After visiting commie Czechoslovakia in 1989, John M. Edwards returns to check out the new Czech Republic’s “Cesky Krumlov,” where real unorthodox “Bohemians” come from. . .------------------------------------------------------------------------------
On my first visit to communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 (right before the Velvet Revolution), I drove down in my rented and probably “bugged” Skoda car to the legendary Bohemian locus of magnetic Cesky Krumlov, the most stylish city in the country.
I realized to be truly “Bohemian,” you had to actually be from the geographical region labeled BOHEMIA on the map. This charmed historical backwater in a jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-shaped demesne, filled with dissidents, drifters, and dreamers, surely fit the bill.
The unconventional “boho” inhabitants (who’ve lent their name as slang for artists, writers, intellectuals, and flaneurs worldwide) were only nominally “socialist.” They instead practiced a severe form of ultra-capitalism called the “black market,” which back then worked wonderfully well for us all.
“Deutschmarks?” the Bohemian in a blue suit and no tie sidled up to me.
“Aren’t you afraid of getting caught by the secret police?” I countered.
“Nein, nein, nicht Stasi!” His insistence on speaking German, a language I did not know even though I was descended from German Methodist preachers, was evidence that he did not believe that I was really American. Perhaps I was a spy from East Germany?
He scribbled a series of loopy Arabic numerals on a piece of paper: the amount of Czech Koruna per Deutschmark.
“No, dollars!” I reemphasized.
He penned down an even better deal (no: staggering).
I quickly removed a bill from my special belt with its secret zippered lining, then unrolled it into a smug portrait of former U.S. President Andrew Jackson, feeling a little like an international art smuggler. The amateur kapitalist snatched the hard currency paper and dumped an enormous wad of (worthless) Czech crowns into my hand, then made a mad run for it.
It was not exactly the deal we had agreed upon, but still the amount was suitable to act like an archduke in a luxury hotel for a couple of days at least. I regarded the transaction as a stubborn reminder that “unorthodoxy” (artistic or otherwise) is endemic to historic loci no matter who rules.
Even though I was flush in illegal crowns, I ended up grounded at the “Communist Party Workers Hostel,” since Western capitalist foreigners traveling independently here had to register every night with the police. With the window open in the dorm room I shared with no other guests, I breathed in the pleasant smell of damp and disinfectant while exclamation points dropped out of the atmosphere. The sound of rain on cobblestones lured me like a lullabye and I soon said goodnight.
And that’s when the “brainwashing” began. . . .* * *
Recently, I rang in the New Millenium (over a decade late) by revisiting one of my favorite cities, wondering if it had changed much with the advent of ultra-capitalist reform and free-frei democratization (you can even still smoke in restaurants and pivnice), featuring a tourismo blitzkrieg of mostly German backpackers (who all call the city “Krumau”). Tourism, in fact, now makes the city swell with more foreigners than locals, who number less than 20,000 souls.
After the fifteen-minute walk from the train station to the main square, I once again stumbled like a time traveler upon serendipity, my Rockports scraping the cobbles of this 750-year-old masterpiece of architectural opulence. With everywhere the awesome rush of the Vltava river, immortalized by Czech nationalist composer Smetana in Ma Vlast (My Country), I fell under a spell.
I wandered like the pale somnambulist played by Conrad Veight in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari until I landed on a nice pensiony called “Pension Jan” on Pod Vyhlidkou 232, where I had to settle for a double for CZK 650. After wrapping myself like the mummified remains of a Habsburg emporer in the Band-Aid-colored comforter, I caught a quick nap before tackling the tarmac.
Awake only an hour later, I set off to sightsee, making my way to the buzzing town square. Ignoring the overcrowded Infocentrum, I made a beeline to one of my favorite hives—now, let’s see, where was it? Oops, wrong ulice!* * *
Departing the inner sanctum of the Communist Party Workers Hostel, I wandered the quiet streets until I almost bumped into a fellow tourist with John Lennon glasses and a leather daypack.
“Oh, hullo! Sorry!”
“Ah, a Brit!” I said, noticing the accent.
“Yes, from Nottinghamshire.”
“Like, where Robin Hood is from?” I asked naively.
“Not far from Sherwood Forest, yus. Maid Marion and Friar Tuck and all that. . . .”
“I’m from New York,” I said.
“Really, are you a Communist?”
“I am. That’s why I’m here. After this I’m off to Russia for a meeting.”
I began to wonder if he really was from England; there was something a little dodgy about his accent.
“As you can wull see this place is frozen in time and will probably nuvur change. It’s fantastic, but please watch out for all the ‘Travellers’!”
“What do you mean by that?” I said peevishly. “I’m a traveler, aren’t you—or do you mean I’m a ‘backpacker,’ while you are a ‘tourist?’”
He explained away the misunderstanding, informing me that in Great Britain, “traveller” is just a euphemism for “homeless chap”—and we both exploded with laughter after.
Later, I realized he had been referring vaguely to the caravan Gypsies (known now as the “Rom”). To me, though, they were colorful beings out of Universal Pictures—a different kind of “Bohemian” and maybe the first real boho backpackers.
To show my sympathy with their perennial plight of “homelessness”--with no nation state to call HQ, a name dredged up from North Africa (derivation from “Egyptian”), but a probable origin among the Untouchables of the Indian subcontinent—I was eventually attracted by the wild strains of frenzied violins.* * *
There is no time like the present. No time, except for the recent past, when the “Kafkaesque” Castle complex, rising up through a labyrinth of red terracotta roofs, diverted my attention. So I walked toward it on Latran Ulice, then through the red iron gates, across the Bear Moat, and into a second courtyard featuring the entrance—but with the line being way too long, I decided to bag it.
Yay! Lunch time! Yay!
Near the Budejovicka Gate at a must-go victuals venue called Hospoda 99, I took a seat on the sunlit terrace enjoying the al fresco atmosphere (that’s Italian for “outside”) and ordered a “pivo” (beer): Staropramen. Which many Czechs prefer over Pilsner-Urquell and Budvar, probably the most popular export brands of pilsner, a Czech invention. Then I ordered some roast pork with peas, a longtime staple for both the Bolsheviks and the Bourgeoisie.
However, if you are a difficult vegetarian, you can amble over to “Laibon” on Parkan Ulice, an actual vegetarian haven and tea house filled with fragrant new hippies wearing Phish concert T-shirts—(which was fine by me since I played bass with Phish keyboardist Page McConnell years ago in a New Jersey garage band; I also, alas, turned down a job with The Stone Temple Pilots before they were big.)
Later, at a joint called the “Horror Bar,” on Masna Ulice, I sucked on a skoumavky, a little test tube filled with blood-red liquor. What? I don’t know. Suddenly realizing I was surrounded by Bohemian vampires, I immediately asked in Czech for the check please (“Prosim”), then thanked them (“Dekuju”), before bolting like astronomer Tycho Brahe in a brouhaha of thunder and lightning.
Outside in the rain I met a fellow American backpacker with a haircut who mentioned he was here looking to start an “Import-Export” business (an international euphemism for “chronic unemployment”) and was staying at the “Hostel Skippy” for only 250 Crowns.
“Greeaaat!” I elongated like Tony the Tiger. No thanks, pal.
Unfortunately, I could tell he thought I was making fun of him (and his fuzzy Patagonia jacket and overt Fanny Pack). But actually I was just in a hurry to leave, because, you see, this was not to be a long sojourn down memory lane—but just an overnighter.
And there was just one more thing I really wanted to see: The Egon Schiele Centrum Museum. One of my favorite artists, Schiele set up his easel for a short time at this Bohemian “willage” while working on his famous “Dead Town” series and naughty female nudes. Incidentally, angry pitchfork-wielding villagers and cuckolds drove out poor Egon from the town because they viewed the revolutionary genius as a “pornographer.”
Though much had changed in this UNESCO World Heritage Site, especially the revivified “kaffe klatches” for all the emerging artists, I in some ways, despite all the new tourists dressed in “apparatchik chic” (such as Ché T-shirts and counterfeit Levi’s) liked it even better.
Still, I’m glad I went while it was still behind the Iron Curtain.
Many “Bohemians” (as opposed to Czech “Moravians”) were signatories of Charter 77, a petition for reform which unfortunately became a most-wanted list for arresting dissidents, such as former president/playright Vaclav Havel, until the entire country was freed from Communism by the Velvet Revolution.
Similarly, that Czechs and Slovaks had a peaceful “Velvet Separation” is a telling comment on the state of European politics in general, when even Belgium now is in danger of splintering in two to create a separate state for the weepy “Walloons.”
Even though festive Cesky Krumlov has indeed changed, the real “Bohemians” (from which Left Bank Parisians and East Village Hipsters derive their meaning and mantra) remain pretty much the same: defiant but friendly, fashionable but nonjudgmental, always independent but not fiercely so.
But remember: Here the so-called Cold War was always fought not with propaganda, but with a little penicillin!—John M. Edwards, 2011
CZECHING IT OUT
John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus), with stunts ranging from surviving a ferry sinking in Thailand to being caught in a military coup in Fiji. His work has appeared in CNN Traveller, Missouri Review, Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, Condé Nast Traveler, and many other publications. His many awards include a NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Award, a TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Award, and three Solas Awards (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales).
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