Friday, March 23, 2007

Travels with Cadfael: Love and Death in Prague

''A land of spires and toy palaces and golden painted gates and bridges with sad-eyed statues peering out over misty black water, a village of cobblestones and stained glass unlicked by cannon, and that fairy-tale castle floating above it, hovering unanchored by anything at all, a city where surely anything will be possible.''

Arthur Phillips’s perfect snapshot of the actual Prague, from the end of his novel called Prague, which is set in Budapest. In an interview he explains “The novel is named not for a city, but for an emotional disorder: if only I were over there, or with her, or doing that, then I would be where the action is. . . So for some expatriates living in Budapest, Prague felt like the place to be.”

Ah, yes, the “if only” disorder, combined with the desire to be in “the place to be.” Prague is a troublemaker, make no mistake about it.

Our visit starts well enough. The hotel in Vinohrady is great—very hip, very part of the new. The lobby has free Internet access. In a very funny, cinematic moment, I was trying to get information from the front desk clerk about one of the museums—lots of smiles and head bobbing, but no actual exchange of information. Cad comes up behind me with museum hours, directions, and fees—he’d been online getting all the answers.

And right then is when I should have thrown myself into the Vltava before allowing my fingers to log-on to my e-mail. I hadn’t missed it at all in Vienna, but the computer was just feet away, and I couldn’t stop myself.

There was an e-mail from The Talented Mr. Ripley, and one from my brother.

Again, I could have walked out the door and thrown myself in front of a tram. But no. I chose self-inflicted pain via e-mail.

Mr. Ripley’s e-mail said he’d been in the park with Consuela, gotten a sunburn, and they were in love.

My brother’s e-mail told me that the head of the small museum I work for had died.

Phillips had warned us that this was the city where anything is possible, but good grief.

I knew that geographical separation from Mr. Ripley wasn’t going to sever everything. We were collaboraters in an artistic endeavor, which meant we still had to see each other twice a week. Consuela had been on the scene for just a few months, starting out on the fringes and working her way inward. It was quick work from any angle. She would manipulate Mr. Ripley into a family and then down the aisle, but I’m getting ahead of the story (that’s part of Cad and my trip to Ireland).

I had seen my colleague two days before I got on the plane for Rome. He had been ill, but this death was still sudden. I had worked with him for 13 years on an almost daily basis. What had been a stable work environment would now be completely volatile. It was awful not being with my staff for this.

We headed out toward the Charles Bridge. The day was grey and raining, in that Shakespearean way when the elements are in sympathy with the sadness. I found it hard to concentrate. We had lunch, but I was too tired for general sightseeing. I wanted to lie down for a while, and Cad was happy to take a side trip to Costco.

Back at the hotel, napping didn’t bring much relief, as the "what ifs" of a failed relationship haunted me. But the bubble bath Cad picked up for me in Costco felt good.

We had accomplished one thing that day, getting tickets to the Prague Symphony Orchestra at Smetana Hall in the Municipal Building. And so we ended the day in beauty, with Dvorak’s 9th Symphony washing over us.

Here’s Dvorak's New World Symphony for home use. If you have 6 minutes, it’s really worth viewing. The video, from a German producer Volkmar on YouTube, starts out very straightforward, but it quickly enters the whimsical world of Balloonman looking for love, with a “hooked on classics” back-beat, and Thomas Crown Affair split screens. The twist at the end connects it to the universal saga of, yes, love and death. Strangely comforting.

It seems Prague is in the air. Here's the NY Times 36 Hours in Prague, which is a ten-most e-mailed article today.


blue girl said...

I'm so sorry, M.A. Not that I've ever had a double-shot to the heart like that, but I can imagine how hurtful all of it was. And I'm sorry it had to happen in what I imagine to be one of the coolest cities in the world. I also suffer from that emotional disorder you wrote about. I never thought of it as an "emotional disorder" but that's a good way to put it. I hope your friend was supportive of you for the rest of your trip. Must've been hard.

M.A.Peel said...

Hi Blue Girl. Cadfael was terrific. And I'm thinking I could give Prague another chance if the opportunity came along. And Budapest, it turned out, had its own antidote to offer for all this . . .

Prague Hotels said...

The last time I visited Prague I stayed at the Three Pelicans hotel at the western edge of the Charles bridge. Charles Bridge is a treasure, a great beauty. I liked it best early on a drizzly morning with few people around.