From Koftas to Kafka in an Absinthe Haze

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
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Trip End Apr 22, 2005


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Sunday, April 17, 2005

"It should be nice when you get here, it's supposed to be warm and sunny", the receptionist had emailed me when confirming my reservation. I was disenchanted.

It was just as she said it would be. The Slavic sun was warming the medieval Czech capital and setting ablaze in the reflection of the Vltava the pink and yellow blossoms along its riverbanks. It was Saturday morning and every verdant patch of land was flush with springtime revelers reading and picnicing and children playing catch under Technicolored newly-leafed trees. Overcrowded cafes bloomed with brightly dressed Europeans fresh and exuberant after a long hibernal slumber. Their respite from the inclemency however would be brief.

Sunday would show quite another face of Prague. A heavy sky of ashen cotton blanketed the city in a damp chill. It was an overcast contemplative day that like black honey dripped its sweet sanguineness along the cobblestoned bends . Streets once flooded with pedestrians a day prior now laid bare beneath the pastiches of exemplary Baroque, Rocco, Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The marble and plastered confectioneries of Art Nouveau facades iced an enchantment into the gloom of Golem. Carved above doorways and archways the perfectly symmetrical faces with parted lips and bedroomed eyes framed by ribboned poppies and swirling manes cast a downward gaze. Along the storefronts and homes piped garlands of peonies and tulips decorating the structures like sugary coronation cakes. Even cubist and modernist structures seemed to wither and nod towards the organic with subtle edges and crystalline repetitions. Atop the timeworn churches, charred statues in mitered hats look down supporting themselves with staffs of gleaming gold and wreathed in starry halos. At a clearing in a square a tour bus of choral singers rehearsed a soaring Latin hymn of rising clarion force crashing like cymbals above a baritone thunder. I leaned against a stone wall and let the glorious sounds wash over me.

I rambled down lanes astonished at the bold proliferation of architectural adornments and heard the click-click of the metronome street crossing sounds that speed up to alert a crossing and pace to a slow clack while traffic speeds past. I felt a drizzle and lowering my head I stopped under an overhang then spotting a cafe as the sky burst open I skirted across the street around a horse-drawn carriage and up the steps. I sat facing a large window intent on cradling a warm cup of coffee when I noticed another more intriguing offering that was even cheaper; Absinthe. Long since banned in most countries it was the drink of choice at the turn of the last century for the intelligentsia, artists and well, Bohemians. Now in the capital of old Bohemia I took a glass of the green fairy as it was known to Toulouse-Lautrec, Wilde, Van Gogh and Prague's native son, Franz Kafka.

Like a pale translucent aquamarine it glowed in the glass. For over a century it's opponents decry it a brain-rotting beverage that twists one toward madness. After copious copulations with La Fee Vert Van Gogh severed his ear and Toulouse-Lautrec captured it's mental and moral decaying effects in many of his better paintings. It looked rather innocuous this supposed hallucinogen. As is tradition I took a spoon of sugar and soaked it in the liquid and lit it with a match until it dissolved, swirled it in and added a splash of water. I held it up to my nose and slowly tilted the glass breathing in its soft anise-scented warmth. I sipped it with caution at first like the hesitancy of a first kiss and then hefted it again and boldly took a swill. It was gentle and reminded me of a fainter Pernod, its delicacy belying its chancy content. I lifted it to the window watching through its soft crystalline haze people running and twisting at the bottom of my glass through the rain-soaked sidewalk. I scribbled epigrams, synonyms and jotted down recalled film and literary quotations for future writings in my tattered notebook. I hunched over my glass as Lennon was playing on the radio, "I'm just sitting here watching the wheels go 'round and 'round, I really love to watch them roll, no longer riding on the merry-go-'rou....". I half-smiled starring wall-eyed at the view and pressed the glass to my cheek then nodded to the waiter for another.

I've but a few more days left on this merry-go-'round, I pondered. I tossed back my last sugary sip, paid my bill and stepped out lightheaded but with a contemplative calmness that I wore like a cloak slowly through the city. I headed toward the famous 15th century Charles Bridge that was impossible to enter yesterday as it regurgitated a fount of bloated tourists but now seemed more welcoming.

Through the clouds the sun was slipping behind the mount across the river. The chilling twilight descended on the blackened effigies that line the bridge in a gauzy, misty haze. I heard the peaceful churnings of the river below and looked up at the statues of hand-clasped saints, a forlorn Mary her eyes beseeching a plum and cobalt sky and an imposing coal-colored crucifix of a contorted Jesus haloed wide with gilded Hebrew text. I leaned against the side and glancing up over my left shoulder I saw the patron saint of travelers, Saint Christopher. I remembered my grandfather, the only man in my family I actually liked asking if I had my medal with me as I headed back home after Christmas and summer vacations. The image spun to his funeral when I was twelve, the monsignor in his layered robes and the smell of frankincense rising to the great rose windows in the cathedral in Savannah. Another image bled through and its of me walking down the center aisle, heels clicking on the marble as we followed behind his coffin. The images melded further. A French woman named Jeanette looked at me benevolently as we passed, the only grandchild heartbroken but holding firm. The empathetic tilt of her head is an image that has never left me. It's the same tilt of the statue of Mary on the bridge and remembering I watched it blur.

I walked back slowly in a sweet melancholy along the riverbank toward my hotel. I dragged my feet and reached up and plucked a sprig of spring. I twirled it between my thumb and index finger and I thought..

Never does a leaf look greener than when framed against a cindered sky.

Christina




Addendum: This Internet cafe serves Absinthe -- I enjoyed a glass while writing this entry. I would also like to alert my readers to a new button at the top right portion of your screen called, "Support My Travels". I thank you.
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