The street is tight with tourists. Some jostling rudely, some floating adrift, some wary of every brush of the pocket, and some, of course, looking to brush your pocket. But all of us, innocent and guilty alike, are pushed away from the river, across the tram tracks and careening taxis, up into the ancient beauty of Old Town.
Act 1: Barkers work the crowd. Standing stolidly as humanity flows against them, they hand out leaflets with the hope that you will reach out for the flyer. When you do — and how can a boy and girl from Des Moines not politely take their offering? — they launch into their spiel.
“The best music ever.”
“In the very hall where Mozart performed.”
“It is the location for the movie Amadeus.”
“Hear members of the Royal Czech Orchestra perform chamber music just for you.”
They guide us out of the stream to a portable podium, where a young man in low light has a seating chart. He wants to collect money for the admission to the show, supposedly later that night, and to provide us an assigned seat. The Civic Center Box Office it isn’t.
“800 koruna please.”
Eight hundred what???
We buy our tickets, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, fully expecting to have just given a donation to Prague street culture, and leave with little illusions.
Several hours later, we return for the nonexistent performance. Unbelievably, the young men are still there. We are directed up a broad stairway to the next floor. The stairs are chipped and crumbling. The walls are missing large chunks of plaster. The banister is doubtful as a means of support. And the dark landing at the top is equally discouraging as the ambient light reflects red silk wall coverings torn and faded.
But then we walk into the music hall. My oh my. A glorious ballroom from another time. Paintings and pillars and balconies and hidden alcoves. A beauty. But patch-work and two-by-four braces tell that she is long past her prime. Then we look to the ceiling. A magnificent chipped fresco, still bright with color and gods and light. My goodness.
Still, the frosty room is without heat. The wooden folding chairs are without pads. The notion of an assigned seat has disappeared like a chair in a cake walk. Of course, no one dare take off gloves, coats, or hats. We sit, uncomfortable and cold.
Is this the necessary suffering you read about in Slavic culture — One Day in the Life of a Prague Audience?
Then the music starts. Violins, bass, viola, and cello. The sound drifts through the room. Clear. Crisp. Intimate. It soon entangles us. We are carried up past the disrepair, beyond the broken balconies, into the high reaches of the fresco. We are part of the pantheon of the gods. Tears settle behind my eyes. The cold, the lack of comfort, the strangeness, all disappear. We are bewitched.
Act 2: The bridge is like an old stone field marker. Heavy, man-made, plunked down in the middle of nature, claiming land on both ends. The Prague Castle sits on one side. Old Town Square sits on the other. But the bridge is its own destination. It is full of large statutes of Czech heroes and crucified Christs and bishops and martyrs and even Saint Ivo of Kermartin (the intriguing patron saint of lawyers and orphans). This bridge was built to replace the old one washed away in the flood. You know, the flood of 1342. The new bridge was up and running by 1390. No kidding.
The bridge is wall-to-wall people today. And lining the two sides of the bridge is a gauntlet of artists selling their wares.
“My name is Maltin Bulis, I am selling jewelry for six years on the bridge.”
Bulis smiles with soft, sheepish eyes and an artist’s goatee, unfazed by my English and prying questions. Let’s see, Bulis is a 29-year-old metal engraver (check), selling his work on the Bridge (check), going to school in a Prague art program that takes eight years to complete (check), and helping to raise a young baby with his economist girlfriend (check, check, and check). See, prying questions.
So, how does one get the opportunity to sell their art on the Charles Bridge?
“You have to have license, and every year you must take an exam and prove that you have something to contribute. There is a special committee and half the voices have to agree with it.”
“Half the voices.” I am impressed with Bulis’ clever us of English to get his meaning across with such eloquence. I say as much.
“I taught myself English. I was sharing from Youtube. Watching the Simpsons.”
Of course, he learned English from Homer Simpson and “sharing” with those crazy puppy videos on Youtube. What can Maltin Bulis not achieve? He’s a rock star.
Bulis gives us his shy smile, thanks us for the conversation, and off he goes to help another customer. So we move on to the next artist three steps further down the Bridge.
Act 3: The cemetery seems haunted by the past. Perhaps the set for an apocryphal movie? Can there really be 100,000 people buried here?
The Old Jewish Cemetery sits on a high-walled slope in the once-vibrant Jewish quarter of Josefov. The story of the Jews in Prague is the story of the Jews. Placed in ghettos as early as the 11th or 12th century, forbidden to hold most jobs, kept out of markets and restaurants, required to wear some kind of special clothing, or yellow hat, or yellow star, and then facing Easter pogroms, or forced evacuations, or later-day Nazi extermination camps. A story that stretches down through the centuries.
On this sunny day, however, long lines of noisy crowds form to enter the cemetery. Once inside, there is the hush of the sacred. The heavy stones, bent and lusterless, are disintegrating even after death. We quietly weave our way through the grounds, chastened by the tipped stones and disappearing Hebrew epigraphs, feeling the call to return to dust.
But then we see a small piece of paper under a small rock placed on one ancient tombstone. And then more rocks and more papers on more tombs. Until there is an entire top of a grave covered with small papers and rocks.
What are the messages written on the papers — wishes, prayers, confessions? Certainly a statement that someone remembers, someone was here. And if someone remembers and someone was here, isn’t it hope in the face of hopelessness? Why not.
Prague in three acts — an Iowan’s view.