A Postcard from Tour: Prague
Regifting an Adventure
At times writing amounts to regifting something. Say you get a scented candle or a bottle of ice wine, somebody gives it to you. It’s something not cheap, but not something you can appreciate so you keep it safe until you can find it a better home. Then you regift it. Writing lets you do that.
Prague for instance. In 2016 the organizers of the Prague Writers Festival invited me as a guest. On the flight over I sat beside a marketing director for perhaps the world’s largest distillery, who got shit-faced and told me his company1 was making a major drive to introduce hard liquor to the Indian subcontinent. Middle-class Indians, he said, drank heavily at celebrations, but they needed to drink heavier and to drink his brand. That untapped market was a goldmine waiting to be. This post will begin and end at airports.
Go on, share. Even if it will piss someone off.
Especially if it will piss them off.
My first night at the Prague festival found me in the Czernin Palace2. Fancy black-tie guests arrived in big cars, everyone here for a ballet recital and ceremony to kick off the week’s events. My translator, Guillaume3, introduced me to people. Festival sponsors and people in the government. I hadn’t eaten but asked for a glass of wine. No wine arrived, no doubt due to the Writer Equation:
Author + Wine – Food = Disgraceful Sloppy Mess
A guest showed me his Solowheel or Eunicycle. A tall guy, blond and Viking-bearded, he talked me onto it and held me around the waist as I began, shaky and flailing, to race up and down the carpeted palace hallways. Riding a mono-wheel at breakneck speeds around the vast public rooms of a 17th century Czech palace past ancient Italian murals and scrolling plaster work and carved antiques had never made my bucket list. Novel yes, zipping around a baroque landmark atop a mono-wheel. The blue-eyed Viking was superhero handsome and the bejeweled guests applauded me for being a good sport. I’d sweated through my dress shirt. Had I been half my age4 it would’ve been a blast. That’s why I’m regifting the adventure, here.
Author + Wine – Food = Disgraceful Sloppy Mess
Just before the reception Guillaume stashed me in a cramped antechamber next to the cavernous mirrored ballroom where people were being seated. I was told to wait until I heard myself being introduced. A window looked down on the palace’s stony courtyard filled with big cars. The sun had set, but the sky reflected a blue October twilight. What wasn’t covered in polished, inlaid wood was covered in gilded mirrors or marble. As I waited other doors raised my curiosity. Most were locked. Only one opened, into a small foyer, beyond that a room holding a sofa and a few chairs. The living room of somebody’s grandparents from the look of it: overstuffed furniture, a bow-front display case holding a few pieces of colorful, stretched and twisted Bohemian art glass so lacy you can’t imagine it was ever molten-glass lava.
The light switches didn’t work so I walked through the room in only the blue light from the windows overlooking Prague5. The living room opened on a small dining room with an oval table ringed with chairs. Off that was a small kitchen. Off the living room through another door was a bedroom with a double bed. Even in the fading light everything looked shabby, lived-in. A chenille spread covered the bed, the regular chenille I’d seen on beds and bathrobes all through my childhood. At the heart of this everything-crystal palace, was this middle-class apartment identical to rooms the world over.
A force takes over in such places. Maybe the first time my mother ever let me out of her sight in a public place, I left the discount department store where she was shopping. That small town’s one historic house was slated for demolition, I’d read as much in the newspaper, and I wanted a final look. I asked to go alone into the toy department of the store, instead I ducked out an exit and walked through a sketchy neighborhood to the doomed house. Someone had pulled off the doors of this tall, white-painted Victorian pile. I could not not go inside6. Even if the devil himself were waiting for me, I had to take a look. My family had no inkling. Not curiosity, not exactly, but some other force drew me through the empty rooms of that silent, dusty house. From the basement to the attic, a part of me is still roaming that house.
Even if the devil himself were waiting for me, I had to take a look.
In Prague, that same something drew me into that suite of shabby rooms. A feeling of melancholy -- not a word I’ve ever used. No sound made it from the ballroom. The suite felt like a museum exhibit or a piece of conceptual art, something carefully preserved in its dour state while the rest of the world had improved and moved forward. A time capsule. Beyond the bedroom was a tiled bathroom. Too big for the pedestal sink, the toilet and the free-standing bathtub, it suggested a large room that had been plumbed and remade as a bathroom. The tub ran along one wall, and above the tub was a window filled with the last of the faint blue twilight.
Did I mention how cold the room felt? Fresh from jetting around on the mono-wheel, I was shivering in my sweaty shirt and jacket. It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t a Halloween feeling. More the feeling of a bottomless despair or regret I was sinking into. Those times when I look up from my small computer screen and see that the world is an endless place I can’t begin to get my mind around… it was one of those times.
The festival, the guests, nothing existed except that window and my need to see the view from it. This meant stepping into the bathtub. The window sill was chest high so I had to raise my arms and plant my elbows to boost myself up. Doing so I hung there with my belly on the sill and my feet dangling above the tub. Below me the paving stones of the courtyard looked far away in the gloom. A voice said something.
Those times when I look up from my small computer screen and see that the world is an endless place I can’t begin to get my mind around… it was one of those times.
Guillaume had come looking to fetch me. He didn’t seem fazed by me being climbed halfway out a high window. In the darkness he said, “That’s the window our Foreign Minister jumped from. Jumped or was thrown.”
He helped me climb back down and showed me the scratch marks on the window casing. Fingernail marks, he said.
These rooms had been the private apartment of Jan Masaryk and had been preserved in the exact condition he’d left them in when he died in 1948. It seemed perfectly natural that someone7 who knew nothing about Czech history should wander through this dark suite, climb into this window, and balance out over the fatal drop.
We returned to the party. The rest of my stay was a blast. At the airport as I was leaving something genuinely took me by surprise8. But part of me will always be perched in that window as night falls at the end of that sad, dismal series of abandoned rooms.
Note: Tomorrow will feature a short story exclusive to Plot Spoiler. As always, read it at your own risk!
I long to tell you which gin mill but fear a lawsuit. Sorry for the tease. Suffice to say you probably drink this guy’s top shelf shit every weekend.
To grasp the beauty of Prague and its interiors watch the film Amadeus shot by the Czech director Milos Forman using Prague as stand-in for 18th century Vienna.
When I went to inscribe a book for him, I asked for the spelling of his name. In the saddest voice ever, he said, “Guillaume, the name no one will ever know how to spell.”
I was fifty-three.
This sneaking through dimly lit rooms was my model for the characters navigating Blush Gentry’s vacant house in The Invention of Sound.
Blame this reckless exploring on the gothic television soap opera Dark Shadows. In particular the episodes where two kids discover a secret panel in the drawing room wall and use it to enter a room that has been sealed since the death of its occupant, Quentin Collins. His spiderweb-covered skeleton sat in an armchair, and a Victrola phonograph would begin to play scratchy music to signal that his ghost was present. We discover such rooms in our dreams, hidden spaces adjacent to our regular homes, but secret until we find them. This archetype drives House of Leaves and my book Diary and countless other stories.
At the ticket counter the Czech agent asked me standard questions about packing my own luggage. Before he’d assign me a boarding pass he gave me a blank sheet of paper and a blue pen and said, “Now you will draw a blue elephant, please.” His manner was serious so I took the pen. I figured, when in Rome… And I assumed this was a drug screening or some newfangled way of spotting potential terrorists. Something psychological. He repeated, “Draw a blue elephant and we are finished.” I drew my best elephant. He accepted the picture and pen and smiled. He reached under the counter and brought out stacks of my books. His fellow agents had asked to have the books signed and inscribed. As I stepped aside and began to work, he explained that one agent, a young woman, would always scope out celebrities and ask them to draw her a picture of a blue elephant. She’d been off work that day so she’d begged this agent to get such a drawing from me. She had blue elephants done by movie stars, world leaders, writers, musicians, artists. And now me. You will know you’re a success when you’re passing through the Prague airport and someone makes you draw a blue elephant. Story successfully regifted.