The Spirit of Prague

Ivan Klíma wrote the following in The Spirit of Prague – For me, the material and spiritual centre of this city is an almost 700-year-old stone bridge connecting the west with the east. The Charles Bridge is an emblem of the city's situation in Europe, the two halves of which have been seeking each other out at the very least since the bridge's foundations were laid. The West and the East.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


So, the students have arrived and are here, safely... for the most part. We've had a few hiccups, a couple getting lost (but found). But most importantly, they are a terrific group. A wonderful lot. I think highly of each of them as individuals, and what they've done to come together as a group. This is not easy, but they have come together fast in surprising ways. As if the sheer foreignness that surrounds them is an adhesive – they are sticking together in these early days.

They've only been here a few days, but I am sure it feels longer to them. They have already done and seen so much! First dinner together as a group, and then their first full day was a day long Orientation session, a boat ride, and second night dining together. A long guided walking tour consumed their second full day on the ground, and the list goes on. I have occasionally offered to show them something, but also want to let them have experiences on their own. However, when I ask, "Do you want to see ______?" There is a resounding Yes!

This leads me to what I love about watching them. I'm most impressed by these young people and their sheer desire to open their eyes. In our worlds back home, open eyes (and minds) are rare. We are consumed by personal drama, rarely look up from our electronic devices, rarely engage with our surroundings, others, the variety of cultures that exists everywhere, even in the seemingly sterile suburbs or small towns of America.

Yet, here...there is a real hunger in them to not only see, but experience their surroundings in a way they just can't back home. This is a Study Abroad, and already, without a class, the learning curve is steep. It's not something that can be tested though, or measured... unless you placed a ruler next to their eyes as they walked down one of many lanes in Old or New Town. You can literally see it. Eyes open wider. It's visible. It's noticeable. It's wonderful.

One student said, "I can't stop smiling!" as she was walking down the street, hours after getting off the plane. I told her not to worry about. Smile. It is good. Smile as often as you want, as it allows the rest of your mind and body to fully take in the experience. Smile. All of them. At times, I've seen their smiles as big and wide as their eyes... they're soaking it in. I hope they keep smiling.


Most everything is better than advertised in the Mother of Cities – Prague. I don't think one can market, or properly speak to the experience of being here. Most everything is definitely better than advertised here in Prague, with one glaring exception:

I was so incredibly excited to see this in the grocery store! I mean, it says Delicate. It says Soft and Strong. It looks whiter. It looks softer. Oh, the pampered American bum vs European Sandpaper. So, in the grocery store (grocery shopping, shopping at the drogeries, is an entirely different experience and post waiting to happen), I was thrilled when I saw the Kleenex brand. And I thought, no it's not bad to want decent toilet paper. I have that right. I can immerse myself culturally in different ways. I don't need thin, coarse, TP that even when used to blow my nose takes a layer of skin with it.

And so with glee, I bought the above package. I believed the marketing. However, that puppy lies. It is not soft, or strong, or delicate. It perhaps is slightly softer, certainly whiter, but it remains just a finer grain of sandpaper.

My soft, delicate, white, American backside is not happy. And the person that put that puppy on this package needs to be taken out back and *&@#%#!   I know Golden Retriever puppy soft. And this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is quite simply not.

Friday, March 28, 2014

My Apartment & The Curtains

When I moved into my apartment here in Vinohrady Praha 2, I was excited and blown away. It's huge, and like they promised, I have Wi-Fi (it could be better, but works most of the time), and laundry service! Not too shabby. The only problem I saw right away, was the bed. It's springy and loose and saggy... not a great bed. I can live with that, though.

And then I noticed something else... those giant beautiful windows that let in so much light are fantastic. See them? And the bad bed?
Well those windows are glorious, and beautiful, and it's a tree lined street that is just coming into bloom. Lovely. But, those curtains? I can see everything through them, and everyone can see right back into the bedroom. Clearly. I tested it. During the day and at night (worse at night – one can  make out more than just shapes in the bedroom!). Yet, I'm only here a short time... I can live with it, right? I can turn out the light and get undressed and it's no big deal.

So that's what I did the first night. Except there's a streetlight. A couple of them. Bright ones. And that curtain that doesn't curtain? It lets all the light in, too. I could read in bed with the lights off. I have sleep issues as it is... constant insomnia, fear of going to sleep, combined with a bigger desire to actually sleep. It was a brutally long night.

And so began the Great Curtain Chase of Praha, 2014.

It started at a mall. Yes, in this city of historic places, I was here less than a week and I was in a giant, multi-level shopping mall called Palladium. Tragic, I know. Except on a recent walking tour, the guide pointed out a building that back in the day (1300-1400's) was the first indoor shopping area in all of Central Europe, and could possibly be considered the first mall. Maybe it's not so tragic after all? However, the curtains in this mall were really expensive.

Of course, I ended up at the nicest store. Beautiful furniture, modern, classic, luxurious, just a great home design store. The curtains averaged $600. I thought this was not the best option, and so I mustered the courage to speak, and asked. "Promiňte, prosím. Mluvíte anglicky?" Surprisingly, the younger woman shook her head and pointed at the older woman. She nodded, and I explained. She showed me what they had, and I said, yes, they are lovely, but you know, only two months!  

She thought about it and waved her arms as she said, you need to go to *@^%#?  – as usual, I had no idea what she actually said, but I followed her, and she printed out the name of a store, along with the various addresses. I told her where I was staying, and she circled the two on my metro line. She said, "Yes, go to JYSK. You will find curtains for around $30." And she was right! 

I love this woman.

The next day I was on the Subway out to one of the last stops, where I followed my GPS a mile away from where I actually needed to be. I couldn't imagine that I was standing on the dot of my destination, yet I was in the middle of Communist style apartment towers with depressed landscaping and faded, peeling orange paint. Strangers were staring. I was the stranger. Where was this store? I circled and circled. I peeled left. I spun right. I ran out of time. I had to leave. I found my way back to the train station. And god damn it, JYSK is right next to where I came up from the subway. How did I miss it? I ran in, looked, but was already running late. But I saw enough. They did have cheap options. It took a second trip out there later that day, right before they closed, but I got curtains – both of them, for less than $18 total! 

These are also thin, but have a design, and combined with the other ones, work pretty good. I cannot read with the lights off. Due to the bad bed, I still have problems sleeping, but at least it's dark-ish, and at least I have some semblance of privacy. JYSK. That woman. Thank you. 

I should also mention, hanging curtains on windows this tall, when you are this short, without a ladder or anyone to help, is no easy feat. I balanced my tippy toes on a big stock pot on a layer of folded cardboard that sometimes moved a little, all on top of the windowsill. But they are hung, and somewhat ugly, and I'm proud. When I turn out the lights (yes I can still see things, but not as much), I think, crafty Kenny. Crafty. Boy got some moxie. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Turista, or Turistický: Part II

Reflections in brief; Reflections in the Vltava.

So, a man alone, walking along the street, is apparently not considered a Turista by most passersby. I have been asked directions multiple times, in multiple languages, by multiple types of people: large and small groups of senior citizens (they love me), young couples, families, etc. They all have one thing in common.

They clutch maps, and look desperately around for something they recognize.

They look too fast to really see anything, though. The panic of not knowing where one is in a foreign city. And then they see me, and they lunge. They say Excuse me and Where is... or Where are we... or Can you help us in a host of languages.

A man alone is no Turistický. But I am. And here's a photo of the Vltava River from one of many bridges.
And here is one of a dead end alley in Mala Strana at night. Yes, a Turistický would not know this was a dead end until at the end.
Yes... I am a Turistický indeed. And in this city, I find no shame in it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Turista, or Turistický

I'm here for over 10 weeks, so I can be a tourist for a bit: turista, or turistický. In my first few days at Hotel Leonardo (ask me about this place – good breakfast, a sleeping loft so low short little me hit his head numerous times, and a great staff), I wandered the city on foot in the rain.

The rain was a heavy, constant presence early... and so on Sunday, I decided I needed to immerse myself in a museum. I chose Veletržní palác - Národní galerie. The National Gallery and the Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art. I rode Tram 17 on a rainy Sunday in late morning. At the Veletržní palác stop, I looked around and saw nothing. I hesitated. An older French couple clutching a map was doing the same thing. They looked at me, pointed to their paper which listed the same destination. I nodded and we half stood up, but didn't see the museum and the rain was coming down hard. The tram moved on, and we all shrugged, laughed. The next stop was the end of the line, and we had to get out, stand in the rain, wait for the tram to turn around and take us back one stop where we instantly saw the gallery this time. I smiled, they laughed, we walked to the museum together without speaking a word to each other the whole time. Language barriers at work, but a connection made. Every time I saw them in the museum, they'd smile, clasp their hands, and laugh.

The museum itself was immense. Over five floors of art in a vast echo chamber, an institutional, communist, space. Czech Art of the 19th and 20th Centuries, Czech Art of the First Half of the 20th Century, Architectural Drawings for famous buildings, International Art of the 20th and 21st Centuries (so close and completely alone with works by Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, and more), and finally, Alfons Mucha's The Slav Epic – Slovanská epopej. 

Slovanská epopej is housed in a large, vaulted, dim space. It is a series of 20 (+) incredibly large, two story high paintings by Alfons Mucha that highlight Slavic and Czech history through the ages. These paintings have largely been criticized as overtly patriotic and not Mucha's best work (not to mention historically inaccurate), but to be in this space, dwarfed by the size of each painting alone, to read the history he attempts to address (or rewrite for his own artistic purposes) in each one, to understand the work and years, literally years, creating these pieces... it was a fantastic immersion into the culture I am about to live and work within... and highly recommended.

I spent nearly four hours inside this museum, and could easily come back, as with so many museums. I can't even begin to list all the art I saw, but some of my favorite odd-ball things were: a yellow soccer ball with spikes, 3-D models of sets for famous plays/operas over the years in Prague, costume design sketches over 100 years old, and a fantastic exhibit on Jan Kotík that I just happened to catch the last day of a 6 month long run. Providence in Praha, the fortunate turista.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Let the Prague Posts Begin!

Should I feel bad? I kicked the dog off his blog; it was easier to just rename this one than create another one. Besides, I ditched the dog at home and came to Prague for 2+ months. Two months without the dog (and that other little man) will be hard... but it's Prague. And it's an opportunity. An experience. A once in a lifetime chance to teach and live, for a blink of time, inside a completely foreign history.

A word about the city. There is an incredible volume of great literature written about, or created in, this city. I, in no way, will pretend to add to this or claim a part of it. Yet the names that linger here...Kafka, Kundera, Klima, Rilke, Brod, Hašek, Havel, and then in music, Dvořák, Smetana, even Mozart debuted work here. And these are just names people completely unfamiliar with this city might know. These names are raised by the wind off the Vltava River, and race through you. Their work certainly lives on in this city; it's everywhere.

This city that bridges more than just a river, but links history together; this crossroads between cultures; this city often occupied and living under foreign rule has given birth to art that lasts in all forms. And couldn't that be a definition for art? An expression that carries forward through time, without the burden of decade or century? An expression that leaps forward with the years, and yet stays relevant? So far in my life, I have achieved nothing of this magnitude. Yet, here I step through these same streets (also, through the mire of drunken tourists) and want to touch, to feel, to be slightly grazed even, by this bigger notion. I will reach for it. Or more likely, I will wait for it... and soon, I will be staying just outside that tourist zone, where perhaps, my moment in Prague waits for me.

Is it any wonder I want to focus on the concept of 'place' in the writing workshop I will teach here? This place, the city with many nicknames (Mother of Cities, City of a Hundred Spires, The Golden City), it will take hold in ways I don't understand on only my second full day and night here.

The story of this place is much longer, and more complicated, than a born and raised Seattle kid can ingest into his core. I cannot feign ownership. Still, I take my sneakers and walk on cobblestones, cross bridges, wind my way down narrow lanes, climb hills to castles, and perhaps, step through some narrow curtain, and into that history for a moment.