Ghosts and Marionettes in Prague

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My first impression as we emerged from the subway in Prague, Czech Republic was that it reminded me a lot of New York City.  Not architecturally, of course, but the “vibe”.  This city is alive.  As I remarked to Francesca, Prague, like NYC, seems a bit sleazy, dirty and prosperous.  All of the cities we have been to so far seem either dirt poor or quaint older cities that were built ostensibly for tourists.  Prague was the first city that seemed like it had its own pulse, that if the tourists all went away its heart would still beat.  In the new city where our hotel was there were western retail stores where locals purchase global brands of everything from clothing to perfume to food (as evidenced by the Tesco right across the street).

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The other thing we noticed was that the people here do not seem to have the same sense of personal space as we do in the West or at least in America.  People would sidle up next to us so close that we thought they might be trying to pickpocket us.  There was plenty of room elsewhere, but they were right up in our grill.  Our new friend Allison confirmed that they definitely have a different sense (as in none) of personal space (although they have their fair share of pickpockets as well so be careful she warned).

We had met Allison and her sister–in-law Gina at a coffee shop in Montalpulciano, Italy during our stay in Tuscany.  We struck up a conversation and found out that she was an American living in Prague as a teacher.  She was nice enough to write down a day’s worth of sightseeing for us filled with some of her favorite spots.  When we arrived though she agreed to meet up with us for dinner and show us around a bit before she headed out to a party with other expats.  She had been in Prague a year already, but had yet to integrate fully into the expat community and said that befriending the locals was proving quite difficult.

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Allison took us first to her favorite café called “Café Savoy” in the Mala Strana (“Little Quarter”) section of the city just over the Legil bridge.  It is famous for its Neo-Romanesque ceilings and for being a gathering place for the communist movement to ply their evil trade and, I suppose, drink coffee.  We drank tea and hot mulled wine and conspired on what Halloween costumes to wear the following evening.  Allison told us that Halloween is slowly catching on in Prague and there would definitely be some costume parties happening at a couple of the bigger night clubs.

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Next we took a quick tour past the impressive Prague Castle, over the Charles Bridge and into the Old Town, all spectacularly lit up at night.  I took an immediate liking to this city.  We found a gastro pub that served local food and wasn’t too expensive.   Upon entering the place we began to choke on the heavy smoke.  We have found that in most of Europe they still allow smoking in restaurants although there is usually a separate smoking section, not that it is separated by any enclosure or barrier that would prevent the smoke from wafting into the non smoking zone, mind you.  Just like in the States several years back. Ahh, the lung burning nostalgia!  Unfortunately this place in Prague did not have such segregation and we found ourselves next to three jovial and inebriated local boys puffing away on their cancer sticks.

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Looking at these guys we assumed they were trouble makers up to no good, but they turned out to be a really nice bunch of lads and they all worked in a bakery no less!  It just goes to show you really can’t judge a book by its body piercings and tattoos.  They bought us shots of a minty liqueur that tasted a bit like Scope mouth wash and we tried to communicate with them as best we could with their limited English and our hand gestures.  Allison was able to assist too with her Czech – pretty impressive for only one year.  We definitely had a good buzz going as we bid them goodbye, but little did we know that this was only a warm up for the debauchery that was to be occur the following night.

Remember Ruthanne, the fresh faced ingénue studying in Vienna?  Well she was in Prague with her brother Nate who was visiting from the States.  We made plans to meet up with them around noon at the Charles Bridge to see some sites and then head to a Halloween party at a dance club called SaSaZa that Allison had told us about.

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After having a drink atop the U Prince Hotel (another Allison tip – great views!) and witnessing the animated clock’s hourly performance we wandered around the Old Town and were amazed by the skill of a shopkeeper in a marionette store.  He had a Pinocchio puppet that he would make break dance to English pop tunes.  A crowd gathered and applauded loudly when he finished.  Little did we know at the time that pretty much every purveyor of fine marionettes (which is pretty much every other store) appears to have graduated from the same puppetry school putting the same Pinocchio marionette through the same dance moves to the same pop song.

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Here is a quick clip of the puppet master although it doesn’t capture him doing the worm and the moonwalk – two of his more impressive moves.

We were so smitten with his craft that when we came across a puppet theatre advertising a Marionette Opera version of the  Mozart classic “Don Giovanni” we impulsively plunked down our hard earned koruna to see the next showing reasoning as follows:

Opera? Good.

Puppets? Ah, better!

So why not a Puppet Opera?!!

We’ll I’ll tell you why not.  Because once you become jaded to how masterfully the puppeteers make it seem as if the puppets are moving about in the cardboard scenery (ie moving up and down stairs, etc.) and fighting and kissing then it becomes quite boring save a few funny bits like when one guy was swinging on a swing, picking his nose and wiping it on one of his female admirers.  Now that’s great comedy, but I’m quite sure that scene was not in Mozarts original opera and that he is rolling over in his pauper grave in either Vienna or Salzburg, depending on who you believe (more on that historical tidbit in my upcoming Salzburg posting).

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It was quite possibly the longest one and a half hours I have experienced and to make matters even worse, Ruthanne who had impressed us all by providing a synopsis of Don Giovanni so we could follow the plot action realized a few minutes into the opera that the plot she gave us was actually for the Verdi opera “Don Carlo”!!  Of course this left the rest of us completely confused trying to make her synopsis make sense with what we were seeing.  If we try to “bright side it” I guess you could say that the music was beautiful, but of course that was all recorded so we were pretty much just listening to the CD.  To their credit though the puppeteers were very good.  Too good in fact as they made it look so easy that it lost its excitement factor.

As we oozed out of the theatre we found that dusk had set in and we still did not have any idea of what we would be for Halloween.  Well, actually we had two competing ideas on the table; (1) The Four Seasons (depictions of the climate seasons, not the 1960s pop/rock group) and (2) that time honored go-to costume for those without time or money to do anything else – the classic sheet-over-the-head ghost.  We thought about “liberating” (one never steals.  My friend Lou taught me that) four sheets from our hotel and combining the ghosts with the four seasons idea by drawing leaves, snowflakes, sunshine and flowers on them, but instead someone came up with a superb idea that was not only cost effective, but combined the American tradition of Halloween with some local Prague culture.  We would go as Marionettes!

After downing a couple of bottles of wine and some hard liquor drinks at the Prague Marriott’s VIP lounge (Nate travels a lot for business and is a Premium Platinum Marriott Cardholder – Membership definitely has its privileges) we spent the next five minutes preparing our costumes.

Francesca and I sacrificed the pink string that we had brought along to serve as our laundry line to dry our clothes and tied four pieces to a cross made from two drinking straws taped together.  The straws and tape were compliments of the Metropol Hotel night staff who, while thinking us totally bizarre, were quite helpful.

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I had the address for the club and instructions (from the Metropol night reception desk) for which tram to take and which stop to get off.  I was our fearless party leader and everyone (including Mike, a nice guy from Nebraska who we picked up in the Marriott to join our happy crew) was relying on me to get us to the party.  I had even emailed the club informing them that 5 authentic Americans would be arriving in costume to add some legitimacy to their Halloween festivities.

Then……I proceeded to lead everyone fearlessly onto the wrong tram which was going in the opposite direction.  We eventually figured it out by talking with a group of young Austrians from Salzburg who were riding the tram back to their hostel for their own party, albeit not a Halloween one.  Deposed as leader I had no choice, but to agree when Nate suggested that we party with the Austrians since we were already about a half an hour outside of the city proper and he promptly hoped off the tram and started following the Austrians back to their hostel.

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Me and two of the Austrian gang drinking this rot gut gin called “Che Guevara”

The hostel was buzzing with young travelers – many of whom were Americans in full Halloween regalia – and we got invited to another party in the same hostel when Ruthanne correctly guessed that an American girl we saw in the elevator was dressed as Ratatouille from the Pixar film.  But we politely declined and stayed loyal to our Austrian hosts who had yet to really embrace our presence.

But as is the hallmark of our country’s character, we wore them down with persistence and eventually the party became a full on American-Austrian cultural exchange featuring traditional Austrian songs (I think maybe their national anthem?) and a singing of our national anthem slash marionette performance by Ruthanne.

We made some good friends that night including “Schnapps Ziggy”, the diminutive leader of their gang.  “Schnapps” because his parents own a schnapps distillery and Ziggy because, well, that’s his name.  Well, I suppose it’s probably Siegfried or something, but we didn’t bother to ask.

After running out of alcohol in the hostel we went to a nearby pub where we continued to party and picked up some more international revelers there including an Aussie who was desperately trying to get Ruthanne to go on a walkabout to his billabong tree and an American and his Indonesian girlfriend who were dressed apparently as bloody romans – they wore sheets and had a lot of fake blood on them.  Come to think of it maybe they were bloody ghosts?

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After some hard partying until about 3am (remember the average age of our international coterie was about 20 years old!) we bid adieu to our new found friends and grabbed a taxi back to the center of Prague.  I’m not sure exactly where we were let off, but I suspect somewhere near Ruthanne and Nate’s hotel since they were the ones guiding the cab driver as Francesca and I snored away in the backseat.  Once we had hugged goodbye and were left alone we realized we hadn’t the foggiest idea where we were.

Fortunately I had a Prague map in my pocket and I am typically quite adept at reading those tourist maps (you know, the kind with the oversized pictures of all sightseeing destinations and closely resembles a family restaurant kids’ meal placemat?).  Unfortunately in my inebriated state my skills were useless.  Plus the map was in German which didn’t help.

So I proceeded to lead Francesca through the back streets of Prague like Moses leading the Jews through the desert, only instead of taking 40 years (or was it 40 days and 40 nights?  I can never keep that straight) it took about 40 minutes, but we finally stumbled across a familiar street and were able to make our way to the Metropol.

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We were supposed to catch an 8am bus to Cesky Krumlov that morning.  Needless to say that did not happen.  In fact, we were so ruined from the night before that we called down to reception and asked to stay another night in the Metropol.  We slept until about 8pm then went out for some Chinese food (worse than Florence, but better than Vienna for those of you following that subplot).  Then back to bed to try for the following morning’s 8am bus to Cesky Krumlov, a day late and several Koruna shorter.

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By the way, when I lived in Japan it used to annoy me that the Japanese would call Prague “Praha” as I thought they just couldn’t say Prague properly. But lo and behold Praha is actually the name of the city in Czech!  So apologies to the Japanese and why the heck did we change it to Prague?  Can’t we Americans pronounce Praha just as easily as Prague?  Of course we can. So why change it then?  Well I suppose English speaking countries called it Prague before America was born so perhaps we’re not to blame, but rather the British.  If anyone happens to know why we use Prague instead of Praha please add a comment to this posting.  Of course, I realize that Prague is not the only city name that we change in English (it seems some we do and some we don’t) but this one happens to be my focus at the moment.

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4 Responses to “Ghosts and Marionettes in Prague”

  1. Good job sweets. I like the photo of Nate and Rutheanne. That was awesome. Thanks for finding our hotel for us…or it would’ve been another drunken night on the streets of Prague. I think that happened to me last time:)

  2. Love the synopsis of your time in Prague – I’m having a hard time holding in my laughter. So glad you were able to hang with my sibs! A Halloween you’ll never forget.

  3. Hi, I loved your “Praha” article and while reading it I was reminded of how strange it was for me to have twice had people in Prague cut in front of me while waiting in line (once at a bank teller, the other at a post office counter) because I was a whole six feet behind the person ahead of me who was being served and I guess that was just too much of a gap for the space-invaders of Prague who took that as a sign that I was not really in line (by their standards) and they would stand right up behind the person doing their banking (!) or sending a package, etc.

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