The Loreto, Prague

It stands, a marble-encrusted box in the middle of a cloistered space on top of a hill above a castle overlooking one of the most storied cities in the world, the place the mythical princess Libussa identified as Prague, a city whose fame, she predicted, “will touch the stars.”

The treasure within the cloister within the city is the Holy House of Loreto, believed to be the site of the Annunciation, miraculously lifted from its original location in Nazareth and borne through the air here to Prague in the 17th century. The layout and dimensions of the room (30 x 13 feet) come from Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, who in the year 328 identified and measured the original Annunciation site in the Holy Land. The room has been replicated throughout the world, some 50 times in the Czech Republic alone, where it helped reinvigorate the Catholic faithful in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War. I’ve only seen this Loreto, not the others. It is a mystical spot, even if you don’t believe in miracles.

It’s one of the treasures I’ll be looking for from the sky tomorrow morning as we take off from Prague on the first leg of our trip home.



The Loreto, Prague

Our Lady of Loreto is the patron saint of air travel, so our visit yesterday afternoon was perhaps a fitting farewell (though unintentionally so—I’d been meaning to go since the day we arrived but kept putting it off.)­

Years ago, after I spent a semester in New York as a college student, I wrote my name somewhere in the city—I can’t remember the location—intending it as a promise to myself, and to New York, that I’d be back. I’m older and less superstitious now, and I won’t be leaving any marks in Prague, unless it’s the heap of recycling I dumped into one of the city’s brightly colored bins this morning.

The other treasure house I’ll be hoping to spot from the skies tomorrow is the garret apartment where we’ve lived since November 30. It sits on the top floor of a five-story building built in the late-19th century as an add-on to the pink bauble known as the Kinsky Palace, which sits onOld Town Square, and whose front balcony was the site, in 1948, of one of the country’s bitterest junctures, evoked in the opening beat of Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting (which I’ll be reading on the flight home tomorrow):

“In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out onthe balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citiens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium. …”



Kinsky Palace, Prague

Restored by Italians in the 1990s and bought up by Americans and who knows who else (a friend tells us one in every six real estate transactions in Prague now involves a Russian), our building in back of Kinsky Palace is home to a tattoo parlor, some sort of high-end household-goods shop, a restaurant hawking pseudo-Czech cuisine to tourists, and five floors of residents.

I’ve lived here twice now and have come to love the sound of bells through the skylights, and the astonishing quiet of the place, despite its proximity to the loudest square in Prague, and the sight, through those same skylights, of jets soaring overhead to who knows where. Most of the time the plume of jet exhaust is gone before I can look up twice, a reminder of how quickly our journeys pass.

Writing of journeys in 1822, William Hazlitt spoke of how travel—the act of being by oneself in a strange place—invites thinking and reverie. I’ll miss that. Hazlitt has it right: in a strange place, even one that’s becoming familiar, long-forgotten things encroach, “burst upon my eager sight, and I begin to feel, think, and be myself again.”

Pig Love

p1The Prague Post reports that among the nations of the world with the best prospects for a child born in 2013, the Czech Republic ranks 28th—lower than the U.S. (16th), higher than Costa Rica, Portugal, Poland, Greece, and Slovakia. (For the record, Switzerland comes in first.) Reasons for the country’s relatively low ranking include “a relatively poor diet, inadequacies in the health care system, high levels of pollution, and excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption.”

I can’t vouch for health care, pollution, or tobacco consumption, but I’ve consumed my share of alcohol in the past month, and I certainly find the diet a challenge. Even with a kitchen, it’s hard to avoid pork. We bought what we thought were pure bread dumplings at Tesco the other day, only to find them larded (literally) with pork. I won’t lie: they were tasty.

Another Prague Post report reveals that in 2010, Czechs slaughtered 2,982,361 pigs—vs. 10,169 sheep, 527 goats, and 251 horses (the grocery chain Albert recently added those to its meat offerings). There was no mention of cows.

As I’m writing this, I’ve got a soup going on the stove, yet another concoction flavored by pork. We bought way too much bacon the other day, smoky, dense, and attached to thick ribs, and I’m racing to use it up before we fly home on Saturday.

p2And so, as I render pork fat on the front burner, let me render homage to the noble animal whose flesh has done so much these past four weeks to enrich our diet (and apparently impoverish our health). Oh smart, inquisitive beast, quick to adapt and easy to accommodate, capable of living on small patches of land and willing to consume our garbage, oldest known domesticated creature besides the dog, prolific breeder and quick grower, yielder of what Charles Lamb called “a kind of animal manna” whose taste is no less than “ambrosian.” There is, writes Lamb,no flavour comparable, I will contend, to that of the crisp, tawny, well-watched, not over-roasted, crackling, as it is well called—the very teeth are invited to their share of the pleasure at this banquet in overcoming the coy, brittle resistance—with the adhesive oleaginous—O call it not fat—but an indefinable sweetness growing up to it—the tender blossoming of fat—fat cropped in the bud—taken in the shoot—in the first innocence—the cream and quintessence of the child-pig’s yet pure food. …


p3They serve pork every which way in Prague, and we’ve tried most of it—pig knuckle, Prague ham, sausage, pork roast, bacon, ribs, crackling, even the innards, which seem to have found their way into a thick orange soup I bought at the corner store one day, in a jar whose ingredients I couldn’t decipher. In my newfound devotion to the pig, I am reminded of the matanza I witnessed one January three decades ago in Spain, another pig-addicted country—the cleansed carcass of the hog displayed on a kind of trellis in the front yard of a farmhouse, women off to one side making blood sausage, men inside the house, in a firelit room, drinking red wine and eating the first links of cooked chorizo straight from the fireplace. They invited me to join them. It remains one of the best meals of my life.


The ritual of the midwinter slaughter is mostly a bygone thing, here as elsewhere, which is a pity. The likes of Michael Pollan would have us know where our food comes from, and a matanza surely does that (though I lack Pollan’s willingness to take the knife into my own hands). Even the man who invented Wilbur the pig—the sometime hog farmer E.B. White—sanctioned the kind of meals that, for better or worse, distinguish Czech cuisine.

“The scheme of buying a spring pig in blossom time, feeding it through summer and fall, and butchering it when the solid cold weather arrives, is a familiar scheme to me and follows an ancient pattern,” White wrote in his piquant 1948 essay on the death of a pig. “It is a tragedy enacted on most farms with perfect fidelity to the original script. The murder, being premeditated, is in the first degree but is quick and skillful, and the smoked bacon and ham provide a ceremonial ending whose fitness is seldom questioned.”

Border Crossings

“Much travel is needed before the raw man is ripened.” —Middle Eastern proverb

Over the weekend we took the train to Berlin to visit friends. It’s a mostly pretty, five-hour trip, half of it along the Vltava (Moldau) River, which quite mysteriously morphs into the Elbe just before the German border. Along the way, I read Tony Hiss’s 2010 In Motion: The Experience of Travel, a suitably meandering exploration of the notion of “deep travel.” More than the familiar distinction between “tourism” and “travel,” deep travel (or, as Hiss prefers, Deep Travel) involves matters as wide-ranging as time, space, and human evolution, and—if I’m reading Hiss right—can apply to anything from a global expedition to a trip around the corner to buy milk. Take yoga’s mindfulness and add it to travel, and you’re more or less there.

b1Among much else that got this traveler’s brain going, Hiss speaks of those moments on journeys “that take us out of ourselves rather than just away from the place we were leaving. Moments when something has shifted.” He likens such junctures to a “magic carpet,” which can elevate us to another platform of experience where we become “aware that we have somehow been jarred loose from pieces of our ordinary thinking; we are not quite sure what might happen next for better or worse. A threshold has somehow been crossed; a horizon has receded.”


As I sat there in the little six-seat compartment of our Czech train, watching literal platforms float in and out of view as we journeyed from one former Soviet bloc country to the other—a trip once unthinkable and now routine, like driving from Ann Arbor to Chicago—I thought of other border crossings. Back and forth from Spain to France in the 1980s, when the conductors had to noisily expand or contract the wheels under the cars to fit the differently gauged rail tracks in each country. (Spanish tracks were impossibly wide and slow, French narrow and slick—all of this, I was told, a defense strategy instituted by Franco.) Or my one visit to Berlin during those same years, the fraught crossings by subway and bus and on foot from west to east and back again, scenes out of a movie except that this was real—though far more real for the families I saw opening their bags for inspection in Friedrichstrasse station than it was for me, with my sturdy American credentials and plane ticket out of there.


b3Maybe because it was cold outside, and I’d brought a fur hat with me, and we were on our way to Berlin, I thought—as I sat in the Czech train, next to a heavyset Russian man whose phone kept emitting flutelike trills—of the movie Julia, and of Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in that big hat riding the train through the night into Hitler’s chaotic and terrifying Berlin. And I began wondering to what extent movies shape our experience of other places, provide what Hiss calls an “entry point” or “turnstile” that leads us out of ourselves into “the land of mystery.” Or story.


b4So there I was, absorbed in my cozy journey within a journey within a journey, when, just inside the German border, a uniformed man with Polizei stamped on his breast pocket knocked on our door and asked for our passports. Cavalier Americans that we are, accustomed to driving cross-country with just a driver’s license (and to a European Union that seems to have shuttered most of its border stations), we’d left them in our apartment in Prague.

We handed the policeman our Michigan driver’s licenses and smiled.

No passports? he asked. We shook our heads.

He frowned. Ungünstig, he said. Unfavorable.

b5The film that had been slowly unspooling in my mind now lurched from Julia to The Lives of Others, and I imagined us spending the night—the week, the rest of our lives—in a Stasi jail (I’d just heard our cop speak Russian to our seatmate, proof that he knew his way around the old regime). I imagined being dumped from the train onto a platform somewhere in the former GDR, snow falling, shivering in my unlined shoes.


The policeman was now telling my husband, in German, that the fine for crossing a European Union border without proper ID was 3,000 €. I looked at my husband. He looked away. The movie screen in my mind reverted to Julia, and I assumed a poker face—Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman parrying questions at the border, cool as ice. (Where was my cigarette?) The policeman asked how long we planned to be in Germany. Two days, we told him.

A small eternity—of the sort I’d just been reading about in Hiss’s book, in which the experience of travel can alter one’s perception of time so that a single minute feels like fifteen—passed. The policeman handed us our documents, wished us a good journey, and left. End of interlude; the turnstile clicked shut; we rolled on to Berlin.


b6Two days later we crossed back into the Czech Republic without so much as a glance from anyone except a young Czech conductor with a friendly face who asked to see our tickets. We reached Prague in time to celebrate Christmas in a city suddenly clogged by tourists from around the globe—a post-Soviet, post-Wall, 21st-century, European Union capital in a continent that still feels (even to this chastened traveler-tourist) deceptively, blessedly, borderless.

Veselé Vanocé!

Carp Diem

Los dias abandonan
su piel, como las culebras,
con la sola excepción
de los días de fiesta.

Estos son los mismos
de nuestras madres viejas.
Sus tardes son largas colas
de moaré y lentejuelas.

The days shed their skin,
like snakes,
with the sole exception
of the holidays.

Those are like they were in the days
of our old mothers.
Their afternoons are long trains
of moiré and sequins.
—Federico García Lorca, “Teorías. Tío vivo”


c1The blue tubs have finally appeared on the big square near our neighborhood grocery store. Kapr, they read: carp. The traditional Czech Christmas Eve meal—fried carp with potato salad.

Penitential in spirit, murky in practice—a bottom-feeder whose flesh is cleansed (so a Czech acquaintance tells us) by several days’ soaking in the family bathtub. The custom is not without its trauma. Our friend reports that as a kid she always hid when her dad finally bludgeoned the fish that had become something of a pet. Today, to her relief, he buys them dead.

c2By mid-afternoon today, the two fishmongers at the blue tubs in our neighborhood were doing a quick trade—and to judge by the state of their aprons, most customers were buying to fill their refrigerators, not their bathtubs.

Rituals form the core of holidays like the one the Christian West is about to observe, but we don’t always recognize them as such. I’ve often wondered what aliens would think of our practice of cutting down a live tree and bringing it inside the house in midwinter and hanging little pendants from it (a rite the Czechs, too, have adopted: a friend tells us their tree goes up on Christmas Eve and has real candles).

Surely the act of installing a fir tree in your living room is no less bizarre a rite than having a street vendor slaughter a giant goldfish for dinner.

In ritual, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga writes, “the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primeval soil of play.”

Which is one reason the holidays, as Lorca so lyrically suggests, wear sequined trains, while the rest of the calendar dresses in sturdy shoes and knee-length skirts. One of the pleasures of travel is the chance to see—and newly consider—the difference.c4


I continue to think of “The Power of Powerlessness,” especially in light of last week’s shooting in Connecticut. May we in the U.S. have the courage to confront power as Havel and his peers did—not just this week or next month, but long after the news reports fade, and the next inevitable scandal or atrocity captures our attention. May we heed Havel’s warning that systems built on lies work “only as long as people are willing to live within those lies.” May Havel’s courage and persistence embolden our own.