Vašek

I got an email from Vašek ­ I hadn’t seen him or heard from him ever since I left Prague the first time two and a half years ago. Vašek works for the prazské metro now. He must be Central Europe’s most handsome metro driver.

When I was living in Prague, I met a Canadian who told me everything had been kind of hazy since he had been in Prague. I said, it might be the beer (he looked like he drank a lot). He thought that was a good joke.

Constant flux. The city of P. with streams of tourists moving through every day, thousands of strangers moving in, getting stuck, searching for years for the Old World’s old charm. They are all looking for a girlfriend, too. Prague is not the city of love, I am afraid. I lived in Zizkov for two months. A man in the building across the street painted the wall around his windows white one day, as if he had gotten so fed up with the grey old charm of the building he was living in that he didn’t want to wait for reconstruction to move to his street. The uneven white squares sure didn’t improve the sight of it. It looked kind of strange and certainly a bit surreal.

Prahahahaha ­ – the earthy city. I’ve always admired the wisdom of those art nouveau architects who were the last ones to realise the importance of an organic structure in stone walls before modernism kicked in. Form did follow function then. It followed the necessity of life being infused into a world made from cement and brick. There are faces of stoic beauty or those that have suffered through decades of pain looking down onto the streets. They are not mere ornaments. They are the city’s ghosts.

When I met Vašek and his friends, they were living in an abandoned hospital building on the outskirts. They were taking a break in between two stops of life not knowing this. Eventually the electricity and water got shut off. They moved and had to find proper jobs. When I had asked Vašek before what his plans for life were, he had told me that he wanted to sell backpacks on a street stand. (Everyone else around me wanted to at least be a punk rock star back then.) He moved back to the village he came from. I don’t know what happened after that.

I lived in Hradcany for a while.
Pani H. next door was half deaf and the noise of her TV would sound through our walls. Otherwise the place was great, all the conveniences of being a foreigner from the West included. A crumbling courtyard, Pani H.’s brown nylon stockings on a string across it, the old charm included.

When I was living in Prague, I danced on a boat looking at the illuminated castle; I was walking up Hradc in when a power outage happened, for once experiencing the city as gloomy and ungraspable, like Kafka’s Prague that you can buy on T-shirts everywhere, Kafka’s Prague brought back home stretched over well-fed bellies that don’t know the despair of the face that’s decorating them.

Another irony in the history of the Czech countries. A people that has learned its lesson and knows of its irony sometimes a little too well.
Once I fell off a train. I fell off a train that was taking me out to the countryside to Vašek’s village, where I was to meet him and his friends to celebrate the day of the witches, on a lake by a campfire. When I fell off the train, they all stood there and looked. They neither laughed nor moved to help me. They just looked interested. To cover up my embarrassment I laughed and joked about it. They did not join in.

My favourite tram stop: Stepanska. The recorded woman’s voice on the tram announces it with such passion that I am sure she must have had a lover by that name. Her bittersweet memory of Stepan saved on tape is being repeated over and over to a hundred thousand passing ears, intersecting the stream of time in a daily routine.

Meanwhile Vašek is driving a metro-train through the darkness of the tunnels underneath the city, the metallic retro bulbs of the subway stations being the high lights of his day. He still goes to parties, he writes to me: sound systemy, drum ’n’ base. Kdy prijedes do Prahy? When will you come again?

I got an email from a Canadian friend of mine, who has been living in Prague for years, telling me he was on his way out, in order to restore some sanity. He was going to spend the summer in his home country, “a place”, he wrote, that is “massive, clean and friendly.”

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