Friday, 31 October 2014

From a not-quite tourist's eyes

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
19 October 2012

Recently, I had the rare opportunity to walk through downtown Prague – all by myself. When Radek suggested that we take the children for a Sunday afternoon visit with his family, I hinted that it had been a long time since I'd had a chance to be completely alone. He gave me the go-ahead to stay behind, with the caveat that I had to promise to do something nice for myself out of the house, like go for lunch or visit an exhibition. A few hours later, unaccompanied by children, husband or friends, without a plan or a set destination, I set off from home with a spring in my step.

Usually, when I have an hour or two to myself on the weekend, I lace up my running shoes and head to the woods. In the serenity of nature, I let my mind run free. Thoughts drift in and out and after an hour or so, my head is clear while my body is pleasantly exhausted. I'm sufficiently recharged to return home and resume my parental duties. However, the thought of heading for a solitary run and spending the rest of the day in the quiet house didn't appeal. I wanted to be alone, but I wanted to see something new, to put myself in a situation where my mind might react differently than it does on a daily basis. I decided there was nothing to do but transfer my necessities from the diaper bag to more grown-up bag and head for the city.

Without much forethought, I took the green line metro from Dejvice to the center to soak in the city's Sunday afternoon essence. I wasn't exactly a tourist, but I didn't quite feel like a local either. I felt like a country girl come city on multiple levels. Without a stroller or toddling legs to slow me down, I could opt out of the creaky metro elevator; I didn't need to stand at the end of the station to wait for an empty train car; I could walk and sip a take-out coffee without losing my grip on a child. Since I didn't have to keep my eyes fixed on my wriggling brood, I could even people-watch in the metro. Just the trip to the city was a different sensory experience.

Originally, I'd hoped to catch the World Press Photo 2012 exhibit that was displayed at the Karolinum in early autumn, but having missed it by one weekend, I decided to get off at Mustek and walk toward Wenceslas Square. On the way, I changed my mind and headed toward Foto Škoda on Vodičková to see if they had any interesting photos displayed. Although the photo shop itself was closed, in the Lucerna passage I came upon an exhibit of Sony World Photography awards, which featured pictures from photographers around the world.

My favorite pictures were from the category Best Smile. One was of a smiling baby being tossed in the air somewhere in Slovakia, a perfect blue sky above her and two outstretched arms below. The other was of an older couple sitting side by side, the male's head thrown back in a hearty smile while his female partner looked on, also happy but more subdued. I didn't notice where the picture was taken, but the couple could have been any European city-dwellers, resting for a spell on a park bench. I wondered if I would live long enough in Prague to have such a picture of me taken.

I stopped for a minute further in the passage to study David Černy's sculpture of St. Wenceslas riding the upside-down dead horse. Although I'd walked under it in the past when I crossed through the passage, I'd never given myself permission to stop and stare. The horse's thick, downwardly extended tongue gave me the shivers. I watched several tourists crowd into the furthest corner, presumably to snap the best angle for their trip scrapbook. I took a mental snapshot, reminding myself to bring my children back for their own chance to be shocked one day. They are fascinated by Černy's babies crawling on Kampa Park and mildly interested in the ones they glimpse from a distance climbing on Prague's famous television tower. A knight on a dead horse would be fodder for a lively conversation.

When I exited the passage, I was surprised to see vendors on Wenceslas Square beckoning tourists to try their artisanal cheeses, medovina (mead), local sausages, roasted nuts and candies. I'd never noticed market booths set up on Wenceslas Square beyond the traditional Easter and Christmas holidays. It reminded me of walking along the sea front in Barcelona, although the fresh olives and Spanish wines seemed somehow more romantic than the Czech specialties on offer. The scene looked touristy, at least more so than the farmers' market in Dejvice or the seasonal markets in villages close to home, so I kept moving. Still, it made me glad to see regional products displayed in the town's main square.

The Ovocný Světozor, a Hajek-brand sweet shop and a local favorite, near the entrance to the Franciscan gardens, provided an opposing scene of what city locals do on Sunday afternoons. Packed, with overflow tables set up in the passage in front of the store, the sweet shop was a conglomeration of Czech families. Mothers and fathers, grandparents and children as well as a few young couples dressed in their Sunday best, enjoyed a sweet or a coffee. I didn't stop here either, although I took a long look at the fruit cakes on display. I would have never been able to walk past without stopping, if I'd had the kids.

When I lingered to check a funky display of dresses and purses, I was approached by a wildly-dressed woman, her mismatched sari an array of vibrant colors. She stopped to see what had caught my interest and began to babble incoherently about the animal hats in the display. After listening for a moment, I politely nodded and made my way down the street. I watched her move to the next group of walkers and try to interact with them. She seemed at home in the passage, and I wondered where she'd come from. Behind Wenceslas Square, I passed a group of homeless men and women, sitting with their dogs on a group of benches outside the Bata shoe store. It was a mild afternoon, and the group looked comfortable enough talking and resting in the sunshine, although I didn't know how they would adapt to the colder night ahead.

On Celetna, I passed a large, dark-skinned man in full-gold dress sitting on his haunches and lighting a cigarette outside one of Prague's Svarowski's crystal shop. He looked like a bored husband waiting for his wife to finish her jewelry shopping. In Old Town Square, I saw the first mime. He was dressed in white with a white face, standing on a little black box. A little farther into the square, I saw a group of four white-faced mimes in fancy clothes, hats and wigs, dressed as British or French nobility, maybe from the Renassiance. A small-framed Asian man cradled an expensive camera, adjusting the long zoom attachment to capture the profiles of the men while his daughter and wife posed simultaneously with Týnská Church in the background. In front of the mimes, a young street-artist waved a large bubble-maker through the air.

I didn't see or hear any of Prague's characteristic street musicians, although at the corner of the square toward the metro, a man in a turquoise sweat suit wearing a homemade Native American Indian headdress danced in a tight circle around his boom box while chanting. Just beyond the square, I watched as a tall blond knelt to street level and took a picture of something ahead of her. As I got closer, I realized she'd photographed a beggar, stretched in prone position.

By the time I reached the metro, my legs were tired and I'd had my fill of Prague's visual curiosities, vendors, street artists and tourists. Grateful for the chance experience a quiet afternoon walk through downtown Prague, I was already eager to leave the anonymity of the city behind me. The children and Radek returned a few minutes after me, and I welcomed the fuss and commotion of their arrival. Their faces, dirty from chocolate and their clothes wearing a lingering greasy smell of babicka's řizky were evidence that they'd also lived their Sunday to its fullest.

Life can be chaotic and hectic, but unless we take a moment stop and really look around, we might miss something worth seeing. Leaving the children for the afternoon to be a tourist-of-sorts in the city gave me the chance to welcome my life back again. It didn't cost much, just a coffee and a metro ticket, but the change of perspective was priceless.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.