Sunday, 13 April 2014

Prague Spring

Prague in Spring

Somebody has moved the Indian Chief on Francouzska street so that he faces away from the road. Where his arm used to shield his eyes from the sun it now cradles a drunken head, his elbow propping him up against the wall of the non-stop pub which is his lookout. My tram shunts past and a few of us crane our heads at it.

It's spring-time in Prague.

Last week - the end of March - a Russian teenager got dressed up in army fatigues and took the tram to Krymská. His friends were waiting for him at the stop and they laughed in solidarity and recognition as he stepped off. Together they marched with their air rifles in mock formation down the road. A few passers by, mostly on the trams, craned their necks as they passed. Krym is Czech for the peninsula the west calls Crimea.

Today, like everyday, I go to Krymská, the street named after Crimea, and climb the hill to Slovenská. Ruská is not far away, if you follow the hill all the way down to the bottom. My street, Lužická runs not far from the top. I climb the blossoming paths that lead to Bezručovy Park, up the steepest side of the hill that separates two historical neighbourhoods - Královské Vinohrady and Vršovice. Though Neruda rarely left the villagey splendour of Mala Strana and Kafka had an abiding affection for the scuzzy working-class district of Žižkov, this anonymous hill packs in as much varied life and mystery as its more famous counterparts. Beyond Vršovice is Nusle, the smog-cloaked valley bisected by Nuselsky most (Nusle Bridge), Prague's great, rumbling road bridge, designed precisely in order to cut out the sultry, silty, stacked tenements below. Nuselský most connects the edge of the New Town (Nové Město), itself cut to shreds by hollering traffic, with the outcrop of Vyšehrad. This huge hill-top, jutting out over the Vltava was home to the first local settlement, belonging in some myths to Libuše, Queen of Vyšehrad, who would eventually prophesy the founding of Prague and the famous castle at neighbouring Hradčany. Thus, via Nuselsky most - a short modernist diversion - the hill between Vinohrady and Vršovice is joined to Hradčany, the seat of national power. The radio used by the Czechoslovak resistance in Prague - the resistance that assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Blonde Beast, Himmler's right hand - was also called Libuše. Her anti-fascist credentials are beyond question. 

In Prague it is sometimes necessary to take these scrambled paths through history.


I sit in our local beer garden, tucked away in a bushy corner of the hill between Vršovice and Vinohrady, and watch everyone looking up at a dog which, startled by some distant ricochet of a siren, lets out a long, maudlin whimper. Her owner hushes her and gets her to lie back down on their shared bench. The drinkers return to their drinking as the last of the cool spring sun peels back the clouds.

Across the valley, the jumbled, fume-streaked stacks of Nusle roll up the side of the hill, while behind them the glass-and-steel of last decade's modernity - the modernity of the boom and the bubble - fan out across the horizon. Interspersed are the concrete juggernauts of the panelaky peeking out of a light city mist.  

A few of my students tell me their families used to live in Vinohrady, when rents were affordable and the concrete was still crumbling. But oh, the high ceilings!

Krymská is not far from either Ruská or Ukrainská. Curiously, though, it runs parallel with Francouszká (France street). Nearby are Italská, Anglická Americká, Belgická, and so on. In fact almost all the roads are named after the Allies of the First World War, the victors in a conquest that saw the birth of Czechoslovakia and in the wake of which Královske Vinohrady, Vršovice, and other villages were formally incorporated into Prague. This fairytale city at the heart of Europe would become the anchor for what Benedict Anderson famously called an "imagined community". Yet isn't Europe itself an imagined community - an aspiration and an idea for balancing inter-imperial conflict - of which Prague was repeatedly the star player and the key to power? After all, without Prague's rebellion there would have been no Thirty Year's War and no Treaty of Westphalia - the key moment in the construction of an imaginary world of sovereign nations which would legitimate, restrain and extend imperialisms. In other words, the birth of the idea of Europe. Czechoslovakia-as-nation-state (and later just the Czech Republic) simply represented the territorial intensification of Prague's enduring significance.

The roads of Vinohrady and Vršovice - the roads of the Allied countries of the FirstWorld War - converge - in what could be a marvellous display of Czech humour - on Náměstí Míru or Peace Square.

Not all the road names are national. Some, like Jana Masaryka, lament and memorialize the dead. Jan Masaryk was the son of T.G. Masaryak, Czechoslovakia's first President. He was also Foreign Minister after World War Two. Bucking the national trend - or rather inverting it - he threw himself out of a window and died in 1948. A plaque dedicated to him on the road not far from where I live says "Pravda vítězí, ale dá to fušku" - "Truth wins, but it's hard work." Though his death has the whiff of Communist cover-up, it's never been fully established. Still, there's a certain bleak irony in a Czech leader defenestrating himself. The nobility has a habit here of falling out of windows. At least he took his destiny into his own hands. After he died people joked, "Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. He was such a tidy man that when he jumped he shut the window after himself."

In the beer garden a Dutch man with long grey hair is pointedly telling a young woman, "It's best to save money for travel. Better than having things for your flat." He stops to drink his beer, which is already half-raised and has been bobbing around in his hand for some time. She nods and he goes on with his sermon until, somehow, he has started talking about Putin. "He wants his old satellites back," he says sagely. In the city of pastiche, of entangled and enmeshed historical time, perched on a hill in a quiet residential neighbourhood, he says, lowering his voice to a sweetly saddened pitch, "Even here in Czechoslovakia! It's terrible."       

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