Thursday, January 3, 2013


            I remember standing in Schoenborn Palace in Prague when a staff member opened a window and had me run my fingers up and down both sides of the panes. He was anxious to demonstrate that old glass is neither a solid nor a liquid, and that over time the molecules move. Thanks to gravity, they move downward, leaving the upper part of the pane significantly thinner than the lower part. I stood rapt, entranced at how old glass kept surfacing as a metaphor for all things Czech.

           Glass is everywhere in the Czech Republic, and much of it is ugly. Tourist shops are crammed with a few patterns, heavy carved, etched, and frosted, and still produced years after the fall of communism, when one pattern was all you got. Objects range from heavy vases to the smallest perfume flasks, and the omnipresent chandeliers, so frequently used to hide microphones that Czechs still point to them out of habit when someone says something indiscreet.

            Fast forward a few years. A quick search of the Internet will tell any reader that the notion of glass as an amorphous solid is malarkey. I was disappointed when this was first pointed out to me, and insisted that the glass had indeed felt much thinner near the top -- surely proving it was a very slow moving fluid. The fact that I was wrong illustrates that travel is about impressions rather than accuracy.  And the fact that I was wrong about glass illustrates that matter, in all its artistic, ineffable, and beguiling forms, is an unreliable substance.

            When it comes to travel, how do we really know anything? What is lore, what is apocrypha? As tourists passing though, the chance to investigate is limited. We yearn for narrative – for the stories that will make the travel more real, because, what is travel, after all, but the movement of molecules across time, space, and distance. It takes so much energy to hurl ourselves beyond the mundane of airports, logistics, and itineraries. It leaves us desperate to use whatever energy remains to seek meaning in something special.  

            We seek the odd, the inexplicable, the thing that will make us feel far from home. We crave oddities – an iceberg, with its geologic striations; a giant redwood, the Northern lights.

The unevenly thin glass panes, even without the moving molecules, speak to the fingertips of those who feel them. They tell us that there is an authenticity in something old and hand-blown that makes it more real than all the windows in the Hilton. This is the essence of Central Europe, a place of wars, music, and fantastic stories.

            I had countless conversations in which Praguers told me some amazing fact about their city. I came to accept these tales and soon had my own collection of mazing, unverifiable stories about half the buildings that surrounded me.  

            I stood in Czernin Palace (the foreign ministry) next to the bathroom window where Jan Masaryk was alleged to have fallen -- or more likely been pushed -- to his death in what is sometimes called the third defenestration of Prague.  Jan Masaryk, son of Thomas and born in America, had a distinguished diplomatic record and was serving as the Czechoslovak foreign minister when the U.S. unveiled the Marshall Plan. Unlike the Soviet Union and eastern satellites, the Czechoslovaks wanted to participate. Moscow responded with a communist putsch, sealing the fate of the country for 40 years.

            No one knows for sure what happened to Masaryk in that green-tiled bathroom that is obviously rarely used, and foreign ministry officials are eager to take visitors to the window, which sits high above the floor, at shoulder height.  Unlike the survivors of the second defenestration, there was no dung heap below to brake Masaryk’s fall.     

            Closer to home, I’ve heard the stories of how the faithful butler of the Otto Petchek residence (now the residence of the U.S. ambassador) stored the family silver, china and other valuables in the coal tunnels beneath the house. Some of the artifacts are proudly displayed in the reception rooms. Is the story true? Living on the property for three years, our children searched in vain for the coal tunnels, long since filled in. Other versions say he buried them near the old oak tree. Which one?

            I’ve seen the room in the attic of the U.S. embassy where Kafka is said to have slept.        I’ve stood at the top of the Glorietta, part of the back garden of the U.S. embassy and clearly diplomatic turf, but “captured” in 1968 for a brief period by soldiers from Central Asia, part of the sad ending to the Prague Spring. The story is that they munched on apples from the orchard, then spit them out when a political officer charged up the hill and challenged them.

            The stories spill on and on, vesting buildings with burdensome history: the church in which the pilots hid from Heydrich; the church tower from which the secret police spied on Czechs trying to reach the U.S. Embassy; the farmyard from which the Macin brothers started on their westward flight.

             As a child of Irish heritage, I learned early on that truth comes second to a good tale, but Prague, with its Golem, puts the Irish to shame when it comes to half-right histories. I surrender to science on the issue of the glass pane, but if ever there was a city in which solid molecules could move, it would be Prague.

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