My darling Praha,
I hardly knew thee. And yet here we are, at the end of our brief courtship after being set up by a mutual friend. I will always remember the day when she showed me your picture and told me your were not so out of my league as I might have imagined. In fact, only a few more thousand dollars in student loans and we could be together.
Your reputation preceded you. Nearly unblemished by centuries of war, your battles had made you strong, but somehow no less handsome: the epitome of a romance novel hero. Who better to give my European virginity? You seemed just the right size.
“I’m jealous,” one of my dearest friends confessed, as so many others had done once I’d announced our betrothal. But this particular admission came from a woman who’d at one time said about True Love: “Do I believe in love? Romantic love? No. I mean, if I walked into a store where there’s a sweater I really wanted, and I had to have it, I believe in that love. I can love that sweater.” Imagine my surprise then as she revealed that her jealousy was not simply one’s typical reaction to a friend headed overseas, but rather because there was one amour fou dream left to her, and it was inspired by you, Prague, muse to loveless lovers.
What a marvelous fantasy it was she weaved for me, an infectious scenario that began with a song. Not just any song, but an aria jewel composed by the titan of Czech opera, Antonín Dvořák. “Rusalka,” my friend repeated for the third time, smiling at my lack of recognition. Patiently she began to clarify, “It’s the story of a water nymph who falls in love with a human prince and when she tells her father, the King Goblin that—“ But in the interest of time she paused to summarize, “It’s the original Little Mermaid.” Ah, a fairytale, something my speed.
Dvořák’s heart-gripping “Song to the Moon,” was the soundtrack to her whimsical tapestry. A soprano’s showcase pregnant with desire and passion and need.
There was also snow. And the Charles Bridge. And an oversized, fur-lined coat ala Dr. Zhivago. (but not at all Russian) And the moon of course. Who was the prince though? My friend, no water nymph, said she hadn’t any parameters for the man who met her in the center of the bridge, the two of them looking over the frosty Vltava river together before he declared the sort of love that never ever ever ever ever dies. That is what makes her story so significant to us, Prague. You see, it was not the Prince who anchored the dream, but you, my sweet.
All this, of course, served only to inflate my hopes for our imminent whirlwind affair, a promising beacon for lifelong dreams breaking the horizon to be realized. It is the East, and Prague is the Sun!
I ached to be in you. The sort of ache that makes your hands go numb and your chest tighten like it’s the infinite point of a black hole. Is there such a thing as love before first sight?
I know, I know, my expectations, now that you hear them, must seem unfair. I am sure you encounter this phenomenon quite regularly, people thinking they know you without having met you. Wanting a piece of you, invading your space with incessant paparazzi style picture-taking, making you the subject of their trite Facebook statuses. An a-list celebrity country, backdrop to Kafka novels, Elysian Field to American women’s daydreams about soul mates. I realize there is only so much reality can match up to this unreachable gold standard.
But now that we have met, and you have in small, incremental intervals revealed yourself to me I can say……. you can be kind of a dick.
I realize you come with baggage, we all do; but damn, baby, why you gotta be so cold? (and then hot, and then cold, and then super hot, and then wet) And what’s the deal with the bedbugs? Not cool.
Some may accept your latent sadism in earnest; it’s all part of the adventure! And in fact many probably, in their own masochistic endeavor to harness the raging bull that is Life, seek out your darkest corners, perhaps getting more than they bargained for. Do you and they have a safety word before shit gets too real? Is this something that you have listed on your tourism bureau’s website that I overlooked?
I realize this may sound disingenuous now, my love, but you truly are a beautiful country and make many visitors very happy everyday. Your rust colored rooftops are at once uniform and unique, creating a rolling sea of structural waves. Your immortal, shimmering river splits you open with ease, not abrasion, hypnotically sparkling in the sun, twinkling under the moon. Some travelers are instantly smitten with your full-frontal beauty, others relish in the way you methodically expose yourself like a striptease, tantalizing a newcomer to make the many pilgrimages around your circumference to see you from all sides since you refuse to twirl like a pretty girl in a new dress. Did you hear that I broke my toe during one of those hikes? Was that a test? Was it another opportunity to play the game of cat and mouse between two flirtatious, potential lovers?
Well, I’ve always liked a challenge.
I put Rusalka on my iPod and journeyed once more to Charles Bridge, jettisoning the stigma of my initial rain-soaked encounter only a few days before in favor of a clean slate and maybe, just maybe, an actual connection. The rain was at bay, and in its place, laser-guided sunrays, unfiltered by absent clouds, searing through my fair skin and heating me double, directly and then again from the inside-out as my blood felt like is was coming to a boil. Mind over matter, I tried to remind myself, repeating the mantra in time with Dvořák’s beat. I cannot say for certain, but I consider it a valid guess that my good friend’s romanticized fantasy did not include a crush of tourists. Mind over mind, I amended, as I performed an awkward ballet of crowd dodging before finally planting at what I estimated to be the midway point.
The potential for any measure of enchantment evaporated when I inventoried my surroundings. If there were a union for caricature artists it lobbied well to gain their constituents monopoly of the Charles Bridge, as much fixtures of it as the statues that have stood sentry for the last 600 years. I heard a cacophony of languages, which could have made for a surreal, dream-like quality, but instead simply aroused the familiar: a Japanese tour guide prompting their group to stay together, a Swedish father reprimanding his toddler for darting away. Different words, same meaning. Then there was the music, an all too recognizable Dixieland Jazz quartet who drowned out my dulcet Rusalka no matter how forcefully she sang, or how high I turned the volume. Instead, the Basin Street Blues took hold, and yanked me away from the present, displacing me back to my everyday life in New Orleans.
The experiment was a wash; drawing whimsy from your Charles Bridge, my not-so-enigmatic Prague, seemed more difficult than sucking wet cement through a curly straw.
In fact, more and more similarities between you and my home began to unveil themselves: the inauthentic souvenir shops, the restaurants most of your locals avoid, the huddled families that hyper-analyze a street map. Every quality reminiscent of the place I’d left to find something new. Too many common threads are the enemy of mystery. There must be more to you, my dearest, I’m sure of it. But how was I to discover these other facets of your hidden personality if I could be nothing more than just another tourist to you?
Was I supposed to seduce you in some way? Coax you to shed your layers instead of expecting you to simply flaunt them like just another metropolitan whore, like the burlesque Paris, or gaudy Barcelona? Has my imagination run amok, or do the members of your society seem to throb with engorged pride, guarding you from visitors they see as locusts on their living history? A history they may resent, but protect ceaselessly in the way only a native can feel about their city in the most basic of love-hate relationships.
Yet, maybe it has nothing to do with your reservations about opening up to me. In fact, as I aimlessly strolled through your cobblestone streets, trying to force some bond between us, the epiphany unfurled: it’s not you, it’s me.
My heart was lead astray by the same fool’s gold that had my countrymen headed West all those centuries ago, the fallacious promise that if a person keeps moving, there will always be a better destination, an ideal place to settle just a few more miles beyond the horizon. But never where they already are. And yet that’s what is so extraordinary about you, Prague. Unwittingly you have served to show me that my home, while habitual, and comfortable, and familiar, is truly fucking kick ass.
Do I sound like the spouse who just had an extramarital affair only to realize how good they already had it? Perhaps I am. Perhaps I committed city-adultery when I bounced around Europe, leaving New Orleans to wait by the door until I returned. I believe she probably smiled knowingly even as I put my hand up the skirts of her transatlantic sisters. And now that I am eager to get back to her, knowing that she holds that deed to my heart, I can honestly say to you Prague: don’t worry, baby, you’re special.
But you didn’t need me to tell you that.
With friendly regards until we meet again,