Thoughts on Prague: A Raid on the Inarticulate

Especially after ending my trip on a lovely, late, moonlit stroll through a park and a neighborhood filled with bars and cafes, punctuated by the deeply disturbing image of gigantic babies appearing to climb a 216 meter TV tower and the appearance of the Giant Rats of the Žižkov District, I find trying to summarize my visit to this beautiful, complex, and contradictory city even more challenging than it typically is to write about a place you’ve only visited briefly.

Travel, in the sense of short visits to new places, is probably inevitably capturing little more than a vignette. There’s no way to understand a place in such a brief window, no way to experience the novel of Prague (which Michener probably should have written), or even to craft the narrative of a short story. Instead, I’m left with a series of sharp, fragmentary images that will define Prague for me until I return. My experience in Prague seems to have me even more acutely aware of the shabby equipment words often are when we try to describe our feelings. Prague, the city of mulled wine and Becherovka, picturesque, romantic castles and well-worn, industrial transportation, would defy summary on its own, but the particular serendipitous magic of this visit makes finding the right words even more difficult.

And when I think back on this place, or Lisbon, or quiet moments on the Camino when my feet were aching with pain and my heart was breaking over the beauty in front of me, it will be those vivid scenes, not the photographs I captured nor the words I’ve written that will have lasting power. Try as we might, we can’t ever grasp the past or our memories with any real degree of control, but to have been given the gift of knowing that these fragments of memory will come bidden and unbidden for the rest of my life, is truly remarkable.

I don’t know that I believe in fate, and I’m certain that I don’t believe there is any plan for us other than the lives we make for ourselves, but four nights in the Prague in the autumn might make it hard not to believe just a little bit in magic. As Roger Ebert said in his beautiful review of Joe Versus the Volcano, “at night, in those corners of our minds we deny by day, magical things can happen in the moon shadows. And if they can’t, a) they should, and b) we should always in any event act as if they can.”

If travel, which has uniquely powerful ability to teach us how wonderfully alike and delightfully different people are, and the potential to give us moments that push our souls to the brink of overfilling,  can’t teach us that we should act like magical things can happen, perhaps nothing will.

No matter how inadequate the words for those experiences are.