Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Metamorphosis of Grey Bear

As Grey Bear awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

Well, not really. As you can see, I am still a bear. And I always have nice dreams. But 93 years ago, readers in Prague and soon around the world read these opening lines (except it was Gregor Samsa and not Grey Bear who awoke from uneasy dreams) and followed the sad tale of the transformation of travelling salesman Gregor Samsa.

Franz Kafka - who wrote the Metamorphosis - was born in Prague and his presence is keenly felt throughout the city. I read a little Kafka when I was a bear cub and, I must admit, found his themes to be a bit depressing. There's so much misery in the world - and as a freelance Goodwill Ambassador I see a lot of pain and injustice firsthand - that I don't want to spend my few
leisure hours dealing with troubled individuals flailing about in a nightmarishly impersonal and bureaucratic world. I can spend time with my Bipedal Attendants for that.

As I said, you can find Kafka everywhere in Prague's Old City
. Naturally there is a museum devoted to him, and you can see several of the houses he lived in. My favourite of his houses is the one on Golden Lane, in the Lesser Quarter near the castle (photo, below right) because it's the cheeriest all his homes. Having read Kafka, I'm surprised he didn't paint it black.

His statue (above left) appears next to the so-called Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto on Dusni Street, across from one of the houses he lived in. I don't pretend to understand it - it's a little bizarre. The tall black sculpture is of a headless man in a suit with a smaller figure of Kafka sitting on his shoulders. And of course me. In one short story, a young man rides atop another's shoulders and walks through the streets of Prague at night - and it is this story which inspired the sculptor. No bears though. Too bad.

Interestingly, Kafka almost emigrated to Madrid where his favourite Uncle Alfred lived. Uncle Alfred was trying to find work for his nephew with Spain's national railway and had that job materialized - which it didn't - I have to wonder if Spain's picture-perfect blue skies and ruby rioja wines would have had an impact on his writing. Maybe Kafkaesque would have come to mean something completely different. Maybe that cheery blue door on Golden Lane was a sign of the inner happy Kafka.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Bear in Bohemia

Last weekend, I took the Bipedal Attendants - who have been pretty stressed lately - to the Czech Republic for a well-earned weekend in the fabled "mother of cities", the "city of a hundred spires" or simply "Golden Prague". Amazingly, they didn't grumble too much at the prospect of rain - which never did happen - and brooding skies - which did. I think I'm finally whipping them into shape. Even when they found out that they had been the victims of bank fraud, they cheerfully blamed Slovakia (where the crime had actually occurred) rather than the Czech Republic. I think this bodes well.

So, Prague - or officially, Hlavní město Praha (Prague, the Capital City) ... the city of writers, monsters, musicians, physicists, artists, hockey players, Hollywood directors, religious dissenters and near-mythical kings ... the city of Kafka, the Golem (if you're not familiar with the Golem, click here), Mozart, Einstein, Alfons Mucha, Jaromír Jágr, Miloš Forman, Jan Hus and Good King Wenceslas, and so many many more - and now us (plus another billion tourists)! In fact, there's so much to say about Prague that I may have to write more than one posting about it.

For more than 1,000 years, Prague has been the political, cultural, and economic centre of the Czech Republic. Amazingly, the city was left relatively unscathed from the ravages of your stupid WW II (although its Jewish population, which was one of the largest in Europe, would woefully disagree), and what greets the visitor is an urban mosaic: a Gothic city, a Baroque city, an Art Nouveau city. Whatever you want, you can find it, whether it's the haunting Jewish quarter or bizarre cubist houses, tiny medieval houses or fin de siècle apartments.

me (above left) in front of the Astronomical Clock which was started 600 years ago. Beside the clock are 4 figures which represent the civic anxieties of its citizens: vanity, greed (originally depicted as a Jew holding a money bag - but since your stupid WWII changed), death and foreign invasion (a marauding Turk). Below those figures are the Chronicler, the Angel, Astronomer, and Philosopher. Below those figures is me, and a thousand camera-wielding tourists all clambering to take my photo. When will I ever learn to wear a disguise when travelling?

Probably the two most famous landmarks in Prague are the Charles Bridge (above right) and the Castle. The Charles Bridge, which spans the river Vltana, connects the Malá Strana ("the Lesser Quarter") with the "Old" and "New" cities on the opposite side of the bank - although the "New" City is about 700 years old. The bridge is peopled with 30 statues of famous - and not very famous - saints and other religious scenes, and although I saw a few dogs and deer, I couldn't find any bears. Maybe that's a good thing. Historically, bears haven't been treated very well.

How the Charles Bridge hasn't collapsed under the weight of all the people (and 1 bear) who cross it every day is a marvel of engineering! After pushing our way
through the crowds of tour groups, buskers, vendors, and pickpockets, we stopped to have a glass of mulled wine - what signs advertise as "hot wine" - just to calm our nerves. It was "okay" - it was certainly better than burčiak which (unfortunately) is sold in Prague too, but when I think of the Czech Republic, I don't think of wine, I think of beer.

Of course, since Czechs drink more beer than anyone else in the world, tossing back per capita approximately 157 litres of pivo a year, my male bipedal attendant - who fancies himself a bit of a beer connoisseur - was anxious to contribute to the national statistic. We ended up at a brew pub called U Medvídku - which means "At the Little Bears" - I
couldn't have chosen (or named) a better place myself! For over 500 years there has been a brewery and a "beer house" on this site. After all, Czechs have been brewing & drinking beer forever (written references to bear are 1,000 years old) and even Good King Wenceslas - in a bid to safeguard Bohemia's famous hops (the secret ingredient in its world-famous beer) decreed that anyone caught exporting cuttings from the nation's plants would be executed. Ouch!

Now I wonder if that's the first example of corporate espionage in the history of the world?!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Puttin' On the Ritz

As a former international fashion model, I've paraded down my fair share of catwalks and appeared on the covers of the world's most prestigious fashion magazines wearing all sorts of fancy dress (and undress - sometimes, I bare it all!). At the risk of sounding a tad immodest, everyone knows that I put the Armani tuxedo on the world map in the 1980's. Nonetheless, it's always a treat to have the opportunity of putting on a top hat - even if it's someone else's - every now & then. Today I was combing the streets of Bratislava's Old Town when a throng of Japanese tourists asked me to have my photo taken with the statue of Ignác Lamár - a local character whose likeness has been memorialized in bronze.

Ignác was born in the somewhat impoverished neighbourhood of Petržalka (it's still a sea of ugly communist block apartments) 111 years ago to a very poor shoemaker who was himself the son of a famous clown. Even at that time, Ignác was considered by many to be someone who lived his life in the past. Ignác - known by locals as Schöne Náci - epitomized the elegance, courtesy, and gallantry reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian empire in an era pretty much bereft of those qualities.

Many today believe that he was mentally ill - and maybe he was - but, in spite of everything, he paraded up and down the streets of Bratislava - especially in the area between St. Michael's Gate and the Danube - with a smile on his face, a cane in his hand, dressed to the nines (wearing a velvet frock coat with tails no less!), opening doors for people, bowing to passing ladies with the words ruky bozkávam ("I kiss your hand") in Slovak, German, and Hungarian, and doffing his signature top hat. He survived on the generosity of locals who gave him food from the Old Town's many cafés, or by working on and off as a carpet cleaner.

A legend has grown up around Ignác which says that he ultimately went insane because his beloved was taken by the Nazis and died in a concentration camp. Poor Ignác!

Ignác died of tuberculosis on October 23rd, 1967 and was buried in Lehnice, a town in southwest Slovakia. In 2007, his dreams were (belatedly) fulfilled when his remains were brought to Bratislava where he was finally interred in his hometown - in the city's beautiful Ondrejský cemetery (I was there last week but I didn't see his grave). Hundreds of people attended his "second" funeral. His gravestone is engraved with ruky bozkávaman ("I kiss your hand") which appears in all 3 of the languages he greeted Bratislavans with on the streets of the Old Town.

Currently, his statue can be found on Rybná Brána Street in the Old Town which many consider to be an unlucky location since it's been vandalized a number of times over the last five years. Often it is his top hat which suffers the most. Even in death - and now immortalized in bronze - poor Ignác has had a hard time of it.

Ignác have made a great freelance Good Will Ambassador? Or better yet, maybe I should say: isn't Ignác a great freelance Good Will Ambassador?