By Cindy Corpier
Vacláv Havel Airport Prague: After a painless stop at immigration, met our EF Tour guides, Matt and Ildiko, British and Hungarian, respectively. Made a necessary purchase with Czech koruna: cappuccino. Too tired to try out my only Czech phrase, děkuji (thank you).
Opening dinner at the Café Imperial: Stunning dining room with pillars and walls covered in ceramic tile mosaics. My first (and last) traditional Czech dumpling. Toasts, hellos, hugs and laughter with 70+ writers & guests.
Walking Tour of The Castle Quarter: Perfect summer day. St. Vitus Cathedral, built between 1344 and 1929, contains a carved-wood relief of Prague, circa 1620 and an Art Nouveau window by Alfons Mucha. Learned the story of St. Ludmila, grandmother of St. Wenceslas, murdered in 921 AD. Choked with her own veil by her daughter-in-law’s henchmen—then canonized shortly thereafter. Among other things, she is patron saint of “troubles with in-laws.” Made our way past Starbuck’s to the Golden Lane, a narrow street of shops and reconstructions portraying medieval life. Franz Kafka lived for a time in #22, now painted lavender with green trim. The cannon tower at the bottom of the street, formerly a prison, holds grisly examples of torture equipment that make water boarding seem humane.
Charles Bridge & Old Town Square: Thronged with visitors, vendors and pigeons. The Vltava River busy with tourist boats curls around the city. Onward toward Old Town Square and the hourly chiming of Prague’s 15th century astronomical clock that begins with Death (white skeleton) ringing the bell and ends with the crow of the golden rooster. The skyline is a feast of architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Art Nouveau. A memorial to Jan Hus, the 14th century Czech priest and church reformer who was burned as a heretic, commands the square’s center. Crossing the square we dodged food stands, snake charmers, two 6-foot tall furry blue sharks and a gold ballerina holding third position.
Spalding Publishing Panel: Sena Jeter Naslund, Rebecca Walker, Maureen Morehead and Katy Yocom. Sena told us how she analyzed the journals she wanted to publish in and found they were taking stories with a “zany” voice. By writing against her grain, outside her comfort zone, she found something new and got published. Maureen advised us to aim high and not to take rejection personally. She looks for poems showing the writer has knowledge of history and literature and that move the reader. Rebecca spoke about editing creative nonfiction anthologies and advised writers to collaborate with editors whose goal is to help them write the best possible story. Katy gave us the inside view of fiction editing at The Louisville Review. She chose writing that was fresh and original with a strong voice and heart, stories that kept giving.
The Jewish Quarter (Josefov): Our group met at the Jan Hus Memorial and wound toward this compact quarter for a two-hour tour that should have lasted two days. Heartbreak and inspiration intertwined.
Last night in Prague: We signed on for the Prague By Night tour that left at 8:30 pm, well before sunset. The bus took us outside the city’s center to the mostly abandoned grounds of the 1891 World Exposition for an outdoor performance of “Swan Lake.” The dancing Krizikova Fountain, a 19th century precursor to the Bellagio fountains, was not only backdrop but another character in the ballet. Perfect for the city of Kafka.
Goodbye Prague, hello Dresden: The “Florence of the Elbe” is another place deserving more than two hours. Rebuilt after the horrendous firebombing of 1945 in an approximation of its former glory, the city is pristine. A 305 ft Meissen porcelain mural, “Procession of the Princes,” covers a building with the rulers of Saxony. A golden butterfly posed with tourists outside the Dresden Cathedral.
Drive from Dresden to Berlin: Thanks to Katy Yocum both coaches became theaters showing “The Lives of Others,” 2006 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language film. Set in East Germany during the 1980s, this riveting film shows the lives of the Stasi and those they monitored and was timed perfectly for our introduction to Berlin.
Berlin: Where Prague is compressed, Berlin sprawls. We arrived during unusually warm weather to be reminded that Berlin is German for swamp. Our hotel is a ten-minute walk from the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz. The first night we witness a small political protest of Senegalese immigrants that garnered a large Polizei response. Around the corner a banner congratulating Germany on the World Cup win hung from the U. S. Embassy. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe honors the dead through light, geometry and silence, while the East Side Wall Gallery celebrates freedom through exuberant color.
Timewitnesses: The climax of this trip. An East German and West German, moderated by our guide Ildiko, discussed life before and after the Wall fell in 1989.
East German: “We could see West Berlin, but it was as unreal as the moon.” The people were consumed with thinking about consumer items—chocolate, pens. The morning after the announcement he went to the closest checkpoint and told the guard he wanted to cross. “You’re not the first,” the guard said. Over the bridge, the smell changed. Beautiful gardens. Modern buses like art. His first purchase: Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.”
West German: The news was incredible, the “notions of two worlds smashed.” Remembered “their faces” and their amazement at having oranges. Resentment remains in the West with some saying the Wall shouldn’t have come down. Surprised by the emancipation of East German women who worked and were fully equal. The dream for the future is a Germany that embraces the weakness and horror of the Third Reich, but is lighter and more open.
Pergamon Museum and Neues Museum: The Pergamon was built to house the cobalt blue Ishtar Gate and the Pergamon Alter with its mythological frieze, both huge relics of antiquity. Worth the 40-minute wait on a hot day. Islamic prayer niches of mind-blowing geometric complexity, tablets of the earliest writing from Uruk in Mesopotamia—from the 4th millennium BC. Next door at the Neues Museum, Nefertiti’s head is the big draw, but far from the only amazement.
Cabaret: In German, at a cabaret on the edge of the Tiergarten. Fabelhaft. That’s German for fabulous. Midnight dinner with my husband at a restaurant close to our hotel where an Indian waiter asked in German for our order of Mexican food.
Berlin Architectural Tour: Culminated in a 10 pm visit to the Reichstag and its modern glass dome with interior walkway spiraling up to the peak. An art installation in film and colored light visible from the terrace. Cool air blew as we watched film clips of German history, including, yes, images from the visits of JFK and Ronald Reagan.
Spalding Summer Graduation 2014: Clear afternoon light filled the room as our Spalding faculty and friends marched in. My heart felt full remembering last May’s joy and gratitude. Congratulations Joe Baillargeon, Karen Chronister, Alice Jennings, Christi Kelly, April Larson, Liza Mattison, Amy Miller, Nikki-Nicole Peoples, and Nicole Underwood. To quote Neil Gaiman, “Make good art.”