“What a stupid platitude, always to glorify the lie and say that poetry lives on illusions!” -Flaubert
Prague is a poem. Its buildings line the cobblestone streets in a quietly proud parade, backs straight and looking toward the sky. The lighting in Prague is almost always ideal, soft and grey and serving at once as stark contrast and soft highlight to the colorful town, never glaring off the tops of the red-orange roofs. Everything about the Prague I have seen so far has been peaceful and quiet, fortified by the grey light of the sky as if we were all tucked safely inside the dark gothic Prague Castle upon the hill. The winter is cold, but not bitter; the wind is too ashamed to run through such proud rows of buildings. And I am ashamed when I speak Czech.
I have to admit, I do it as little as possible. The language which flows easily from locals is, as I said in my last post, ensnared in my mouth, the abundance of consonants stuck between my teeth. I often feel I cannot enter the poetry of the city, that my English language falls out of my mouth and sinks between the cobblestones before it reaches the ears of the Czech people and engages with the people who live in these proud buildings. I use a lot of nonverbal cues, and also make my eyes as wide as possible so that people know I am completely confused with Czech, but I constantly feel insecure even in things like getting breakfast in a coffee shop. I stand at the counter awkwardly like I don’t know how to go up to a cashier and place an order, because what if here I am seated first? What if I need to Google Translate everything before I order so that the cashier will understand me? And then my panic is disrupted by a muffled, “What do you want?” from the cashier, who has been watching me, and I answer with wide eyes even though she spoke English because my reflex is to be uncomfortable with the language around me.
There’s an episode of Bojack Horseman in which Bojack, a horse, goes to the bottom of the ocean in order to attend a film festival that is showing his film. He has a diving helmet, and the entire episode is only water sounds: gurgling and bubbles. Bojack tries to communicate throughout the episode, but his written note is destroyed by the water. He gives a thumbs up to a reporter because he does not know what else to do, but we learn later that this is an offensive gesture and we see coverage of his shocking gesture on the underwater news. The interesting thing about the episode is that despite his miscommunications, most of the functions of his day are the same as at home in LA: he attends a press conference, his shopping takes place in what looks like a typical convenience store (although he does not have the proper currency), and he is even able to return a newborn seahorse to their father by tracing the father’s uniform to his workplace.
My experience in Prague has been a lot like that. I am learning to move past my discomfort with the language and remember that despite the sounds around me, I know how to climb stairs and get to class. I know how to step up to a cashier, and I know how to step onto a tram. The participation in the poetry of Prague does not necessarily require verbal communication, or even my wide-eyed idiocy. It just requires me to walk across the cobblestones and order my breakfast. The poetry isn’t founded on some perfect society, which would be a lie; it is founded on the present experience and a person’s ability to see themselves in a place, among the proud buildings.