November 22, 2017. Prague, Czech Republic.
There are different kinds of surreal. Barcelona was a psychotropic fever dream, everything outsizedly absurd, the kind of ridiculousness that even dream logic can’t slip by you. Fifteen-foot tall matadors burst from an alley to the sound of spirit flutes and you stop and say, “Wait, this is a dream. Obviously. Okay.”
Prague is different. It’s cooler, more refined and lucid in its creeping abnormality. It’s easy to understand how a place like this churned out a mind like Kafka. The city carries an overtone of dread, the subtle but implacable discomfort that comes in the strange vision quests that too much NyQuil gives you.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful city. It’s just, when you walk through it, you feel like it’s being made up as it goes along. The architecture is eclectic to the point of the random. You can stand on a single corner and look around a square and see three, four, five different styles of building, ordinarily separated by centuries, now jutting against one another.
That’s what’s so unsettling about Prague, I think. That’s what gives it the static buzz of a medicated dream.
Think about your last nightmare. You’re running down a hallway, maybe a childhood school or something, you get to the staircase, you run up the steps, two at a time, you throw open the doors to the roof and you’re suddenly in the middle of the woods.
It’s like that every time you turn a corner. The same jarring sense of something being wrong.
Good thing morbid absurdity is my bread and butter. I’ve been bumbling around Prague for two days now, fending off a chest cold in the rainy, 30 degree weather. I walk into a Baroque alley and come out a Gothic one. Roman churches suddenly give way to municipal buildings covered in arabesques. Down another alley, which gets so narrow that you can barely fit two people through it at once, and I walk out into an expanse of Soviet Brutalism that goes on for as long as my vision does.
I caught a snippet of an interview on a TV screen in some museum or other, a local architecture teacher was saying, “Builders just kept coming. We had some from Germany, we had some from France, we had many from Italy, from Portugal, from Spain, from the East, all these builders came to add something to Prague.”
Well, mission accomplished. It felt to me like a weird echo of the Great Bazaar, jumbled miscellany writ large and rendered permanent.
I crossed the bridge out of Old Town and climbed the hill toward Prague Castle, a standing complex that had been restored (and, in keeping with their whole theme, remodeled) since the 1300s. That’s where I found the crown jewel, a Gothic masterpiece called the St. Vitus Cathedral.
The pictures don’t do it justice. It was like a factory that mass-produces religiously themed nightmares. It’s like the Devil made a church as a joke, and it was so over-the-top that they decided to keep it. The whole big bastard looks like a 2-page insert from a gritty early 90’s Batman comic. I was so awed by it I didn’t even mind the Asian families doing noisy selfie-stick gymnastics next to me.
I climbed to the top of the South Tower. Allegedly 287 steps. Bull. 283. I counted.
It didn’t start to really suck until step 140, but that was probably just the chest cold. Probably.
I made my way back down the hill and discovered a “Medieval Tavern” with a row of blackened skulls across the door.
Welp, my hands are tied. I went in, figuring that I’d grab something to eat here.
It was nearly pitch black inside, lit only by candles. Lots of rough-hewn stone, lots of weird haunted house decorations like skulls, chains, robed mannequins. I don’t know how prevalent robed mannequins were in actual medieval times, but I have to imagine they used more lighting and fewer bones in general tavern decor. Maybe it was a special dungeon-themed tavern. I wandered down some winding stairs into some dark, empty rooms, and then eventually into a well-lit modern kitchen, which is when I knew I’d gone too far. I wandered back up the stairs and sat at the head of a table, looked over the menu.
After maybe 10 minutes of alternating between looking at the menu and a candle, a beautiful blonde skeleton appeared and asked what I wanted to drink. The menu said “Home made beer with love”, so I ordered that. She slam-dunked it on my table on the way past and either didn’t hear my attempt to order food or ignored it.
It was a porter, and it was okay. Nothing to write home about. Not particularly strong. A little light and hoppy for my tastes, but beggars and choosers; I hadn’t gotten my hands on anything darker than a lager since Ireland, and even that had just been knockoff Guinness.
Well, I finished it, and she never came back. Guess I was gonna eat somewhere else. I paid my 25 ckz (about $2) to a dour-faced young man in a shirt that was, for some reason, full of holes. Maybe it was supposed to be a peasant throwback, but the effect was ruined by the visibility of the Calvin Klein logo on his boxers.
I guess a porter is a lunch. That’s around 200 calories. That’s 2 bananas. Or 3 eggs. 3 eggs could, arguably, be lunch. I drifted through the spontaneously rendering streets calculating how much actual food could have taken the place of that mediocre beer with love when I happened upon a “Ghost Museum”. Well, those are some of my favorite things, and it had a student discount, so why not?
The upper floor was a collection of badly but wittily translated ghost stories printed on single sheets of giant fake scroll paper that was then pasted into giant fake books. The downstairs was advertised as “a walk through the ghost-haunted streets of the underground”, but was more of a long basement full of cheap haunted house decorations. I wonder if this part of Prague has a guy. Like, a Party City wholesaler, so they just wound up with all these lame Halloween decorations and went, “All right, what can do we do with this?”
I found my way to the surface and walked the mile or so back to my hostel, then down the street to yet another pho place. I’ve been subsisting mostly on pho in Prague, partly because both hostels I booked have been in Little Vietnam (it is not that little, considering they’re a mile and a half apart), partly because pho is basically chicken soup and that’s as close as I can get to eating healthy here.
Here, let me walk you through Czech cuisine real quick.
So far, I’ve only had the opportunity to sample 2 totalitarian classics in Prague.
This one was right after I got off the bus, before I understood how much Czech money was worth. This was the first and last time I would pay $15 for three mouthfuls of deer meat and some tater tots.
This monstrosity was much more reasonable, something like $7 all told. On the bottom, it’s around a half lb of chicken breast and all sorts of delicious peasant vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, the usual. And then also, giant fried potato wedges. Then cheese. It’s like shepherd’s pie without any broth, and then instead of mashed potatoes, a gallon of cheese. It was called Žižkov, after a popular student district. It was cheese fries gone out of control.
I’ve done more than I’ve written since arriving in Prague, but since everything has felt so haphazard and disjointed, that’s how I’m going to tell the story, too. I’ll tell you one thing for damn sure, though, I’ve got to find a better place to get breakfast.
This morning I opted for the $6 hostel breakfast. “English Continental”, he said.
“Yeah, but what’s in that?” I asked. “I’m from the States, When hotels say continental breakfast, they usually mean coffee and a danish.”
He looked at me strangely, possibly because he was, himself, Danish, then showed me the list. Lunchmeats, bread, milk, eggs, omelettes optional, just ask the cook. I forked over some of the Czech currency and he said, “Okay, now go outside, across the courtyard, through the gate, to the other hostel on your left, and give them this voucher.”
Uh. All right.
I did that, and the man at the door was obviously displeased to see me. That seemed to be a recurrent theme in Prague, truth told. No one has seemed particularly excited to see me, but I’m trying not to take it personally. The dining room was full of three lazy German shepherds, which I approved of for reasons more moral than sanitary.
The spread. Ah, the spread. Three types of stale bread! It was great, if you ate around the mold.
Canned eggs, served chilled. Ice-cold, perfectly circular eggs, their yolks a distressing and unnatural orange color. A pinch of parsley had been applied to the top, presumably to simulate “preparation”.
Wet tortillas rolled up with apple jelly. Just like Mom used to make, during her psychotic breaks.
Some sort of single-serving spreadable ham.
Small, sad apples, their skins all withered and pruny and generally looking like grandpa testicles.
I looked at the angry Czech men. They glared back at me, as if daring me to ask for an omelette.
I ate an entire plate of tomatoes and lunchmeat, then more tomatoes, then a quantity of bread and butter that even I found sort of alarming. Feed a fever, starve a cold? Feed a cold? Then I went back to the hostel, where the possible Dane asked, “how was breakfast?”
“Fine,” I lied, then passed out for another 3 hours. I think that was more immune system than food, though.
If I get to the Kafka museum tomorrow, I’ll double it up and tell you about my Adventures in Communism!