Prague, Czech Republic The Semitic Sludge Monster and the Prosthetic Proboscis

Tonight is the last night of my trip. Tomorrow I arrive in New York. Mom’s picking me up at Kennedy and taking me home to Westport. I’ll be sleeping in the downstairs bedroom, for a while at least.

I don’t know how to feel about coming home. Emotions hit me at weird times – unexpected and inconvenient. They’re there, somewhere, but they’ve decided now’s not the time to dance around and make a big scene.

I don’t feel much of anything at the moment, to be honest. I’m looking forward to seeing mom and dad, family and friends. I’m looking forward to playing with the dogs. I’m looking forward to seeing movies the day they come out and drinking soda that doesn’t make my teeth furry. But my anticipation for these things hasn’t penetrated yet. I guess my mind is still on catching flights and finding hotels.

The overriding thing that I’m going to have trouble giving up is the way traveling prioritizes things for me. When I wake up in Burma and I have to buy a ticket to Thailand so I can catch the train to the Cambodian border so I can make the bus to Angkor Wat and reach it by tomorrow night, but before all that I have to pick up my Russian visa so I don’t get stuck in Mongolia when I go through the border crossing in a week, and I also need to figure out how I’m going to get to Mongolia in the first place since my plane ticket only takes me to China…when these are the issues of the day, other things have a way of fading into the distance.

And I like that. I like having those be my problems. Making games did that for me for a while. I could let everything else go, cause the only thing that mattered was the project. I had an excuse. But I grew up and my interest waned and I realized my excuse was just an excuse not to live a life.

For the last five months I’ve been living a grand life. I’ve been a master of the universe.

Until I left, it was a struggle to make each day not feel like one day closer to death. Go to work, come home, watch tv, play videogames: one day closer to death. Since I started moving, I haven’t felt like that for a single moment. Every experience is new. Every day I learn and grow in ways I can’t even grasp yet. No time is wasted.

…I suppose I should pull reality out from under the bed. I suppose I should own up to the fact that I still watch tv when I can and play videogames a lot, but at least I’ve been doing so in new and exciting settings.

Anyway, it’s going to be hard giving that up. I’m not tired yet. I could do another five months, no problem. My battery is charged. I have a list of places I still want to see and another list of places I want to go back to.

The Seychelles are calling me. You can get dunked in the water with great whites off the coast of South Africa. I never made it to the Gobi desert or the Tunguska blast site. Zanzibar.

Zanzibar!

They’ve opened up Bikini Atoll for commercial diving. Venice is sinking and so are the Maldives. I still haven’t seen a whale shark. They say the Ark of the Covenant may be hidden somewhere in Ethiopia. There’s a country called Wallace and Futuna!

We all live in cages. We don’t want to admit it, but a lot of us walk in there voluntarily, cause the stuff outside can be really scary. We have these reasons why we can’t do stuff and they limit our options until we’re forced into whatever’s left. So we sit in there complaining about what we ended up with, and eventually we forget that there’s no lock on the door.

Well I figured out about the lock. I went outside and nothing bad happened. I got some weird looks from people, but no one tried to stop me and I’m still prancing around outside the cage. I don’t want to get back in.

Planet Earth is a hoot. It’s not all hidden lagoons and virgin rainforests; there’s lots of awful shit to deal with. But that can be fun too.

Let me clarify my point a little bit. I’m not suggesting that you have to tour the world to avoid being trapped in a cage. It’s a mental thing. Without getting too Tony Robbins, it’s about realizing that the only thing between you and the things you want to do is yourself.

At least that’s my situation. I realize that other people have other obstacles; whether they be children, parents, pets, spouses, potential spouses, ex-spouses, strange voices, parole officers, guidance counselors, secret government agencies, military dictators, sweatshop owners, freak show operators, tour guides, or Jennifer Lopez. Take your pick. But me, I’ve got no excuses.

I forget what my point was supposed to be. I’ve drifted a little bit.

After spending some time at home, I had planned to drive across America with my close friend Sophie. She’s in Australia and hasn’t ever seen my homeland. I was looking forward to showing it to her, and discovering it for myself. She cancelled about a week ago out of money concerns, which I can sympathize but not fully agree with. I guess that’s just me being selfish.

I really wanted the trip to work. I still want to find a way, but I’m not up to doing a cross-country road trip on my own. Going solo is fine when you can wander each city on foot and create little missions for each day, but driving long distances is a different sort of thing. You need a companion.

My plan at the moment is to go home, get in touch with old friends, spend a lot of time in the yard wrestling with Hattie and Ruckus, look for a job, avoid gaining weight back, and finally catch up on my journal. I might stick around until my birthday at the end of September. Once that’s over, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Seattle is my endpoint. I’m pretty sure of that. But I don’t know how or when I’ll get there.

I suppose that’s enough navel-gazing for one entry. On to the good stuff. I’m in Prague. Let’s talk about Prague.

So I met up with Kristin at the airport and we went to the hotel she’d booked for us. My sister is a big shot New York executive, so she doesn’t screw around with hotels. There was to be no youth hostels or guesthouses or any of that crap. There was no communal kitchen, no dorm beds, no chipping in with the cleaning duties. We’re staying in the four star Hotel Fenix right off Good King Wenceslas Square. The only thing communal is the sauna and fitness center.

I arrived in Prague knowing absolutely nothing about it, except that every movie in the last five years has been shot here. Look it up, it’s true.

It turns out there’s a whole lot more to the place than that. It’s an exquisitely preserved slice of medieval Europe with truckloads of history to sort through.

I’ll get to that later, though. First I want to talk about the Gastronomical Clock.

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…sorry, the Astronomical Clock.

It was built in 1410 and tells heaps of information about the sun and the moon and the stars to anyone who can figure it out. Personally, I have enough trouble working out the time on it.

As best I can figure, there’s no minute hand and all twenty-four hours of the day are listed in one full circle. The hours are in Roman numerals; AM winding around the right side, PM on the left.

The off-center ring, I’m pretty sure, is the twelve signs of the zodiac and it moves around once a year. Spinning on top of it are the sun and the moon. Their positions are given relative to the earth, which is built into the fixed underlying base. So you can look at the clock and tell where the sun is and how much of the moon is currently visible – as if both those things weren’t already abundantly obvious.

Ortus? Aurora? I have no idea about that. I think it’s some lunar cycle thing. The A rabi c numerals on the inside, between the hours? I don’t know what those are either. Kristin thought they were days of the week, but sometimes Kristin comes up with bad theories.

There’s another set of twenty-four numbers on the outer ring that look like Elvish runes, but they’re not. They’re just some funny-looking numbers. If anyone wants to take a whack at what those are for, feel free.

The thing is that you’re not allowed to look it up on the web. That means you, Dan. You have to figure it out on your own.

Right now any of you familiar with the historical timeline of astronomical discoveries are saying to yourselves, "Good Heavens, that’s absurd! They couldn’t have built that clock in 1410. To start with, they had yet to understand elliptical orbits, to say nothing of the hierarchical arrangement of our solar system. Bad form for reporting such rubbish, Harding. Bad form, indeed! Now go and see that the water is sufficiently tepid. I’m ready for my afternoon bath."

Yeah, I know. Weird, isn’t it? The clock has been restored and updated many times over the centuries, but from what I read, the meat of it was all there when it was first built. Only the adjacent statues and adornments have changed. That doesn’t seem possible to me. I agree that it must be a load of rubbish. There’s no way they could’ve built a clock like that in 1410. I didn’t even know they had proper clocks in 1410. They were still in the Dark Ages.

I trust someone at Pandemic will sort all this out for me. They’re smart guys.

Across the street from the Gastronomical Clock in Old Town Square is the Tyn Church; last resting place of Tycho Brahe.

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As I mentioned, I didn’t know about this until after I arrived in Prague. Had I known, I’d have been a lot more eager to visit. Kristin read the details to me in her guidebook while I was falling asleep. I leapt out of bed and nearly had a heart attack when I heard his name.

Tycho de Brahe, pronounced tee-ko day bra-hey, was a Danish astronomer who rose to prominence in the late 16th century. He’s also one of my most favoritist historical figures.

As a young man, Brahe got into a heated debate with a colleague about a particular mathematical formula. The argument led to drawn swords, and Brahe lost his nose in the duel. Thereafter, he wore a metal prosthetic where his nose should’ve been. He carried glue around with him to keep it in place. Later in life, he replaced the metal piece with a false proboscis of solid gold.

Brahe was a fiercely disciplined observer of the heavens. Precision was of the utmost concern. He designed enormous instruments for measuring the movements of stars and planets. When his assistants took bad readings, he was said to hurl them off the top of his observatory. This may be why he moved to Prague, where defenestration has been raised to an art form.

Brahe finally met his match when he took on a new assistant by the name of Johannes Kepler. Kepler was brilliant in his own right, and equally stubborn. They argued incessantly over a theory put forth a few decades earlier by a fella named Copernicus.

A little background: The 16th and 17th centuries were a really exciting time for astronomy. It was a hot topic. People were out there divining the nature of the universe at a time when the Catholic church still had an active, authoritative voice in the discussion. And that was a voice you didn’t argue with.

In order for the text of the bible to be literally true, the church needed the Earth to be at the center of the universe with all things revolving around it. I’m not sure where in the bible it specifically says that’s the case, but it hardly ever seems to matter with these things. The church declared it so, and that was as good as the bible saying it.

In addition, the Earth-at-the-center theory goes all the way back to Aristotle and Ptolemy – both heavy hitters. The theory had been around for thousands of years, it made everyone happy, and no one was eager to hear any arguments.

But as has happened so many times before and since, the universe wasn’t interested in behaving the way people wanted it to. When Copernicus pointed out that there were definitely some things that weren’t revolving around the Earth, it put everyone’s noses out of joint – except Brahe’s, cause he didn’t have one.

Brahe was a devout Catholic. He believed in science. He believed in observation. But his connections with the church required things to be a certain way. Kepler was a protestant. He believed in God and all, but he wasn’t subject to the same nonsense. Kepler read what Copernicus wrote and knew it made sense. Brahe read it, and while on some level he probably knew it too, he also knew what it would do to his standing in society if he endorsed it. So he committed himself to reconciling the Catholic Church with reality – which anyone can tell you is a waste of time.

What Brahe came up with was a pretty simple hack. He conceded that everything in the universe, except the moon, did indeed revolve around the sun; his own observations proved that beyond the shadow of a doubt. But he also said that the sun revolved around the Earth, and by extension so did everything else.

Poof! Problem solved. Brahe saved the day. Everyone can go back to what they were doing.

The funny thing about his theory is that you still can’t really disprove it. We now know that the sun is revolving around the center of an unfathomably massive galaxy, and that countless galaxies are all bursting outward from some big bang center point. But who’s to say that center point isn’t moving? Who’s to say the Earth isn’t completely stationary while everything else moves relative to it?

It’s sort of like me arguing that I’m not spinning around the Earth, but instead the Earth is rotating around me. Solipsism for beginners.

For a time, Brahe’s theory was the one accepted by scientists, the church, and the handful of other folks who knew enough to give a shit. It wasn’t until years later that his efforts were brushed aside forever by his own protégé, Kepler, and an uppity Italian named Galileo. They replaced Brahe’s dodgy compromise with something a lot closer to the truth, and in the process, earned their way into the pantheon of great historical minds. Brahe earned the right to be buried inside Tyn Church, but that’s about it.

I find that whole story riveting.

Brahe’s death is another yarn worth mentioning. It happened in Prague in 1601 during a royal feast. He had to pee really bad, but it was considered rude at that time to excuse one’s self from the table. Eventually his bladder burst and he died a short time later of a urinary infection.

Of course, modern forensic scientists have now debunked that story. Modern forensic scientists spend way too much time debunking. They should mind their own damn business. I’m rebunking it.

We tried to get into the church to see Brahe’s tomb – there’s a rumor that his fake nose is on display above it – but alas, the church was closed for renovation. Then we went to the street where he lived, but alas, we couldn’t find his house. I only managed to track down one real Brahe relic, and it took me two hours to find it. It’s a statue of he and Kepler, erected in his old neighborhood.

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I like the statue a lot. They’re like a comedy team. We know just by looking at it which of the two knew what was really going on. Kepler’s obviously the intellectual hero, but I can’t help identifying with Brahe. He’s a lot more human, and from all indications, a more entertaining dinner guest.

In 1992, a cargo ship sank in the North Atlantic and its contents were lost at sea. Those contents included a shipment of 29,000 rubber duckies on their way to a novelty toy company in Massachusetts. The rubber duckies have spent the last eleven years floating aimlessly throughout the arctic region at the whim of this current and that one, and now experts say they’re coming home. This summer and fall, they’re expected to start bombarding the coasts of New England and Eastern Canada. The toy company that originally ordered them is offering $100 for each one that is recovered.

I thought it was worth mentioning.

Since the end of the first millennia, Prague has had a very large Jewish population located in the Jewish Quarter, or as I like to call it: Jew Town.

…what? Why’s everyone looking at me like that?

Jew Town has churned out a bunch of great myths and legends over the years. My favorite is the story of Golem.

No, not Gollum. Golem.

Around the time of Tycho Brahe, a guy named Rabbi Loew was given a message from God explaining how to deal with the endless persecution of his people. He went to the river’s edge and sculpted mounds of clay into the shape of a giant man. He performed a few rituals, carved a Hebrew symbol where the forehead should be, and just like that he had himself his very own superhero.

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This tourist display is a pretty crappy depiction, judging from the popular account of the story. He had a proper head and face, and could mix in with a crowd of regular folk, albeit awkwardly.

Golem was a mindless servant. He would perform anything he was told to do with brutal effectiveness. Eventually the enemies of Judaism were cleared out of Prague, and the creature brought about his own obsolescence. He was too dangerous to keep around. Rabbi Loew took him into the rafters of the Old-New Synagogue (strange name) and uncreated him. End of story.

Franz Kafka lived in Jew Town. I don’t have much to say about that, I just thought it was pretty neat. He wrote good.

We discovered that Prague is the home of the Estate Theater; where Bob Mozart first debuted his famous opera, Don Giovanni. The place is still in great condition. What’s more, it’s being used to put on nightly performances of said opera. We went to see it.

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And here’s me being artistic.

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It was neat and all. I appreciated all the music and singing and dancing being woven together into an elegant whole. But I learned that opera is definitely not my bag. It is even less the bag of my sister, who left after the first act due to the absence of air conditioning.

The thing that really pissed me off about the performance was the look of it. The costume designer needs to have his ass kicked. I think it’s safe to assume that since we all bought tickets to see it in the place where it premiered, we were hoping for at least an approximation of how it appeared a couple hundred years ago. Instead, we got a cast that looked like turn-aways from Studio 54. The main character was dressed as Billy Ray Cyrus meets Grand Master Flash – and I can now reveal with certainty that when those two meet, they don’t have much to say to each other.

The next night I went to see an orchestral performance of Ave Maria and some other classical jingles in a place called the Chapel of Mirrors. That was much more to my liking. I could get into stuff like that.

Prague is in a funny place right now. Since dropping communism, it has jumped into the tourism game with wild abandon. Walt Disney took a lot of inspiration from the castles of medieval Europe, and it’s quite clear that medieval Europe is now taking lessons from him.

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You won’t need directions to find a souvenir shop, bohemian crystal, wood-carved toys, or the perennial staple of all tourist economies: "traditional" marionettes. Everyone loves the marionettes.

I actually considered buying this one for the purpose of frightening children.

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You can pull a chord to make his eyes move back and forth…spooky.

Alas, I have no children to frighten.

Prague is probably the most functional and prosperous of all the formerly communist cities. If you ask me, it’s because it was the only one with something interesting to sell; while every other European city moved ahead with the times, Prague remained frozen in ice. Now that it’s thawing, people are pouring in from all over to get a glimpse of this giant time capsule.

Doh! I’m mixing my metaphors.

I can moan as I always do about the tourists and the cultural cash-in that’s going on in Prague, but sometimes it’s done in a way that I can tolerate, and this is one of those places. It’s a theme park, to be sure, but it’s tasteful and beautiful and absolutely worth having around.

Where else can you get box seats for Don Giovanni on the day of the performance and show up in shorts and a T-shirt?

It looks like I’m in the clear on my passport problems. It was getting pretty serious toward the end. The thing is, I have no room left at all. All twenty-four pages are filled with stamps and visas. The customs agent in Prague took up the second to last space, and I have o ne left for my departure. After that, I won’t need it anymore. It can go into retirement.

If I’d run out of room before finishing my trip, I’d have had to go home early. Many countries simply will not let you in with a full passport. They have no tolerance. I can get more pages added at a US embassy, but that would take weeks. I’d have been screwed were it not for a couple of careless customs agents who stamped over used spaces.

I don’t know where else to put this picture. I like it.

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I snuck into Prague Castle sort of by accident after wandering through the gardens behind it. I went through this tunnel. It was neat.

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The castle itself kind of freaked me out, cause I’d just finished looking through a photo book about Prague under Nazi rule. I had fresh images in my head showing throngs of nazi soldiers marching in formation through these gates.

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Hitler lived here in 1939 — right in the thick of things. It was his prized conquest. Prague was, in fact, at the center of one of the major conflicts leading to the war. It’s a wonder the place survived at all.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about Prague. Nice city. Lots to see. Worth a visit.

Now it’s time for me to go home and figure out what the rest of my life is going to be about.