Sunday, August 26, 2012

Black Light Theatre and Mulled Wine

Jane was a young, attractive drama teacher from Australia whose smooth accent matched the vivacity of her nature. At twenty-six, she was traveling the world for a year. Typical of Aussie backpackers, since they live so far from the rest of the world that when they embark on an adventure, they are abroad for at least six months to a year. If only Americans were that bold...

We became fast friends. The blighting cold ushered us towards the Church of St. Nicholas, gleaming more like a chateau in the midst of Old Town Square. The interior was airy and everything glistened; light was used as an architectural construct and it was organic and transparent, almost like a highway to heaven. I remember the rose-colored marble of the columns, golden cherubs kissing the altar, and the Versailles-esque gilding upon an impeccably white facade. A jewel of Baroque architecture, the services were sadly poorly attended unlike the masses at Paris' Notre Dame or Basilique of Sacred Coeur. Then I recalled that these lands were formerly under Communist rule and how those doctrines tended to discourage (i.e. punish) allegiances to anything beyond the state. God included.

Then on to the Museum of Communism, which initially did not sit well with me. However, Jane with her agnostic tendencies, had appeased me by going to a church so looking at Marxist paraphernalia seemed like a fair exchange. In a dingy corner of a dubious shop, the proud Museum of Communism slinked along without any spectators besides Jane, myself, and a bespectacled young student who was probably writing a thesis on the issue. I can't say that the museum was particularly memorable, since all I can recall was the red, comic-like drawings that passed for propaganda, and the very poor attempts at preservation. It seemed that nobody cared about Communism here, the molting of a reptile's skin, a poor and painful part of history that has finally been shed.

Freezing from our ears to our toes, Jane and I resorted to the mulled wine sold in the streets. Vendors would pour us a steaming, reddish liquor from large metal cannister
they wheeled around. Warm and intoxicating, one drink became two, two became four, and both of us became slightly inebriated from the multiplicative property of alcohol. We laughed, we sang, we stumbled through the streets arm-in-arm sharing stories. Jane had left her boyfriend at home, and I told her I left the world at home including sour romances. I couldn't tell if it was the wine that warmed me up or the friend who was at my side. Even the most transient friends can have a potent impact on us, changing our perspective ever so profoundly.

Being interested in drama, Jane was excited about Prague's famous "shadow" or black light theatre. I had no idea what it was, but I promptly changed money (inevitably losing a few Euro in the process because I was "free-spirited" in the extreme) and bought tickets to Aspects of Alice.

More mulled wine, and we were sitting in a small theatre, with tons of small children and some straggling parents. Circe du Soleil-like performers entered, fluorescent colors against a black background, the movements of black-clad acrobatics unfurling a fantasy of glowing lights and frenetic, kinetic sounds. In the center was Alice, her dress an electric blue, her hair a soft blonde as she found her way through Wonderland. What became clear were the metaphoric stages of maturity, as Alice was growing up.

Then two glowing nude women walked out, as Alice was apparently embracing sensuality and ego. Every detail was explicitly and exquisitely highlighted. Jane and I exchanged identical looks of horror, confusion, and amusement. There were young children sitting open-mouthed in the audience! No had told us this was an X-rated show. Or perhaps nudity among Europeans is commonplace while we Americans and Australians still behave with a Puritannical sense of priority.

Nonetheless, our eyebrows were permanently raised for the remainder of the show. After the finale, we had more mulled wine, said our goodbyes, and set on our way. She was headed to Salzburg and I was on my way to Poland the following day. It was well after midnight and the crowds were thinning.

Upon departing, I realized I had no idea how to get back.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Not So Plain Jane

So I decided to stay at one of the ubiquitious Marriott Courtyard hotels in Prague, on points mind you, since I was still traveling on a budget. It was snowing, covering the world with an icy veneer that appeared even icier when one was desolate. I lay in bed, my body was leaden and wobbling, that disorienting state of weakness when you are on the verge of recovery. Without neighbors, there were no distractions and no motivation to see the city, so I wallowed in my own thoughts. Every mistake I had ever made, every regret I had about life, men, and career choices appeared in vivid images before me, and I felt my own worth dwindle in some intangible way.

I had never felt so lonely. Jenny called me after receiving a particularly depressing email from yours truly. Jenny was Chinese, fine-boned and fashionable, the epitome of professional success in corporate America. In her early thirties, she was a pharmacist and global director of regulatory in one of the most prestigious healthcare companies in the country. Why was she friends with a basketcase like me?

Jenny informed me that a mutual friend in NYC, was having a birthday party at a posh club. Dan was an MIT-educated ABC (American Born Chinese), eternally energetic and known for bar-hopping every night of the week, and he conveniently knew every happening place in Manhattan. Not that he could always get us in. Dan was an oxymoron; he was simultaneously painfully shy and eager to party, he was outgoing and conversationally distant, he seemed a Peter Pan who refused to grow up and yet he is the most responsible friend I know.

I felt even lonelier.

The next day, I dragged myself out of bed and walked through the historic part of the city. It was still snowing. Prague was an exquisitely romantic city, with glittering rooftops the color of brick, uniform and yet unique at the same time. (Reminded me a bit of Mykonos, with the whitewashing and cobalt rooftops.) But romance, when steeped in sadness, appears ever tragic.

Nonetheless, I made my way to Prague Castle, abode of the Holy Roman Emperors, republican presidents, Nazis, and Communists. Comprised of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, this was supposedly the largest castle in the world, although the sheer size was not due to any particular building, but the archipelago of structures which congregated in such a dense space. What I remember most was how exorbitantly long it took to cross the courtyards to get from one building to the next, especially in below-freezing weather. The Basilica and monastery of St. George Cathedral was particularly impressive, harkening back to an old poem...

"Here come I, Saint George, the valiant man,
With naked sword and spear in hand,
What mortal man would dare to stand
Before me with my sword in hand?"

It was the mother of Marie Antoinnette, Empress Maria Theresa, who commissioned the final rebuilding of the castle.

However, it was en route to see the Czech crown jewels and the National Gallery Museum in one of the lower rooms, that I met her.

A sweet-faced Australian girl named Jane, who was loitering by the paintings with a similar level of scrutiny and annoyingly slow pace as me.

Things were looking up.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Popular Prague

Yes, this sounds like a gimmick from a travel agency, but I quickly realized that Prague had become the new "it" destination, the rite of passage for all self-declared world travelers, the way Paris was ten years ago or China is in the present day. In my three days in Prague, I ran into more tour groups than in my thirty-seven days in all of Europe combined. So we have the obnoxious crowds, loud tour guides, poking backpacks and fanny packs obscuring anything and everything worth seeing in the otherwise romantic old city.

I was still sick, probably sicker because my generous, thoughtful hostel roommate in Munich decided to leave the window open before he/she left. I vaguely recall it was a short-haired woman whose odorous feet manage to keep me awake, aside from the fact that she removed my belongings from the inward corner bed (the toastiest bed in the room which I had previously claimed) and plunked it squarely on the bed nearest to the window (arguably the coldest place in the room). All I saw were her feet and her head, snuggled in MY bed. I contemplated waking her up and reasoning with her, except when you are dealing with inconsideration, what can you do? She was already asleep and I probably would have started a cat fight if I dared interrupt her.

I sniffled, fumed, shivered, and wished negative thoughts upon my nemesis. Of course, the bad intentions boomeranged on me, since it was 4am and I was still angry. I wondered briefly if it would serve me better to forgive her. Not that I did, but I considered the idea and in the midst of considering, I drifted off to sleep. Perhaps I was learning to let go. That is, until the frigid cold snapped me out of my slumber and I prayed that God would give her a taste of her own medicine.

Was it a yearning for justice or was I being a cantankerous old cat? I'd like to think it was the latter, although I suspect the reality is less than flattering. So I took this sick, peevish self all the way to Prague and discovered the hard way that it really does serve oneself to forgive, since I probably would not have lost my much-needed hat if I had been paying attention to my journey.

This would be a lesson that would take me years to learn...

For now, I resolve not to travel into cold places during the winter, since that was apparently the cause of all my suffering.