Thursday, August 1, 2013

The familiar far away

I had to take a bit of time from writing here in order to finish the paper that I delivered yesterday at the conference. Very interesting international group of scholars talking about every conceivable topic related to the social sciences. So now my professional responsibilities are over for the trip and I can enjoy three free days in Prague. Last night I had dinner at Cafe Slavia on the banks of the Vltava with a perfect view of the castle. I had the chance to share the dinner and some highlights of the Old Town with two grad students from China who had never visited here before. I am always pleased how much I remember and can find here without getting lost.

Beauty doesn't adequately describe the vista here. Certainly my photos don't do it justice. As you walk and look around it is as if every step has some significance. Here was where the police beat a student leading to the events of fall 1989. A few steps away is the jazz bar where President Clinton played the sax with Havel on stage. Oh look that theatre, not the classic one, but the modern building, the Magic Lantern is where they made plans for the revolution. Here is Slavia where they went to talk nonsense that the secret police could hear and report something to the ancient regime about to fall.

And there is the view, the river and castle and all the eager tourists gasping at the architectural detail of the buildings and the cameras lifted up and up. Now the bridge, the heart of the tourist center, the religious statues ready to come to life agin and haunt Kafka's nightmares once more. The narrow passageways through the old town that lead past the iconic clock and suddenly into a massive open square. There is Hus, patiently waiting and contemplating the irony (very typical Czech) of being a religious martyr that symbolizes Czech nationalism in a nation where next to no one is religiously observant.

Another two blocks and Wenceslas Square where the tanks took position in 1968 and poor, brave Jan Palach self immolated in 69 and hundreds of thousands gathered in 1989 chanting the name of the leader who defied the Soviets and wanted to lead with a human face. I wonder if the younger Czechs understand the importance of the museum they live in here. The 20th century happened here with a vengeance. It would be wonderful if it was some kind of respite from the 21 st but real people live here in this museum. They are dealing with all the challenges typical of the contemporary world. 

The people seem distant on the street but stop and ask something in polite czech and they help, smile and send you on your way. I have been lucky to get to know some folks here over the years and they are very warm and friendly. They know what a special place this is and why so many of us come from abroad and clog their streets all year round. They are still growing as a nation. Small and uneven heir progress in fits and starts another government fell in a bizarre scandal a few weeks ago and there will be elections soon.

I have seen the future and the past on this trip. The precise (Singapore), the regal (Vienna) And the profane (Prague). As always when I leave I hope to keep some of this place with me and to be back soon.

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