- Publisher: Books on Tape
- Date: June 2006
From the book
Forget the long days. When the days are long, bands of Germans and Italians and Japanese and British mob the narrow streets of Old Town, and herds of American college students in velvet jester hats and prague drinking team T-shirts stampede across the Charles Bridge singing Pearl Jam songs. But in March or April, the worst of winter is over and the tourist hordes have yet to descend; by early September the summer crowds have dispersed. On the edge of a season it is still possible to duck onto a narrow, cobbled side street to find it deserted and to feel time straddling centuries the way Prague straddles its river. So many of Europe's cities have been bombed and burnt and torn down and rebuilt again that their physical history survives in stray fragments or not at all, but Prague is time's magpie, hoarding beautiful, eclectic bits from each successive era. In Prague, Gothic towers neighbor eleventh-century courtyards, which lead to Baroque and Renaissance houses with twentieth-century bullets embedded in their walls. Art Nouveau hotels abut formerly socialist department stores that now sell French perfume and American sneakers. Through a combination of luck, circumstance, and obstinance, Prague has stockpiled ten centuries of history.
The city's unrelenting profusion of stimuli forces the brain to screen things out, until one day a new sort of detail will ambush an unconscious filter and then appear everywhere, remaking once-familiar streets. Almost every city block displays a plaque commemorating Prague's countless martyrs from across the centuries--resistance fighters and outspoken nationalists, religious heroes and fallen soldiers. Usually these plaques are placed over doorways, or just above eye level on a building's edge. Small and made of dark, weathered metal, they are easily overlooked but upon noticing one the rest appear, Prague's long, sad memory emerging with each additional step. It becomes impossible to go anywhere without noticing more names; Prague becomes a city overrun by death. Then, the eye will be diverted from the funereal by an ornamental frog decorating a doorway, or a marble frieze of a violinist fronting an apartment building that was a music school a century before. It becomes apparent that almost every building is charmingly adorned--even in the shabbier neighborhoods lion heads roar above doorways or cherubs recline below windows. The memorial plaques fade into the background.
The nemesis of ornament, Prague's graffiti also exists at first as visual static, soft and persistent and easily glossed over. Spray paint crawls across delicate Art Nouveau facades; black tags mar eighteenth-century marble; names are keyed into granite landings and wooden windowsills. In the wake of the Velvet Revolution, graffiti has spread like mold along the city's edifices, leaving practically no surface untouched. Here, where old beautiful buildings are the default rather than the treasured exception to time's entropic rule--and where rich architecture belies an impoverished budget--it's impossible to safeguard everything. Freed from Communism's straitjacket, the entire city is now wrapped in scrawl.
But the beauty of Prague's youth almost excuses their penchant for vandalism. Preternaturally appealing creatures with sculptural faces, creamy skin, and long, supple limbs, they lean against buildings, cigarettes dangling from their lips. They sip slow drinks in cafes; they spill onto the streets in acid-washed jeans. They cultivate looks of boredom that highlight their full lips and Slavic cheekbones. Their attractiveness is alarming in its universality and in its disappearance at the earliest...