Fortunately Marty was able to rest a little better the second night and we took off for a walking tour of the city. Since our previous day had focused on the castle, we thought the rest of town should be given its due.
Every hour this clock draws hundreds of tourists to watch the Apostles parade by. Every hour pickpockets descend, drawn by hundreds of tourists who watch the Apostles parade by.We started at St. Nicholas Church, a flamboyant Jesuit Church that was slapped together in the 17th century when someone apparently had a little red marble and gold filigree to spare. The place was almost too much to take in and we scrutinized every chapel, saying “Hey” to Ignatius and Xavier.
Ignatius, warrior turned priest raised to heaven in pink and putti. I don't think that's how it went down (or up in this case).The church (like many in the city) is often a venue for classical music performances. This would be an especially appropriate place to give a listen, as Mozart himself played the organ on a trip to Prague (his favorite European city because they loved his work during his lifetime, while the snobby Viennese kept him at arms length).
After wandering around the altar and chapels, we climbed a spiral staircase to examine a series of dark painting depicting The Passion. It was hard to make them out since the light was reflecting off the protective varnish on the canvas and the images were painted in muted tones. We heard the faint rumblings of a school group coming towards the stairs, so we tried to make a break for it. But it was too late.
A line of Italian students began trooping from the stairwell. We waited patiently at the top, but they kept coming and coming. We thought there was a break, made it to the next landing and were trapped by the mass of pubescent bodies ascending to the loft. It was endless. The second floor seemed impossibly strained. They giggled, they texted, they glowered. They kept coming. Finally, our legs ready to give out and we were able to get down.
This seems to be a standard mode of travel for the Italian tourist: massive tour groups. The Japanese have a reputation for following umbrellas and flags held aloft in foreign lands, but the Italians deserve to suffer under this stereotype as well. You never encounter a family of Italians on tour, or a small knot of students. There is always a hoard that seems so cumbersome, so overwhelmingly awkward that the surrounding scenery must recede deeply into the Italian tourist’s subconscious in an effort not to be trampled by his countrymen. Mary and I managed to escape unharmed.
Across the river past concert halls and churches we roved. In the middle of town we encountered a whooping mop of people clad in blue. They weren’t yelling in Czech, and they weren’t yelling in German. The lettering on their shirts hinted they were Greek. The shirts further revealed the rowdy group was in town for the International Volleyball Semi-Finals. I had forgotten to mark my calendar. I have never seen so many grown men so excited for volleyball (court volleyball, mind you, not beach).
Very excitable Greeks getting pumped for some serious Volleyball action. It was never clear who their competitor would be.Mucha Museum to learn about one of Prague’s favorite artists (He became famous for his poster illustrations, especially women, in four poster sets called “The Seasons,” “The Elements,” and “The Arts.” He also climbed aboard the Nationalistic bandwagon, leaving Paris to forge the Czech myth.). And Wenceslas Square to see the wide boulevard that bills itself as the “Time’s Square of Prague.” The National Museum loomed over us along with the State Opera.
Wenceslas's view of Prague's trendy restaurants, clubs, and shops.
The Good King leading his posse of patron saints.
The Good King leading his posse of patron saints.
We wandered to the old Jewish Quarter to see the tromping grounds of the original Golem. Of course we visited on a Saturday, so nothing was open for further exploration.
As we meandered back towards the center of town we discovered the theater where Mozart debuted “Don Giovanni.” It’s still performed regularly and we suddenly hankered for some Opera. Unfortunately an opera by a Brit we had never heard of was playing that night, and tickets were steep. We walked back across town to the State Opera. An hour later we were on the second balcony watching a wonderful performance of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (Note: That link takes you to a trailer for an English language version of the opera. We saw it in the original German and had the joy of ignoring the surcaps during dialogue scenes.)l The Queen of the Night hit all of her notes and received her due applause, and Papageno elicited the laughs his character requires (though the singer could have used a little more energy behind his performance). During intermission, Marty revealed this was his first opera experience, and it wasn’t a bad one to start off with (though my brother would have offered better commentary than I).
Then it was time for bed. We resolved to wake up at 4AM so we could be at the gate at 5 and among the first to enter the square at 7. Unfortunately our roommates weren’t getting up quite that early. The light was on until 2 when Marty finally asked to have the thing turned off. This made the girl watching the Final Four upset even though her glowing laptop didn’t seem to suffer in the dark. I was able to get about four solid hours of sleep. Marty had two, but we were up and checking out at 4:30. Of course there wasn’t any food available, so we would be riding on the previous night’s dinner and beer until God knew when (1:30 PM as it would turn out).
We wound through the streets of Prague, meeting stumbling drunk Americans who where headed home from the bars, including Steve, a highly inebriated student at John Carroll University in Cleveland. Normally I would have made sure an Ohioan made it home safely, but I had a president to meet. I hope he had a good story to tell his mom when she asked if he saw Obama in Prague.
At 5, after getting slightly lost and finally crossing the river towards the castle, we arrived at the pedestrian entrance. A crowd of about 100 people had already blobbed in front of the gate. It seemed like the perfect recipe for a Who concert-level tragedy as more people filled in behind us. The Czech police looked worried.
Someone had decided there really only needed to be one entrance for both people and trucks so periodically through the morning semis and ambulances would need to move through the gate. We would crush towards the walls of our narrow alley trying to avoid tire treads. The inefficiency of the system was quickly pointed out by the crowd that seemed to be comprised solely of American expatriates. We stood and waited and eavesdropped on the groups around us including a clutch of Spring Breakers who had stayed out all night and thought they might as well stay up for Obama. A semi appeared and had to cut through a crowd that had swollen beyond sight. We crushed to the sides and I heard one of the Breakers utter a phrase you never want to hear in a packed crowd: “I think I’m gonna get sick.” “No. No, you can’t do that,” offered her supportive and suddenly very sober boyfriend. “I think I’m going to pass out,” replied her friend.
The vomit never came, but the black out sure did. Fortunately when you’re in a crowd packed so tightly you can’t move your arms (I found this out the hard way by raising my arms to take a picture of the crowd and getting them stuck above my head) you can faint and never hit the pavement. She came to, wedged between Marty and the sober boyfriend.
Then the police decided they should do something. They would insert traffic barriers. We crushed, we attempted movement. We questioned the significance of the barriers that were now dividing us. We received Czech in reply and expressions of overwhelmed bewilderment.
Then they wanted to move us back ten feet. With an exasperated American from the embassy and a small megaphone, the police alerted the first three rows of souls that we needed to scootch. The front tried to move back. The rear saw movement and crushed forward. I experienced life in a vacuum.
Seven finally appeared. The gate didn’t open. They announced people with tickets were allowed to enter. We got antsy. Finally we were able to cross the threshold into the square. We would be able to see the podium, though it would be tough to make out the details. Marty and I were jubilant, though we still had no idea when the man would speak. The rumor spread we were waiting for 10 AM. We had a while to wait. I wrote postcards and we listened to all the characters surrounding us. A Czech bluegrass band performed. We all perked up at 9.
There he was! He was on the Jumbotron! What was he doing? The guards were moving around. They ran up the American flag, and everyone disappeared. More waiting. More standing. At 10:20. He reappeared with a flurry of motion that brought a gargantuan Czech with an even more massive lens directly into my line of sight. I jostled and I listened.
I was jealous of my friends in Ohio throughout the campaign season. I had cut out of town in August, just when things were really getting interesting (this was pre-convention mind you). I didn’t hear any of the campaign rhetoric every Ohioan is owed as a loyal member of a massive swing state. But here I was in Prague listening to the President speak to 20,000 people in attendance and billions around the world, and what he said mattered. Instead of a standard stump speech, I heard policy. Live.
Only a few hours earlier, North Korea staged a dubious missile test. So, the president discussed nuclear disarmament both in the United States and in Russia. He also wants to use this disarmament as a means of pressuring rogue states to comply or face sanctions. I guess we’ll see if it works (if we actually get rid of nukes). Apparently the U.S. is coordinating an Anti-missile net from the Czech Republic, kind of a latter day Star Wars program. There were protesters present to remove the country from our national security policy. There was also a protester who advocated clean fuel for Green Peace. He climbed a lamp post and was arrested for telling the president to do something he’s already working on. Someone didn’t do their homework (though he did score a great view over the crowd).
Favorite quotes jotted in the notebook and confirmed by this link to the speech transcript:
“I know that a call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together.”
“Those are the voices that still echo through the streets of Prague. Those are the ghosts of 1968. Those were the joyful sounds of the Velvet Revolution. Those were the Czechs who helped bring down a nuclear-armed empire without firing a shot.
Human destiny will be what we make of it. And here in Prague, let us honor our past by reaching for a better future. Let us bridge our divisions, build upon our hopes, accept our responsibility to leave this world more prosperous and more peaceful than we found it.”
Good stuff. Here's the New York Times coverage of the event. Now we needed to get out of town. We joined a mass of humanity that flowed down the hill from the castle, darting through the crowd (“Where did all these people come from?” asked a confused and hung-over student walking up to the castle, oblivious his Commander-in-Chief was boarding a helicopter somewhere overhead). We had a bus to catch for Vienna that left at 12:30. We could make it if we moved and didn’t stop for food. Our stomachs had given up on us hours ago.
With our gear on our backs we dove into the subway system. The map of the route isn’t posted on the platforms so I dove onto a train, knowing there would be one to examine there and, worst case scenario, we jump off at the next station. I thought Marty was behind me when I turned to say we were on the right train. The door shut and I watched Marty’s forlorn face glide from view.
I had been in charge of the map for most of the trip and wasn’t sure if he even knew where we were going. I caught the next train back. He wasn’t on the platform. I headed for the bus station, antsy and praying he would be there. Miraculously the two of us, exhausted and hungry, found each other outside the station with five minutes to go. We scampered for the bus, dancing anxiously by the ticket booth behind a skuzzy Czech guy who clearly had his question answered but wouldn’t leave the teller alone. Finally, “Two for Vienna, please.” “We’re sold out.” “When’s the next bus?” “Tomorrow.” Damn.
Next bus company, same story. Well, that’s why God gave us trains (the bus was significantly cheaper, though, and not much slower than rail). We went to the station only to discover we were at the wrong train station for trains bound for Vienna. Back into the subway. Finally at 1:15 we were buying tickets for a Vienna-bound train that would be departing at 1:30. We had just enough time to grab substance from a food stand and get to the track. I ordered a sandwich and was given a slice of bread with lettuce, tomato, and onion wrapped in plastic. As Marty ordered, I noticed the white and green mold creeping over the crust. I switched the sandwich with an unphased cashier. I bolted it down and dove onto the train. I was hungry, tired, and stressed, but ultimately happy. I had seen Obama, and I was headed for Vienna.
(The photos again.)