Anthropoid, and after

by the Night Writer

Anthropoid, adj. – resembling a human being in form.

Anthropoid was the code name for the Allied mission to parachute Czech army-in-exile commandos into Czechoslovakia in World War II to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Nazi security organization, acting Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the third-highest ranking Nazi leader behind Hitler and Himmler. He was also one of the main architects of “The Final Solution” to exterminate the Jewish race, and the one with the responsibility (and the passion) to carry this out.

Reinhard_HeydrichCold and aristocratic in appearance, Heydrich was the Nazi villain straight out of Central Casting. Czechoslovakia (what was left after the Sudetenland was given away to Hitler by the Munich Agreement) was invaded by and annexed by Germany in 1939, and Heydrich arrived in Prague in 1941 to replace the former Reichsprotektor, Konstantin von Neurath. Neurath was a diplomat by training and favored a more tolerant approach to maintaining order in the dispossessed country. His approach fell out of favor with the Nazi high command due to an active Czech Resistance that organized worker strikes and acts of sabotage to hinder the Czech manufacturing objectives so vital to the German war effort. Upon his arrival, Heydrich quickly earned the nickname “The Butcher of Prague” with his ruthless decimation of the Resistance resulting in thousands of people being executed, arrested or taken hostage as leverage against further acts.

Into this background, a squad of free Czech soldiers were parachuted into the forests near Prague to support the remaining Resistance and be as disruptive as possible. Two soldiers, Jozef Gabcík, (apologies: this blog tool can’t show Czech symbols for proper pronunciation) a Slovakian, and Jan Kubis, a Czech, had the specific assignment to assassinate Heydrich. The plan was almost laughable in its lack of detail: “Ok, lads, drop into occupied territory with minimal equipment and an outdated list of contacts (already dead or arrested) and, you know, use your training to figure something out. Oh, and good luck.”

The details of how they went about this are well, and compellingly, described in the 2016 film, Anthropoid. Ultimately, Gabcík and Kubis were able to find a prime corner in Prague where Heydrich’s Mercedes convertible would have to slow down to turn and on May 27, 1942 they attempted an ambush. Gabcík’s Sten submachine gun jammed, however when he stepped in front of the car to fire at Heydrich. When the offended Heydrich ordered his driver to stop so he could shoot at Gabcík (rather than commanding him to speed away), Kubis tried to lob a modified tank grenade into the open car, but it landed just short, with the explosion nevertheless driving shrapnel and pieces of upholstery into Heydrich’s body. As Gabcík and Kubis fled the scene, Heydrich was taken to a nearby hospital where he died a week later from septic shock caused by toxins in the upholstery of his car in a time before penicillin. Despite an immediate and thorough house-to-house search, Gabcík and Kubis and the other Czech soldiers (with the exception of Karil Curda, who fled prior to the attack to his mother’s home outside Prague) who had parachuted in were successfully hidden in a secret crypt beneath the floor of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Prague. German reprisals were immediate and heavy-handed. Some 13,000 people were arrested and as many as 5,000 are estimated to have been executed in an effort to find the assassins and identify those who had helped. Perhaps motivated by a desire to halt the harsh tactics, or  the appeal of the promised cash reward, Curda turned himself in to the Gestapo and identified the safe houses and families involved in the plot. These were raided and the people tortured until the hiding place in the church was revealed.

The wall of Sts. Cyril and Methodius church where the final shoot-out happened. Bullet holes frame the vent in the wall in which the fire department flooded the crypt. The plaque commemorates the battle and sacrifice. Ultimately, the priest, the bishop and the leaders of the church and their families were executed by the Nazis for harboring the Czech paratroopers.

The wall of Sts. Cyril and Methodius church where the final shoot-out happened. Bullet holes frame the vent in the wall in which the fire department flooded the crypt. The plaque commemorates the battle and sacrifice. Ultimately, the priest, the bishop and the leaders of the church and their families were executed by the Nazis for harboring the Czech paratroopers.

On June 18 the army and SS surrounded the church, resulting in a day-long shoot out with the paratroopers holed up there. The local fire department was pressed into service as well to flood the crypt where the few survivors were holed up. Grenades, tear-gas and bullets were also poured into the crypt, while several German soldiers were killed and wounded in the attempt. Each surviving Czech paratrooper ended up committing suicide by bullet or cyanide. Their bodies were identified by Curda, who was later executed himself.

Busts of Gabcik and Junis inside the crypt where the survivors took shelter.

Busts of Gabcik and Junis inside the crypt where the survivors took shelter.

We arrived the weekend after the 75th anniversary commemoration at the church. In addition to the bronze (and bullet holes) on the outer wall, you can visit a small museum inside that details the events (including the Munich Agreement) that led up to the Heydrich assassination and what followed. You can also enter the crypt where the final moments of the story took place. It is a sobering and thought-provoking visit, and I removed my hat as soon as I was inside and kept it off throughout our tour.

The repercussions of the assassination were not just felt by the people of Prague. Hitler’s immediate desire was that 10,000 Czechs be rounded up at random and executed as punishment. The practical Himmler suggested that would have a negative impact on manufacturing production, and suggested an alternative plan.

Lidice

The plain that was once the location of the village of Lidice.

The plain that was once the location of the village of Lidice.

On June 2, 2017, I stood in the bright sunlight, gazing at a rolling field of green with several groves of trees and some benches that looked as if it could host a golf course.

75 years prior, on June 2, 1942, a photographer also came here, to what was the village of Lidice (LEE-deet-say) to take photos of the schoolchildren. One week later, on the night of June 9, the German army and Gestapo also came – and surrounded the village.

The village consisted of just under 500 people; a bit larger than the town of Lytton, Iowa where my daughter and her family live. The men, women and children were rousted from their beds, rounded up and separated. Beginning at 7:00 a.m. on June 10, 173 men, age 15 and older, were lined up against the wall of the Horák barn, originally in groups of 5, and shot. Three riflemen were committed to each target and then a Gestapo officer shot each fallen man again in the head. The next group was brought to the wall, stepping over the bodies of those before them. Because it was taking so long, the groups were increased to 10 at a time. Later, another 11 men of Lidice who were not in the village at the time were executed in Prague, along with two teens originally thought to be 14 and spared until school records revealed they had turned 15 weeks before the massacre.

203 women and 105 children were taken away. Four pregnant women were taken to the Prague hospital where Reinhard Heydrich died after the Operation Anthropoid assassination attempt on his life that sparked the Lidice reprisal. The four women underwent forced abortions and were sent to concentration camps. The other Lidice women were sent to Ravensbruck labor camp. Orders were given that the children of Lidice were sent elsewhere with instructions to receive minimal care. Some died quickly. Another 7 were judged to be Aryan enough to be “Germanized” and were distributed to SS families for adoption. On July 2, one month after the photographer visited them, the remaining 82 children were gassed to death at the Chelmo extermination camp.

Lidice itself was wiped from the map. The 96 homes, the church, the city hall, the school: everything was burned, then the ruins exploded, and topsoil brought in to cover it all. The graves in the cemetery were opened and looted, and the remains destroyed. The stream that ran through the village was rerouted, as were the roads leading in and leading out. Nazi propaganda proudly broadcast the news throughout occupied territory and to the West as an example for others. Several towns around the world renamed themselves in a show of support and defiance. Only a handful of Lidice women ever returned.

After the war, sculptor Marie Uchytilová devoted most of her life to creating bronze statues of the murdered children, working from the photographs taken a week before the massacre. The children stand now near the edge of their village, looking toward the mass grave of their fathers and brothers.

The children of Lidice.

The children of Lidice.

My own eyes follow their line of sight, squinting. How can the sun shine so brightly, and the grass be so green, after what has happened here? The sound of a chainsaw rising and falling in a grove below me sounds, at a distance, like the laboring diesel of a tank or bulldozer. And I can’t stop squinting.

 

Was it worth it? Could the death of Heydrich justify all that was to come? Would even worse things have happened if Heydrich had lived? Is there a point to considering a single atrocity in a war full of atrocities on all sides?

This post is largely about the facts of what happened in Prague and Lidice (and I did not mention that much the same fate was visited upon the village of Lezacky). You are welcome to your own thoughts. In an upcoming post, I will share mine about the “lessons” learned here.

The Life of Patience in Prague

by the Night Writer

Patience, (aka Tiger Lilly) typically isn’t too forthcoming on Facebook about her life in Prague, but her mother and I hear about nearly everything via Face Time and Messenger. She moved here n November of 2015 and it was good to meet some of the people and visit some of the venues that have become a big part of her life here.

In our first sojourn in Prague back in 2015, my wife found Kaldi, a great little coffee shop that was one of her favorites. It is now one of Patience's favorites, though she goes for the chai rather than the coffee. She has become friendly with the barista, Sylvie (pictured), and the owner, Jan. Of course, Kaldi was the choice when we kicked off our first day of this trip. When we seated Sylvie came over to tell Patience that they had just received two new kinds of chai that she just had to try.

In our first sojourn in Prague back in 2015, my wife found Kaldi, a great little coffee shop that was one of her favorites. It is now one of Patience’s favorites, though she goes for the chai rather than the coffee. She has become friendly with the barista, Sylvie (pictured), and the owner, Jan. Of course, Kaldi was the choice when we kicked off our first day of this trip. When we were seated Sylvie came over to tell Patience that they had just received two new kinds of chai that she needed to try.

 

There's small park, Vojanovy, nestled in the heart of the city that is Patience's favorite. You get to it from a busy, narrow street through an arched opening in a wall that you almost have to be looking for to see. Inside, the grounds are lush and you, remarkably, can't hear the city at all. You just hear the twittering of birds and the shriek of the resident peacock. There's a trail and a pond, and this time of year the area is especially lush.

There’s small park, Vojanovy, nestled in the heart of the city that is Patience’s favorite. You get to it from a busy, narrow street through an arched opening in a wall that you almost have to be looking for to see. Inside, the grounds are lush and you, remarkably, can’t hear the city at all. You just hear the twittering of birds and the shriek of the resident peacock. There’s a trail and a pond, and this time of year the area is especially lush.

One of Patience's employers, Steven, has a friend named Laus who sometimes helps them out at festivals and such. He and Patience share an interest in fine food and drink, and in classical music. Laus is also very knowledgeable about the city and it's culture and he's helped Patience learn more about this special place and it's history. It was a pleasure to meet him for lunch. (The restaurant, http://www.tristoleti.cz/index.php/cs/ was a great place to meet, too; elegant yet also affordable, and great food.

One of Patience’s employers, Steven, has a friend named Laus who sometimes helps them out at festivals and such. He and Patience share an interest in fine food and drink, and in classical music. Laus is also very knowledgeable about the city and its culture and he’s helped Patience learn more about this special place and it’s history. It was a pleasure to meet him for lunch. (The restaurant, Tri Stoletti,  was a great place to meet, too; elegant yet also affordable, and great food.)

Patience also nannies part-time for Reanna, and her children: Rhea and Bella.

Patience also nannies part-time for Reanna, and her children: Rhea and Bella.

And of course, there is Steven, head chef and owner at U Emy Destinnové, where Patience also works. Here Steven is giving the Reverend Mother some cooking tips:"This is what we call a strawberry."

And of course, there is Steven, head chef and owner at U Emy Destinnové, where Patience also works. Here Steven is giving the Reverend Mother some cooking tips:”This is what we call a strawberry.”

Back to the beloved daughter, in the beloved country

by the Night Writer

We’re going back to Prague, leaving early Saturday morning. Way too early. But on the other end is Tiger Lilly and a city that, in barely two months of total time we’ve spent there, has started to feel almost like home. We noticed this last fall when we returned; both my wife and I commenting how familiar everything looked and felt after our sojourn the year before.

Besides that, Tiger Lilly loves the place, to the point where it will be hard to let go when the time comes, and whatever has a special place in her heart holds one in ours as well. After a week with her we will be on to Budapest for nearly a month where I will open my “Hungarian Office”. I expect the blog will resume during our travels as we experience this old, but new to us, world.

For now, here are some of Tiger Lilly’s thoughts about the place that tickles her spine while it tears at her heart.

Getting Acquainted With the Republic

When I think of Prague, I think of the streets before I think of the spires. Uniformly uneven and covered in all manner of mysterious stains– best not to think where most of them came from.

When I think of life in Prague, I think of the birds before I think of the people. The pigeons and magpies are abundant, but birdsong is always present from dozens of unseen feathery throats.

When I think of the people of Prague, I think of my colleague before I think of the crowds. Reserve, or course, it’s natural to keep it to yourself — but not in revolution, and not in love.

When I think of eating in Prague, I think of the language before I think of the food. Straightforward and without too much subtlety, but come in, get warm, the wind is bitter tonight and there’s company (and good beer) to be shared here.

And when I think of Czech, I hear the language pouring from his lips in a rolling rhythm, spoken into the empty dining room or thrown in unmistakable curses at the pigeons. I hear the intent through the impossible tangle of tense before I understand the meaning, rozumiš?

 

Varicosity

Soles pounding a staccato heartbeat into the cobbled streets,
Stars swallowed up by walls and fog.
The city moans, howls, roars,
And I am headed home.

My veins rise from my legs like embroidery—
No, like risen trenches,
Too many nights spent standing
For things I believe in,
But don’t know how to voice.

Lord, let me forget there was ever
Such a thing as war.

 

Momentary Migrant

Lord, there is something in my chest
Whenever I think about the city these days.
I am just another ghost,
Winding my way through the uneven lanes
Of a city already overflowing with them.

I have carved out my niche in eternity,
Made a home for myself in the afterlife,
And the city does not remark upon my passing.

It won’t be long before the city is the ghost,
Winding its way through unfamiliar lanes
And dark corners of memory,
As difficult to retain as smoke.
This time I am the one expected to carry on.

I hold the language like a handful of pebbles in my mouth,
Cut my teeth on every consonant,
Stumble over every syllable.

I do not know how to hold on to you.

 

 

 

Reflections of a latter-day Hussite

by the Night Writer

600 years ago, reformist priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the Church.

600 years ago, reformist priest Jan Hus was burned at the stake by the Church. A memorial to he and his followers stands prominently in Prague’s Old Town Square.

One of our first circuits of Prague back in November came from a Hop On/Hop Off tour that took us past several impressive churches and cathedrals. The recorded narration, however, said that despite these impressive edifices, the Czech Republic is currently the most atheistic country in Europe, with just 13% of the population saying they go to church. “Therefore,” the narrator said, “most of these churches now belong, unfortunately, to history.”

Oh, but what a religious history! While Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) was part of the Holy Roman Empire since the early Middle Ages, ruled by kings and emperors appointed or sanctioned by Popes, it was at the forefront of church reform and the Bohemian Reformation, fully 100 years before Luther, Calvin and Zwingli sparked the Protestant Reformation. Czech priest Jan Hus, heavily influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe in England, was a popular and highly respected figure in Prague and he spoke, preached and wrote extensively about reforming the Church by basing doctrine and practice on scripture rather than man-made traditions, and he opposed the ethics of the Church selling indulgences and collecting fees from parishioners for nearly every function related to life and death. Among other things he wrote that the “Body of Christ” consisted of all believers and not, as held by the Church, just the Cardinals. He also preached and wrote his theological essays in the common language, rather than Latin. These and other things didn’t go over well with the Church which systematically tried to burn all of the writings of Wycliffe and Hus that it could get its hands on. When that didn’t settle things, they burned Hus; he was invited to the Council of Constance with the guarantee of safe passage from King Sigismund – and was then arrested, tried and burned at the stake for heresy 600 years ago in 1415. (When Sigismund protested these acts due to his promise of safe passage the  prelates assured him that promises to heretics were non-binding). Hus was given the chance to recant and said he would do so gladly if the Council could only show him where, in scripture, he was wrong.

For political, economic and spiritual reasons however, (and because the followers that became known as the Hussites defeated five consecutive papal military crusades against them on the battlefield), Bohemia for the next 200 years was generally allowed greater freedom in its worship and doctrines (not that there weren’t periodic rounds of more burnings, beheadings, hangings and defenestrations in the name of God). The Church’s determination to rein in these reforms ultimately sparked the beginning of the Thirty Years War, which soon evolved from an authority and doctrine dispute into a geo-political maelstrom that was essentially a “World War” for the time, embroiling most of the continent and laying waste to countries, economies and dynasties. While Bohemia became, nominally, Catholic again the war essentially spelled the end of the Holy Roman Empire.

That’s my 20,000 foot summary of an intense and complex time; you can follow the links to get down to the 10,000 foot level, and spend the rest of your life trying to sort out all the repercussions and implications that continue to this day. I offer these paragraphs merely as a modicum of context for you as I roamed the cities and religious monuments of Central Europe, meditating on the past while the present surges around us in a our own maelstrom.

pipe organ

Esztergom Basilica pipe organ.

For example, on November 14 I sat inside the Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, looking at the marble floors, ornate walls, detailed paintings and very impressive pipe organ. It was the day after the attacks in Paris and I thought about what ISIS or the Taliban or similar group might do to this edifice if it fell into their hands. A quick historical check, however, showed that the basilica had, in fact, already been sacked by the Turks in its history – and also by other Catholic armies in the many internecine wars that have afflicted this land.

End-times cults are not new, either. The Hussites, for all their military prowess and spiritual focus, fell into internal discord. They criticized the ethics of the Church for being unscripturally focused on wealth and power, and taught that doctrine should be “sola scriptura” (scripture alone). Which lead, inevitably I suppose, to factions arguing over who was most pure. One hard-line group within the Hussites saw their purpose as to hasten the return of Christ, by bloodshed if necessary, and took their name – the Taborites – from Mt. Tabor, described in scripture as the place where Jesus will appear.What we see is that doctrine – Catholic or Protestant – is often an imperfect prism of truth. We may grasp a profound truth that, in the greater scheme of things, is relatively no bigger than the jawbone of an ass, but in our hands becomes a cudgel.

A line from the sacred text comes to mind: “What can man do in the face of such reckless hate?” (That text was from the “The Two Towers”, and yes, I know, that was how it appeared in the screenplay, not the book. No fatwas, please.) The question is valid for at least the last 600 years, and no, I’m not making a moral equivalency argument. There is no such thing as “moral equivalency”: you’ve either taken on the nature of Christ or you haven’t. All other measurements on any scale you (or I) come up with are ultimately meaningless. Still, the idea that people could somehow see God glorified by the heinous death of others is so profoundly twisted that to me it can only be proof of a Devil and not, as the humanists might say, proof that there is no God. What part of the Son of God dying for Man requires making other men die violently for God? What part of being transformed by the renewing of my mind implies forcibly conforming others? I don’t think I could, now, personally take up arms or do violence to others simply because they thought differently or sinned differently from me.

But could I, would I, if the other was trying to harm me? I don’t know. My religious freedom is dear to me – and has cost others dearly. The desire for freedom is strong in humans, as strong as the human desire to dominate others. I know the anger and sorrow that I felt in watching the film clips of the Soviet troops and secret police falling upon the Czech students in 1968. Could I have remained quiet if I had been there in those days? Could I have stilled my heart and thoughts to try and hear from God what He wanted me to do, or would I have rushed forward in righteous outrage, hoping that was the right answer?

I believe that the desire for freedom is something God has placed inside us. Even the Czechs, oppressed in the 20th century first by the Nazis (who offered a twisted God) and then the Communists (who insisted and taught that there isn’t a God), could not have the desire for freedom beat or squeezed out of them. And from a certain perspective, I can understand their supposed atheism today. For all their beautiful churches and illustrious history, they may be justified, after the last 80 years, in being suspicious of anyone or anything that wants to tell them the “right” way to think. After being ignored, then betrayed and then bombed by the Christian West and then oppressed by the God-less, they could wonder why they should think about God when He doesn’t appear to be thinking of them. The beautiful churches must seem like the living room full of nice furniture and precious objects I wasn’t allowed to go into when I was a kid (nor did I deserve to). They desire freedom, and no doubt would like to see what that looks like – how can our lives demonstrate that?

The fact is, however, we all have “reasonable” reasons to doubt God exists, whether we’ve been oppressed by totalitarian regimes or not. Ultimately, it wasn’t theory or doctrine or a church building that proved His existence to me, but seeing His word made true and coming alive through others and in my life. Touring the cathedrals and basilicas I was reminded of a teaching from a few years ago: God moves, and the move becomes a Movement. The Movement becomes a Monument to what God has done, but also an excuse to focus on the monument rather than continuing to stay tuned to the Move. Ultimately, the human result is that the Monument becomes a Mausoleum. The people of the Czech Republic – or our neighbors – aren’t going to know God is real just because of a church building, but by our lives and the way we reflect His love. Ultimately, He’s not looking for a church as much as He is looking for us to be the Church.

To go any further with my reflections and what those meant to me in Prague I’d need to bring things from the 20,000 or 10,000 foot level down to the 100 foot level. I’m not going to do that now, but I will in a later post. (Yes, I believe I’ll keep the doors open here at the blog for at least a little while longer). For now, let me leave you with two things.

First, as we discussed the history of revelation, revolution, oppression, and – hopefully – more revelation, a particular hymn came to mind. Tiger Lilly could also feel it, and agreed to sing the hymn a cappella (which, coincidentally, means “in the manner of the chapel” in Italian) for our church back home and this blog. See the link below.

Finally, it seems appropriate to leave you for now with the words of Jan Hus, inscribed on his monument, and taken from his last letter to his followers:

“Love each other and wish the truth to everyone.”

 

At the Museum of Communism

by the Night Writer

Museum of CommunismI saw this museum advertised the first day we were in Prague and made a note to see it while we were here. I loved the poster, for one thing. It came down to our last weekend and I realized we still needed to go, so we set out. I have to say it is one of the most affecting places I’ve visited over here.

The Czechs are not known for their sense of humor, but it can be found, such as their placing this museum in the same building as a McDonald’s, next to a casino, and across the street from Benetton. There are also some rather rude jokes at the expense of the Russians and Communism in the gift shop, but the museum itself is serious. One might even say, “deadly serious.”

I could write in greater detail about my impressions, but perhaps it’s better to let the people who lived through it do it in their way. I took photos of some of the English-language placards that accompanied the photos and displays. These are also available in French, German, Czech, and several other languages for greater edification. Let’s let them tell the story.

text

“…authorized to issue temporary decrees enforcing laws without any approval of the parliament…” hmmm?

text

Targeting opponents with heinous accusations and show trials, and extravagant media campaigns.

text

A “shock-workers” movement to push laborers to maximum effort, and trade unions declaring that “after the victory of socialism, laborer’s wages would not be important.”

text

Supply and Demand? Why, there ought to be a law…

text

Those in power always find a way to get their luxury goods. Or their groceries.

text

There are no spiritual values, outside the State. There is no beauty, but what serves the State. There is no eternity…but the State. Rape, pillage and pollute the land and consequently the people; it doesn’t matter as long as the State benefits. 

text

A well-regulated militia?

text

You can’t find a more “well-regulated” militia than that: armed groups established by the government as “the fist of the labor class” to intimidate its enemies, especially the labor class. Of course, they couldn’t be trusted with bullets for their guns.

MC 9

 

To get a better feel for the exhibits, take the virtual tour here.

You wind your way through the rooms of the museum in what was once the Savarin Palace. The exhibits feature authentic memorabilia, though “memorabilia” is such a trifling-sounding word that implies nostalgia, and the memories here are far from fond. The last portion on your way out (before the gift shop, Comrade Lenin) is devoted to a small viewing room that plays a short film in a loop describing Czech life from the Communist takeover to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It was called the “Velvet” Revolution because shots weren’t fired, but that does not mean it was peaceful or that the history leading up to it wasn’t bloody.

I can remember, as a kid, watching the news in 1969 as the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush the “Prague Spring” and any nascent hopes of reform within the Czech Communist Party. This, too, was depicted in the film and on the wall outside the viewing room: riots, beatings, tear-gassing, armed troops and war-machines rolling over the cobblestones of Wenceslas Square that we’d come to know so well, plain-clothes agents in the crowd tackling and kicking protesters, plus accounts of three students who self-immolated in protest against Communist control.Despite the incessant cradle-to-grave indoctrination, propagandizing, intimidation and spying, the Communists couldn’t stamp out hope and a desire for freedom from such a dehumanizing existence.

Communist doctrine often referred to the “inevitability of history” and Communism’s ultimate victory, yet by the 1980s, history was clearly turning against Communism as Poland, Hungary and East Germany shook off the shackles of totalitarianism. Even so, Czechoslovakia’s escape was not a done deal. The first protest drew maybe 10,000 to Wenceslas; as the week went on the numbers grew, until finally 500,000 were crowding in every night to apply pressure and turn the tables of intimidation as they watched their one-time rulers caving in. (Velvet Revolution timeline and summary here).  Blood was still being spilled; certain claws do not release easily, after all. The film ends with a bittersweet poem and images describing how much sweeter survival is after all the bitter pain that preceded it.

As I said, it is very affecting. As we left, I stopped at the desk of the woman who had sold us our tickets. She was about my age, and would have seen 1969 and 1989, and spoke very good English. She was standing, and turned to me. “Thank you,” I said, and she responded with a small, polite smile. “And thank you to people of Prague,” I added, and received a slow, solemn nod.

An American Barber in Prague

by the Night Writer

After nearly 60 days without a haircut I was beginning to look a bit like a shrubbery. I didn’t know if I needed a barber or a topiarist, but I didn’t know how to find either in Prague. Fortunately, at the Men’s Bible Fellowship Saturday morning I was told to call Kraig Casebier, aka, “American Barber in Prague.” Barbering has become a bit of a lost art in Europe, even more so than in America, and Kraig has been busy since he came here five years ago.

AmericanBarber_logofinal_negCMYK

God has opened some amazing doors for Kraig, and he has barbered “heads” of State, well known Czech actors, and international businessmen as well as serving locals and ex-pats here. He’s also the “go-to” stylist for a local movie production company and has been featured in Czech magazines. He’s about to launch a series of YouTube shows of him interviewing well-known and interesting clients as he cuts their hair.

Fortunately I was able to find  an opening in his calendar and I got in to see him today. He’s  just recently moved to a new location – a manly, garden-level, cave in Prague 5. The walls are brick and his chairs are leather, including a 1941 barber chair. He’s in the process of filling the place with Americana, and as we discussed what we were going to do with my mop he cued up some Bob Seger on the mini-Wurlitzer jukebox. He has plans to do whiskey-tastings and to refurbish a room in his new shop to host “guys’ night out” events.

We had a great chat while he cut my hair. He told me about living in Prague as an ex-pat and gave me some useful tips to pass on to my daughter, and we roamed over a number of other topics, finding that we were simpatico on many things (which is the true sign and gift of a great barber). I had an excellent time and hope to follow his barbering adventures on Facebook and YouTube.

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Kraig suggested a closer cut on the sides for me, which was a good modification to my “usual”. (“A little off the top” describes my photo composition skills, not the  haircut I received.)

The new place is still awaiting some American fixtures and comfy touches. Kraig also apologized for dressing informally today; typically he wears a vest and tie (and yes, he did play "Santa" this last Christmas).

The new place is still awaiting some American fixtures and comfy touches. Kraig also apologized for dressing informally today; typically he wears a vest and tie (and yes, he did play “Santa” this last Christmas).

Uphill all the way – our experiences in Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budejovice

by the Night Writer

We’ve been on the move pretty much since Dec. 20. We ended our month-long residency in the 5th floor apartment in Prague and started to take little bites of Europe as we made our way, ultimately, to Turin, Italy where we are now and will remain for a few days before starting back to Prague for the rest of our adventure. With our travel schedule and varying degrees of internet access it’s been difficult to keep the blog updated, but I’ve definitely been taking lots of photos, and it’s time to work through the backlog. Today’s account features to Czech cities: Cesky Krumlov and Ceske Budojovice.

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Ice on Fire

by the Night Writer

Patience/Nikita.

Patience/Nikita.

I like hats, but most hats don’t like me. That is, most hats aren’t a good look with my over-large jug. Broad-brim fedoras work well; and I can get by with a flat cabbie-cap, but ball caps, stocking caps, Panamas, Trilbys, pork-pies – all pretty much end up looking like a wart on a pumpkin when I put them on. One of our first days in Prague, though, I saw an older guy wearing a boiled-wool hat like the one above, and I immediately thought that that style could work for me – and keep my ears warm. It took awhile to find one (I don’t know what the style is called) but I found this one in a Christmas Market in Prague, and they even had one my size. I scouted around another day or two to find the jaunty red pin like I had imagined in my mind’s eye.

Both of my daughters, however, have heads for hats; just about anything they put on looks good – even my over-sized ones. This hat is no exception. When I said I’d bought a new hat, Tiger Lilly gave an “Oh, Lord” roll of the eyes. When she saw it, though, she said, “Hey!” and put it on, and it looked so good on her that I almost didn’t want to wear it again. You can see what I mean in the photo, taken at the Prague bus station as we waited for our ride to Ceske Budejovice. When she posed for this on a gray day, the surroundings and the history I’ve felt here in the Czech Republic suddenly reminded of the old Elton John song, “Nikita”, from 1985. It’s actually a fairly mediocre video – not to mention that it gave people the impression that Nikita is a woman’s name (not the case in Russia), but it’s evocative of the last stages of the Cold War. The weather has actually been warmer than usual here, but if I have to war with the cold this winter, I’m ready.

(As a side note, the “Nikita” in the video is Anya Major, who was the of the famous Apple “1984” ad.)

Czech reality

by the Night Writer

The first and longest part of our stay in Prague is almost over. On Sunday we’ll start off on a southerly sojourn through Austria and Italy before taking up residence again in Prague in early January. Before we start the next leg of our trip I thought I’d tie-up some random notes and observations from the past month.

Kings of the road

The trams, or streetcars, are plentiful here and the system works pretty well. It takes a bit of effort to get the feel for the map (and the language) as I’ve shared before, but these are the easiest way to get around, with the three Metro (subway) lines being your best bet for covering longer distances in the city.

On the streets, the trams have undisputed right of way everywhere they go. As a driver or pedestrian you could dispute it, I suppose, but the physics really aren’t in your favor. An interesting thing, though, is that the trams, which run on rails embedded in the cobblestones and asphalt streets, don’t use bells and lights to announce themselves at stops. They show up without fanfare, in front of an audience that is expecting them. Contrast this to the Twin Cities where the light-rail trains have all the bells and whistles when stopping or pulling away – and yet some folks there lately seem to find it hard to keep from getting hit by these. Personally, I like the quieter approach. There’s a tram line about 100 feet from our apartment where I “work from home” each day. Trams pass by about every 10 minutes, and from the fifth floor I find the rumble actually kind of comforting.

Will I see you tonight, on a downtown tram?

Will I see you tonight, on a downtown tram?

If you really want a sense of power, though, you just need to be a pedestrian. The drivers here are conditioned to give pedestrians all kinds of room. The law, in fact, is pretty strict: failure to give right of way to pedestrians will get you 4 points on your license and a fine of 2500 to 5000 Kc (about $100 to $200). If you accumulate 12 points in a year you lose your license for at least a year. There are times when I’ll approach a “zebra” crossing on the street and will pause while still on the sidewalk to let an approaching car go by – only to see the car come to a stop in the middle of the street to let me pass, and all without a shaking a fist or flying a finger at me. Next to having people jump up and offer me (and my cane) a seat on the tram or subway, this is the most amazing thing I’ve seen over here.

Speeding can get you 5 points and a 5,000 to 10,000 Kc fine, but if you really want to get in trouble just drink and drive. The acceptable blood-alcohol level here is ZERO. As in 0.0. If you have from .1 to .3 percent alcohol per millilitre BAC (which is, I think, essentially what you get from cough syrup) you get docked 3 points and have to pay 10,000 to 20,000 Kc. Go over the.3 threshold and its 6 points and the same fine, but you also risk losing your driving privileges for a year, regardless of points. Refuse to take the BAC test and it’s a 7 point charge and a 25,000 to 50,000 Kc fine. Perhaps the drivers are all so careful around pedestrians because they realize that if anyone on the streets is drunk it’s likely the person on foot!

Gun laws

While the policie cast a hard eye on driving infractions, the Czech Republic is pretty laid back about gun ownership. They don’t have a Second Amendment here; gun ownership is as mundane a right as owning any type of property, and if you are a citizen and can pass a background and proficiency test similar to those in Minnesota, as well as a medical exam, you can get a permit that both allows you to purchase a gun or guns, and to carry them around with you. A reported 48% of the population have these permits. The deaths from guns ratio is at 2.0 per 100,000; not the lowest in Europe where many countries prohibit private ownership (but lower than Switzerland and France), but hardly blood running in the streets. The permits are good for 10 years, but there has been talk in Parliament of reducing this to 5 years.

The Czechs actually have a very long tradition of owning firearms, going back to the 1400s when the Hussites defended their religious freedom (very effectively) against the Pope through the use of firearms. The Czechs are actually credited with coining the word “pistol” (pistala) in those days, which roughly translates as “hand cannon”. There are only two times in history where private gun ownership has been forbidden here: under the Nazis in WWII and under the Communists until 1989.

“Ya can’t take our freedom! Well, maybe.”

Folks here still remember the yoke of Communism on their necks and in their living rooms, and since the 1989 Velvet Revolution their laws and outlook have been strongly in favor of personal liberty. You can see it most obviously in the bars and restaurants, which are usually full of cigarette smoke. Calls for laws to ban smoking have been repeatedly shot down over the years (not necessarily by the gun owners) but they keep coming back. Editorials this week have been supporting these laws and railing against “the tyranny of private interests over the good of the public.” No doubt for the children. Similar bills are in the works to limit the types of fuel you can use to heat your home, and to give the government more latitude in monitoring all electronic transactions.

AnonymouS Coffee. Motto: "Wake Up!"

AnonymouS Coffee.
Motto: “Wake Up!”

Great food, and affordable

Even if they’re a bit smoky, the restaurants are good here (and there are often “no-smoking” sections for those who choose). We haven’t had a bad or indifferent experience, food-wise, since we’ve been here. Everything has been tasty and usually pretty affordable. Even the nicest places we’ve eaten at have been priced at about what we’d spend in the U.S., while we often find good food at great prices. The other day my wife and I stopped for lunch at a place near our apartment. Their lunch specials were a 3-course meal: two fried cutlets, boiled potatoes and coleslaw salad for me; grilled tenderloin medallions, fried potatoes and slaw for her – for just under 200 Kc each ($8). On top of that, the delis, bakeries and coffee shops have been fabulous and also affordable. When Tiger Lilly did her research on cost of living, she wasn’t wrong about the Czech Republic.

Mala Strana cafe.

Mala Strana cafe.

We’ve also eaten very well in our own kitchen. The butcher shops and markets have displayed beautiful looking steaks, chops and chicken breasts – and these have tasted better than what we eat back home. I don’t know what they’re doing (or not doing) to it. The cuts aren’t as lean or as well-trimmed as we’re used to seeing, but the taste is excellent. And the bacon! Ah, the bacon…

Excuse me, where was I? Oh well, you might not be able to spell or pronounce it over here, but if you can get it into your mouth you’ll be very happy.

A little help?

An article last week in the local English-language newspaper cited a study showing that Czechs are among the least generous, least helpful and least likely to volunteer among all the peoples of the world. (No. 1 in all these categories was Myanmar, FYI. The U.S. is typically second or third in these rankings). This is not to say that the Czechs are hostile or unusually rude; just exceedingly indifferent. As good as the food and prices are in the restaurants, for example, you’re not likely to find a waiter or waitress who cares much about your experience (except the guy who served us today at the Italian place, but I think he may have been the owner).

Again, they’re not going to spit in your food, or shove it at you, but they’ll disappear for long stretches of time, which is a problem if you want to order another drink or even pay your bill. Restaurant service is just a small sample, of course, but it was interesting to read the findings of the global survey. I really don’t have a handle on why this is; if it’s a cultural hangover from the post-war era or what. Certainly the drivers and tram riders are quick to conform to certain standards, but whether out of courtesy or fear of large fines, I don’t know. I suspect it will take a long time of living here and talking to people to gain any real insight. For now, then, I just note it and move on.

The country has been adamant about not taking in refugees, and the Czech president, Milos Zeman, has been very outspoken about it. The country did agree to take in some refugees, but only Christian ones. (Even as another study shows the Czech Republic as the most atheistic in Europe. I do have some thoughts on what is behind that, which I’ll share in a later post that I’ve been working on for some time).

Anyway, we’ll be leaving Prague on Sunday. First we’re heading to a lovely spot in southern part of the country. I’d type the name, but it’s one of those that WordPress can’t comprehend the alphabet. We’ve been referring to the place as “Beetlejuice” between ourselves. We’ll move on from there to Graz and then to Trieste for Christmas. Then we’ll stop in Verona on our way to Turin where we’ll spend the week around New Year’s. When we return to Prague we’ll move into a roomy, remodeled attic – that features an elevator!

The Reverend Mother, btw, found a GREAT room for Tiger Lilly to rent. It’s a 16 x 16′ private room in a larger apartment, about one block from Wenceslas Square. She has a view of the Museum out one window and a private, tended garden out of another, and it’s just within her budget. I’m sure she’ll share more details at some point, once she finishes her program. Her certification course has been very intensive and eats up nearly every moment of her free time. Getting out of town is going to be good for all of us!

 

A man’s gotta eat – and shop

by the Night Writer

I’ve learned from previous overseas trips that you really don’t need as many clothes as you might think you do. When weight and space are prime concerns then two or three pairs of pants and 4-6 shirts (depending on how much you think you’ll sweat) can last you more than a week (and sometimes two) between launderings. If you have regular access to a washing machine you could get by with less. Since I was limiting myself as I packed for this trip, I naturally chose only my most favorite shirts based on color and comfort. (I was also limited by having to pack 8 pairs of Tiger Lilly’s shoes and boots into my bag, but she is staying a lot longer than I will be.)

The problem with this strategy is that since my most favorite shirts are the ones most likely to be worn, they are also the most likely to be worn out. For some reason, I don’t notice a frayed collar or sleeve when I’m at home – and neither does my wife. When we’re sitting in an airport, or on a train, however (and not in the vicinity of a George Clooney billboard), I am somehow more likely to become the object of her attention. First I may hear a little gasp, followed by a tactful pause. Then, “Dear – maybe you shouldn’t wear that shirt out in public.”

“But, I like it,” I’ll say, in a small voice.

“I can tell.”

The upshot of which is that I’m over here in Europe with few presentable garments for my upper body – and no gypsy tent-makers in sight. This might explain why my wife is so content to leave me in my tower rather than have me mingle with the public. The thing is, as I get more accustomed to the stairs, I really like getting out on the streets of Prague – especially if I’ve been cooped up in the apartment for a couple of days. Last night when we hit the streets (under cover of  darkness) I felt like a puppy turned loose in the yard, eager to sniff everything. While we were out we noticed a clothing store near the apartment, and a visit there made a good excuse for getting out at lunchtime today to see what they might have in my size. I scored two nice-looking cotton shirts for 200 krona (about $8) each, and my wife picked up some sweaters at a similar price.

That mission accomplished we went to lunch at a place called Polévky, which means “Soups”. (I wonder if they’ve trademarked that)? The Reverend Mother and Tiger Lilly discovered this place the first week we were here, and they make a great chicken and tarragon soup in a tomato base. I got mine with a big wedge of bread, about the size of a large pizza slice, filled with cheese.

The first soup is the chicken and tarragon; very savory! The other soups are, roughly translated, "beef in cream", "bean and nuts in cream", "cream of mushroom" and "potatoes and mushrooms".

The first soup is the chicken and tarragon; very savory! The other soups are, roughly translated, “beef in cream”, “bean and nuts in cream”, “cream of mushroom” and “potatoes and mushrooms”.

There is another cafe close by as well, “The Beach Cafe” that I’m going to try. The lettering on the window invites you to “sit in their pleasant surroundings” and they offer “daily breads”, stuffed baguettes, cutlets and…oh, ick…fried cauliflower. Sometimes you’ve got to live dangerously when you’re on the streets.

Beach Cafe

Here are my new shirts – cheap, but the collars and cuffs are pristine. (Diet tip: try converting your sizes to centimeters, big boy.)

shirts