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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Bookstore-Café Boogie

the writer in agony

Last weekend I found myself hard at work on the novel, unable to get out of the apartment. All a good way to spend time, I say, but that kind of weekend makes living in Prague like living anywhere else. “But you’re in Prague!” I said Friday night. So I planned to get to Prague Centrum and Old Town Square to walk through all those connecting alleyways on Saturday afternoon.

I wrote tons in the morning: bits and pieces of 18 scenes I’m adding to VW novel, then out of the house by 1 o’clock. Locking the gate behind me, I had no idea that I wouldn’t unlock it for more than twelve hours.

prague arcadeThe sky was half-sunny with haze, but blue slivers touched the horizon. I wanted to have a late lunch at a little Czech café far off Wenceslaus Square — far enough to ensure Czech’s filled the tables, not tourists. (and, No, I don’t count myself as a tourist anymore). The Titanic serves traditional Czech dishes: meat & potatoes, veggies, and cold beer. In the window is a bronze replica of the Titanic as it is sinking; actually, this art piece depicts half the ship, the stern, ass-end skyward as the other half is quickly submerging–reminiscent of the scene in that silly movie (but perhaps its best scene) when people are hanging onto the railings, dropping off and splashing into the frigid water).

lenin headphonesI had the hunter’s skewer with chunks of beef, lamb and deer. I gorged myself, not being used to eating that much food, and not used to restaurant portions. That’s okay; I’ve gotten my protein for the week. Besides, I’m in Cesky Krumlov next week on the school’s dime, and a meal taken out in the world is good for me.

The advantage of living in a city – and a city like Prague – is that you can walk off a heavy meal and not feel that you’re walking just to walk. There’s always things to see, people to watch, street music to stop for a moment’s serenade.

This is Saturday, and the shoppers are out, the afternoon diners, the the café crowd. I walked the side streets, ones I’m unfamiliar with so I might find an interesting shop to catalogue in my mind. I found a few antique stores in a side arcade, the café Trilobite, and a tea shop stacked to the ceiling with pigeonholes containing a cornucopia of teas. But I walked on.

trilobite cafeI had a mission: used books. There’s a good bookshop in The Palladium, an enormous shopping center in a pink building on Namesti Republiki. The place has 200 shops, restaurants, and entertainment. On the way I listened to a Czech playing Simon & Garfunkle on stage at the foot of Wenceslaus Square, and watched dozens of couples floating through the street in various orders of color coordination. At the bookstore I eyed a complete works of Shakespeare for a mere 500Kc, but decided reading the plays on the computer was just as good, as I already have 3 copies of complete works lying in three cities around the world.

[SideNote: Italian gelato stands are everywhere, and for a little more than $1 you can have a taste explosion. Today I had CherryChocolateCrunch]

urinals[SideNoteTwo: the Czech’s have a great sense of humor, and they use this well in their designs. In the men’s room at the Palladium, you’ll find an interesting wall to look at so that you don’t make eye contact with other men while standing at the urinal (not that you would want to anyway) … and this pic shows that the joke might just be on you, Well-Hung-Man: one woman holds a ruler and is smiling; another has pair of binoculars; a pair look downward at your Johnson with Mona Lisa smiles).

Namesti Republiki is in Old Town, and has stunning Baroque architecture, as well as Art Deco buildings that, seemingly, you see mostly in Prague because in other European cities that utilized this design, those buildings were lost during WWII.

powder tower 2Beside the Baroque and Art Deco you’ll also find the odd Gothic structure that speaks to Prague’s 900-year history. Mostly towers once used to protect the city around its outer walls, these brutish stubs stick up into the sky like powerful phalluses, remnant edifices to the mighty warriors housed inside who watched closely for the Vandal hordes that eventually did collect the city.

Onward I strolled toward Anagram Books, tucked into a sunken space just behind the Tyn Church. Anagram has two entrances, and the second – I think it’s the front door – looks onto a small cobblestone courtyard that has benches, trees, a handsome raised arcade walkway, and restaurant/cafés surrounding an old well. This was once the heart of the heart of the city, and the atmosphere exudes history.

anagram booksI deliberated between several books: the best buy was Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night” at 70Kc, a book I began to read years ago but found I wasn’t in the mood to finish it; and I wanted a Saul Bellow novel, “Humboldt’s Gift”, because I haven’t read much Bellow, and think we should all read Nobel Prize winners. While browsing, I also found the elusive “Alexandria Quartet” by Laurence Durrell. I need books, and these were good finds. I listened to a Czech tourist talk with the English proprietor, asking about Czech photography books. He wasn’t buying; just looking. After looking for five minutes, he had the temerity to ask if the proprietor knew of any other bookstores that had a “better” selection of photography books. He received a better answer than I might have given.

Outside, the air had turned cool, the sun was low in the sky. I watched a woman pose in the sunlight, one thick beam cutting down the passage between the Tyn Church and another Gothic building (Prague’s oldest structure, dating back to near Roman times). The woman raised her arms, her husband caught in the light and shadow, clicking away at her silhouetted figure. I wanted to shoot them in the act of shooting, but couldn’t get my camera out in time before they had had their fun and walked on.

U BudovceFeeling my stomach was now ready for a sweet dessert, I looked into a café, U Budovce. It showed that terribly rustic, arched- ceiling-meets- 1920’s-café-style. I checked the menu and saw two of my favorites chalked at reasoble rates. So I wandered in a sat at a side table in the middle room of this old tavern. The U Budovce advertises live music every night, beginning at eight. While I’d have to wait 2hrs this night to catch some Jazz (THE widest of the live music selections in Prague), I now have a place to take visitors to town, whenever they decide to drop into Central Europe.

While the U Budovce sells itself as a pizza joint, they’ve got a wicked bar & coffee menu, with a few pastries to keep the tummy sated. I ordered the preferred Saturday-evening-at-the-café drink—a cointreau coffee with warmed apple strudel. Café hopping is a lifestyle in Europe, and no less so in Prague. People hang closely over the little round tables, talking on subjects for hours, and not getting the evil eye from waitresses because they aren’t pouring the coffees one after another down their throats.

cointreau coffeeWhile the night was young and few people occupied tables, I got into the spirit and order another cointreau, sans coffee. This gave me time to outline two travel books I’ve been thinking of writing: Kafka’s Kobblestones, and a “living easy in Europe” book whose title I want to keep a secret because it’s so fucking good (got it from my mate Andy, actually. thanks lad).

I left the sweet sounds of stereo jazz and walked into Old Town Square as the night sky was purpling behind the Tyn Church. Hundreds of tourists spat numerous languages from left, right, forward and behind. I hefted my bag of books through the crowd, feeling in the warmish air that a long walk from here to Malostrana, across Karlov Most (charles bridge) for a quick duck into Shakespeare & Son’s books before finally catching the metro back to Suchdol.

Tyn Church at nightAt Charles Bridge, the view across the Vltava and up to Hradcany was shrouded in a growing mist that would turn foggy late. The castle lights created a gold nimbus around St Vitus’s spires. My simple point & shoot camera could not get a quality shot, so my memory will have to take that scene to the grave (no wait! I want to be cremated and have the ashes scattered in every country that I’ve visited … something some of you might consider for a future vacation. thank you).

Inside Shakespeare & Sons, my eyes flickered across the name Leonardo Da Vinci. I’d thrice found Da Vinci’s name in my sights over the last week – referenced in an article, another in a photograph, something else about Renaissance scientists – so I saw this as a sign that I should do the splurge and get one more book. Meanwhile, I heard the sales girl speak flawless American English. She was talking with some other American, who wanted the skinny on Skype. Naturally I slipped myself into the conversation, and we talked about the debacled American economy, why it’s so nice NOT to be there, and Oh Yeah, we don’t have to pay taxes as ex-pats.

A friend of theirs comes into the store to exchange books. He and I get to talking, and I learn he’s a poet. Lucien Zell comes from California, but has lived in Europe for about a dozen years. He invited me to a poetry reading come Wednesday, but I told him about my teaching gig in Cesky Krumlov. After a while, we seemed to be getting into all kinds of subjects, and Lucien suggested we take the conversation to a bar across the street.

In another little café (called Kafkisque or something like that) with white walls, brown stools, and a friendly barrista, Lucien and I traded stories of literary influences, what we were working on, why we were doing it in Prague, and all the many more subjects that come up in literature well read people come across. Off to get more drinks, Lucien returned with a friend of his, Anna, a Czech woman studying psychology. We got onto the psych & psyche highways, touched Religion’s fallacies, and wondered what happens during near death experiences and after “death cometh for me.”

The Kafka-house was closing up, but we three weren’t yet through talking till our throats were raw. We walked around the corner to the Blue-somethingorother and order more wine. Anna divulged some interesting views on astrology and each of the Zodiac signs and their influence on people’s personalities. The bar was crowded, smokey, loud, and me & Lucien spoke slowly so Anna could catch all our words, even though she is well fluent.

It was midnight, and we walked to the nearest tram stop. I looked at the schedule and found that I had pretty much missed the last “regular” tram. We three went our separate ways, and I walked to another stop that would take me up to at least the castle. I ran into two other American’s at the stop, Californians, and we talked while waiting for a what-was-to-be a packed 12.30am tram. I walked down the hill to Dejvicka, saw that there were no more buses going up the hill to Suchdol, so I nonchallantly started to hoof it on the deserted street.

The thing about Prague-After-Midnight is this: like cockroaches in the night, when the trams-metro-buses stop, the taxis come out. Often you hear that most cabs are rip-offs, and you’ll “get taken for a ride” and I’m sure that’s the case if you’re in Prague Centrum. But out here, I flagged a cab, found an old man behind the wheel who spoke a bit of English. He stepped on the gas when I said “Suchdol, prosim” and I was flung into the seat. A few minutes later, and my pocket change not so much lighter, I slipped the key into the gate as the fog settle on the crown of northeastern Prague.

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