Sunday, December 10, 2017

Prague, Czech Republic: Deservedly Weird

The Czechs are weird. My first day, a college student took pity on me, a confused-looking tourist on the tram (I should have downloaded the Jizdni rady IDOS app earlier), and invited me to a show. The show by Barbora Temejova turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip and better than the 300 koruna performance at a fancy Prague museum. 
How did I get into this small gathering? Through a revolving door filled with heavy books. Why a revolving door? Because this is where the Czech intellectuals met, in secret rooms, to plot against their Soviet occupiers. 

Like much of Europe, the Czechs were occupied by Nazis. Just three years after the end of WWII expelled the Nazis and fascists, they had to battle Communism, which included the Soviet re-taking of property returned to their rightful Czech owners in 1945. The three-years' bout of independence wasn't forgotten when the Soviets came; if anything, the sight of the sickle and hammer reinvigorated the Czech spirit. 

Consider the (pre-Soviet) heroic but ultimately tragic Heydrich assassination attempt, memorialized in the National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror. Short version: the British helped a small team of Czechs successfully assassinate the local Nazi police chief, then received cooperation from local church leaders to hide the Czech shooters in an underground crypt below a small church. The way to the crypt requires pushing through an inconspicuously heavy, half-revolving door. (See a pattern?) Unlike visitors today, the Czech shooters had to hide in darkness, armed only with candles for light. (I didn't see a toilet, by the way.) 

Unfortunately, one of the parties involved in the assassination split after things didn't go exactly according to plan, and it's unclear whether he knew the Heydrich hit had worked. He eventually betrayed his colleagues, but the fact remains: the Czechs, unlike other Europeans, resisted. 
Tales from the Crypt

Adolf Kajpr, a Jesuit priest, attracted the Gestapo's attention for his anti-Third-Reich publications and was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp. Yet, he never wavered in his faith and published still relevant thoughts, such as the idea that liberal capitalism leads to atheistic humanism, but Communism promotes oppression and injustice, especially against religious adherents. Why? "[P]ure religious truths were regarded as a form resistance against those who claimed to possess the entire truth, freedom, and power." (Note to self: totalitarians hate competition.) 
Incredibly, Czech nonconformity can be traced back to the first President of Czechoslovakia, 
Tomas G. Masaryk. He was expelled from Catholic school, married a rich French-American woman from Brooklyn, took her last name as his middle name, and as a matter of principle, generally refused to honor convention. (Politicians matter, folks. For better or worse, they help shape a country's image and ability to credibly claim a particular value in the future.) 
If this isn't available on Netflix when I get back to California, I'm gonna be disappointed.

Other Czech iconoclasts include playwright and eventual President Vaclav Havel. Below are two of my favorite passages from perhaps the Czech Republic's greatest citizen: 
From Disturbing the Peace (1990)

Imagine meeting in secret cafe rooms with a playwright and plotting to drive the law-and-order Soviets so insane, they'd give up and leave. It actually happened. The Czechs managed to resist non-violently and in crazy enough ways to make a report sent to Moscow impossible or incomprehensible. For example, when the Soviets first came, Czech resisters removed all the street signs. In a non-GPS era, this action rendered the efficient Soviet machine slow, making navigation and mapping impossible. 

The Czechs were just getting started. Try to envision a 22 year-old Soviet soldier patrolling the streets of Prague with a Kalashnikov. He doesn't know where he's going because there are no street signs. When he walks around, trying to maintain order, he sees this: 
"What's going on?" he thinks. No one is attacking him, so he can't shoot. The artist cleans up after the performance, so there's no litter. It's not against the law to "crow." Does he just stand there, looking like an idiot? How does he explain this incident to his local superiors, who then have to report to straitlaced Moscow? If you're the 40 years-old local military commander, and you receive a call describing this performance--and others like it--do you even write a report? If you don't, you'll be accused of hiding information from Moscow, but if you do, you'll look like you've lost your mind, and you might lose your job. What do you do? What do you do?
Suffice to say, Vaclav Havel and his band of misfits prevailed--but only after college students, who so often sacrifice themselves to shame adults and the Establishment into doing what should be done, set themselves on fire. Remember these names: Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc, and Evžen Plocek--they are heroes and better men than you and me. 
Memorial at Charles University

When women today make the popular V-sign in photos, they may not know its full history. It was in Wenceslas Square where President Vaclav Havel, a poet and playwright, made the V-for-victory sign to thousands of Czechs who had finally won their freedom from Soviet occupation. 
At Wenceslas Square, the site of Palach's self-immolation in 1969.

After I left Prague, I read a delightful book by an Australian woman who moved there in search of a more interesting life. The passages below are from Rachael Weiss's book Me, Myself, and Prague (2008), but I recommend you start with her more polished and recent work, The Thing about Prague (2014). Her insights are spot-on about the Czechs, whom she politely calls "eccentric." 
Weiss correctly describes the Czechs as rude by Western standards, but one must also remember much of the world thinks Westerners are idiots for walking around smiling all the time for no reason. Me, I say the Czechs have earned the right to be any way they like. If they want to be eccentric, rude, and notorious for having affairs, more power to them. Anyone repelling armed soldiers using art, nonviolence, and sheer confusion ought to be able to put a man on an upside-down horse in the middle of a bazaar and act as if that's perfectly normal. 
Your eyes do not deceive you. It is what is is.

If you visit Prague, try Medovnik (honey cake), and think of the Czechs as perpetually drunk Germans. Czechs are usually blunt, so it often feels like you're getting yelled at or ignored with no middle ground. I'm not a linguistics expert, but the way Czechs speak English indicates their language prefers to be precise and concise when possible. 

Just don't take anything too personally, whether it's the museum employee trying to be helpful by warning you not to buy a ticket because it's too late ("Why did you wait until you only had one hour left? You come tomorrow." I bought the ticket after realizing she wasn't actually giving me an order); to the sitting newspaper stand owner loudly demanding to know why you're standing in front of his stall (an American would just ignore the potential customer); to the waiter who ignores you even when you wave your hand trying to catch his attention. 

Despite the rudeness (an unintentional linguistic limitation?) and weirdness, you'll be pleased to know the Czechs, unlike most of Eastern Europe, have successfully integrated about 60,000 to 80,000 immigrants and made about half of them citizens. These Vietnamese immigrants weren't necessarily fleeing the North Vietnamese regime--some relocated voluntarily as part of the Communist alliance between Chinese-backed North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, which is why Vietnamese food in Prague is different from Vietnamese food in America.

Prague has too many tourist sights to list, but you should try the following: Charles Bridge, 

Basilica of St. James (aka Church of St James the Greater), 
I don't read Dan Brown's books, but look closely.

Church of St. Nicholas (in Old Town), the Dancing House, 
St. Vitus Cathedral (in Prague Castle aka Prazsky Hrad), the Franz Kafka Monument, 
Yes, the guy who wrote a weird story about a man who turns into an insect is Czech.

National Gallery aka Narodni galerie v Praze (with permanent and changing exhibitions in different locations--I enjoyed Julian Rosefeldt's "Manifesto," starring Cate Blanchett), Wenceslas Square (for its historical value--it's just a shopping area now), National Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror, and Lobkowicz Palace. Five nights is sufficient. 

Lastly, here's a photo of dogs in the aforementioned royal palace. As you can see, you will never, ever be as weird as the Czechs. They are the original hipsters, and others will always be poor imitators. Unlike most artists today, their art and nonconformity had purpose, bravery, and substance, helping the Czechs achieve independence. The next time someone asks whether art and philosophy are useful, you can respond affirmatively--as long as you thank the Czechs. 

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