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Barbara Foster

Bohemia is Bohemian:
Prague Pulses

In libris veritas, in kava vita.
 (In books truth, in coffee life)
       --motto of the Globe Bookstore & Cafe, Prague

I was greeted with a cheerful "howdy" upon my arrival at Republic Square in the fall of 2002, by Burt Mackenzie, who was originally from North Dakota and promotes literary events in Prague. As an author newly arrived there for eight days to present a slide lecture on Alexandra David-Neel, the orientalist-explorer, it cheered me when Burt estimated the American presence in Prague at twenty thousand -- an ample audience to draw from. Unlike previous invasions of Prague, the latest is neither militaristic nor political. Praha 1, the old city, is occupied by Americans settled in for peaceful purposes. Theirs is a cultural conquest, facilitated by the favorable rate of U.S. dollars to Czech crowns. Hoisting my luggage over his well-proportioned shoulders, Burt skillfully guided me through the winding streets of Old Town. Heedless of my heavy suitcase, he bounced along like a fairy tale sprite. Blonde with twinkling blue eyes, he chattered non-stop about Old Town's history.

Equally interesting were his own vital statistics: a marriage, two children, a stint in the Navy, after which he taught English in Japan. Then he had gone on the road to make scenes like Ibiza, Tangiers, and Amsterdam. Several years ago he finally landed in Prague, when rents were dirt-cheap. I sensed that this elfin, fiftyish fellow would show me aspects of the Czech capital that tourists miss. Here was an original, an internationally inclined Bohemian, accustomed to being in the center of the action.

I was exhausted, and it was a relief to settle into the Pension Unitas, a well-heated, reasonable establishment serving plentiful breakfasts. Burt's vivacity made up for the chilly weather, a jolt after New York's mild fall.

"See you tonight at the theater, nine o'clock," Burt announced. "I'd pick you up, but I'm in the show myself. It's right off Wencelas Square. Easy to find!"

"Easy to find" became Burt's mantra, as night after night the events he touted enticed me into the maze of Prague's streets. A guidebook he thoughtfully provided did help somewhat. These excursions furnished insight into the twists and turns of Franz Kafka's mind. Walking streets that exuded such magic and mystery provided a window into the native novelist's gothic imagination.

Half-asleep after my overnight flight from New York, I nevertheless seized the opportunity to meet expatriates involved in the local version of off-Broadway. After trudging five blocks uphill from Wencelas Square, the basement theater seemed familiar -- it resembled countless informal New York spaces, host to experimental productions of emerging playwrights.

I arrived as the audience from the early show -- a Prahaha Production -- piled upstairs. A Kafkaesque moment: I'm in Prague, but instead of speaking Czech, everyone speaks English. Had I really left home? It felt surreal to be in a former Communist satellite where Americans participated in the cultural life.

Two shows in one night indicated a substantial following for theater in English, as did three other companies with the same format. Emergency Non-Stop proved a hilarious spoof of the American medical profession. Burt played at least two roles in a well directed production. Several actors were employees of the International School of Prague.

Afterward, Burt piled my tired bones into a truck transporting cast members and their guests to a party in celebration of Emergency Non-Stop's closing night. I wound up in a bar on the outskirts of the old city, sharing the camaraderie American and British residents of the expatriate colony had developed.

The setting reminded me of local bars in San Francisco, only here most people drank large quantities of Czech beer. Playing host, Burt introduced me to actors, writers, and painters of all ages. Others, if not bona fide artists yet, searched for inspiration while teaching English either privately or at the International School, which was a sponsor of the show. At the next table, a jolly looking senior citizen engaged me in conversation. This bald-headed, corpulent fellow, named Redmond, referred to his busy teaching schedule in addition to parts he played in films shot locally. Redmond left us abruptly for an appointment with a twentysomething Czech girlfriend, whom I later found out he met while giving English lessons. Via Burt, I learned that Redmond served time in an American jail for a "crime of passion." Redmond's past did not faze these Bohemians, none of whom ostracized him. They were too occupied partying, hanging out at art gallery openings, jazz and rock clubs, or at cinematheques showing experimental films.

Other expats did not bring such a dramatic backstory. Max was more typical. He was the lead in Emergency, and had chosen a career in theater before he came to Prague, which was remote from his home in Hawaii both physically and temperamentally. After an extended tour of western Europe, Max heard in a Parisian cafe that Prague was the happening place -- a paradise for Americans on a low budget. Between roles he waited tables.

Imagine my surprise when Burt left me to make my own way back to the Pension Unitas. Sober but exhausted, I followed landmarks he suggested, turning right or left at churches and shops. At one a.m., natives and tourists were moving around as though it were afternoon. Their presence emboldened me to plough onward through the darkness until I found my way and the night clerk opened the door.

The next day Burt met me at Old Town's Cafe Louvre, an elegant throwback to Art Nouveau Paris. Waiters in black and white drifted languidly around the mirrored dining room. Cheery as ever, Burt regaled me with gossip about the crew from last night's show, with not a word about my after-midnight wander. Then, in an ingenious move worthy of a top publicist, he redeemed himself by pasting my promotional flyers into newspapers hanging on a rack. He also plastered more around town.

Saturday night Burt and I took the streetcar to a birthday party thrown by a longterm British resident living with his Czech girlfriend in a nondescript block of apartment houses. Two large rooms, with paint peeling off the walls, were filled with intense young Americans and Brits. A few sixties survivors mixed in, they discussed current topics: the death penalty, legalization of pot, abortion. Everyone surged forward to welcome Burt with hugs and kisses. Young women in tie-dyed skirts, their noses pierced, gathered round adoringly with requests for road stories. Vivid descriptions of playing a game of darts in Tangiers's Lion and Lizard Bar with William Burroughs, and the time Allen Ginsberg taught him to chant om in Calcutta, elicited wows from his admirers. A mellow mood became mellower as the obligatory joint made the rounds.

I was a stranger among the expats, so they pumped me for news from the homefront, especially my whereabouts on 9/11, and on how the disaster changed my life. In the sixties, Bob Dylan or Peter, Paul and Mary would have been wailing from a phonograph about things changing. That night, a CD played a jazz fusion group based in a local club. No one expressed radical opinions, or criticized U.S. government policies. Rebellion, appropriate to another time already shrouded in history, took too much effort.

At one a.m., Burt shifted into second gear. Fortunately our next stop, the Zone, stood minutes from my hotel. The blanket of smoke at the dimly-lit club made my eyes tear, my allergies riot. Edith Piaf's ballads of love and loss would have suited the Zone's decadent atmosphere. In this multinational city, it seemed appropriate that a female singer who was part Czech and part Irish would deliver melancholy songs from a repertoire she acquired during a six month stay in Bulgaria. Clad in black, cigarette in hand, she threw a kiss to Burt from the tiny stage and then waved him to a front table.

Simultaneously, a Rubenesque reddish-blonde vigorously beckoned Burt and me to her table. Her ruddy cheeks and pleasant plumpness conflicted with the Zone's Apache dancer ambiance. A poet, Kristin came to Prague from Omaha to develop her talent. Working in a lawyer's office provided enough income to sample the cultural smorgasbord which Prague sets before an expat.

After seven years in the Czech capital, Kristin didn't sound homesick. Eventually her companion, a shy Yugoslavian dentist, joined the conversation. When Burt went outside to check his mobile phone, they gossiped about his romance with a married tango dancer. I pretended not to listen, but caught every word. So this whirlwind man about Prague found time for a personal life after all. I felt a twinge of jealousy. Set after set of wailed, heartfelt laments. The Zone's doleful mood made me a bit melancholy. As the hour passed two a.m., I yawned from fatigue. My companions, especially the indefatigable Burt, became more animated. Eventually, Paolo and Kristin left while Burt suggested we go dancing at nearby Fabrique, a club across from a popular outdoor market. But I was too weary, and I went to bed while Burt continued his mysterious rounds. Was he visiting his amour? I wondered.

Sunday morning I'd intended a lazy period of refueling, until Burt showed up with a happening. I could not refuse: an open poetry reading from five to seven p.m. in the cellar of a jazz club. Between the Prague Post, the mainstream paper listing cultural events, and the alternate Prague Pill, a treadmill of options could keep one on the move day and night. Since he was leaving town for a couple of days, Burt arranged for Kristin to sit in for him. She was one of the readers, and she helped pass out flyers about my lecture. We were facing stiff competition from daily concerts in baroque churches, Irish pubs, stand-up comedy shows, and Prague-by-night tours. Not to mention tempting shops open late.

Just off Old Town Square, the Zelezna's large basement under a vaulted ceiling quickly filled up with approximately seventy-five poets, musicians, and friends on hand to cheer the readers. The series truly lived up to its name: Poetry in the Twilight. Held in English on the second and fourth Sundays of the month, this dim, smoke-filled cave attracted serious poets who passed their work around as though it were the holy writ.

At my table, Kristin and several new friends from the Saturday night party discussed the recent explosion of local poetry readings. They chuckled over Burt's habit of disappearing like a gypsy, then popping up again to continue conversations where he left off. The Zelezna's atmosphere harked back to the fifties, a throwback to Paris during the existentialist vogue epitomized by Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

A thirtysomething American male poet hosted the event. Readers were seeking the approval of their immediate peers, not angling to become stars on the slam circuit. Laura Conway, a sophisticated Irish-American poet, had served an apprenticeship in Greenwich Village and on the West Coast. At forty, she decided to bid adieu to competitive literary scenes for the more authentically Bohemian shores of Prague. Self-imposed exile, remote from the pressure of print runs and sales figures, have contributed to Laura's individual style, which is based on the Surrealist aesthetic. In Prague, Laura has collaborated with Czech Surrealists, including a few survivors from the original movement. Laura's neat strawberry blonde hair and designer glasses were misleading. Reading her experimental fiction with a slight lisp onstage, she became as wild as the original Surrealists whose provocative demonstrations and manifestos started riots.

Offstage, Laura was soft-spoken, without flamboyant clothing or other Bohemian affectations. Artistic needs satisfied, she and Kristin guided me to fill culinary ones. Buffalo Bills and the Bohemian Bagel were nearby. Or we could have gone farther afield to try Afghan, Bulgarian, or vegetarian, among many other cuisines. Instead we chose the Globe Cafe & Bookstore because of its appetizing food, combined with an atmosphere conducive to hanging out for generous hours.

Earlier, Burt had introduced me to this oasis of literary activity crowded with students, local intellectuals, and diverse expats. Welcoming visitors were two legendary icons of Beat literature, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, on a much reproduced poster. The Globe's ambience reminded me of San Francisco, the hometown of its owners, rather than a capital of cobbled streets on which King Charles IV founded a university in 1348.

That Prague had four English bookstores testified to an explosion of interest in a culture long unavailable to its population. Opened in 1993, the Globe prides itself on serving a diversity of individuals appreciative of its blend of sophistication and comfort. A well-lit interior, with smokers at a minimum, the two-level cafe specializes in light healthy food.

One evening, after Burt used the computers up front to access his email, we spent a cozy hour on the balcony hunting for a copy of Siddartha -- the novel that originally set him on a wandering path. His vivid descriptions of authors he'd met here and abroad made it seem as though they were alive, there on the balcony with us. Another afternoon, Burt introduced me to Jitla Hart-Hanoia, the Globe's coordinator of events. She filled me in on the evolution of the Globe as a super-hangout, a stop on the route of travelers worldwide. Back in Prague after going to college in Connecticut, Jitla has witnessed her native city leap into the twenty-first century.

Since the Velvet Revolution gently brushed away more than four decades of Communism, lumpy clothes have vanished along with restrictions on individual freedom. If Jitla's parents experienced dreary years under the Communists, her generation's optimism makes Prague pulsate day and night. Jitla is proud of the Globe's lack of attitude, and its owners endorsement of a Bohemian ethic amenable to patrons nursing a single cup of coffee all night. The link between literature and coffee dates back to days of yore in Central Europe: both, no matter what political regime rules, are ubiquitous. Liquor, another stimulus to conversation, is served without age restriction in cafes and bars in Prague.

Jitla coordinates a series of readings by Czech, European, and international authors. Americans passing through town, such as Susan Sontag, Amy Tan, or Gore Vidal, attracted large audiences. Events from the annual Prague writers' festival happen at the Globe, as do art exhibitions each month, with openings to launch them. Why wasn't my lecture being held in this popular, centrally located space? It seemed ungrateful to second-guess Burt, emphatic that he'd booked a million dollar location close to the action.

The night of my show, riding the streetcar at least half an hour from Old Town's center, I became alarmed. Given Prague's plethora of events, why would anyone ride this far to attend a show about a female explorer of Tibet? To reach the recently opened Shakespeare & Sons, one must go down a steep hill. Tucked into a residential area with no other alluring entertainment spots nearby, this European style bookstore was hidden behind an inconspicuous storefront, with no sign outside. Had Burt made a whopping blunder?

Apprehensive, I arrived at six -- two hours early -- to meet the three male owners who had been inspired by Sylvia Beach's legendary Shakespeare & Company. These pioneers in the neighborhood offer a cafe up front, and a bookstore in back, stocking primarily literary fiction in English. The small cafe was crowded, about to overflow. Would these Bohemian-looking characters, wearing black and smoking ferociously, stay to watch slides?

A delightful suprise: the wandering Burt completed his theater gig in the provinces and rode overnight on the bus to be on hand. Happily too, at eight o'clock, the entire cafe crowd moved to the back room. Meanwhile, I cringed as rare slides were transferred from my standard carousel to an odd-shaped, low-tech model.

Burt came up with the idea of draping a big white sheet over the bookshelves to serve as a screen. The blend of Czech and American ingenuity allowed the show to go on without a glitch. Viewers posed intelligent questions, bought books I brought along, and stayed to drink wine and philosophize. Meanwhile, Laura and Kristin thrust flowers at me.

On my penultimate night in Prague, Burt and I were the last to leave Shakespeare & Sons. We sat together, savoring a closeness attributable to mutual appreciation and working toward a common goal. Since it would be our last for awhile, I especially relished this conversation. I hoped he would fulfill his promise to show up on my doorstep one day. Words were inadequate to thank him for introducing me to Bohemians, who were less colorful than the twenties lost generation, but still sincerely perfecting their art from day to day in the Paris of Central Europe.

If Allen Ginsberg were alive, he would be gratified to witness the intellectual flowering born during the Prague Spring. Initially, I did wonder why Bohemians would winter in Prague. Why not escape to a colony scene like Ibiza, or soak up sun in Marrakesh? I realized eventually that authentic types like Burt are more attuned to the intellectual climate than degrees of temperature. Their presence has added an edgy element to Prague's Art Nouveau elegance. Since Prague is a popular location for feature film shoots, Burt found parts in widely distributed films like The Affair of the Necklace. But his last words made me wonder if he'd remain much longer. Praising Barcelona, where film jobs were more plentiful, made me suspect he was mentally packing his bags for a new adventure.

Afterward, back in New York, when I heard that Prague elected to join the European Economic Community, I wondered how Burt and the raft of Bohemians happily living on the fringe would survive. But since Burt never answered several emails from me, I probably will never know. Out of sight out of mind?

©2003 by Barbara Foster

Barbara Foster is an Associate Professor at CUNY. She is a world traveler and co-author of the biography The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel (Overlook Press, 1998, paperback 2002). Her lectures on David-Neel, the French explorer of Tibet, at universities, museums, and organizations are ongoing on an international basis. Barbara has published a wide variety of articles on Women's Studies, as well as poetry in every English-speaking country. She is co-author of a biography of the American original, Adah Isaacs Menken (1835-1868). She has lectured on Menken in several venues, and intends to perform the Menken slide show widely. She is tripartite author of Three in Love:Menages at Trois from Ancient to Modern Times. Barbara is currently working on a cultural history of Bohemia, its rise, fall and rise.

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