Thursday, December 14, 2017

Prague Revisited: Sounds and Visions

"Has the world changed, or have I changed?" - Morrissey

Those lyrics from The Smiths' '80s college-rock classic "The Queen Is Dead" were playing practically on repeat in my head during my 11 days in Prague last month. It was my first trip to the Czech Republic's capital since 1996, and the city felt familiar yet somehow so different. Still beautiful, sometimes breathtakingly so, Prague today seems smaller, more quaint, less "Wow!" than it did two decades ago.

But... has the city changed, or have I changed?

Perhaps Prague's more compact pleasures have a lot to do with how much I've evolved as a traveler since the '90s. I first landed in Prague only three years after my inaugural trip to Europe, so its Gothic splendor, the foreign-ness of it all, was still relatively new to me.

Since then, I've logged many months all over Europe and lived in South America, Australia, Asia, and Africa. Everything that seemed so massive in the mid-'90s was bound to get smaller, right?

But here's the twist: Though such landmarks as the Prague Castle appear to have shrunk when viewed from a distance, or even from as close as the Charles Bridge, I appreciate them so much more now than I did then. I'm not sure I ever even really looked at the Prague Castle during my first trip. It was always that awesome building in the distance that reminded me of Disney World's Magic Kingdom, unapproachable, but now that I think about it, probably mostly because I was usually too hungover to be bothered.

I'm pretty sure I never actually made it up the hill to where the castle sits. I was preoccupied with my new British friends, Andrew and Mark, reading Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley in their entirety, and marveling at how obsessed everyone was with Michael Jackson, who was in the city at the same time for his HIStory tour. (Andrew, if you read this, and you distinctly remember making the castle pilgrimage with me, please unfog my memory.)

One of the most memorable moments of the trip was arriving in one of the city's many lovely squares on the castle side of the Vltava river, about one hundred meters from the iconic Charles Bridge, to a throng of locals, tourists, and photographers. They had descended upon a corner bookstore because the King of Pop was inside. Although he was in disguise, his coterie of hangers-on and their conspicuous luxury vehicles were dead giveaways.

In another episode, a group of kids excitedly approached Andrew and me and begged for photos with us. We presumed they were convinced we had to be Michael Jackson dancers because we were both black. In yet another Prague encounter, I ran into my college friend Christian while crossing the Charles Bridge. We'd stayed in touch during the six years since I graduated from the University of Florida and even hung out in both New York City and Charlotte, North Carolina, but we'd somehow forgotten to tell each other about our Prague travel plans. Surprise!

Getting back to the King of Pop, there was even a giant MJ statue temporarily perched in a prime spot overlooking the city to promote the kick-off of HIStory's European leg in Prague. It spent the entire week competing with the Prague Castle for skyline dominance.

To be honest, I'm not sure I even knew the Prague Castle was on a hill in 1996. Now, of course, I do. I made two trips up that hill during my latest Prague stop. Twenty-one years from now, there'll be no question in my mind that I didn't miss it. I'll remember Prague a lot differently than I did the first time because I'll remember it more vividly.

I recently checked out a travel blog comparing Prague and Hungary's Budapest (which I visited for the first time right after Prague in 1996 and revisited right after Prague in 2017), and the writer astutely observed that when you travel in your twenties, it's all about bars and clubs. In your forties, it's more about architecture. I may have stopped dancing under strobelights, but now I'm dancing about architecture.

I suspect that at 27, I may have been too distracted by Prague's party scene, Andrew, Mark, Ayn Rand, Patricia Highsmith, and Michael Jackson to pay more than passing attention to its magnificent backdrop. I mean, I noticed it. I saw it, and I was duly floored by it, but I didn't really see it. This time, with a clearer head (no hangovers!), and less-divided attention, I experienced Prague in a fuller, richer way. It may have been less "Wow!" in general, but its more modest thrill left a far greater impression.

For more on what I heard and saw, in words and in photos, check out my recent tribute to Prague on Medium.
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