March 24, 2009
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From a satellite’s perspective, the city looks odd. As the spacecraft passes thousands of feet overhead, it snaps hundreds of pictures from various angles. The resulting photographs are edited, touched-up, and pasted together to produce a grainy digital layout of the city that can be seen on Google Maps from anyone’s home computer. And because of the angles at which the pictures were taken, the bridges, buildings, train stations, statues and parked cars slant in sometimes opposing directions. From space, it looks ordinary, uninspiring, and awkward. My experience there was quite different.

I have only been to Prague, Czech Republic, once. That was last summer in July with the Experiment in International Living. Most of my time was spent throughout Germany with a group of other young people, with the Czech Republic as the final destination. My time in Prague totaled to be a little over three days. In that brief period, my group and I toured the city and surrounding area, wandering Prague Castle and the winding cobblestone streets. My favorite place however, was not a typical tourist destination.

We have just come back to the hotel after a long day of playing “tourist.” We are all exhausted. My feet ache from the miles of walking and my pale pink and pasty skin is singed to a painful and uncomfortable crisp. All I want to do was take a shower and crash into my soft hotel bed for a well-earned night’s sleep. Unfortunately, our group leader, Jordan, has other plans.
In the hotel room, I dig out my last pair of clean pants out of my pack and hang them in the bathroom so the steam would release the wrinkles. After zipping the fly on my relaxed fit, size 30-31 flat front khakis, I douse a blue polo shirt in a roommate’s aerosol cologne, masking any unappealing scents completely for about an hour or two. The Navy has their own term for such an action, but I don’t subscribe to racial slurs. I put on a pair of slightly worn socks and head down to the lobby, skipping every other step. The elevator somehow seems less than trustworthy.
In the hotel lobby at Residence Verona located at Soukenicka 6 Praha District One, the young ladies are a sight to behold. The cleanliness and neatness of their wardrobe has apparently suffered as well from our month long trek. Wrinkled, stained, and worn clothes are only accented by the hasty attempt to apply makeup and arrange dirty and oily hair. One girl, while applying some last-minute mascara, has stabbed herself in the eye with the brush. Tears and sticky black makeup run down her cheeks uncontrollably in black streaks. Another has jerked her hair back and scrunched it into a messy and awkwardly positioned ponytail with a ragged red hair tie that looks like it could disintegrate at any moment. Nonetheless, they are ready for a night on the town and wholeheartedly expect to turn heads wherever our destination may be.
Our destination turns out to be a beer garden across the Vlatava River, a short walk from the hotel. With great determination and confidence, the American tourists stumble out the front door and down the sidewalk.
I remember the way to the garden perfectly. After exiting the hotel, turn left on to Soukenicka for only a few paces. At the intersection, go right on Revolucni and continue across the Stefanikov Bridge spanning the river. At the end of the bridge, before a tunnel, veer left onto a steep footpath that goes up a hill. The path switchbacks and continues until the top where a frosty plastic cup of Budweiser awaits the visitor.
A quick clarification about Czech beer: The Czech Republic is the number one alcohol consuming country in the world. The leading brand of beer is Budweiser. This, however, is not to be confused with the American variety. The Czech brand came first but when the company tried to market their product in the United States, there was already a brand titled Budweiser and had to change their name due to copyright protection laws. This Czech beer is sold in the imported beer section of most grocery stores and is marketed under the name of Pilsner Urquell. I have also heard that this is far superior to America’s self-appointed “King of Beers.”
And now back to the garden. By the time we reach the top of the hill, we are all huffing audibly. At the top, we collect ourselves and set out in search for a picnic table at which to sit. There are almost none to be found. It would appear that many other Czechs had similar ideas of enjoying the summer evening in the beer garden. Picking our way through the crowd, my ears become acclimated to a variety of languages. I hear French, German, Spanish, English, Russian as well as Czech spoken. Everyone appears to be occupied at their tables with their companions and unwilling to share any available space. Some laugh drunkenly, irritating their neighbors. Others quietly take long drags of hand-rolled cigarettes and pass them to a cohort, while muttering conversation. Miraculously, an empty table appears, a gift from the gods. The advance landing team (girls) moves in quickly and secures the perimeter; the table is ours. Sitting down, the girls begin to chatter and the guys head off in the direction of the beer. The line is long, but moves fast because the ordering process is simple; I hand my five-koruna coin to the man behind the counter and he gives me my beer in a clear plastic cup. There is absolutely no language barrier. The cool blonde lager reaches the very top and foam dribbles down the side and over my fingers. I take a sip or two to keep from spilling any. Beer, like many other things, is an acquired taste. It is overpowering to the palate, slightly bitter, and tastes and smells strongly of hops, barley and other distilled grains. Perspiration forms on the outside of the cup, making it cold and slippery.
At our newly captured table, the women-folk direct their conversation towards the opposite sex. They nervously peek over each others’ shoulders at a young man seated at a neighboring table.
“Didja see that one?” one asks her comrade. “No, not that one… That one! In the blue with the goatee. Sooo cute.” The tone in her voice shifts from a gushing girly giggle to one of disappointment and resentment.
“Oh wait, he’s with someone…”
Avoiding the swirling cloud of estrogen and pre-destroyed American Eagle jeans, I carry my cup gingerly and pick my way through the crowd to the railing where the air does not smell heavily of sheesha smoke and the scenery is far better.
Prague is built in a basin along the Vlatava River. The central part of the city is surrounded by a steep sided hill on the north, and west banks of the river. I am currently standing on the northern bank. To my right, I can see Prague Castle and other government offices beautifully illuminated by spotlights. The light reflects off of the white stone of the fortress and spreads to the surrounding hillside with a pure, soft, glow. The world famous Charles Bridge is also visible. Streetlamps placed at regular intervals cast a soft yellow light over the glassy river, which reflects a perfect mirror image of the bridge above it. Directly in front of me to the south, the central part of Prague spreads out quilt-like before me. Through the clear night air, my eyes can follow the dizzying grid of cobblestones down streets all the way into the central square of the city. Bright lights illuminate points of interest. They each seem to command my attention and respect. I greedily drink in all my senses can swallow, not wanting to look away for fear that I might miss some detail. Despite the many lights, the celestial bodies grace me with their presence. The stars scintillate and the moon is large and feels so close.
At that very moment, it occurs to me that I have never been happier. I have achieved absolute nirvana. The beautiful view offered by this one spot possesses me and I gladly allow it to do so. All manner of thoughts and memories tear through my mind, frantically searching for something, anything, to relate this feeling to. There is nothing. Never before have I experienced such a feeling of contentment or of such inner peace. Occasionally, I raise my plastic cup to my lips and take a small sip, savoring the cool taste. I stand and stare and when I am done, stand and stare some more.
And then it is gone. A girl who apparently has had too much to drink stumbles over and says abrasively and loudly in a voice that smells strongly of beer; “Oh my GAWD! Ariel… Ya know, that mermaid, right…? What is the name of that movie?”
Inside, I laugh at the situation. I have just experienced something close to a religious revelation and this was how fate disturbs me from my reverie: A drunken 17-year-old girl inquiring about the title of her favorite Disney flick. Wonderful.
It is getting late and a majority agrees that we ought to head back to the hotel for the night. I had stood in that one spot for close to an hour. I swear I was there for only 15 minutes. Einstein was right; time is relative. I take the last few sips of my drink and toss the cup in a garbage can which is overflowing with similar cups. Cigarette butts litter the sidewalk in all directions. A few paces in front of me, a couple leans on each other and walks with a slightly less than sober stride. The woman rests her head of long blond hair on the shoulder of her male companion as he holds her close, his left hand wrapped around her slim waist, his other in his right front pocket. Occasionally, he brings his mouth close to her ear and whispers what I assume to be endearments, in soft Czech. “They are happy,” I think to myself. “And so am I.” That, as far as I was concerned, was enough.

Note: The title “Mír” is the Czech word for “peace.”

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heytheredempsey said...
Oct. 21, 2009 at 5:59 pm
rockefeller This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Jan. 19, 2010 at 3:22 pm
yes it is.
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