What a great chapter in our trip Eastern Europe has turned out to be! We came not knowing what to expect and were pleasantly surprised at every turn. We found Bulgaria refreshing, Romania intriguing, Hungary inscrutable, Ukraine unspoiled, and Poland simply dazzling. By the time we got to the Czech Republic, the westernmost of our eastern destinations, our expectations had risen significantly. Could Prague live up to its reputation as the jewel in Eastern Europe’s crown?
After our picture perfect, balmy spring days in Krakow, Tom joked that a Siberian cold front was predicted for Prague. Though he hadn’t actually checked the forecast, it turned out he wasn’t too far off. We exited the train into a warm, humid Czech evening, but by the time we got settled in our apartment and ventured down the street to McDonald’s, the air had turned frigid and quick bursts of intense rain and thunder crashed through the city. Even though I was primed to see Prague, I was secretly hoping for rain so that we could spend at least one guilt free day inside. Having experienced only 4 or 5 days of brief spells of rain on our 250+ days on the road, we would welcome a weather-induced reprieve every now and then.
Kieran especially was ready for a break from our constant motion and issued an ingenious new threat: “If you make me go into that castle, I will scream….and throw things.” After Veliko Turnovo, Bucharest, Brasov, Budapest, L’viv, and Krakow, he was burnt out on medieval fortresses. It was hard to fault him for his 7-year-old impatience with Gothic and baroque architecture and a small part of Tom and I probably felt the same.
The glum forecast held the first day with gray skies and chilly temperatures. We wandered around all the obligatory sites, including the castle, figuring this would be our only chance to do so without umbrellas. We didn’t actually enter any building other than the St. Nicholas Church, opting instead to take in the sights from the scream-free zones outside. We loved the musicians on the Charles Bridge, which included a group that played only 1920’s jazz, a one man band a la Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, and a guy who sang Midnight Special through a kazoo-like horn. At the end of the day we felt like we had done an admirable job of seeing the heart of the city and could comfortably slough it over the next few days as the rains moved in.
Imagine our surprise when we awoke the next morning to bright sunshine and clear skies. The temperature was still a little brisk for May but perfect for Tom who overheats easily when sightseeing (he’s a big guy). Apparently the Andrus weather mojo had kicked in. So what were we to do? The kids were in heaven in the apartment, where we had two bedrooms (one with an internet connection), two bathrooms, a small kitchenette, and a massive living room with floor to ceiling windows, satellite TV and a sofa bed. But the sun was shining and Prague was beckoning. We compromised. We forayed out once again, this time at midday, and decided to take in a few of the lesser visited museums.
Tom took McKane, Kieran, and Asher to the Alphonse Mucha Museum, which proved to be a crowd pleaser. Mucha gained fame as one of the last representatives of the Art Nouveau movement in the 1890’s when he became the official artist for actress Sandra Bernhard. Tom told the kids the story of his life and they were fascinated by his colorful canvases.
Dax and I shelled out a steep $9 entrance fee for the Museum of Communism, which is poignantly located on the floor above McDonald’s across the hall from a casino. (Pickled old Lenin must be rolling over in his mausoleum.) As the resident history buffs, we were intrigued by the Velvet Revolution, the bloodless 1989 transition of the former Czechoslovakia from Soviet-backed communism to western democracy. The museum promised to give us an inside view of life under communism, something which as yet we hadn’t really seen.
We had just come off a visit to Auschwitz, a sobering, solemn experience, and hoped this would be less traumatic. Given the levity of the museum’s posters,we were expecting a rather lighthearted treatment of Marx’s legacy and for the most part this was true. The exception was the reminder at the entrance that the victims of communism, including those who were purged, imprisoned, starved, and otherwise deprived, number in the tens of millions. We were amused by the depictions of ration shops, secret service offices, and factories, but most intrigued by the accounts of the initial Soviet-backed takeover of 1948 and the Soviet invasion of 1968, the famous Prague Spring. People here, free from the cultural hegemony of Russia, never really took to communism and often tried to break free of the communist yoke. When the USSR collapsed in 1989, Czechs filled the streets of Prague to demand the resignation of the communist regime, and thankfully they acquiesced.
The view of everyday life the museum presented was one of limited choices, limited freedoms, and limited availability of food and other daily necessities. For those of us who have grown up outside the bounds of communism, it is hard to imagine this as a desirable lifestyle, yet the Czech people we talked to confirmed what we had heard in Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary–that many older people long for the old days and would gladly trade choice and freedom for security and control. Under communism, everyone was guaranteed a job and a place to live. Everyone had money, not much, mind you, but enough to buy the few goods available to them. As Simona told us in Romania, “Back then people had money but nothing to spend it on. Now they have no money and a million things to spend it on.” This is a perspective we had never considered. Younger Eastern Europeans won’t be voting for a return to communism any time soon, but they live with the unique knowledge that capitalism and democracy do not guarantee satisfaction.
The remainder of our time in Prague we devoted unabashedly to self-maintenance and rejuvenation. Fueled by frequent take-out from the Indian restaurant next door, we jammed out emails, schoolwork, and trip-related research, washed and dried all our clothes, and caught up on world events with CNN. I had grown tired of 9 months’ worth of brown roots screaming out from under a pate of red and gold highlights, so I walked down to the corner drug store for a quick fix from Schwarzkopf. Kieran was begging to go all blonde like Dax, so I picked up a highlighting kit for him as well. After a few hours of my best beautician impersonation, I was once again a full-fledged brunette and Dax and Kieran were newly golden boys. My hair care budget for the year is now up to a whopping $6 while the boys’ hovers at $12. Who says you can’t save money while traveling?
Our last morning in Prague was typically eventful, involving forgetting the passports in a secret drawer in the apartment and getting split up into 3 groups as we raced back to retrieve them. Having not fully embraced the public transport system (i.e., we hadn’t even used it over our three days in the city), we politely declined the receptionist’s offer to call us a $50 cab and, passports in check, set off to ride the metro/bus combo to the airport. One hour and $4 later we were at the Air France counter discovering that once again the system claimed we had paper tickets when we did not.
So, Prague….jewel in the crown? Probably. Idyllic respite for the Six? Definitely. Now it’s back to Africa!