There are two ways of discovering the soul of a city. The first option is to marvel its emblematic nocturnal lights and sound which also means tracing the illuminations and patterns of the skyline. In here, the ubiquitous neon signs of commercialism and fetishism of the slim and languid bodies of the young are laid bare. To rise-up early is the second option. It entails wearing a pair of running shoes and jog around the city when everyone is still trying to make their alarms go away. As much as I like exploring the city at night, there is much promise of diurnal exploration in its wee hours. There is the exciting expression of earthly freshness, no matter how jaded and weary a city is. There is an exuberant age-peeling off of discolored skin and rawness of unmade-up look in facades and signages with carefully thought of fonts. There are closed shop windows and doors and tilted wrought iron chairs leaning on bare tables in open cafes. There are early birds whose energy is brimming and inspiring like the elderly couples counting their steps, like the young multiplying their steps and the bikers focused and straining with their muscles and steps. There is the possibility of coffee’s aroma escaping through the swinging doors of espresso bars and Starbucks or Costa Coffee. There is the possibility of freshly baked muffins, or of croissant and of folded newspapers The Prague Post or Prager Zeitung or Blesk in the rack. Simply, a multitude of possibilities that characterize the start of a spring or a summer day in any European city, in this case the city of Prague.
Prague from District 5 where we stayed has this unmistakable bearing of a Central Bohemian city caressed by the slow current of the river that passed through it for many centuries now. It was on an April morning that I decided to run through its streets, through the old historical sections and the surrounding areas that encompassed this compact city. For me, running would heighten my appreciation of its history, its architecture that celebrates eclecticism and inventiveness, its alienated silence and gaping scars from two world wars and old revolts, its literature and music, and its obdurate resistance to modernity’s creeping intrusion. I have done this in several cities I had been too – Istanbul, Krackow, Beijing and Auckland. It is just that, there are places which only show their magic and solitude if approached and experienced from a totally different plane. Oftentimes, they only reveal themselves in perfect moments through unconventional lenses. Sadly, without these discoveries, travel experiences will just be fleeting stopovers in our increasing human distractedness and ticking off from the bucket list exercise.
I ran from the hotel in Stroupeznickeho and passed by several apartment-looking buildings that house both Western European corporate offices and local businesses. On the ground floor of these buildings is a rhythmic parade of bars, travel agency ticketing offices, quaint shops, a gun shop, a store that sells maps and globes, haberdasheries, shops that advertise in their menu apple strudl, trdelnik and other Czech pastries I am totally unfamiliar with. I passed by Andel Shopping Mall and at times ran parallel to the electric tram faithfully turning its wheels in slow, cinema-like, nostalgic and almost decrepit motion. I ran without stopping, not that fast, not that slow, until I reached the banks of the Vlatava River and made a left turn aiming for a break at the historic bridge, Charles Bridge. My direction was for the Old Town across the river. I took my time and watched the longest river in Czechia with classy tourist boats docked on its banks and some swans paddling indifferent to the now visible sunrise. Thankfully, the stretch of Charles Bridge is strictly a pedestrian zone and still free of the multitude of tourists that flock and use it to crisscross the most visited parts of the capital. Standing there, I marvelled at the magnificent Prague Castle that sits on the hill and lords over the historic district. There sits the medieval citadel, majestic and splendid. The spires of St. Vitus Cathedral towers the whole panorama. Yet, in that picturesque scenery, visible are the scars of two world wars, communist repression, not to mention its long history of subjugation by the Austro-Hungarian empire and the conquest of Napoleon.
I continued running and reached the Old Town Square where the astronomical clock is, then Wenceslas Square of restaurants and bars and Narodni of the Velvet Revolution. Here I savored the solemn and proud heritage of a country known for its ornate castles, world-renowned beers, musicians and writers. Here is a city that is home to novelists I encountered in my life journey, Kafka, Hrabal and Kundera. Here is a city that reminds me of the music of Mahler and Smetana. Here is a city broken yet resilient and staggering in its beauty.
I ran, now a bit slower, the cultural images and history heavy on my feet. I reached some deserted streets, away from the center of action and into the peripheral blocks of apartment buildings. Now a bit more focused on my running, suddenly my thoughts ran into the world of Franz Kafka, the 21st century chronicler of modern alienation. Specifically, I wondered how would it be if I encounter Gregor Samsa, the salesman transformed into a huge insect in the famous novella Metamorphosis. I had that eerie feeling that Samsa could have lived in one of these apartments in the early 1900s. Maybe on one of the units, in a second floor with a room facing the street.
The first paragraph of the story suddenly became fresh to me.
“One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.” (based on the translation of David Wyllie from German)
As I ran, layers of thoughts came rushing like a pulse and heartbeat on hyperactivity. A specific scene came alive. The scene from the story is when Samsa’s manager saw him to check on his being absent for work. The manager was horrified to see Samsa as an insect in that pitiful condition. As such, the manager bolted out of the apartment and ran. Samsa may be shocked by the reaction, tried to catch up with him, probably to explain. My paranoia caught up with me as I pondered my possible reaction if suddenly, a huge insect would cross the cobblestoned street and give me a menacing glance mistaking me for that manager of his.
There were several questions that flooded me. Will I continue running or make a stop, catching for my breath and uncover Samsa’s interpretation of the story? Will I be ready to ask him whether this metamorphosis is figuratively the narrative of Prague, in the cusp of crash commercialism and suicidal speed of capitalism soon to become awry? Will I provoke him on his sense of alienation from the world of terrifying bureaucracy and ever-present authoritarianism? Will I be brave enough to ask him if this metamorphosis is the saga of our world beliefs and conventional views dictated by the powers that be with their own agenda? Will I be compassionate and be open to his entomological predicament, tolerant or to judge him as strange and the “other” in a continent where the reality of migration is the new reality. Will I stop, be exposed of my vulnerability, listen intently, empathize and come out a new me in a city that is rapidly transforming, and go home to my different world with a new sensibility? All these stinging questions, I had no answer.
So many impregnable questions I had to ask Samsa in that possibility of fortuitous encounter. However, in that soliloquy, I discovered Prague. Prague is a living and enduring entity. Prague is a city that ask and continue to probe unanswerable questions. As I went back in slower pace to the hotel where my wife with her vibrant smile was waiting for our breakfast together, I made a last pensive glance of the Vlatava. I gained a rich revelation of Prague in that morning run. In all its absurdity, questions that don’t have answers ultimately are the answers to our biggest questions. Later in the day when we visited his grave in the Jewish Cemetery and placed a small stone on his tomb, I sensed that Kafka in his tormented soul perfectly knew this.