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.”

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.


The call went out over the weekend to mark the first anniversary of Vaclav Havel’s death on December 18 by wearing short trousers. I spotted a woman outside the library this morning in rolled-up jeans in what I think—hope—was a response to the call (though maybe she was just being stylish).

Later in the day, beneath the big statue of St. Wenceslas at the head of Wenceslas Square, I saw a man who’d obviously rolled up his pants legs in homage to the country’s truly beloved first president.

v2Back in December 1989, during Havel’s inauguration as president of Czechoslovakia, someone took a picture of him in trousers that barely reached his ankles. Havel later said he’d adjusted his pants during the ceremony, and the photo was snapped before they’d had a chance to settle, but a colleague, Jan Solc, who worked in the Czech president’s office in the 1990s, claimed Havel had a penchant for short trousers dating back to his years as a political prisoner. Every time his captors came for him, they’d shout, “Havel, make yourself presentable,” and Havel would hoist his trousers up. “He kept doing it the whole time he was locked up,” Solc said.

The intent of today’s tribute, as the organizers of “Short Trousers for Vaclav Havel” explained on an English-language website, was to create a “gesture that is humorous, non-violent but significant and perhaps even very Czech-like.”

v3Far more moving, though, was the small throng of people gathered in Wenceslas Square at dusk, lighting votives in the shape of the famous Havel heart (he always signed his name with a heart), piling slips of paper and more candles around a photo of Havel. Someone was playing guitar, and people were making big hearts from red balloons, and the whole thing had the flavor of the 60s—or maybe it’s because as I was leaving, I came across a much smaller memorial, with its own votives and supplicants, dedicated to Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc, two students who immolated themselves in this same square in 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Havel was a reluctant politician who objected to the term “dissident” because he didn’t want to be seen as a “professional malcontent,” but rather as a person who was simply attempting to “live within the truth.” Two months before he became president, he told a friend, “I’m a writer, not a politician. I would like to be a kingmaker, but not a king.” In his first days as president he used a scooter to navigate the marble hallways of Prague Castle.

It’s easy to relegate much of what Havel did and said during his courageous life as a playwright and political activist to the gray Communist past of this part of Europe. But as I was reminded yesterday, reading his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel has much to say to us about our own time, place, and the systems to which we pledge our allegiance:

“The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism. In everyone there is some willingness to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudolife. This is much more than a simple conflict between two identities. It is something far worse: it is a challenge to the very notion of identity itself.”

“A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accouterments of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”

“It may even be said that the more room there is in the Western democracies (compared to our world) for the genuine aims of life, the better the crisis is hidden from people and the more deeply do they become immersed in it. It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies.”v4

Looking Down

ld1The last—and first—time I was in Prague, I learned to look up. (Credit actually goes to the young British tour guide who told us on day one to look up. “I have to remind myself,” she said.) The city is full of surprises one, two, seven, ten stories up.




ld2This time I’m learning to look down. Credit my friend Irene Butter, in Ann Arbor, who told me a few months ago about the Stolperstein that’s been set into the pavement in front of the house where her father lived in Elmshorn, Germany, outside Hamburg. It’s a small brass tile inscribed with his name, year of birth, and the all-too-stark facts of his life and death in the Holocaust.


ld3I found the tile earlier this fall on a visit to north Germany and photographed it for Irene. I’ve since read up on the astonishing Stolperstein project of artist Gunter Demnig, begun in 1994 in Cologne and now numbering more than 30,000 across Europe. These mostly obscure Stolpersteine, or “stumbling blocks,” mark the places where victims of the Holocaust—Jews, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, members of the resistance, others—once lived.

Prague has its sobering share. This afternoon, as the day was sliding into an early dusk, I took a walk around our neighborhood and found maybe a dozen. I can only imagine the stories—the terror—that lie behind these small, matter-of-fact tiles sitting just inches from buildings that now house lawyers’ offices, banks, apartments, and—to my shame—the corner store where I’ve been buying groceries on my way home from the library.

Irene tells us a woman in Elmshorn looks after her father’s Stolperstein, and I’d like to think people here do the same. One, belonging to a single man named Benjamin Rosenstein who died at Terezín, is sunk into the pavement on a street not two hundred yards from our apartment. Looking up from his Stolperstein, I see six windows in the kind of quaint, lopsided building that makes you take out your camera.

Can I imagine the man who lived here, my almost-neighbor? Born in 1886, died in 1942. The math gives me a jolt: 56, my age, when he perished—that evocative word Daniel Mendelsohn examines in The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million:

Perish … from the Latin verb pereo … always suggests to me a realm of possibilities far beyond the mere fact of death—a feeling that’s confirmed by a glance at the entry in the rather old Latin dictionary I own: To pass away, come to nothing, vanish, disappear, be lost; To pass away, be destroyed, perish; To perish, lose life, die … To be lost, fail, be wasted, be spent in vain; To be lost, be ruined, be undone. Given what I know, now … I have come, myself, to prefer perish over all other verbs, when I speak of those who died.”

Say a prayer at the sight of these little golden squares, so easy to miss. Remind yourself to look down.