Our guide, Milos, tells us that Prague was designed so that anyone who invaded it would get lost before they ever got to the castle. I have no trouble believing this. Getting lost becomes an almost daily adventure. I never feel closer to the city, more aware of its wonder, than when I have no idea where I am. There do not seem to be many right angles in Prague; the streets change direction arbitrarily, twisting and turning in one giant maze, and I depend on the occasional glimpse of a landmark over red rooftops to tell me what way I’m going.
I’m late for class one day after I turn a corner and the classroom building suddenly isn’t where I thought it was, I’m suddenly not where I thought I was, and it takes a me a while to find my way out of the labyrinth I had unwittingly entered. Prague never feels like a large city to me. It only ever feels like a small town, a charming European village with beautiful, pastel buildings and cobblestone lanes that seem to go on endlessly. Every street feels familiar and comfortable and safe, like I’ve been there before, and I always expect to find myself back right where I started after I make a few turns, as if all of Prague exists in one small town square. I’m caught unaware every time I walk to the top of a hill and get a glimpse of the sprawling city. It's deceptively large, Prague, an optical illusion, an enchanted city.
My roommate keeps flooding the bathroom. It’s a dank and dark room that only seems dirtier and less appealing now that we’ve figured out how to turn on the light, and every other day she leaves behind a swirling puddle of water that covers the bathroom floor and seeps into the kitchen. We don’t have anything to dry it with, so my other suitemates and I slip and fall on our way to the shower, uncomfortable with the griminess of this hostel that feels so out of place in this city that we love.
I’m the only one in the suite the first time the cleaning lady comes. I try to hide, but when she reaches the bathroom her exclamation breaks through all language barriers and I’m drawn out of my room. She’s in awe at the mini flood before her, and we attempt for several minutes to communicate with pointing and elaborate gestures and the few common words that we both know. She leaves and comes back with another cleaning lady, and then another, and they laugh and curse and shake their heads and keep trying to talk to me and I keep trying to talk to them as if we’re trying to discover some secret language that we all know.
One day I type an apology note into Google translate. The flooding has been going on for weeks and the cleaning lady is stuck in an endless cycle of drying up my roommate’s mess, and I’m afraid of seeming ungrateful, disrespectful, a rude American. I’ve never been a foreigner before, never experienced this language barrier. Most of the time this immersion in a foreign culture is enthralling, but now I’m uncomfortable with my inability to express myself in the native language. I copy down the Czech words that Google throws back at me and tape them to the bathroom door, well aware that my message is full of errors, might not even be understandable, will probably only make the cleaning woman laugh.
The studio is incredibly small and cramped, barely able to accommodate the incredible collection of books, art, supplies, and various mementos even before the 20 or so of us crowd in, but its appeal is instantaneous, intoxicating. Joska Skalník's studio is something out of an iconic movie or a beloved novel or, perhaps, my dreams. The wall in front to me is covered floor to ceiling in shelves, maybe 12 feet high, stuffed full of layers of books and photographs and pieces of art, collected items from decades of living. I’m squeezed behind a table covered in paints and brushes and examples of his work, and I’m terrified to touch anything, to disturb the beauty of the room, to disturb its incredible history.
This is the room where Vaclav Havel hid before addressing the crowds at Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution. They were friends, he and Joska, artists and politicians and historians and rebels, just like Milos, just like countless others. I try to imagine the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic hanging out here amongst the books and the art, but it’s a hard image to conjure up, a heavy thought to process, and I struggle to fully appreciate the magnitude of this country’s history that I’m encountering.
It was raining all the while we chased after Joska and Milos around the city, but the rain has died away now that we’re inside and the cool air is coming in through the large, sloping windows as we listen to the artist talk. They make a funny pair, Joska with his wild white hair and his big white beard, and Milos with his shiny bald head and astounding energy, and they seem to be perfectly at home in this room, an integral part of its structure. Joska is telling us about his art while Milos translates, but Milos is talking quickly as usual and they keep getting lost in their own conversation in Czech, words we aren’t privy too with our limited tourist edition of the language, and my mind starts to wander. I look out the windows at the treetops that fall just below this attic room, at the rooftops in the distance. A collection of glass bottles sits in a line on the windowsill, all different shades of blue, and I’m mesmerized by the shape they make together, like a wave that is flowing through the room.
Joska grows tired of talking about art and history, about communism, and asks us what we think about the legalization of marijuana in America. Prague apparently has a pretty lenient position on the subject that basically comes down to don’t get caught, and he tells us there’s a cop around the corner who will sell you pot if you ask. Someone asks if he has any books for sale and, yes, he does, and we want one, all of us, but most of us don’t have the crowns or the room in our suitcase. And then because he’s an angel disguised as Santa Clause disguised as a communist hating, president hiding, Czech artist, he pulls out a package of postcards of his work that we can have for free. I pick out three from the pile, beautiful, surreal collages in the same shades of blue as the bottles on the windowsill. He signs the back of mine, tells me he likes my name, and then poses with a pipe and a “legaizace” sticker while someone takes a photo.
On my last day in the city I break away from the others for part of the afternoon and wander over to the Jewish Quarter. Its been at the top of my list since long before I came here, one of the common places that everyone is told they should, must, absolutely positively need to see, yet somehow I’ve pushed this trip back and back until I’m fitting it in at the last moment. It’s difficult to reconcile the dark history of this city with its beauty, and I feel a sort of imbalance when I jump from the present to the past. My experience of Prague largely involves touring museums, having class in cafes, wandering the streets aimlessly, eating trdelnik and honey cake and drinking coffee and studying art, and I struggle to fit these two worlds together.
I walk alone through the synagogues and memorials and the cemetery, reading name after name after name, running my fingers along the engravings on the walls. I look at the photographs, the mementos. There are drawings here by young Jewish children during the Holocaust, just like ones I’d seen the month before, at a concentration camp, at the site of a village that had been razed to the ground.
This city, this whole country, has a history so painful that I cannot understand the resilience of it's people. I can admire it, be grateful for it, but it’s too much for me to understand in the brief time I have spent here. It would take more than my own lifetime to comprehend the pain they have felt over generations, over centuries.
When I leave the Spanish Synagogue, the day is so incredibly beautiful, all blue skies and warm air and bright sunshine shining around buildings that look like they were picked out of an illustrated fairy tale book, that its hard to imagine that Prague exists in the real world. I stumble across the statue of Kafka I had forgotten to look for and snap a picture. I stop at a café inside a golden courtyard and spend my last crowns on watermelon lemonade. It’s a seemingly perfect day, and when I head back through the colorful streets, back to the hostel, back to the other students and a final night of drinking and eating and celebrating, the sorrowful past of this land feels far away in my mind.