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- July 23 – Prague, Mother of Cities
The rainbow banners here say FRIEDE. A good number of them, but fewer than
in Venice, where the populace seemed intent on sending a message. In a shopwindow
you a spot TV screen. Cyclists pouring thorough a mountain pass. A yellow shirt.
Close-up on a face intensely fixed. Somewhere, in a country to the north and west of
here, Lance Armstrong is on his way to winning his fifth consecutive Tour de France.
Café Aïda is the spot where you come to greet the day. You didn’t have far to
look that first morning, nor wander far – the Aïda is just down Mariahilfer Straße, less
than a minute’s walk from your pensione, if you cut diagonally across the stream of
A run of clear, balmy weather, ideal for sitting at a sidewalk table. If it rained,
you could move inside. As ever, you would gravitate toward the natural light near the
glass door and generous windows.
Mariahilfer Straße is a broad thoroughfare, once a suburban faubourg, radiating
from the southwest corner of the Ring, out to the West Bahnhof where your train
arrived. The afternoon was a hot one and as you dragged your valise in search of the
pensione, you growled something unfriendly at Katie about her having booked rooms
in the middle of a global bloody mall. With sweat pouring down your neck and hordes
of cattle-like shoppers blocking your way, Mariahilfer Straße seemed as Viennese as
Unlike most of the storefronts on the strip, the Aïda isn’t brand new. You
suspect it’s been here a while – the decor has an authentic fifties feel to it. Turns out
that this Aïda is an outpost of a venerable café in the center of town. What drew you to
the place, aside from its anomaly, is the clean, Italianate quality of its design. In other
ways it is classically Viennese. The first day, before you knew the drill, you ordered at
the counter from a pink-uniformed woman, but you needn’t have. Today you sit at a
table outside and in no time at all, she emerges to take your order. What she brings on
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 395
blood circulating, and the cup sits on a little oval steel tray accompanied by a glass of
Maybe you should have ordered a pastry. No, wait for Katie and Gwen to get up
and ready and you’ll go out to breakfast together. Pensione Hargita is located on the
piano nobile and second floors of a building straight out of The Third Man, complete
with the kind of doorway one feels like an outlaw entering, and two broad, spiraling
marble staircases that issue to the left and right off a paved entrance passage.
An unselfconsciously friendly Hungarian woman of middle years runs the place,
maybe owns it. In any case, she’s there at all hours. She must be thirty years the junior
of the youngest Gabor sister, but nonetheless carries forward into the new millennium
the full panoply of their traditional appeals, among them, blonde hair loud as a trumpet
cadenza and huge, lively, copiously made-up eyes. It would be a hard-hearted soul
indeed who did not find her captivating. Borderline zaftig she is, in clingy floral
dresses levitated by heels a half inch shy of fetishistic. This morning as you left, you
asked for directions to the local laundromat and she pulled out a pad and drew you the
route from memory.
But laundry is a collective job and it’s early yet. Coffee finished and plenty of
time for a solo walkabout. Which is how you discover, though it’s no surprise really,
that Mariahilfer Straße, and the neighborhood itself, take their names from an 18th
Century church a few blocks closer to the center city. Though the church is hardly
small, you hadn’t really registered it before, set back from the commercial facades
across a shallow square, where this morning, a market’s setting up. Make your way
through the stalls and enter. Once inside, you instantly want to flee – the visual excess
of Rococo feels particularly aggressive this early in the day – but you take a deep breath
and hold your ground. On the table near the entrance lie stacks of little pink pamphlets.
You find an English version and sit down in a pew to read it. Thus you learn that up in
the tower hangs a bell which has pealed regularly since 1720, and is second in size only
to the great Pummerin of St. Steven’s cathedral.
A curious painting hangs over the altar, a Madonna and child. You approach to
take a closer look. The pamphlet informs you that the image possesses “miraculous
powers.” It is – and here the description is accurate – a “rough copy” of an original by
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 396
thousand people” made pilgrimages to view this image of an infant Jesus, naked but for
a gold king’s crown worn at a jaunty angle, and nuzzling his regally adorned mother.
Jesus’s eyes roll cartoonishly upward to focus on the face of his love object, but
the Mary who gazes out from within her frame appears caught in a paradox. With
wideset, Byzantine, absolutely tranquil eyes, long, elegant nose and cupid’s bow
mouth, she seems both abstracted and acknowledging of your presence at the same
moment. “You see?” you can almost hear her voice, “this is how it is.” You’d like to
dismiss this image, but it won’t go quietly. It’s not a good painting. Yet the effect is
undeniable. And it comes to you, as it has many times, and always with a sense of
being brought up short: you are as helpless before the power of your sense-impressions
as you are in your dreams.
Nothing else in the church holds your interest long, yet you linger for a few
moments to gather yourself up for the day and read the other side of the pamphlet: The
whole building suffered a major threat through the construction of the underground in the
Mariahilfer Straße…at the beginning of the nineteen nineties. As a consequence of the
excavation, the two towers began to lean towards Mariahilfer Straße and the nave started
drifting toward Gumpendorfer Straße. The trauma to the old building, when translated
into English, suggests that its constituent parts each possess a will of their own. Thanks
to a great and problem-free cooperation between parish, archbishopric and the municipality of
Vienna…the catastrophe (was) averted by installing four steel anchors which have joined
together the towers with the nave permanently.
You’ve observed, in many old churches, a crack, often widening as it travels
upward, between the tower or narthex section and the nave. You’ve always assumed
this to be a structural problem with this particular building form, but today it amuses
you to imagine that Christ’s feet are trying to head off in a different direction from the
rest of him.
Walk around the back of the church to the street in whose direction the nave was
drifting – a different route to your hotel. But after a couple of blocks, Gumpendorfer
Straße, which you thought ran parallel to Mariahilfer Straße, seems to be veering away,
so you hang a right and come all at once upon a huge freestanding concrete tower,
oblong, windowless – hard to tell, perhaps twelve to sixteen stories tall. Around twenty
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 397
petals. This monstrous form rears up out of a triangular park, an incongruity
compounded by the presence of a cascade fountain at the edge of the greenery
surmounted by several Baroque-style statues drawn from the Greek pantheon. Look
skyward again to read the giant block letters painted across the width of the tower’s
summit: ZERSCHMETTERT IN STÜKE (IM FRIEDEN DER NACHT). You backtrack
now and circle around to see the opposite side. Up on top, in the same bold characters:
SMASHED TO PIECES IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT.
Enter the park. Sit down. Take it all in. You’ve heard about these towers – built
in the city and around the outskirts during the war as elevated anti-aircraft batteries.
Bomb shelters dug below them – immense ones too, room enough for several thousand.
What the hell is this used for today? No sooner asked than you see a sign, down
toward the base: Haus des Meeres, aquarium and zoo. Zoo?
A woman walks past your bench. Black pants and a teeshirt cropped to bare her
midriff. She’s thirty, maybe, and she swings her hips, scuffing bare feet along the
gravel path. Strange hippie, you think. But your mind’s not making connections right so
it takes a couple of beats to vibe out that she’s a little mad. She claps her hands in a
proprietary way to shoo the pigeons off, then stops at the fountain to splash water on
her face. It begins to dawn on you that on several of the nearby benches someone is
As you stand up she turns toward you. You nod and she nods back. This
woman, the early bird, is mayor of this park. You walk round the tower again. To one
side is a kiosk-like structure that serves as the entrance to a staircase. The stairs lead
down below ground level to what must have been the bomb shelter. Above the
entrance, a sign: Die Geschister der FOLTER, and in smaller letters: Museum für
mittelalterliche Rechsgeschiste. Out comes your pocket dictionary. The Museum of
Directly in front of the entrance, a man wrapped in a blanket lies sleeping. He’s
good there for another hour or so. It’s early yet and the sign on the door says the
museum won’t open till 10.
• • •
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 398
Trzesniewski: die unaussprechlich guten brötchen. The unspeakably good roll –
slogan of a popular bakery. The storefront is decorated with a series of naïvely-drawn,
chalkboard-style plays on Austrian bewilderment when confronted with the name
Trzesniewski. One cartoon shows a long roll shaped like an ocean liner, its aft sticking
out of the water, poised to disappear beneath the waves. Dictionary time again. No, the
caption reads, Trzesniewski is not a brötchen disaster at sea. It’s just die unaussprechlich
Along Mariahilfer Straße, at regular intervals of thirty meters or so, bronze
plaques embedded in the sidewalk – impressions of the palms and soles of dozens of
Austrian Olympic medalists. Beneath each set of hand and footprints, the athlete’s
signature, their sport, and date of victory are inscribed in relief. Occasionally the
plaques include a symbol – the equestrian, for example, has included a horseshoe. You
do a double take when you come to the one signed Arnold Schwartzenegger. His
handprints are there alright, and they are mighty big hands. All the other plaques give
testament to the vulnerability of naked toes, plantar mounds, arches and heels. But
alone among his compatriots, when the moment of casting came, Arnold said, if not in
so many words: The boots stay on.
One more in a string of gorgeous, temperate mornings – this one your last in
Vienna. And the waitress at Aïda recognizes you. When you order “ein große cafe
bitte,” she smiles and asks “Schwartz?” – more confirmation than question mark in her
Early yet, but you don’t linger. Not far from the café, only a few blocks away,
stands the house that Haydn bought at his wife’s behest as a retreat for her anticipated
widowhood. As it turned out, Haydn lived there too, in his last years, beyond the city
walls in what was then Vienna’s tranquil suburbs. And it is also where he died, a few
days after Napoleon’s troops marched in.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 399
Haydngaße 19 is easy enough to find. You’ve come on a mini-pilgrimage on
behalf of your mother. However much Bea loved the music that emanated from this
culture, and however much of a literary Germanophile her own mother had been, Bea
would have found it impossible to set foot in a country associated with Nazism. She
admired Wagner’s orchestrations, but turned the radio low when WNYC played one of
his operas – shut it off altogether if a piece was conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
Nor, you recall, was she entirely sanguine about your owning a Volkswagen. You
stand across the street and survey the low, broad house: two stories plus an attic with a
couple of unassuming gables. It’s a museum now, and incorporates a Brahms
“Gedenkenraum” – remembrance room.
Bea could, and often did, live with very little. After walking became difficult,
and reading impossible, her zone of wellbeing distilled down to the chair at her kitchen
table, and the KLH radio. The two of you had bought it for her sister in the early ‘60s,
and after Gladys died, the radio came to its spiritual home atop Bea’s refrigerator, tuned
during every waking hour to “her” music. Toward the end, apart from the joy she
plainly experienced in the presence of her grandchild, the radio came to serve most of
her psychic needs. At least that’s how it seemed. What came out of the speaker merged
seamlessly with the sense-landscape internalized over decades at the keyboard.
Though the radio could not have substituted entirely for her own abandoned – you
almost wrote abundant – musicianship, the sounds it transmitted made whole, or
nearly so, the circuitry between her youth, her life as a concert pianist and the spirits of
her idealized loves: Schumann, Chopin, Beethoven, Brahms.
A man passes, walking a brown dog which sniffs at your leg. You scratch its
wiry head. For an instant, you imagine yourself back home in Chelsea, out front of Le
Gamin. Then you hear a jingle of keys from across the street where a woman in a
flowered dress is opening the door to #19. She enters and the lock clicks behind her.
It’s 8:30 a.m. Your mother will, you think, forgive your not waiting the half hour until
the museum opens. Gwen and Katie, back at the pensione, are no doubt hungry for
breakfast. And there’s laundry to be done before you take the train to Prague. You
came to pay your respects to Papa and Johannes – isn’t that the important thing? How
much would it matter that you didn’t go inside?
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 400
Yesterday, at St. Stephen’s cathedral you climbed bell tower to where the
enormous Pummerin once hung. Another thing Bea couldn’t have done. Her
acrophobia was so severe, she would stand far back from the edge of any high place, for
fear she would somehow be vertigoed off the edge of the precipice. You did not inherit
this condition, but on the way back from the Haydn house, you suppressed, while
crossing a street, a perverse impulse to stop and stand still in front of an oncoming
BMW. Later Katie remarks on how everyone assumes you’re Austrian – immediately
starts speaking German to you.
It’s all a mix, thought Empedocles, and Freud agreed, among earth, air, water
and fire, arrayed into contending forces of love and strife. But something needs to be
added. Something about the qualities of opacity, translucency, and transparency too.
Particularly the translucent – the almost see-through.
• • •
Vienna still with you as you rail it toward Prague. Yesterday, you visited the
Freud museum – housed in the apartment he had to flee in ‘38, the year before he died –
and read, posted on the wall, an observation he wrote in 1921 on the nature of
dictatorship: “We have interpreted this prodigy as meaning that the individual gives
up his ego ideal and substitutes for it the group ideal as embodied in the leader. And
we must add by way of correction that the prodigy is not equally great in every case.”
No, sometimes not great at all, rather a feeble, shrunken thing, the more pernicious for
And it was out on the street, in Austria, a place where you couldn’t make head
nor tail of the language, that the homophone “not see” sounded in your ear.
• • •
Round and round with Gwen on the ferris wheel from The Third Man. Out there,
on the edge of the amusement park, two more flack towers. No large-scale graffiti
visible on these.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 401
SMASHED TO PIECES IN THE STILL OF THE NIGHT. Still wondering at it. At
first you thought the message was about the bombs that fell on Vienna. But somehow
that doesn’t sit right. Could the writer(s) have been alluding to Kristallnacht?
• • •
Your Goddard cap, embroidered with the college logo, abandoned under a
chaise-longue in the Stadionbad out at the Prater. You’d emerged so pleasantly
pummeled from the wave pool, it was only a question of what piece of personalty you
were going to leave behind.
Freudian thing that. You took off your metaphorical Goddard Hat when you
quit teaching there, then traveled three thousand miles to deposit the ding an sich in
Vienna. Perhaps the cap waits in the lost-and-found, or moves about on someone else’s
head. In any case, for the time being, you’ve shed your cover.
left branch goes to Vodickova, the right to Stepanska. Though it’s not marked on the
map, your guess is it will also lead out onto Wencenslas Square.
Unlike the glassed-over Parisian arcades, these are cavernous hallways tunneling
through a densely constructed amalgam of buildings. Past shops, cafés, a theater, you
navigate a true internal cityscape, artificially illuminated and so subterranean in feel
that your head can’t quite convince your feet they are treading at street level. Turn a
corner and without warning – behold a dead horse! A sculptural one at any rate – twice
life size or more, and suspended upside down from the rafters of a skylit atrium by
ropes attached to its legs.
Not just kaput, but grotesquely so. Eyes abulge and tongue lolling out, the head
dangles from a hyperextended neck. Despite which, the horse does not lack for a rider.
Astride the creature’s chest, armored legs hugging its barrel-stave ribs sits Wenceslas
himself. Prague’s patron saint wears his signature conical helmet, holds his lance
upright, as one would bear a standard into battle. His resolute demeanor, eyes fixed on
a presumptive horizon, makes plain his determination to advance against all odds. Is it
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 402
indifferent to it?
What a strange welcoming gift from Prague to throw this anti-Wenceslas into the
path of a wanderer – even as he makes his way toward the official Wenceslas whose
statue commands the heights above his namesake square. In measurable distance, only
a few hundred meters separate one Wenceslas from the other, but what a gulf between
Onward then, through the passageway, and out into the open air. Look to your
right and upward. There stand rider and horse in classic pose, the latter dutifully on all
fours, hooves planted on a pedestal. From atop his equestrian throne, the saint-
monarch both surveys and extends his beneficence to the city below. Hierarchy,
authority, clear sightlines. It’s a deadly mix – just deadly.
And now you’re walking back inside to where the sculpture in the passageway
inverts the game, makes a protagonist of the horse. Stone dead, the beast exudes more
stuff-of-life than poor King W., who, ridden like a hobby horse by one ideology after
another, has ended up the straight man in a mordant farce.
There is at least one further twist. As dead weight the horse turns gravity itself
into a threat. One imagines that this rider might prove the last straw. At any instant
the sculpture could come crashing down and carry the roof with it. Feels like you’re
tempting fate when you walk directly beneath the macabre head, reach up and try to
touch it its ear, just out of reach.
The selfsame passageway turns out to be your chosen a.m. hangout – a café-
bakery, branch of the Odkolek chain founded, according to the menu, in 1840. It’s a
bright shop, patronized, apart from you, by local folk dressed like they’re on their way
to work. You buy some pastries to take back to Katie and Gwen, then find a table near
the wide window facing the indoor street. Coffee’s pretty good. Strange not to see
traffic outside, but what looks to be a cross between the mall at Rockefeller Center and
the corridor of a Soviet ministry. Dim but pervasive lighting. Bleak, unlovely
geometric molding where wall meets ceiling.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 403
Shift your gaze back inside – it’s far less depressing. Between the tables and the
counter, a rack hung with newspapers. Let’s see what they’ve got. Nothing in English,
so the Hospodarske Noviny seems as good a choice as any. Unhook the wooden baton
and carry it back to your table. Written Czech seems as impenetrable as spoken, so you
forego any attempt to decipher the words and scan the images on the front page. In the
largest photo, a sickly, watery-eyed Václav Havel stands pressed against, and literally
tête-à-tête, with George W. Bush.
Havel wears a medal draped around his neck on a brightly colored ribbon and
Bush, half a head taller, has his arm flung round Havel’s shoulder. They are caught in a
pose which looks as though George is about to whisper something in Václav’s ear, or
plant a kiss his on forehead as a father might a little boy. Awful but true, Havel’s face
has the wooden, rouged quality of a ventriloquist’s dummy, while Dubya’s features
seem suffused with raw vitality and an almost unseemly affection. Above the photo,
the headline H
AVEL DOSTAL NEJVYSSI CENU
. Bush, apparently, has bestowed an award
upon him – something, no doubt, to do with freedom.
You put your pastry, half-eaten in the bag. Perhaps your appetite will improve
later. Return the newspaper to the rack. Out into the corridor one foot before the other
and it’s not long before you emerge into the light of Wenceslas Square. A real look
around this time. Check your guidebook. Aha – number 36/793 – the Melantrich
Building, named for the famed 16th century Czech printer. More recently it housed the
offices of Svobodné Slovo, The Free World, the newspaper that first broke with the Soviet
line. It’s also where Havel, Dubcek and as many velvet revolutionaries as could fit on
the balcony stood looking out over a sea of celebrants – not so long ago. You recall the
news broadcasts, the unconstrained, unmediated voices of tens of thousands
collectively proclaiming the end of a great tyranny.
Today, No. 36/793 is undergoing a full-scale renovation. You stand well back to
take it all in. Across the height and breadth of the scaffolding, fabric has been stretched
to create an enormous billboard: a trompe l’oeil version of the building’s façade onto
which the faces and figures of trendy young Czechs have been superimposed by the
score. Some of them pack the famous balcony, pressing against the rail in their
excitement. Others lean precipitously out of the surrounding windows, similarly
transfigured with awe. The whole scene recapitulates the ecstatic moment of 1989.
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 404
twenty-somethings lend their wills and wonderment to an unfolding miracle of
capitalism. Just beyond reach of the crowd straining toward it, a gleaming canary
yellow Skoda Fabia RS – several times larger than an actual sports car – is being
lowered on the cables of an invisible derrick, as if by the hand of God.
You want to grab the first passerby and shake him by the lapels. Look what
they’re doing to you! There’s a fresh-faced fellow now, about the same age as his
counterparts in the ad, though not quite so glamorous. The impulse to accost him
surges, then wanes. By which time he’s vanished into the crowd. What if he didn’t
speak English? What if he did? How could you argue the case against consumer
culture to a Praguer half your age? And did you really imagine that any place under
the sun remained immune to the market and its blandishments, sustained in its soul by
the honey of organic socialism? What to do but sit on a bench and laugh at yourself.
Reapproach the building. The closer you get, the more translucent the image
becomes. You begin to catch architectural details printed on the fabric echoed by those
on the structure behind it. Peek up into the gap between scaffold and façade and you
can spot the four voluptuous karyatids who support the balcony. Walk away again to
observe how they’re rendered on the billboard. Almost invisible – faces cast in shadow
by the Skoda’s chassis. Back to the gap for a reality check. The karyatids’ heads angle
down – the effort of supporting the balcony distorts the beauty of their features. No
wonder they were deep-sixed in the visual mix. Best not to undermine the product
with ambivalent expressions. Bad idea to draw attention from the radiant faces and
their object of adoration. You’d have made the same decision in the days when you
were art-directing ads.
A final double-take, like an aftershock, when, just before you turn to go, you
notice the name of the site’s developer. Lordly Estates. Sure, why not? The new
Prague. Makes all the sense in the world.
Clearance of the Ghetto, or asanance, first considered by Prague city council in
1850. Prague’s official civic myth holds it that as well-to-do Jews moved out and
NOTES OF A NEW YORK SON 405
became a haven of vice and sordid living – a regular Five Points, Bohemia-style.
In 1886, Alfred Hurtig’s proposal, “Finis Ghetto,” won the planning competition.
Sale of properties began in 1895. Demolitions followed in late 1896, over the protests of
many Czech cultural figures. The leveling continued until 1907. All that remains today
are traces of old street networks, a half dozen synagogues, the old Jewish Town Hall
• • •
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