Christmas in Prague
Prague was both an unusual trip and also the best I’ve taken. Unlike parts of Western Europe, especially London where old buildings have been replaced by glass skyscrapers, almost all the very old architecture was still in place. While there were aspects of cities like Copenhagen and Paris, it was also heavily Bavarian. Especially on the coldest days, it looked like a gingerbread city. Gingerbread could have been purchased, too, along with hot wine or grog.
That was only part of it, though. The real impact of Prague was cultural. I’m completely disconnected from my Jewish past. Prague took that history and put it right in my face. In retrospect, visiting the old Jewish Quarter and the Prague Cemetery on the first day was perhaps a questionable decision. Everything I saw from that point forward was in that light.
If you’re not familiar with the background, and this is only the bare bones of what I remember from the museums, the Nazis sent almost the entire population to a death camp about an hour outside Prague. But that wasn’t the full story. Much of the negative feelings around the pre-Holocaust Jewish community in Europe centered around this area and was focused on the actual or alleged economic power (especially during Bohemian times) combined with the alleged mystical powers of the Jewish ghetto. The Nazis cared a great deal about the second part in particular and the Prague Cemetery, which was the center and where the myth of the golem originated. To that end, the Nazis had intended to convert the Prague ghetto into a museum to an extinct “race”.
As I spent the better part of the day wandering this area it really made me think about the current world and the growing irrational trends. Who would have thought, eight years ago, that we’d ever have elected Trump? Or that right wing nationalist elements would be rising to ascendancy in Europe? Later when I went to the Prague Castle, the one thing I noticed in the museum was a historical back and forth trend between somewhat extreme liberalism to far right wing bad behavior. That made me worry a little about some of the left wing extremism, much of it very good, I see on the west coast now. On the flip side, I grew concerned with how think about Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, immigrants, those who don’t look and act like us, poor of all kinds, and many others. The wearing of Jewish stars didn’t begin with the Nazis. It started, in other forms, hundreds years earlier. The forces that drive genocides and prejudice of all kinds is still at work now and it could be argued is becoming more powerful. My first day enforced the idea that we need to become a lot better before we become a lot worse.
That was an intense experience. After that the balance of my first day was immersed in learning about Czech beer, and where possible, drinking large quantities of it. Czech beer is very good. Generally it’s ordered as “light” or “dark”. I found the light a bit too hoppy and Budweiser-like, which would make sense since it’s a pilsner. The dark lager was extremely good by comparison.
From there, day two took me to the Castle District and a tour of the Prague Castle. The castle’s museum was very good. It went through the effort to rehabilitate the castle during the early 1900s plus the entire history of the area. The one thing it left conspicuously absent was the years between 1930 and 1990. It was like a couple wings of the building were missing and it goes back to how Eastern Europe seems to treat its history. There’s an open question of whether it’s mired in it or growing out of it. When I arrived at the hotel, extremely jet lag, there was an odd conversation at the check-in counter. I didn’t think much of it, but when the group in front of me left, the young woman behind the counter asked, with a wry smile, what I thought of the Czech Republic, with the assumption of backwardness. I had no idea what the prior conversation was, but it was clearly something she was embarrassed of. Elsewhere, there was a real division between old Cold War perceptions and the influx of youth from elsewhere in Eastern Europe plus Western Europe and the US. More to follow on the Cold War part.
One great part about visiting the Castle District is the walk over the Charles Bridge. If you look online, you’ll see two predominant viewpoints: it’s one of the best attractions in Prague and it becomes so ridiculously crowded that it’s impossible to navigate. Both are true. It was so spectacular, though, I probably crossed it 6-12 times over the week.
On day three, I spent of lot of time in the old town portion of Prague, plus the town square. That included a tour of the old astronomical clock tower.
By the time the fourth day rolled around, I was getting tired of taking pictures. It was this point I decided to start focusing on museums and landmarks. The plan, somewhat unintentionally, was Kafkaesque. I began the day at the Kafka museum. He has a complicated history. In some ways he was the stereotype of the tortured modern post-religion Jewish persona. In other ways, he comes across as completely humorless.
Thankfully the plan allowed me to make up for that. My next stop was the Lennon wall.
That was a nice way to move from the dark cloud of hopelessness to one of hope. My last stop was set to take it fully in the direction of surrealism – it was the KGB museum.
While it’s difficult to imagine, it was the highlight (from a museum perspective) of the trip. Have you ever wanted to hold World War II era Russian machine guns or spring loaded knives that fire at 200+ meters per second? If so, this place is for you. I think all of us on the tour were a little shell shocked. There were Americans, a couple from China, someone from Holland, and five from Russia. Most people spent the time chuckling nervously. The laughter was real, though. It was for the owner of the museum – a mid 50s overweight ex-Russian soldier, wearing a t-shirt with Stalin’s face on it (and possibly ex-KGB, but he’d only say: hopefully my next life). He bounced back and forth, at high speed, between difficult to understand English and Russian. And he was entertaining, whether the subject was terrifying or humorous.
What constitutes terrifying? Passing around the sprint-loaded knife, that I mentioned above, with the caveat not to touch the blade. No one knew if that meant it was primed to fire. It would have been instant and accidental death for someone.
On the terrifying and humorous side (as he smelled the blade): “A DNA test on this blade has confirmed that it killed 149 people. But don’t worry, they were only Nazis. Look at the handle, there’s still Nazi blood visible. Pass it around.”
On the funny side: he “see this metal spider? Want to know what it was for? It was for Iron Felix to snort synthetic cocaine out of. He had ‘pain’ issues. Da.”
Or: “Ian Fleming made all that stuff up. The KGB never had those cool devices. He was just trying to make us look like the bad guys. You know – the English were the good guys. James Bond. James Bond is cool. He gets all the beautiful women, including the Russian ones.”
I no longer remember the names of the machine guns I held. I spent the time oscillating back and forth between being overwhelmed and anxious, and being amused.
On my last day, I went to an exhibit for Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. I think Warhol is complete nonsense, but Dali was amazing.
And if you're wondering what I did on Christmas day, I naturally went to an Irish pub. After sitting at the bar and being greeted with a strong Irish accent with "Merry fucking Christmas! Want a Guinness?" it felt like being home.
When US customs asked what I was bringing home, I responded: a request from my liver to not drink anymore beer for a while.