience: the late afternoon sunshine, the cheerful bustle of tourists beneath the famed Astronomical Clock , the sweetness of the dessert and the smiling disposition of the first friendly waitress we'd encountered in Prague - that made it so memorable.

Flash forward now to 2017:

My first impression of Prague when we arrive on a Friday morning is that tourist-driven consumerism had definitely taken hold of the city. Our hotel on Wenceslas Square was sleek and modern with good-sized rooms and an Andy Warhol portrait of Franz Kafka behind the front desk.  The Marks and Spencer store I remembered from my previous visit as the lone, isolated outpost of Western consumerism has been joined by H&M, Sephora and many other merchants easily recognizable to American mall shoppers. The square was unusually quiet for a Friday  - most Prague denizens being out of town on a national four-day holiday weekend - but by the weekend, the streets were fairly clogged with tourists from all over the world. Also, there were numerous buskers and tourist-trinket-scammers, the likes of which I don't recall seeing at all in 2001.

The city is infinitely more welcoming to English speakers than in 2001 . Every sign and menu is in English as well as Czech, and everyone from the impeccably dressed young woman who sells me garnet earrings to the waiter who brings us salads and peach iced tea for our first lunch, speaks the language more or less fluently.  If servers are not quite universally warm and effusive, they are unfailingly polite. No glares, no surliness. (Then again, there is almost no one in our group who will turn down a shot of becherovka - a potent liquor, redolent with cinnamon and cloves, that goes down smooth and allegedly aids digestion.)

With the group, I revisited Prague Castle, and this time our friendly guide, Pavel, has only lovely things to say about Vaclav Havel, which was a kind of relief.  Like so many tour guides, Pavel brandishes a red umbrella high above his head so we can find and follow him in the crush of the many tour groups jostling for space and good photo set-ups.  His only fault is that he cannot walk slowly - his red umbrella bobs so far of ahead of us that we sometimes can barely keep him in sight.

We discover the delights of becherovka and Pilsner beer, while we learn to avoid Czech wine.  We learn that a dish called "Moravian Sparrow" is, in fact, roast pork in a delicious onion and garlic gravy. We sit in a friendly pub one afternoon and pick our way through a sort of Czech charcuterie plate of various cheeses, pork, ham and pickles. But sadly, we never get a chance to sample trdelnik, the ubiquitous dessert of ice cream served in a cone made of fried, sugar-dusted dough.  Maybe I'll be back in another 16 years to try it....

And of course, this being a choir performance trip, we sang - first in St. Nicholas Church on Old Town Square, then on the following night at San Salvator Catholic church just off the Charles Bridge. Our audiences are mostly comprised of appreciative tourists, many of whom film us on their phones. (So now we are the stars of vacation videos all over the world!) Also, just one word: ACOUSTICS!!! We never get this kind of sound at home - it's a real joy to hear our voices reverberating through these spectacular spaces.

We took a dinner cruise one night on the Vlatva, just as my friends and I had done before - and not much had changed.  This time, the music was provided by a duo - one man on clarinet, the other on banjo - which gave the sensation that our river cruise was taking place over the endlessly rolling credits of a Woody Allen movie. There was again fresh fruit on the buffet - grapes and apple wedges - but also a large of array of tasty meat, fish and vegetable dishes. We happily spread out on the top deck in the evening air, drinking wine and watching the gorgeous cityscape of Prague roll by. This one delightful evening was exactly as I had remembered it sixteen years earlier.

Movie Tie-In:

All those gorgeously preserved 18th century buildings made a perfect backdrop for the 1984 film version of Amadeus.  Czech-born director Milos Forman used Prague as a very convincing stand-in for Vienna in the exterior shots, and filmed some interior theatre scenes there as well.

In fact, the real Mozart had a connection to Prague: his opera Don Giovannni premiered there in 1787, where it received a rapturous reception.  The theater where it was performed still stands today, a commemorative plaque on the door and a statue of the Commandant character just outside (both of which I stupidly failed to photograph.)  A slightly altered version of Don Giovanni was performed in Vienna the following year to slightly more reserved applause.

In the interest of dramatic license, playwright/screenwriter Peter Shaffer totally fudges this information in Amadeus, where Salieri informs us that the opera opened and closed in the same week in Vienna, a failure and a flop. So now you know the REAL story.

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