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My New Year’s flag

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For most, New Year’s is a time to do one of two things. First, either reflect upon the past and be thankful for all that one has. And if you’re one of the many who don’t have much to be thankful for, then you look at what needs to be done to change this. And then, only then, do the resolutions begin:

“I don’t like the way I look, I’m going to start taking care of myself–right after these beers.”

“My job sucks. As soon as the economy picks up, (as if) I’m going to get a different job.”

A list of resolutions, followed by an equally long list of excuses.

Me, I’m sort of in the middle. I remember reading somewhere once that a man with few needs is hard to defeat. This has become my unofficial excuse at times of under-achieving–this, along with my annual resolutions, such as planning better, finishing up at least some of my unfinished projects and ideas, and, of cours, giving up beer and meat until my birthday. (Why couldn’t I have been born in February?) The tradition continues.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m setting the stage for these next series of events, that’s why.

New Year’s Eve in Prague, a rainy New Year’s Eve. I sat looking out the window and wondered, Why is it that whenever I plan something it rains, snows, or some political upheaval makes border-crossing almost impossible. As I sat there, I tried to find excuses to stay in:

Oh,it’s raining, and my shoes have a hole in them. (This is true.)

No one’s going to be out, it’s raining. (False. Rain isn’t going to stop people from getting drunk and stopping traffic.)

As I walked down Wenceslas Square, the first thing I really noticed was the mobile medical center. It’s this huge truck right out of Transformers. Things fold, bend, and finally twist into a state-of-the-art medical treatment center. I thought, Wow!–considering all whom they’ll be treating are drunks, those injured, and those with broken hearts.

It’s strange how I’ve become a part of Prague. As I walked down the street, I ran into a number of people whom I knew. First, there was Alexandra, the Ukrainian sausage lady. I should have known she’d be working, she always is. Then I ran into some drunk whom I saw the day before on the same side of the street, next to the same garbage can as always. Unfortunately, we’re not on a first-name base.

Though the streets were crowded, the real rush hadn’t started yet. Maybe others were afraid of getting rain in their beer. Maybe I was just early. Either way, the timing was perfect to stop by my friend Derrick’s place. He’s got a club in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, And if I got there then, I’d avoid the crowds.

The easiest way from Wenceslas Square to Derrick’s is also a favorite for tourists–past Můstek, through the old market, take the small passage next to the Sex Machine Museum, and you’re right in the heart of Old Town Square. But it’s near the Sex Machine Museum that these next series of events take place.

This passage is lined with small shops selling Bohemian Crystal, Czech Me Out t-shirts, and those Russian dolls that stack into each other. Normally there’s a couple of barkers trying to get you into one of the smaller restaurants that shoot off from even smaller passages. Throw in the tourists and beggars, and you’ve one very crowded walkway. But this was my path of choice.

I just passed the museum, and something made me turn back and look. There, bundled up like a snot rag, was something, something red, something white, something blue, something that I had to go back for. Here, in this passage, in one of Prague’s most historic and prominent places, lay before my feet, a flag. It was a Czech Flag.

Did it once sway over some government building? Had it been carried honorably by some Czech Patriot greeting diplomats and leaders of state?

Not really.

A quick inspection put an end to any of these theories. The creased folds and plastic price tag gave away that this flag came from the tourist shop about 20 meters away. This was a flag that was meant to be sold into exile, be purchased by a foreigner and taken to a foreign land, hung in some teenager’s bedroom next to his Hooters calendar and photocopied Miss March centerfold. This flag was born into serfdom past the borders of its native land.

But how did this flag end up here? And with all these people around, why was it me that went back for it? And then it hit me: destiny.

Years back, almost like a lifetime ago, I was in Montana heading for a cattle drive. As we were heading to the camp, all one could see was nothing, and miles of it.

After we had set up camp, I remembered seeing something on the way that stayed with me. I thought it was about 15 minutes away. And I was right. There in front of me lay an eagle feather. I was happy to find it, but not so much looking forward to the trip back.

How was I supposed to know that this was to change my life, and lead up to this day?

When I got back to camp, people were thinking–though not really moving–of getting ready to saddle up and look for me. For sure, they thought, the city boy had done gotten himself lost. I think people were more surprised not that I had returned but what I returned with.

“Where did ya get that?”

One of the guys there, let’s call him Jerry, (half Native American, half Euro-something) started explaining that I didn’t find the feather, but, instead, it found me. And the reason I had to go back was because it was calling me. Now, anyone else might have thought that he was crazy, but Jerry had studied Native American beliefs, and was some kind of medicine man.

He began telling me how it’s an honor to have been found by this feather, and that now I must be cleansed in order to be worthy of acceptance. We weren’t even drinking, and he came up with this stuff, and I was taking it in, waiting, and preparing for the cleansing ceremony.

Well, Jerry might have been a medicine man, but he wasn’t a good cowboy. Before the ceremony he fell off his horse and had to be taken to the hospital, 110 miles away. The ceremony would have to wait.

As I looked at the flag, all this rushed through my head in a nano second. I wondered what I was to do. Did this flag find me? And what were my responsibilities to this flag? Who was going to instruct me on what to do? Who was going to be the messenger of the flag, like Jerry was of the feather?

No sooner had I thought this, some drunk came up to me and started babbling in an alcohol-laden voice. I thought that maybe the flag was his, but when I offered it to him, he backed off and shook his hand at me, as if I was offending him. And then I realized that he was proceeding with the cleansing ceremony. This wasn’t just some drunk, one of the many I had come to know, this was a messenger.

But from where?

Listening to him, I completely forgot about my environment. The people walking all around us had become just like the rain, a distant buzz way beyond my conscience. As I listened, another messenger approached me. He spoke as if to confirm the first, thus setting a path before me–or at least making me aware it existed.

I walked away kind of dazed. I looked again at the flag. It had been stepped on a couple of times, strange stains had penetrated the field of white. It was cold and homeless. What was I to do? No flag deserved to exist like this. I could have taken it back to one of the tourist shops, but what do you think would happen?

Would the master of a plantation provide comfort to an elderly slave that no longer provided some sort of financial benefit?

No, this flag had searched me out. Its hopes and dreams would be kept alive by my actions. Maybe I’m reading too much into all of this, but one has to remember that I was there, I experienced it, there, for its real.

If only I could have understood the words of the messengers, things might be more clear.

Author’s note: Thom, the self-proclaimed ‘prince of prague’, has been documenting prague’s people for the last two-and-a-half years. “Today people are some bust getting on with their lives, they’ve become unaware of the life which surrounds them. Hopefully, my images might make them stop and take notice.”

Thom Jernigan’s images of Prague’s New Year’s celebrations are available in PDM’s Photo Gallery.

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