Outside, men sing in the cobble-stoned streets. Some blocks away, I can hear them, jubilant in their perfect discord. I imagine them as a huddle, swaying in the neon-lit dusk, the smell of draft beer on their collective breath. Sinuous, marble women and corpulent, gilt babies watch their antics from above.
They’ve seen a lot, those women, those babies. The stories they could tell. There was that doe-eyed, bat-eared writer who lived for a while up on Golden Lane, way back when. Those furies that descended, incensed by their Fuhrer. The twenty-year old boy who set himself on fire during the summer of love. And that mass of people, too many to count, led by poets, jingling car keys, telling the powers-that-were that it was time to go home. Slip away into the velvet night.
Here we are now.
My daughter and I, after the day’s trip to Lidice, are content to stay in the hotel room tonight, me, writing this, she working on that. We are saving our energy for tomorrow, when we will take the bus to Terezin, and Monday, which we will spend in Josefov. My husband and son are, right now, somewhere down in those gorgeous, twisting streets, experiencing the one thing my son has most wanted to experience in Prague: a ghost tour of the Old Town. Some masked man is leading them, carrying a lantern, telling them tales about a clockmaker, a black cat, a house that can’t be found on the map. Even realtors don’t know the address.
Our family has been traveling for almost seven weeks now. From Orvieto, we went to Venice, where we didn’t see much Titian, but we did go for a fair number of vaporetto rides. The heat was high in Venice, and we liked it best on the water or in the night. For whatever reason, the city was as repugnant to my son as it was attractive to my daughter, and more frequently in that city than any other, my husband and I divided the children between ourselves, and in this way attempted, not to conquer, so much, as to keep the peace.
The night train from Venice to Paris was a long, dark ride. A nearly missed departure led to the wrong couchette. A transition to a new couchette met the loss of air conditioning and the gain of a wired-up, traveling soccer team. A spilled bottle of red wine. Grease stains from the pizza. Fumes from the toilette. Did I mention stifling? Stifling. And precious little sleep.
But the next day: Paris! The Louvre, Sacre Coeur, Rodin, and Versailles. Among other things. I took a handful of pictures, if that. I’d try, and then, exasperated and scornful as any self-respecting French person, I’d toss my phone back into my bag.
In Paris we rented a little flat, as tightly organized as a houseboat, anchored in the heart of Montremart. We became friends (I like to think) with our host. I left a copy of Feed, by M.T. Anderson, for her to read now, and her young son to read someday. She just wrote and asked me where she could order a copy of Sing for Me. I (figuratively) stretched out my arms and embraced her across the miles from Prague.
Back to Prague.
The first night, we stayed in a flat that we had planned to rent for a week, but for various reasons, left the next day. Then there was a bedouin blur of two days while we tried to find a place to stay. Never mind all that now. We found a place to stay. It is noisy. Glass bottles crash into the garbage bins. Men sing in the streets. For that matter, men sing in the room next door, and glass crashes there as well. But we have beds enough, and a little kitchen, and the shower works fine, and now, finally, here we are in Prague. Look around. Find the map.
We are frequently lost in Prague. We are frequently confused by the map. Typically the kids find the way.
But all of us, even the kids, even me, are entirely confused by the language.
This confusion effects me the most. I have enjoyed the fact that a remarkable number of people in Europe—be they French, Spanish, Italian, German, or Dutch—have, upon making eye contact with me,asked me complicated questions in their native tongue. Always, until now, I have been able to babble some reply, something akin to Sorry, but I know very little French/Italian/Spanish/German/Dutch. Even here, in the Czech Republic, people speak to me in Czech. Even a Hari Krishna fellow tried to convert me in his native (yet-to-be-determined) language. My kids, my husband, and I are befuddled by this. Why? we ask? Why me/Karen/Mom? We know the answer about as much as I know Czech, which is to say not at all.
Never before have I had so little sense of the objective correlative (a term which I realize that I’m misusing, but, hey, what the heck: I’m confused). Bottom line: the Czeck have no x that equals my y. There is no ghost of a romantic language, rattling around in my brain, filling in certain gaps, whether I’m in Italy or France, Argentina or Guatemala. I am at a verbal loss. I can’t even say please correctly, or thank you, and I was raised to be a person who is able to see please and thank you, if nothing else.
It is disconcerting, my loss of language. It teaches me exactly what I rely on the most, perhaps too much. It teaches me there are other ways to live.