Saturday, September 26, 2009

Krakow, Praha

Two days, two countries, currencies, languages, two Old Towns, castles, clock towers, Jewish quarters, two hotels and train stations. Which castle had that well-restored Florentine Renaissance courtyard? Where was that gate with the moat? A courtyard of the university from the 14th Century? Where was that ancient synagogue we looked into through the window and saw pews and vaulted ceilings? All the sights have been strung together like a long run-on sentence. Later, I'll go through the pictures, look through the brochures I've collected, read Dave's blog: ah! of course, the university was in Krakow! The old-new synagogue was in Prague! Right now, what I want to remember the most are the details, the silly things, the insignificant.

How lucky we are with the weather. So far, only half a day of light rain in Krakow. Otherwise, sun and blue sky.

If we had another day in Krakow, we could've rented bikes and gone outside the Old Town.

A good website to find restaurant recommendations in Poland: (Recommended by Agata and Artur). Basic understanding of Polish is helpful.

Cobblestones are not a good pavement idea outside of a train station.

Nobody in Prague seems to have the right change. Is this a reflection on the local banking practices or a form of tip enforcement?

In Krakow, as we approached the main cathedral (the one with the bugler) and wanted to go in, two young women at the gate told us: "You can buy the tickets across the street!" -- and when we followed the direction they were pointing, they started closing the gate behind our backs. We were there a minute too late!

Misdirection -- a form of shyness?

We arrived to the hotel in Prague at 7:30 am. A woman who greeted us in the morning was still there at 11:00 when we returned from a full day of sightseeing. Dave asked her if this was a long day (did she take a break in the middle?) and she said, "It's not so bad." In the morning and at night, she was equally friendly and helpful.

In Prague we paid for a 4-hour walking tour to see the sightseeing highlights this city has to offer. Our guide, Kate, spoke with a semi-permanent smirk, as if she found most of the sights in Prague rather silly. Some of them really are: the gargoyles representing the devil on the St. Vitus cathedral, for example. The devil was supposed to see his face reflected in them & run away. Kate told an anecdote: the sculptor didn't know what the face of the devil looked like & so asked the priest: what should I do? The priest told him: look at the face of your mother in law. Heh. Kate got particularly excited when talking about Prague's long history of defenestrations: politicians here tend to die by *accidentally* falling out of windows.

In Krakow, there's a vibrant chain of Piekarnias, and on our continuous quest to exhaustively sample their inventory, we bought a single cookie in each one we walked by. At the fifth Piekarnia where we asked for a single cookie the girl behind the counter laughed at us and gave us the cookie for free. A zapiekanki salesman also kindly laughed at us when we wanted to combine a spinach sauce with sausage on a sandwich. Apparently, the thing is not done. But he humored us anyway. In Prague, the staff at a buffet-style dinner place were raising eyebrows when I tried to order dill sauce for dinner. After unsuccessfully trying to get me to reconsider my order, they offered a piece of beef to go with the sauce. I accepted.

Two young Americans in our walking tour of Prague had just come from Dublin and London. They hated Dublin, and London was even worse. Why? Everyone speaks English. There wasn't even a sense of adventure. They felt like they were just checking things off their sightseeing list. Prague was a lot more to their liking. Although everyone speaks English here too, American English. The two kids are going to Budapest by bus tonight. We're going by train, so the chances are, we'll run into them again in Budapest. They are from Connecticut by way of Nob Hill in San Francisco, practically neighbors.

Last night, we went to a marionette theatre in Prague, to a performance of Don Giovanni. I've spent a better part of two years at San Francisco State thinking and writing about marionettes, commedia dell'arte, European theatre -- it's funny that only now I finally get to see a show. There is a marionette theatre in St. Petersburg in the back yard of the apartment block where my grandmother lived, and I think I was there once or twice as a kid. Enough to have an idea what a marionette performance is like, but not enough to appreciate the adult humor of it. The puppets are extremely tactile. All they seem to want to do is to slap each other, to kick each others' butts, to fornicate, to give each other massages. During a particularly sentimental aria, the other puppets get embarrassed and try to sabotage the singers by covering their mouths or they get anxious and start banging the rhythm with their feet; they simply can't stand any excesses in the operatic music. During a particularly colorful vibrato, for example, they decide to take a hot bath and have to jump in and out of the tub as the voice goes from high to low over and over again. A puppet Mozart was conducting the performance and he was particularly silly. He got drunk, for example, and kept losing his sheet music. At the end of the performance, the puppeteer finally got fed up with their antics and had to come down and hang them up on their hooks. They didn't rest until the puppeteer shushed Mozart.

I know of Prague from novels. Kafka, of course. Milan Kundera. Lieutenant Shvejk, who is an all but forgotten in the States but still a very famous in this part of the world hero of the World War I. Most recently, Michael Chabon's Kavalier & Klay, both sold in a local English-language bookshop on the Tyn Square called Anagram. I bought there a translation of a novel by a local writer, Bohumil Hraval, "I Served the King of England." Vaclav Havel, of course, the former president of Check Republic, is also a playwright.


  1. I would love to see the marionette performance! It sounds wonderful. I'm impressed by all of your study of the art form. Do you think it altered your appreciation?

  2. My favorite part of that story is how Olga deciphered the Czech cafeteria menu and decided that something sounded particularly tasty (without knowing what anything is). When she placed the order in Czech (to the English-speaking cafeteria servicewoman), the lady replied "Dill". It wasn't exactly clear that she understood Olga or that Olga understood she was translating rather than asking if she wanted a topping of Dill. The whole experience lasted about 10 seconds but it was a wild ride. It was nice of them to offer a side of beef to go along with the dish of dill sauce!

  3. Theresa, sure, I couldn't help paying attention to the marionettes on the metatheatrical level as well as participating as an addressee of the show. Something that works as a writing rule works for the marionettes: they don't try to repeat every movement a human makes when walking or moving an arm. The way they move is completely their own, but their costumes (roles) determine the way we interpret each gesture. Mozart shaking the hair of his wig all over his face is excited, while Don Giovanni doing the same move is in anguish or in pain. Verisimilitude is not just about the characteristic details, but also in contextual clues :)