Travelogue XLVII: City, Moldau


June 6, 2015 Today was a city day, a chance to revel in the beauty of Prague itself. It was my first time in a city not destroyed by American or British bombs in the second World War–the wholeness is visible on every street corner. There is a unity to Prague that is lacking, I think, in cities like Dresden or Munich or even Mainz, almost completely leveled during WWII and slowly rebuilt over a period of decades. Even though the cultural landmarks of those cities have been perfectly, meticulously restored, the effects of the bombs can still be felt–a stone-work facade only painted on, ancient buildings next to jarringly new construction, Old Cities shrunk to fit narrow budgets. In Prague, there is very little of that. One really gets a sense of how things were before human stupidity destroyed so many things.

The sheer loveliness of the city, at the same time, made it difficult for me to reconcile it all with the Prague that emerges from Kafka’s works and diaries. Even though I knew that much of the Jewish Quarter had been rebuilt in the early 20th century, I was somehow still expecting something claustrophobic, narrow, dark. And instead, this bright and enlightened European Kulturstadt. It didn’t help that the weather was absolutely lordly, as the expression goes in German–blue skies, hot, the clearest of early June days. No fog in sight. Not that I was complaining, of course.

I first walked up to the castle (THE Castle, say many Kafka critics, though I had a hard time seeing it), with gorgeous views down to the city and the Moldau.


The Charles Bridge


The cathedral inside the castle walls.

The cathedral inside the castle walls.

Despite the beauty, though, I found the enormous crowds a bit unnerving. Here at the beginning of summer in one of the top destinations in Europe, the tourism is on a scale I have never seen before, despite having grown up in a state fueled by the money of rich outsiders who want to look at mountains. I think about how my family would always complain if there were 150 people at the local lake when we wanted to swim–in Prague, there are 150 people waiting to take a picture of a single monument at any given time on any given day. Mainz seems like a country Dorf in comparison, and that is a very good thing as far as I am concerned.


We all had the same idea….!





I love the streetcars here.



Jan Hus memorial.

Jan Hus memorial.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

The astronomical clock on the town square, a minute from the house Kafka was born in.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

In front of the Charles Bridge.

That evening, I went boating on the Moldau. I am absolutely fascinated by rivers, and it’s not enough to just stand on a bridge. The Moldau, like the Rhine in Germany, is a force behind the Czech Republic’s mythology and art, bound up with creation and national identity. In all other ways, though, it is the Rhine’s polar opposite–gentle and comforting instead of bracing and wild. More feminine, perhaps, to the Rhine’s towering masculinity (the articles in German, after all, are feminine and masculine, respectively). A row boat on the Rhine would be swept half way to Koblenz in an hour; on the Moldau, you can paddle a bit and drink wine and drift without fearing for your life.

As a side note, it was entirely obvious during the whole process of renting a boat that Prague is NOT America. There were no signs informing prospective rowers that BOATING IS DANGEROUS AND YOU COULD DROWN, no lengthy papers to sign so that nobody would get sued, no confirmation of insurance, no lifejackets, no how-to instructions–just the friendly advice to keep 15 meters between yourself and the locks under the bridge. And so I handed over my 200 Crowns (about 8$) and found myself in possession of a bright blue rowboat with wooden paddles and a lantern hung at the bow.




I rowed all the way to the bridge and back (without falling in the river or crashing into anything, thank you very much, which anyone who knows me will tell you is a feat). The sun set behind the castle and the river faded from pink to gold and out again to blue. The restaurants on the riverside were playing jazz. There are some moments where the awareness of the towering privilege of one’s life comes crashing in all at once.

When I got back to the docks, it was gloaming–blue water, blue air, the stone bridges faded out to gray.




Fare thee well, Prague…

Travelogue XLVI: Kafka and Jazz in Prague

Franz Kafka memorial

Franz Kafka memorial.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJune 5, 2015 My first day in Prague was all Franz Kafka–the museum, his house and apartments, the monument to him near the Jewish Cemetery.

I was in some sort of strange over-excited mood all afternoon. “You’re shaking, Emily,” said Ralf at lunch. “You need to calm down and chill out. Take some deep breaths.” But I didn’t want to chill out. I’ve never been good at that, anyway, and especially not in the city of The Trial and The Metamorphoses and all those crazy, crazy stories….


The house Kafka was born in, now a café. 

So, Kafka’s Prague. Unlike many of the intellectuals and artists of his time, he had no enormous international career–in fact, he hardly travelled at all, except for his stays at various sanatoriums and Kurorte. Even within Prague, his movements were limited–on a map, his various apartments and offices trace a tiny circle in the heart of the Old City and Jewish Quarter. Below, a few small impressions from my walks in the area.


Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.

Absinthe, which is banned or not readily available in other European countries, is reveled in in Prague.


Marionettes in the Old City.

A dude with a really big snake...

A bit surreal.

The city was hot, hot, the buildings and streets still releasing heat long after the sun went down. That evening, I went back to the Café Louvre–not to the light-filled upstairs salon I had eaten in earlier, but to the Jazz Club and bar downstairs. Dark rooms, red velvet upholstery, a woman in a black dress singing jazz standards, cocktails and red wine in between sets, the heat–it all had something of the cabaret about it, of old German films, and perhaps a bit of Steppenwolf, too.




Travelogue XLV: Letters to Milena

Drinking tea--not absinthe!--and reading and writing in Cafe Slavia.

Drinking tea–not absinthe!–and reading and writing in Café Slavia.

June 5, 2015 Reading Kafka’s Letters to Milena in Prag–eight hours on the bus on the way here, now on the streets and in cafés until the entire city turns into a series of variations on his story.

It’s strange–as I move forward with my education in the field of literature, I find that my approach to books and reading is becoming ever more, well, academic, supra-personal, professional even. Mostly, this is a good thing, as I have always tended to personalize art to the extent of being completely incapable of talking about it in any sort of academic setting. I am pursuing the reading and teaching of literature as a career, after all, and I want to be able to do those things with as much professional integrity as possible.

But I don’t think I will ever be able to escape the personal-ness of Kafka. As I have written in the past, I can’t read his works any other way than the way I read books as a child: as something intensely private and intimate, as personal messages aimed right into the soul of the reader. With him, there is no wall between art and life. When faced with The Castle or his letters, all of my hard-won Literaturwissenschaftlerin-professionalism flies out the window.


Café Louvre

So, the Letters to Milena. When they began writing, Kafka was 37 and she was 24, the translator of his works into Czech. They exchanged letters for three years, until some months before his death in 1924. She died twenty years later in a concentration camp in Germany, deported because of her involvement with Jewish and political refugees–yet another one of Kafka’s inner circle destroyed by the Second World War. It is perhaps a good thing that he never lived past the 1920s.

Like the diaries, Kafka’s letters are almost more intense than his novels and stories. To read them is to become a voyeur, an observer of the most private sphere of one distinctly troubled individual.


Notes from my reading of the Letters:

Leere und Leidenschaft–emptiness and passion. Kafka’s great love and even greater fear of this girl–Mädchen, he calls her, not Frau–who is full of strength, courage, and vitality, and who is offering him a hand that he just can’t allow himself to reach out and take.

The closeness of love and pain. Kafka writes, Liebe ist, daß Du mir das Messer bist, mit dem ich in mir wühle. Love is: you are the knife I turn within myself. And Milena, as the editor suggests in the afterward, makes herself sick because he himself was sick–tuberculosis, hemorrhage of the lungs, coughing up blood in the night. She starts turning herself into him.

The eternal misunderstanding–you don’t know me yet, Milena, Milena, that was a silly joke which you did not understand–and the way in which Kafka is unable to translate words into physical nearness. At times one has the feeling that in some sick way he is reveling in the self-imposed, masochistic distance the pages of finely-crafted prose put between him and Milena. He loses himself in language and art so he doesn’t have to face reality.

In the end, I am undone by the Eros of Kafka, for the first time. Your hair on my brow, Milena, Milena, Milena, your lips turning towards mine in sleep… It really is true, as I once said to the Professor after trying and failing to understand Robert Musil’s Drei Frauen (Three Women), that you need to have experienced certain things in order to really read certain literature. Milena’s responses have all been lost, but at this moment, I think could have written her letters for her. I know what was in them.

Café Orient

Café Orient, empty this afternoon because of the heat.

And the backdrop to it all is the Prager Cafékultur. The city is full of cafés, many of which hosted (and still host!) Prague’s artistic and political circles. During his lifetime, Kafka was a regular frequenter of the cafés, of course, along with Max Brod and his entire circle of law students and philosophers. From the diaries and letters, it is possible to reconstruct the Cafékultur as he lived it: Arco, Slavia, Evropa, Louvre, and on and on.

The spaces are themselves works of art. Art Nouveau, Cubism, Jugendstil, and everything in between–polished table-tops, high ceilings, high windows with street cars racing by outside. Aesthetically, it’s all the polar opposite of the Mainzer Weinstuben I know so well, all candle light, dark wood paneling,  and tiny latticed windows with flower boxes, looking out onto cobblestones.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

The Absinthe Drinker, a famous painting hanging in Café Slavia.

But here in Prague, even in the 21st century and on the brightest and most un-angsty of June days, you can almost still see them all–Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Smetana, Kubin, Werfel, Einstein, all drinking espresso and absinthe and talking about existentialism or theater or war or whatever else one talked about among geniuses at the turn of the 19th century. It’s heady stuff.

Much more to come.


Café Slavia

Café Evropa

Café Evropa

Einem gewissen Mikal gewidmet, falls er dies mal lesen sollte. 

Leseliste I: Kafka Tagebücher

Also get ready for posts on books, because traveling and reading go together awesomely…..


Kafka, Diaries 1910-1923: Bought at the tiny Antiquariat (above) behind the Cathedral in Wuerzburg. Crazy stuff–descriptions of insomnia, his dreams (“I dream, I don’t sleep”), the women he sees on the streets but is somehow never able to talk to (“if I should live to be 40 I would settle down comfortably with an ugly old maid–but I won’t live till I’m 40”), his list of reasons pro and contra marriage to Felice Bauer (“I must be alone. All that I have done is an accomplishment only of solitude”), the way he is entirely made of literature and wants to do nothing else with his life but write, but is simultaneously unable to experience literature and writing as anything other than torture.

IMG_0071Drinking Chai and reading in some lovely cafe in Munich.

The last entry, before tuberculosis took away his ability to speak and eat, a year before his death:

12. Juni, 1923 Die schrecklichen letzten Zeiten, unaufzählbar, fast ununterbrochen. Spaziergänge, Nächte, Tage, für alles unfähig, außer für Schmerzen.

Immer ängstlicher im Niederschreiben. Es ist begreiflich. Jedes Wort, gewendet in der Hand der Geister – dieser Schwung der Hand ist ihre charakteristische Bewegung –, wird zum Spieß, gekehrt gegen den Sprecher. Eine Bemerkung wie diese ganz besonders. Und so ins Unendliche. Der Trost wäre nur: es geschieht, ob du willst oder nicht. Und was du willst, hilft nur unmerklich wenig. Mehr als Trost ist: Auch du hast Waffen.

June 12, 1923 The horrible end times, innumerable, almost incessant. Walks, nights, days, incapable of everything except pain.

More and more fearful in putting things in writing. It is understandable. Every word, turned in the hands of the spirits–this turn of the hand is their characteristic motion–becomes a lance aimed at the speaker. An observation like this entirely peculiar. And so on into endlessness. The only consolation would be: it is happening, whether you want it to or not. And what you want helps hardly at all. More than consolation is: even you have weapons.


IMG_0082Reading and soaking my feet in a fountain in a courtyard in the Residenz, surrounded by surreal little statues–half children, half fish. 

Travelogue I: Munich

KandinskyWassily Kandinsky, Häuser in München, 1908 

 11. Juli, 2014 Arrived in Munich with the high-speed train at 6pm. The group left on a walking tour, and I took a taxi into the city for dinner. “I’m looking for a cafe somewhere near the Odeonsplatz,” I told the cab driver. “Cafe Tambosi–das wollen Sie bestimmt!” he answered. “It’s where you go to see and be seen in Munich.” So I went to Cafe Tambosi on the most beautiful square in the city and sat under a linden tree, and drank Riesling with my Pasta Aglio, and read Kafka’s diaries until it was too dark to see.

tambosi-odeonsplatz_0Cafe Tambosi, outdoor seating overlooking Odeonsplatz

12. Juli, 2014 I went into the city again early, to find out how to get a rush ticket to a new play by Elfriede Jelinek on in the Residenz that evening. Afterwards, I heard music, and walked behind the box office to find a rehearsal of the Staatsoper orchestra for an open-air concert that evening. It was pouring rain, and I sat on a ledge under some ponderous marble overhang and listened and got mostly soaked. And then who should come out but Diana Damrau herself, wearing a scarf and coat because of the cold, to sing Strauss Lieder and joke with the conductor about the abysmal weather.

Strauss’ Morgen, Diana Damrau

IMG_0069There she is!

What a city–everything is here, the beauty, culture, refinement–and the people who can afford to take it all in, coming to see and be seen, walking from Odeonsplatz to the opera, shelling out 8 euros for a glass of German Sekt in some rococo gem of a restaurant. I feel almost guilty to be loving it, to be able to be here in the first place. In the Middle East, people are blowing each other up. Back home, the farmer down the road, who is hardly older than I am, has probably been spreading manure for the second cut hay for the past two weeks. And here I am drinking tea in a cafe by the Hofbraeuhaus for 4.50 a cup, after having heard Diana Damrau sing Strauss. I went to the ladies’ room, and the sinks were all pink marble–polished gold fixtures, floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

IMG_0078Taking a break to read on the edge of a fountain in some inner courtyard of the Residenz–no one around. Note that the “carvings” on the walls are painted on–the effects of the war are still very much felt here, especially in the architecture. 

13. Juli, 2014 Shatteringly good theater last night. FaustIn and Out: a new work by Elfriede Jelinek, Austrian avant-garde at its most brutal. Typical for her,  the play was hard-hitting, dirty, sometimes pornographic–but also more philosophical and less unrelentingly naturalistic than Die Klavierspielerin (The Pianist), the other novel I have read by her. The plot was based on that horrible story from the news a few years ago: Austrian man keeps his daughter locked in the basement for 24 years, rapes her repeatedly, fathers 7 children, burns the stillbirths in the household oven. Jelinek’s take unfolded as a series of monologues, or arias, by the two characters in the story, sometimes lasting up to 30 minutes–not just a conversation between father and daughter, but between man and woman, Faust and Gretchen (the whole thing was full of Goethe quotes), perhaps above all between God and man. The daughter’s rants were sorts of prayers, addressed to a father who was God, Lord, redeemer, creator, and also a monster. Is the God we believe in a God who rapes us instead of loves us, who holds us captive in a windowless cellar, while only he is allowed to be free? etc. The penultimate word of the drama was “Freiheit” (freedom) à la Goetz von Berlichingen, shouted triumphantly by the father offstage. The daughter, looking out at the audience, replied quietly, flatly, in English: “What?”

FaustIn-and-out-the staging

The space itself was beautiful, which jarred rather harshly with the content of the play–Cuvilliés-Theater, inside the Residenz–completed in 1753, destroyed during WWII and then restored and reopened in 2008. Mozart premiered his Idomeneo there in 1781. We were up in the highest loge, in a box, chairs pulled up to the silk-covered edge of the balcony.


Afterwards a glass of cold Valpolicella at Tambosi. Long discussion of women in German literature, home very late.

14. Juli, 2014 Back in Wuerzburg, which seems very small and comforting in comparison to Munich. Yesterday was all modern art, at the newly-restored Lenbachhaus, a Florentine-style villa built in the late 1800s as the private home of Franz von Lenbach and acquired by the city of Munich in the 1920s.



Exhibition notes: stunning collection of Der Blaue Reiter, the German expressionist group from the early 1900s I fell in love with while researching for a paper on silent films last year. Brilliant, explosive, bright colors everywhere–for me, at first very hard to reconcile with the fractured and apocalyptic artist statements I listened to as part of the audio tour. Kandinsky, my favorite: playful and horrible at the same time, especially in the more abstract works. Exuberant on the surface–but underneath there is often something nightmarish. Not so brutal as Anselm Kiefer, say, but still marked by a feeling of impending immolation. In that way, not so different from the final chapters of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. 

kandinsky-improvisation19Kandinsky, Improvisation 19

Art today is moving in directions of which our forebears had no inkling; the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are heard galloping through the air; artistic excitement can be felt all over Europe – new artists are signalling to one another from all sides; a glance, a touch of the hand, is enough to convey understanding. Franz Marc, 1912

Kandinsky_-_Composition_VI_(1913)Kandinsky, Composition VI, 1913

The more frightening the world becomes… the more art becomes abstract. Wassily Kandinsky

8930072872_c3fa9e83ac_zKandinsky, Impression VI, 1911

The rest of the museum was noteworthy as well, with an extensive collection of very contemporary pieces as well as a wing of rooms from the original villa, rich and decadent and notably free of Blaue Reiter angst:




…And one more photo below from the after-1945 wing, which I can’t resist posting because German museums are insane. SM club meets modern art?? Viewers encouraged to participate, according to the placard. lol.


…and just for the sake of NOT ending on that note, here’s the gorgeous interior of the Theatinerkirche on Odeonsplatz:

So, there was Munich, in 48 hours. We were back in time to catch Germany’s victory in World Cup soccer. Air horns, fireworks, German flags, people singing in the streets…..