April 21, 2006

Transylvania 6-5000

In the city that adopted Mozart and is celebrating his 250th birthday everywhere, the music in the breakfast room lends itself to another era. (Outside of mittel Europa, the song is PEnnsylvania, not Trans-. To be accurate geographically, Transylvania is in Roumania, and Prague is the capital of Bohemia.) Is this what is means to be cosmopolitan?

At dinner, the violinist and pianist serenaded us with renditions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head." The taxi radio played Elton John from the 1970s and disco music reminding me of Paris in the 1980s. Where's Waldo?

Is he hiding in the Prague Castle? At the National Theater? In the Old Town or over by Wenceslas Square? The Czech Republic makes Disneyland's surrealism appear a prototype for normalcy.

Prague is an ancient city. I can't figure out how Russian tanks rolled through the streets in 1968, as the roads are not wide enough for an American taxi, much less a minivan. Cobblestones predominate, playing havoc with shock absorbers. The buildings are beautiful, with ornate inlays adorning the exterior walls and statues flying from third-story corners.

Angels and cherubim decorate the hall where Mozart first performed, backed by pastel blue boxes trimmed in gold leaf. The craftsmanship is extraordinary, never to be reproduced in today's global village. Yesterday's craftspeople are today's couch potatoes.

I can actually smoke indoors here, inhale my post-prandial cigarette along with my coffee. The wait staff busses ashtrays, a task not performed during my North American travels. I have had to go to Africa, to Australia, and elsewhere to see what used to be de rigeuer, but is no longer. The tobacco police have, however, arrived here: there is a 1000 crown fine ($40) for lighting up at an open-air tram or bus stop.

People-watching in the town square: not a tie or dress in sight. So much for fashion statements. The one blessing is the lack of running shoes. Footwear is practical, but nowhere does it say Nike.

I feel uneasy in the Jewish Quarter: Hitler spared it from destruction to save as a museum to showcase an extinct race. Had my family not departed the Austrian Hapsburg empire in the nineteenth century, I would not be here to describe this sojourn today. The synagogues are the most active imprints of religious observance in Prague, save for St. Vitus' Cathedral up the hill in one of the Castle's many courtyards.

Here the BBC serves as the Comedy Channel. Bush's latest comedy of manners, his meeting with the president of China, aired last night. Or would that be comedy of errors? He can embarrass an American anywhere, but fortunately no one has called us on yesterday's gaffes as yet.

My travel companion and I prefer to pass as French. We are both fluent in the language, and not nearly so reviled for speaking it. Ostensibly, English is the second language of the Czech Republic, or so one would think from museum labels and street signs. The hotel staff, however, didn't get the complete memo. We asked for a lightbulb; they brought another lamp entirely.

Our hotel has a theme -- the art of Adolf Hoffmeister, a cartoonist, surrealism-inspired artist, and bon vivant who died in 1973. His art is reprduced everywhere, a tribute from his son, the ostensible owner of the hotel.

A theme, however, does not a family-run establishment make. There is nowhere near the personality and quirkiness of my aunt and uncle's similarly sized inn on Lake Placid, or of our friend Muriel's beach hotel at Kyona in Haiti, those being my youthful prototypes for hotels that I did not know heralded eccentricity.

Eccentricity is retrospective; what I knew as a child is what I perceived as normal. Only later did I become aware that the world operates on a different plane, and that my perspective was odd. The way I was brought up to view the world, and the world as it exists today have little in common.

Yet it is with the assistance of forms of communications unimaginable in my youth that allow me to tell my stories today. Score one for cyberspace.

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