Saturday, October 31, 2009

"Roll the Bones is Not a Very Good Album" Magnolia Electric Co Tour Diary, Chapter 5: Prague, Day Four


Oh fuck. This hurts. A lot. And that fucking Black Eyed Peas song is in my head again. What time is it? 7:30? 8:00? Yeah, it’s 8:00. Now it’s 8:30. I gotta take a shower. First I’ll knock on Jim and Vivian’s door because, based on recent history, we’ll definitely stick to this 9:55 plan. No problem. Ok, they’re not answering, so I’ll just get in there and shower.

So I did; I took a shower. Europe is smart. Europe is efficient. Europe had front-loading washers years before the U.S. did. In fact, they’ve always had them. Europeans don’t have dryers because why do they need them? Let the clothes dry on their own. And Europe uses on-demand water heaters. Jim and Vivian referred to theirs as the Eye of Sauron or whatever bullshit Lord of the Rings shit that shit is. And it did look like it. Every time you opened the hot water you watched, through a tiny hole, all of the blue flame heat up that water, and rapidly. The Eye of Sauron, however, must have known that I sometimes call Tolkien shit “shit,” and, right as I was rinsing everything on my pained, poisoned body, it stopped working, and that was how I sobered up. At the very least, it drove the nausea out of me. I got out, dressed, and Jim was in a robe, smelling like liquor, reading the back of my Southgate House t-shirt and singing “Tommy Gun, Birthplace of the Tommy Gun” to the tune of my favorite Clash song. He informed me that we would take another train later and that we should go back to sleep. Black Eyed Peas in my head, I laid down and, a minute later, it was two hours later.

Vivian, despite having been ditched by us the night before, however “unintentionally,” made us fried eggs and biscuits and gravy and that soaked up the rest of the alcohol in my system. I watched Jim, though, struggle through the morning. Despite biscuits, gravy, eggs, more biscuits, and even some beet apple juice I bought, he looked gray. He found the train info, and we somehow procrastinated enough that we almost missed it. But we didn’t. In fact, we didn’t almost miss it, but the fear was there. We were on our way to Kutna Hora, where I was soon to discover the best tourist destination in the world; or, rather, the most creepy; or, perhaps, the most bizarre. Jim put it this way: “It borders on inappropriate.”

Jim bought some water at the station, as his gray had turned into a slight green. We found the train, got on and sat across from a pretty girl who looked a little disappointed that we had taken her space; doubly disappointed when Jim mentioned that he might throw up; then, flat out disgusted when he announced that “belching made him feel better.” But belch he did, and feel better he must have, because he never threw up on the girl, or me, or Vivian. And, on the train, I described the horrors of touring on a tour bus (as Magnolia had just done a month earlier). And then we got off of the train, headed to a destination about which I had only heard from a coworker, and I was excited.

On the way Vivian pointed out a meat-purveyor’s logo that is all over the Czech Republic that features a made-up man either inserting or withdrawing a foot-long sausage from his mouth. We saw some really dusty displays in the windows of electronics stores; lots of lavender and orange haired old women; a wedding happening in a beautiful old church; and, finally the graveyard surrounding the Kostnice Ossuary, also called the Bone Church. You can read a more "official" version here, but this is what I remember from the trip: This graveyard was sprinkled with some dirt from Golgotha back in the 13th Century, starting the rumor that, if buried there, your body would decompose in three days and all that would be left behind would be sanitary bones. Then, after the Black Plague, the graveyard became overcrowded, and the piled bodies decomposed to bones, and the bones were stacked outside of the church on the lip of the graveyard. Then some half-blind monk moved the bones to the basement of the church and began to pile them – 30,000 bodies worth of them. Then, in the 19th Century a crazy man took it one step further and made art, including chandeliers, garlands, and a coat-of-arms out of the bones. I didn’t know any of this going in, and had I known it I still would not have been able to believe what I was seeing.

There had been moments in Prague where it was hard for me to appreciate the beauty and gravity of what was around me – the Charles Bridge, the Prague skyline from the castle, the cathedral in the castle, the Old Town Square, and on and on – but this trumped them all. There was no reason to say anything else besides “unbelievable,” because, first of all, when else in history would such a collection of bones have been available? Wars spread them out over miles and miles. It would be grave robbery to just pull them out of caskets. But when there’s no place to put the thousands of bodies ravaged by the Black Plague, and you have a pile of bones, why not commemorate that terrible event in this unbelievable way?

The place has four corners, and in each corner there are huge, tightly arranged, pyramids of every kind of bone, skulls being featured around the edge and in the middle. The centerpiece, literally and figuratively, is a chandelier made of bones, vertebrae making the arms, skulls with candles, femurs, finger bones, toe bones, jawbones, all of the bones – and the garland of skulls that criss-crosses the ceiling is beautifully arranged, chilling and amazing at the same time. Two of the four pillars below the chandelier, candle-stick like with ascending skulls, are topped with those evil cherubs, one with a skull on his knee and blowing a trumpet. A coat of arms, meticulously made, featuring an Ottoman Turk getting his eye eaten out by a raven, all made out of real, human bones. The obligatory crucifixion scene with a plaster Christ, surrounded by what look like guards made of bones, is flanked on both sides by the giant pyramids, and, if you look closely, you can see stores of more bones that, apparently, insane guy had no use for. Or maybe he died. Unbelievable. The most fantastic tourist spot I have ever seen. Maybe not the oldest, the most important, the most inspiring, or anything like that, but I would go out of the way to look at it again.

Some American woman who was clearly an academic and, probably, from the Midwest as her entire outfit of sort of dressy sports clothes matched, said, out loud: “I find it disturbing that someone would do this with human bones.” I say “fuck you” to this woman silently. Jim says “There’s really no reason to say that out loud.” But, come on folks – when our mind is gone there is no reason to hold on to the rest. If I were one of the thousands of victims of the Plague, and my family survived, I would hope that they would be happy that I had turned into eternal art and that my remains weren’t taking up precious space for the rest of the living. So, fuck you lady; I hope your grave is comfortable and lavish and that all of your relatives are dead when they make the rule that all graveyards need to be destroyed to make room for more housing because everybody is still having babies. I bet the Bone Church will still be around. But, then again, who knows. I could be wrong. Either way, she was obnoxious.

As I was buying postcards a man showed up wearing a shirt that said “Bone.”

We visited the upstairs of the church and found more hilariously utilitarian translations.

Then we got in the “tourist bus” and rode over to another huge, beautiful church that featured the most ornate organ I’ve ever seen.

St. Barbara's has been around since the 14th Century, yet it doesn't have that typical "1700 years of mold" smell.

It was generally relaxing and overwhelming, and behind the church Autumn had begun. We took some pictures of the beauty, a lot of them.

We then avoided droves of tourists and headed toward downtown Kutna Hora. It was completely dead. We saw nine people, maybe, and two dogs. Our destination was Dačický, a famous pub that would win a place in my heart shortly.

Having been around since the 16th Century, the staff of Dačický have a lot to live up to, and they do. Fried cheese started our dinner, as well as the Dačický beer.

I had the roasted root vegetable and garlic soup. I also had a weird pretzel thing that hangs in front of you, tempting you to eat it even though it’ll cost you the equivalent of $.50. I dipped it in the soup. It was worth it.

For dinner? Wild game meatloaf with gingerbread dumplings and a side of sautéed cabbage. All (except the cabbage) covered in the thickest, most delicious brown gravy I had had on the trip thus far. Dessert was a five-year-old slivovitza. Jim got a roast duck with cabbage and lard dumplings. Vivian got the wild boar goulash with gingerbread dumplings. All of this plus eight beers cost us $60.00. Unbelievable. It had been a day full of that world.

We took a really fast taxi to the train station, got back to Prague, and spent the rest of the night in the apartment drinking, talking, and lamenting that it was my last evening of the trip. I had not seen these people since 2006. Jim and I have been friends since high school. He turned me on to music that became some of the most inspiring in my life (Wire, Gang of Four, Replacements, Buzzcocks). And, despite all the time I’ve spent in Europe, I’ve never spent it simply as a tourist. Unbelievable.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Glory Days: Magnolia Electric Co Tour Diary, Chapter 4: Prague, Day 3


I felt obligated to wake up early so I could finally have a run around the neighborhood and still get some work done before Jim and I headed to the Prague Castle (the number one tourist attraction in the Czech Republic – not just Prague!). So, four hours after laying down, I was woken up. And that fucking Black Eyed Peas song was in my head. I bought a Nike + iPod sensor to work with my iPod Touch, knowing that a new toy might motivate me to get running in Europe. I spent a long time figuring it out, figured it out, and started my run. Jim and Vivian live across the street from two high schools, and the students were just getting in when I got out to run. They, no doubt, made fun of me. I mean,
I was wearing white socks and all. They’re neighborhood is cobblestone and four star hotels and beautiful, unexpected views. At one point I came across a roundabout and then, like a vision, it appeared – The Pink Floyd café. This, I thought, must be what Jim had let on to the previous day. This, I thought, is what I had dreamed about as an eighth grader – a place devoted to my then-favorite band, a band which I still know too much about, and a band which I, much to the chagrin of my wife, will talk about endlessly with anyone willing to talk about them with me – and now I can drink beer and think about all these things with my friends, especially Jim, who, as part of Cadmium Orange, was involved with covers of “The Nile Song,” “Apples and Oranges,” and “Fearless,” and maybe even “Echoes,” although I can’t remember. But, of course, it was 8:00 a.m. and it wasn’t open. I continued on.

“Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots, on my iPod primarily because it’s part of the Deep Tan and the Frosted Tips setlist, but also because I like the song, finally erased the fucking Black Eyed Peas from my mind. I got home, showered, headed to the organic coffee shop, and had dawdled enough that I had only been there a few minutes when Jim showed up to take me to the castle. I told him I needed some work time, ate some of my croissant, and then went home to wait for me to finish. Work “done” an hour later, Jim and I headed to the castle.

I had never been to a castle, and this one did not disappoint. Lots of statues of people beating other people up, spectacular views of the city, motes (dried up now, but still, motes) and a very expensive audio guide. WARNING: If you go to Prague Castle do NOT let them talk you into the audio guide if you don’t want it. They lied to us – they told us we would wait for two hours to get into the cathedral in the middle of the castle without it. It did not. In fact, there was no line. There probably are lines, but unless you want the (admittedly helpful) audio guide weighing you down, you DON’T NEED IT TO SKIP THE LINE.

We saw the picture gallery, which featured a beautiful Rubens and work by the guy named Flamenngo(Can someone help me here? I can't remember, and the Frog People painting was amazing) that sort of blew my mind. We listened to the audio guide tell us that the Queen of Sweden really wanted the art that was in the castle but, when they sacked the castle, weren’t interested in any of it. She was right about some of it but terribly, terribly wrong about the rest of it.

We headed towards the Cathedral, found out there was no line, got angry, and then enjoyed the cathedral. It’s overwhelming. It’s really big. It has the remains of Good King Wenceslaus in it. It has a huge statue of St. John of Nepamook. It also has painting that must depict St. John of Nepamuk time traveling. If he knew his fate you’d think he would have avoided it. Oh well. It seems like the Czechs in the past did terrible things in order to sanctify people. John of Nepamuk, for example, and Good King Wenceslaus were both victims – or were they the perpetrators? – of this.

We were both starving, and it was stupid, because we’re adults and we can eat whenever we want. Also, we’re smarter than to get caught in a castle in a country that’s famous for cheap food and have to buy the castle priced food. We beat the system by buying one ciabatta sandwich and two desserts and no beer. The sandwich was chicken and blue cheese. It was delicious, except for the chicken part. And that part was covered in cheese, so I put it out of my mind. I could go the rest of my life never eating chicken again. Chicken is disgusting. I will even forego Gus’s Fried Chicken in Memphis, despite it being the only chicken anyone should eat. Gross. This, of course, on the heels of wild boar and cow and pig entering my body in rotted, then cooked, states. Life is confusing sometimes, people. Like right now. But, anyway…

We saw the Window of Defenestration.
Defenestration is the act of throwing someone out of a window. That particular window saw two Germans thrown from it. That action started the Thirty Years' War. That’s an important window, responsible for the deaths of 7,500,000 people in the 17th Century. That must be one of the top five most famous windows in the world. Good for you, Window of Defenestration! We saw the great hall and images of Grendel destroying Beowulf’s men filled my mind (I being a fan of the monster more than the men). We ascended spiral staircases and looked at things we didn’t necessarily care about, but which made us go “oooh, that’s cool.”

We saw the basilica, which may be the oldest built thing I’ve ever been in. This is when I noticed that there are statues and images of cherubs all over Prague, and all of them are terrifying. Particularly in the 10th century basilica, where they hover above nicely arranged bones in a box in a shrine and prove, once again, children, even angelic ones, are actually quite evil. They are, perhaps the most pure form of evil, aside from certain Republicans. Good for them.

We traveled down the Golden Lane, a former real lane that features no gold. It was full of tourist shops and had a sign that showed where Franz Kafka’s sister was born. In that house, Kafka wrote A Country Doctor. I took a pictures of all the signs I could that illustrated these facts. There were two of them. I bought a bunch of old sheet music and avoided buying Kafka books that I could get, easily, from anywhere else, and cheaper. You see, food and drink and other staples of life are really, really cheap in the Czech Republic. Souvenirs, however, are not. Nor are electronics or other consumer goodies like that. Jim thinks it’s tradition, a holdover, maybe, from Communism. Or maybe these people just know what’s really important in life – those things being food and drink. Have I mentioned Becherovka yet? I think I have, but I couldn’t remember what that Czech herbal drink was called. That’s important, that stuff.

Out of the Golden Lane, into the dungeon; various torture devices delighted us and we, probably as a subconscious “fuck you” to our ultimate fate, and as a subliminal resistance to the idea that humans could treat other humans so badly, took pictures next to and in front of and around terrifying and inhumane torture devices. We laughed, even, said things like “I could live inside this body cage,” or “this cell of solitude looks pretty cozy!” I think the most apt comment, though, was from Jim, who said something like, “I love how this dungeon and these torture devices are the last thing you see after five hours of touring this beautiful castle.” It certainly left a good taste in my mouth.

We traversed the gardens, saw the Window of Defenestration from below, and stood next to a bunch of Americans while a British guy gave a nice, concise history of the window, the castle, and sarcasm (sort of). He, at least, was sarcastic. He invited us all to a pub crawl later, which would start underneath the Astronomical Clock at 9:15 p.m. We weren’t invited, though, because we didn’t pay for the tour. Sorry, Nick.

After six hours of castle-looking, we headed home where Vivian was making stuffed pork tenderloin. And, damn, that rotted and then cured pig was tender. Jim and I stopped at their Non-Stop to pick up wine for the evening. We picked up two tall boys of Czech something or other beer and chugged most of it before we got to the apartment. Vivian had bought two bottles of dark beer, which she poured. I opened the wine. We finished our other beers. It would be one of those nights.

Because there’s no Halloween to get in the way of it, Christmas is being sold right now in Prague. The real Christmas tradition can be read here: . However, here’s what I was told. St. Nicholas travels with an angel and the devil on December 5th to every house in the Czech Republic. There, he judges the children – have they been good or bad this year? If it’s up in the air, the children have a chance to prove themselves. In the modern world they need to learn a little song or dance routine. The angel is there to encourage the children to do well, and also as the angel on the left shoulder, devil on the right thing for Nicholas. If the children are deemed to have been bad or don’t do their little performance, they are stuffed in the devil’s bag and taken to hell. Yet, if they’re good, all they get is a little piece of candy. Seems somewhat unbalanced to me, but who am I to judge?

Jim and Vivian told me that their students have stories of being told “Just wait until December when the devil TAKES YOU TO HELL,” while they were growing up. Apparently, just like we have multiple Santa Clauses roaming around near Christmas time, Nicholas, the devil, and the angel all appear as real-live beings (ie, adults who like to scare children dressing up as these characters), and they can be hired to come to your house and SCARE THE SHIT OUT OF YOUR KIDS. Apparently, one of Vivian’s students was actually stuffed in the devil’s bag and, on the way to hell, was rescued by his father. But it didn’t happen right away. Take that, children. We should have more shit like that in the United States.

Anyway, Vivian bought me the chocolate versions of these characters. We ate the angel. She tasted salty and milky, but it definitely wasn’t chocolate worthy of an angel. Good, though… damn good. We finished our three-drinks-apiece and suited up to go to… the Pink Floyd Café.

What can I say about the Pink Floyd Café other than, well, if I had owned a café when I was fourteen, I would have decorated it the exact same way. My adult dream of a black-lit, Quadrophonic-version-of-Dark-Side-of-the-Moon blasting, menu-featuring-an-array-of-Pink-Floyd-inspired-drinks having café did not come true. It was brightly lit, full of good and rare pictures of the Floyd at various stages, but all hung on the wall somewhat randomly. It featured a banner that informed me that the Czech Republic’s Pink Floyd fan club was headquartered there. And it had a color painting of the famous, 1968 four-piece-picture (or maybe 1969) of which I neglected to take a picture. And, to complete the disappointment, they were blasting Steve Miller. Perhaps “Classic Rock Place That Features Pink Floyd Pictures Café” would have been a more appropriate title, but, nevertheless, I was overwhelmed by the mere idea of the place, and I had a great (too great?) of a time drinking beer after beer with Jim and Vivian. And cheaply!

The smoke in the place began to bother Vivian, as she is allergic. Oh, and everyone smokes everywhere in the Czech Republic. I felt like I was five years old again. Anyway, the plan was to walk towards home and Jim and I would stop at Meduza, a bar on the way. We would have one drink and then meet Vivian at home to drink more with her. It was a solid plan that could only fail if more alcohol was involved. And it was. Jim and I got two big beers and two slivovitzas. The particular slivovitsa we chose was, apparently, homemade Moravian. Moonshine. We sat and, much like the characters in the second verse of “Glory Days,” “we just [sat] around talkin’ about the old times.” How we admired one another’s musical ability; how the rhythm section of our band was the best part and really differentiated us from other bands; how, if we had had our shit together, we could have been part of the first wave of popular garage rock bands. I’m not sure about the validity of the third point, but that came about after we had finished our beers and slivovitsa.

At this point, I was unclear about the plan – even before we got as drunk as we got after round one at Meduza I just assumed Vivian was going to bed, I guess… or did I? Did I forget? Was I caught in the moment? Yes… and no. I was drunk. Either way, at this point I had forgotten and I ordered another round of both of the poisons that got us into this situation. To my credit, Jim didn’t try to stop me. He had, evidently, forgotten as well. Sorry, Vivian! After round two we were quickly becoming blind, and luckily not because of the moonshine, which the Czechs warn will make you blind if you drink the wrong stuff (I suppose it’s true). At one point I was in the bathroom which had tall walls but was open on the top so you could hear, clearly, what was happening in the women’s room. And what was happening sounded like a big, drunk man, taking a very, very loud piss. I returned to the table and said, loudly, “There must have been a man in the women’s room, because if it was a woman, she either had a penis or one huge urethra.” I then noticed that a table to our right which featured two German women was missing one of them. Making such claims about urethras and such stereotypes about the sexes proved one thing – time to go!

We made it back to the apartment. Jim, who needed to make nice with Vivian, did. I wolfed down the end of the angel chocolate, I think. I opened the “trail mix” I bought at Target before the trip (peanuts, raisins, M&Ms, chocolate chips, peanut butter chips – healthy!), had some water, an Emergen-C, etc. We wound up running up and down the stairs, pressing all of the buttons on the lift, jumping flights of stairs, laughing for no reason, etc. We were, once again, 21 and 22, respectively, and living in a big, shitty college house in Bloomington, IN. The only thing missing was the filth. We ended the night by watching a live performance of “I Really Want to See You Tonight” by England Dan and John Ford Coley, and then a weird, karaoke version of “Whenever I Call You Friend” by Kenny Loggins (featuring Stevie Nicks). But there was one thing we had forgotten, on top of the rest – we were to get on a train at 9:55 a.m. in order to make it to the thing that I only knew of as the “Bone Church” tomorrow – and I really didn’t want to miss that. Jim and I agreed to see one another in three, four, or five hours… I can’t remember.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Cream Creamhorn and the Nazdars" Magnolia Electric Co Tour Diary, Chapter 3: Prague, Day 2


Day two started out with a hungover Jim, fresh from his 8:00 a.m. appointment, telling me that, in the Czech Republic, a “rock and roll” band is a band that plays music in the style of Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, etc. What follows is a cloudy remembrance of the conversation Jim had with his student.

“Jim, I don’t understand how your friend can be in Europe playing rock and roll.”

“Why? Rock and roll is everywhere! Everybody loves rock and roll,” said Jim.

“It just surprises me that a band such as this would be popular enough to come all this way to play ‘rock and roll.’”

Jim, completely confused, is then told that “rock and roll” is old fashioned. The kind of band I’m in is a “rock” band. Here’s to cultural differences!

Jim had designs for our day, and they started with a delicious sour cherry pastry. Then they turned into a quick trip to the old town square. A few metro stops and we were there, smelling sage, grilled and roasted meat, and sickly sweet European perfumes. There’s the Astronomical Clock! And we’re seven minutes late for it! Check out this cathedral! It’s unbelievable and it has cheap postcards! And there’s another one! It’s all beautiful, and it’s all full of Germans, Americans, and, I hope, Czechs. We trekked into another cathedral and then it was off to the Jewish quarter. We chose not to take the full tour of the Jewish quarter because of time concerns, but we did get to the spot I had wanted to visit since my sophomore year in high school: Franz Kafka’s house (or so Jim said). Frank Zappa introduced me to Kafka through the liner notes to We’re Only in it for the Money, and my sophomore year saw me reading far more Kafka than anything else, a lot of times at the expense of my other homework. Kafka was the subject of my first really long research paper. Kafka is one of my favorite writers. And there it is! His house! And the Franz Kafka ca! And the Franz Kafka hostel! If you think about the subject matter of his books and short stories, one would never, ever want to visit a café or hostel with his name attached. At the store next door to the café I bought a souvenir that couples Kafka’s sickly face with a beautiful stereogram of Prague. That’s some marketing!

Despite my better judgment, we stopped in a record store. Immediately to the left of the doorway was a framed collection of pictures from a Pink Floyd show sometime during the “Roger Wears Black T-Shirts and Only Black T-Shirts” era (1969-1971 probably). I asked Jim if he had seen the pictures and he said “Oh my God, that reminds me of something… but I can’t tell you what, not right now.” I figured it must have been Pink Floyd related, but I quickly lost that train of thought as I began thumbing through cheap, Czech pressings of Walker Brothers records, disco anomalies, and a multiple copies of Middle of the Road’s debut album. We spent a little too much time perusing, and Jim’s plans for crossing the Charles Bridge during the day were thwarted. Instead, we headed towards the Cafe Imperial for drinks with Vivian.

Along the way we encountered Kotva, a Communist-era shopping mall that looked like a black Star Wars droid transport unit (as I push up my glasses). Was it Cubist like the building next to the Intercontinental? Was it Brutalism (or New Brutalism) like the O’Hare Hyatt? Whatever it was, it was awesome. Jim took me inside and I was immediately encountered with a Laveré cosmetics counter. My wife introduced me to this line of organic and all natural skin and hair care products and, in Europe, they are so cheap (they’re German company). The woman behind the counter was excited to have a customer – apparently Kotva is not the premiere shopping mall in Prague, as a newer, nicer one has appeared across the street. In fact, while I was back-and-forthing with the cosmetics-counter employee, Jim was on the phone with one of his students who said “Why did you take him to Kotva? The girls are much nicer at the Palladium .” I needed change for the Metro and the Lavere aftershave cost 207 Czech Crowns (the equivalent of $12 – about half the price of buying it in the States). I forked over 300 and the woman behind the counter looked shocked. “Do you not have 7” she asked? I said, “No, and I really need the change.” She paused, and Jim said “He really doesn’t have it” before she began the quest for change. The day prior I had broken my 2,000 Crown note at the coffee shop and Jim was flabbergasted, but I did not know why until now – apparently, the Czechs are obsessed with exact change. Even for ridiculously low amounts of change. I took note. Natural, lemon-scented after-shave lotion purchased, we resumed our quest for the Imperial.

The Imperial is a beautiful Art Deco hotel and the restaurant is a shining example of the style. The restaurant was made famous by a scene in a book where someone buys a pile of donuts and starts whipping them at their fellow diners. I was told that they kept a plate of day-old donuts around and, for a nominal fee (they estimated between $25 and $50 in U.S. funds) one could buy that plate of donuts and whip them at customers, even to this day. So, upon entering the Imperial you are, essentially, agreeing to get hit in the face with fried dough. Jim asked me if I would have the guts to do it. I would. I would, indeed. You should have seen some of the people in there. Oh, and this place is a heavy tourist destination – they include the tip in the bill. Don’t be fooled!

Jim had to go off to his lesson, so Vivian and I grabbed the Metro and headed back to Belgique Street. I spent the next two hours in the coffee shop where I had a delicious Cappuccino, an organic pizza, and some carrot apple beet juice. Jim retrieved me and informed me that it was a time for a romantic evening together. We had plans to meet with Vivian and eat at the Olympia, a traditional Czech place that is the sister restaurant of a place they like. Before that, however, Jim was going to take me across the second oldest bridge in the Czech Republic, and the oldest bridge in Prague – the Charles Bridge. This is the Bridge that allowed the Czechs to keep hold of their city even after the Swedes had gotten hold of and sacked the castle in the Thirty Years' War. It was also the site of a very famous state-sanctioned

murder – that of St. John of Nepamuk, an advisor to the Queen back in who-knows-when who, apparently, was told too much and then was thrown off of the Charles Bridge for his loyalty. He, along with Jesus and a bunch of other important types like them, are immortalized with beautiful statues on this old, well-fortified, heavy-with-German-and-American-tourists bridge. I rubbed the image of him getting thrown off the bridge for good luck. A lot of others have done that before me, and we’re the only people who have bothered cleaning anything on that bridge. Bronze looks cool clean, but it looks evil not – that’s probably why they don’t bother taking care of it. For evil. Oh, and the view from the Bridge is fantastic. I caught my first glimpse of the biggest tourist trap in Prague, the Prague Castle, and it was stunning. Trap is certainly the wrong word, unless you apply it to prices – but we’ll get to that later. The Vltava River runs underneath the Charles and the romance was hard to avoid. Both Jim and I wished that our wives were present, but kept talking about how romantic it was the whole time. There’s no other word for it, especially if you are a citizen of that great city, because one forgets about the immense, once-a-day-at-dusk beauty when confronted with cell phone bills and people demanding exact change.

Having crossed the bridge, we walked through the Castle side to Olympia. Along the way we encountered Balkan restaurants, Thai restaurants, Indian restaurants, more than one KFC, and more Thai restaurants – and we realized that all we had to eat all day was a bit of cream horn (or the Czech equivalent), coffee, and the dreams of real food. Ah, the Olympia! Save us from our shipwrecked selves! There’s Vivian! Let’s turn these empty stomachs into terribly full, terribly delighted places.

The Olympia was not disappointing. The Pilz (Pilsner Urquell tonight) greeted us in very large containers. I ordered garlic cabbage cakes – like potato pancakes but cabbage and garlic fried in a cake. And then I ordered garlic soup, which was garlic broth, slivers of garlic, garlic-flavored cheese, and garlicky smoked meat, accompanied by garlic croutons. I became garlic. And then dinner was served in the form of wild boar with Karlsbad dumplings. Wild boar is gamey, and lives (or, in this case, dies, is in a state of rot, and then heat is applied, killing the death [ironically], all the while giving you mixed feelings about forgetting your otherwise meatless ideals and eating something that would, unfortunately, not kill a child, necessarily, not that I condone the killing of children, but it makes it a little easier to eat beasts that way, I think) somewhere between venison and kangaroo – some parts stuff, some parts tender. Vivian and Jim were very worried about the tenderness of the meat. I come from the school of belief that some meat does not need to be tender, but they do not. I think they worried for days about this. The fact is, it was, and it wasn’t, and it was covered in gravy, and it was a wonderful meal.

For dessert we had some slivovitsa, slibowitz, whatever… moonshine, basically, which I encountered for the first time in Serbia in 2005 and which, subsequently, destroyed a show in Vienna the next day. Utterly destroyed it, a show where our soundman was heard laughing out loud when Molina was so drowning in plum brandy that he could not sing or remember how to play his own songs. Ah, Vienna. Anyway, besides the liquor, we also feasted upon the promised-earlier-in-the-day terrible translation from the brochure at the bar (the kind you might, and probably do, find in those racks at hotels). Allow me to bold my favorite bits:

“The restaurant Olympia has been a favourite place of meeting by many politics and other famous personalities since the time “The First Republic.” Nowadays this tradition developes and stabilizes. A proved original interior in the style of the thirties of the 19th century offers comfortable atmosphere, which is connected with Czech and international cuisine. The beer Pilsner Urquell refreshes you pleasantly, you can provide it with gold roasted goose leg or grilled pork chop with stuffed tortilla and salad ricotta.”

That last part, about buying food for your beer, was something we talked about a lot. That’s funny. You’d think they would hire someone to watch out for those things, especially if they have a lot of politics coming in.

On the way home a Czech man told us to fuck off in Czech, Vivian made us run to the very crowded tram, and we stopped in Café Retro and had a couple more beers. Then I heard that fucking Black Eyed Peas single “I Got a Feeling” or whatever the fuck it’s called which I had, to that point in my life, heard twice (once in my car at home and once on the airplane on the way to Prague). Now I hear it constantly because those fuckers distill the best parts of a year’s worth of music, water-it-down, add some high fructose corn syrup, and then you’re hooked, but you hate it, but you need it. It haunted me all night, even while listening to Tom Waits, Baby Dayliner, etc., while hanging out with Jim and Vivian at home. We went to bed too late and had an early morning the next day.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Nazdar!" Magnolia Electric Co Fall Tour Diary, Chapter One: Arrival and Day One in Prague


The plane arrived in Frankfort on time and without any terrible turbulence to speak of. My connection from Frankfort to Prague was on Lufthansa, an airline for which my uncle worked for years. I felt a little nostalgic boarding, as if I had finally realized a childhood dream. The one little difference in the dream being, perhaps, the absence of an Atari 2600 and no six pound pyramids of Toblerone around (like the kind my Aunt and Uncle used to bring back from their trips abroad).

A quick forty-five minutes later and I landed in Prague. The 9:30 a.m. sun slapped me in the face continuously, as I was unable to shut the blinds on my window. Everything smelled like yogurt, and I was starting to get really, really irritated as the German couple in front of me refused to move any faster when getting out of the plane. Finally, free of that coffin-that-flies, the anticipation to see Jim and Vivian was fully realized in the form of an intense urge to urinate. Free of the curse-of-the-man-who-refuses-to-get-up-on-the-flight, I turned my attention to finding my bags. Surprisingly they were waiting for me. The guitar? Fine. My bulbous travelling bag? Bulbous.

I declared nothing on my way out of the luggage area and had a brief, panicked moment when I realized I had no idea where Jim or Vivian lived, and, if something had happened to them on the way to the airport there was no way I would know since I don’t have a European cell phone. Then I remembered that it was 2009 and things like this are no longer a problem thanks to the Internet and the exchange of money for goods and services.

Panic over, I walked out of the international arrivals hall. I fully expected a sign and the signs I saw were, instead, full of Czech symbols and none of them resembled anything in my name (nor did the people holding them look like Jim or Vivian). I wandered up and down with my three bags and guitar and, yeah, no sign. Had it been 1999 (or 1989 for that matter) I would have broken out in hives, started praying to multiple entities, began some sort of bargaining process with fate, etc. Instead I decided to wait. And, boy, did waiting work out for me! Ambling down the hallway was a sign that said “Beach Dawg.” I don’t think The Coke Dares have many Czech fans, so I knew it was Jim. He thought I’d be coming out from the other doorway down the hall. Humorous situations!

I could tell Jim had a plan, and it involved a bus and a subway and then a restaurant. He also had sketched out various activities for us over the next four days and a half. He also demanded to carry my guitar so he could look like the travelling musician. The Metro stopped at Ludmilla, right around the corner from Jim and Vivian’s apartment, and we schlepped all of my crap past Cheers (a popular and mysteriously closed bar), an organic coffee shop which called to me like a sweet siren, and the new organic grocery that, just a week prior, had opened in the basement of their building. Eight flights of stairs stared us down – we took the lift. Vivian greeted us and I realized I hadn’t seen these people for more than two years. They had both been roommates, we had had fun, fights, food, and plenty of tacos together in the past. Now it was time to catch up.

First order of business? A shower. Yes. Make me human, shower. And then? Lunch. We went back past the abandoned cheer of Cheers and found ourselves in a restaurant that boasted “Typical Czech Cuisine.” I assumed meat and potatoes and I was right, but, damn, those things, when swimming in sauce, are delicious. My first Czech meal was Prague goulash. It featured two familiar flavors, those of brown sauce with some sort of protein (I think it was probably pork) and potato pancakes, and a new sensation: Czech dumplings. When the plate arrived I expected the dumplings to be like the dumplings I had experienced in the past, but no! Four thick slices of something that resembled French toast, or at least small, dense bread, doused in the rich, brown gravy. The Midwesterner that is me rejoiced. Two beers, then, and, all of a sudden, the intense desire to sleep. It was afternoon Prague time and I had a whole day in front of me. If I slept now it would be ruined. I knew what would help: Organic coffee, and wireless internet to satisfy my urge to keep a job at home.

Jim and Vivian are English tutors for intermediate to advanced Czech English speakers, which means their lives are based around appointments, like music teachers or really, really old doctors who don’t have many patients. I was told that some doctors in Prague make less of a living than they do, so they probably chose the right path (that being the one that didn’t involve medical school and did involve moving to Europe and getting flexible jobs). Jim was at an appointment and Vivian was leaving, so I hopped across the street and acquainted myself with my new office. A double espresso was served in the tiniest glass of water I’ve ever seen served, anywhere, even to children. I soon found out that I could have as much of this water as I wanted. Then, an hour into working, I fell asleep sitting at my computer. The young woman who owns the shop woke me up inadvertently by clearing my dishes and then told me that I “didn’t look so good.” I responded by buying a bottle of carrot beet ginger juice and thanking her for waking me up.

Jim showed to pick me up and my memory gets a bit foggy, but here’s what I know we did, absolutely: We found out Vivian was going to make dinner for us, and she’s really good at it and comes from a rich, Southern tradition of liking a lot of butter on things. I was excited. We did have some business to attend to, however: I needed to buy a train ticket to Vienna, and, having never done such a thing, I thought getting it done soon would be the way to go. We were also charged with the task of wine-buying. This allowed some tourism to take place. Jim walked me past the casinos, Einstein Pizzeria, more casinos, KFC, McDonalds, banks, through the scary, scary, dark park outside of the museum, and then up to the museum. The dirty, Gothic structure looms over Wenceslaus square, the Anglo name applied to the greatest ruler Prague ever had (apparently), who was killed (for some reason) by his brother, who then became the greatest ruler Prague ever had (or, at least, a very successful and effective ruler). The thing is amazing. In front of is a memorial to Jan Palach who burned himself to death as a political demonstration in 1969. Jim explained all of this to me and I can’t remember a bit of it, but I’d like to, at least, plead jetlag. It was somewhat overwhelming, to be honest – old beauty, political anguish, filthy, hundreds-of-years-old structures, and a sea of tourists. We embarked upon that sea, admiring the street sausages, the weird, plaid Czech pants, the pantyhose (nude, mostly) on females of all ages (this is a mystery to Jim and Vivian, and something they have never asked their students directly – apparently some Czech women will wear pantyhose beneath their workout pants at the gym, for example. Do they know something the rest of the women of the world doesn’t?), the lavender and bright orange hair of the old women, and the amazing old buildings looming over us in spite of it all.

We found our way to the train station and I purchased my ticket to Vienna for an astonishing $58. Ah, Europe – I’d love to live within your grasp, with your trains and pastries and social liberalism, your beers and herbal liquors and your poop-filled streets, your espresso and chocolate and baristas who know how to make coffee drinks appropriately. But, yeah, I thought it would be a lot more expensive. Hell, it costs $120 to get to Chicago from Indianapolis on a train. My mind blown we walked back to the apartment. Upon entering we remembered that we had forgotten to buy wine. Out the door again and to their local non-stop, where a bottle of Mondavi cabernet and Stonehenge cabernet set us back a whole $10. I like the Czechs for this – they refuse to raise food and drink prices, and the bills at the restaurants we would soon be patronizing almost seemed like jokes to me. Anyway, wine attained and it was back to the apartment. Over the next four hours we ate Vivian’s delicious meal (which included a lettuce I had never had – rabbit ears, I believe it’s called – and an Amaretto soufflé, which featured the perfect mix of sweet and salty), we drank three bottles of wine, we broke out the Czech herbal liquor (Becherovka), and we caught up, excited to spend the next days together. The air mattress was produced, expanded, and made especially for me. Contacts out, teeth brushed, drunk, and delirious, I don’t think I even had a chance to get comfortable in the mattress before the sleep I had been neglecting punched me in the face and told me to shut the fuck up for the next eight hours.