Master of the ordinary

We met up with friends here for a few days, and have been wandering a bit together. One of them at lunch said that he was the “master of the ordinary,” because of his appreciation of street life. I know what he means–a certain delight in the everyday just because it’s a little different than the everyday at home. So here are a few more street scenes from Prague, starting with yet another sidewalk sweeper, and a bike outside a shop.IMG_1818
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A cage went in search of a bird

5223Because he is the most internationally famous Czech writer (although he wrote in German), Prague has made the most of Kafka. There’s a (very bad) cafe on the ground floor of the house where he was born, a Kafka map of Prague, and a fairly large exhibit of photos and manuscripts at the Kafka Museum. The museum itself is odd, as if they tried to embody alienation in the setting of the exhibits which are all upstairs in a long, dark gallery.

The overpowering sense is blackness. There’s disturbing background music, some strange, floating tables with projected images, a walk-through scrim with a projected photo, quotes, letters, etc.

imagesThere’s a section on the women in Kafka’s life, his affairs and engagement, with projected photos of the women appearing and fading.  Continue reading

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Richard Fremund

imagesAt the Kampa Museum there was a retrospective of the Czech artist, Richard Fremund. You’ve never heard of him? Either had we. He was born in 1928, and died in a car wreck in 1969.

We liked what we saw.  Here’s a sample, in roughly chronological order.

freidmun nude

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Street scenes

no gunsAs always, it’s interesting to see street life in a new city. This sign for example, from the door of the post office–better leave that gun at home, along with your dog. And if you feel like roast pork, how about a whole piglet on a spit?

pigletMaybe you’d prefer to listen to a one-man band play “House of the Rising Sun.”

onemanbandThe Czechs are big on public sculpture, a lot of which is ironic or campy. There is the line of yellow penguins along the Vltava river outside the Kampa Museum. They light up at night, visible for a long way.

Also this sculpture by David Černý that depicts two men facing each other, pissing. Their bodies and parts move appropriately and the pool is in the shape of the Czech Republic. Perhaps they’re meant to be Stalin and Hitler?  In any case they reflect a certain dark sensibility.

More to come, I’m sure.



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Czeck poetry

poetI picked up a little bilingual anthology here, and so far like Pavel Kolmačka best. He writes short, imagistic poems. Here are a couple:

To forget nothing, miss nothing
of this day drawing to an end.
Motionless, solemn, unaware of time
watching at the window falling snow.

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Bad travel day

We had a glitch in our day getting to Prague. When we got to the airport, our scheduled flight on Czech Airlines was not on the board, and there was no representative at the Czech Airlines office. Apparently, the flight no longer existed. Fortunately, our travel agent was able to rebook us through Moscow, but it was a long slog and Moscow was the dirtiest and rudest airport I’ve ever been in–I’m sure there are worse, but this was a low for us. We got to Prague after midnight, tired and cranky.

Prague itself is a wonderful city, definitely more upbeat than Russia! Though it’s horribly clogged with other tourists, mostly in huge groups. Our first days here were weekend days. I’m hoping it will be a little better during the week. Even so, as soon as you leave the main streets, things get back to normal. And early in the morning, even the main streets are clear. This was about 9 am.street

A visit to the Jewish Museum put our small travel problems in perspective–a harrowing series of exhibits of the fate of the large, integrated Czech Jewish population after the Nazis invaded in 1941. Many were shipped to Tereseinstadt, then to Auschwitz. Only a tiny fraction survived. The entire Pinkas Synagog is covered with carefully calligraphed names of those who died–like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, only infinitely more so. Continue reading

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Learning and leaving

When you travel, it always seems you’re just getting familiar with how things work when you’re off somewhere else, to start the learning curve all over. By now we’re comfortable with St. Petersburg, know how to get places, how to convert rubles to dollars.

We have mastered the amazingly deep (86 meters at its deepest station) and efficient subway (we never had to wait even a minute for a train). A word on the subway, the stations are palatial and very clean.sub2 Continue reading

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Connoisseur of Torture Museums

Larry and I went to the Peter Paul Fortress, a former military bastion just over the Neva river from the Hermitage. Like every multi-part attraction we visited here, it wasn’t possible to buy one ticket for everything. You pay to get in, and then each little area has its own ticket booth with someone in it selling a small ticket for their attraction. “That’s socialism for you,” Larry commented, “full employment through inefficiency.”

stocksIn any case, aside from the very sobering prison, with its lists of the famous and not so famous political prisoners, we had to see the torture museum, with its careful catalog of the ingenious ways people have tortured each other through the centuries. I was surprised to see that the guillotine was in use in France until 1977.

Larry felt it was significantly better than its counterpart in Siena, which we also visited.  A few images from the museum follow, but you may want to stop here.  They’re not for the faint of heart. Each image has a helpful little blurb like this one, in Russian and in English:

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Akhmatova museum

hatcoatOne of the most moving visits for me in St. Petersburg was the trip to the Akhmatova Museum.  For many years Akhmatova lived in rooms assigned to her in the former Sheremetev Palace, which was collectivized after the revolution and made into apartments. During this time, her son and second husband both endured varying prison sentences and she was forced to write poetry in praise of Stalin to hope to secure their release. Here’s a short quote from Wikipedia: Continue reading

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Literary St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is very conscious of the great writers who lived here. Whether or not they were persecuted, exiled, died (and mostly lived) in the most abject poverty, once their reputation is established and a few decades have past, they do their best to show them off.

Nabokov had a most bourgeois childhood, growing up in a large apartment in the center of town. He was trilingual (speaking Russian, English and French fluently), in an atmosphere he describes in his memoir, Speak Memory, as “perfect.” But of course, then came the revolution, and his father took a role in what became the provisional government before the Bolsheviks took over. For Nabokov and his family, this meant exile. We had the great good luck to wander in to the Nabokov Museum–reconstructed in the apartment he lived in for the first 18 years of his life–when it was virtually empty and got to wander the suite of rooms, peruse his butterfly collection in its boxes, look at his butterfly net and the pictures of his family.  He dedicated many of his first editions to Vera, his wife, drawing butterflies and making up genus and species names. Here’s a glimpse of it all:

roomThe entry room with the molded wood ceiling Continue reading

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