Monday, July 7, 2014

If we had blogs in 1999: Meet the Czech Rainman

As I continue posting my journal from my 1999 Transatlantic Seminar on the European Union program, I must remind you that all spelling, grammatical, and factual errors have been preserved. Today's comments in the journal entries are in red italics. The journal begins below my photos. 

The next part of our course was held in Prague, in the still newly created Czech Republic. The Velvet Revolution, which had peaceably split Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak republics and ended decades of communist oppression, had occurred ten years earlier. A long enough time had passed that Prague had ceased to be the "new left bank;" the adventurers had moved on to Budapest by that time. Tourists who had been denied access to the beautiful city for so long now swarmed in hordes after those first new left bankers had paved the way for them. The Czechs were still struggling economically, but they were hopeful and excited about their prospects for joining the European Union and finally being considered part of Europe again.

I understood this. I didn't write about it because the week was a whirlwind and my journal entries are short, but I remember the feeling, and the subjects of my photos showed this. Here are some of them:

Onto the journal:

Bring on the Czechs (I need some checks), let us see how they define boredom. Prague, the left bank of the nineties. Early nineties, maybe. It's a beautiful city at about 7am, before it is littered with tourists, many american. Americans on Charles Bridge, Americans buying Russian winter hats with Soviet sickles and hammers on them. Americans buying t-shirts that read "They tell me I was in Prague but I don't remember" and pictures of drunken americans on them. Americans populating the grand square with three dollar beers when a couple of blocks over are half litres for sixty cents. Americans shopping at Wencelas Square for Levis at imporeted prices. Americans reenacting the scene from Mission Impossible. (I did that.)

I like Prague. It's just not one of my favorite cities. The language is frustrating. I actually feel like I'm in a foreign country when I go there. Food is good, and cheap, if you avoid tourist land. Beer is good. Great. The people aren't exceptionally friendly, but if I had to deal with all of those tourists...Prague has a strange, reserved feeling to it. Blame it on the commies. I wouldn't trust us westerners, either, after we gave the country to Hitler, then again to Stalin. We didn't give the country to Hitler, but we, the West, let him take it and did nothing to stop him. We did give the country to Stalin, at Yalta, where FDR, Churchill, and Stalin carved up post-war Europe.

Architecturally, Prague may be unrivaled in its splendor by any city, even Paris, though it may be past its bloom. It looks to flower again, a second life after a torturous quietus in this century of abhorrence and miscreancy against humanity. One of the things you'll see throughout this journal are sentences that feel as if I pulled words directly from a thesaurus. Well, I did. Although these sentences and the use of those words read awkwardly, they actually helped me develop as a writer. I first had to learn the words before learning how to use them. Outside the ring of tourism sit crumbling buildings, thirsting for paint, existing with bones broken, blood lost, and lungs screaming for air. The ring itself is of high quality gems like diamonds and emeralds. Garnets. Crystal. Fit for emperors. Fit for americans. As you can see, I was starting to realize our status as a neo-imperial power. Magnificent paintings adorn the facades, scintillating with golden trim, staring down at each person as if kings themselves. Americans cannot imagine Prague unless they visit. Not even if they see it on Mission Impossible. Obviously that movie had recently come out...

The seminars in Prague sucked. Boredom in its purest form I really don't need to describe them. They were all the same speech! How the Czechs are preparing for entry into the EU. Lovely. Credit goes to Kate for her interesting nomenclature. One speaker, a robot from Prague Securities, was dubbed "The Czech Rainman," a name not lacking veracity. I must say that was the best seminar, only because the man's lack of capacity for public speaking gave us permission to lend our attention spans to something other than his robotic monotone. Never once did we consider that English was not the guy's first language and that maybe he just didn't feel comfortable using it. Sitting at the far corner table in a darkened hotel wine cellar, we could not focus further than the microcosmic forces that were driving us. Coke became our savior, our weapon against sleep. Our pens became clocks, doodling away the time, and communication, notation covering the margins of our notebooks in an effort to entertain ourselves and each other. We conversed through paper, our rude snickers ignored by the Czech Rainman and Dr. Mason, though they were scarcely inaudible. We were americans, doing our thing, glorifying our reputation, and we continued to holler through beer stines throughout the evening and wee hours of the next morning. Yes, we were rude, very rude, during that session. But the guy really was a terrible presenter.

Birthdays and beer start with the same letter. Absinth does not. Neither does Guy, nor seminar. But he mixed them anyway, and lived through Czech Rainman to tell about it, and to advise against it. Absinth is illegal in the states. It is an alcohol that contains a hallucenegen. Enough said. A student named Guy had celebrated his birthday the night before and was really struggling that day.

End of journal entry.

That's it. My Prague entry ends there. No mention of speaker Alan Levy, founder of the English language newspaper The Prague Post and a well-known journalist who chronicled the Prague Spring and wrote the book Rowboat to Prague/So Many Heroes. Mr. Levy died in 2004, a mere five years after he spoke to us in his position as editor-in-chief of The Prague Post. What a life he had lived. Also omitted from my journal was our visit to the Globe bookstore, where I bought a signed copy of Mr. Levy's book, which I still have. There is a bit later in the journal under "Fun facts I learned" that says, "that the editor-in-chief at the Prague post defines the word arrogant, that the Globe is smaller than its reputation..." But being arrogant doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the session.

To be honest, though, aside from The Prague Post and the Globe, which were thrilling, the seminars were forgettable. So forgettable, in fact, that I don't remember any others. There was a session at the East-West Institute. That's all I remember, though.

There are a few other bits and pieces scattered throughout the pages of the journal, like when we were fined by the Prague Metro because Dr. Mason told us the wrong kind of ticket to get, and the four star Best Western, which I described as "disgusting breakfast, moldy yogurt, great rooms. Bridget was a good roommate except for the one drunken night." Whatever that was. And I loved the food. "Prague - the food is to die for, so is the beer. Dumplings, pork roast, so wonderful. $0.60 beer at that awesome restaurant under the bridge. Fantastic servers. Best food of all cities, excluding hotel dinners that we skipped." Though we had paid for dinners, the food was so good that we decided to find restaurants rather than eating what the hotels would serve us.

It was my second time in Prague. Unfortunately, it is also the last time I was there. Fifteen years is a long time, especially in a city that was undergoing a massive transition from one politico-economic system to another. I'd love to go back with all of the experience I've had, to see how it has changed, to see if those crumbling buildings thirsting for paint have been renovated, to see if there is still that hope for the future, to see how much the price of beer has risen...

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