I got to Know Prague

One of the weirdest feelings I have ever had was when I took a peek out of the Prague airport shortly after I arrived on the afternoon of March 11, 2014. It was my first trip to Europe and my first big escape from Cuba. After over nine-hour-long flight across ocean and land I finally reached my destination and was standing there, trembling like a leaf, alone, trying to pretend I was calm. I thought I had better stay where I was and wait for the people that were to come and pick me up but I couldn’t help myself – I had ants in my pants. So, at last, I dared to go out and take a look around.

Francis Sánchez with a Czech Friend
Francis Sánchez (left) with a Czech Friend

I came to Prague overcome with fears, doubts and anxiety… A brief glance outside the airport revealed that the place now carried the name of Vaclav Havel. Also, I could sense an atmosphere that seemed very rare to me. I will say it fast and strong – just the way I felt it: there was a strange, dark “air” of freedom. I felt really weird. If I was to introduce myself to somebody at that moment, I would say that I have risen from a grave instead of saying “I come from an island which was supposed to become paradise”, using the famous phrase of a Cuban novelist that appeared in one of the films of Argentine director Eliseo Subiela. Coming from a country saturated with deep-rooted ostracism and pessimism, I suddenly felt as if I was thrust into life – falling in love with life. What happened next was so beautiful and different that I had never been able to imagine anything like that before. I saw Prague.

“Believe me, I’m in a place we used to see in our fantasies,” I once wrote to my wife. Captivated by the magic of Prague and its people, I always tried to get everywhere on my own, eager to discover, to conquer each one of the mysteries of this city boasting such rich history. In the legends we used to tell ourselves in our family, the city was roughly outlined as a silent, clean and tidy place. This, however, is not achieved by repressive mechanisms, it is a result of a functional system. Like a fully developed living organism, Prague has efficient public transport, subways, trams, buses, etc., allowing people stay in constant contact, yet, completely independent. I admired the grandeur of the architecture that doesn’t discriminate or threaten heaven; weather changes due to the four seasons; careful symbiosis of animals and plants – and of religions… The atmosphere I could sense resembled domestic bliss typical for the Hobbit Shire – only that hobbits are much better at swordplay than at drinking beer.

I am well aware of the fact that travellers don’t have enough time to gain deep understanding of the different reality they find themselves in, they cannot quench their thirst directly from the bottom of the well. On the other hand, I believe that travelling (and the related eclectic way of viewing things) may be the best way to accumulate and compare all typical features of a particular region – features that the locals have gradually got used to and therefore lost interest in them and stopped appreciating them. It’s true that people tend to seek extraordinary, unique places, but they also enjoy the freedom and the possibilities of the modern era allowing them to ignore political boundaries and feel like world citizens – universal heirs with a free will to choose a place to visit or live in. To cut the long story short, my choice was Prague. It seems that my spirit relates to the quality and density of its forms.

I strolled through the city with all my senses open. Clearly, I saw some beggars and mentally ill. I also saw a guitarist playing like a god for a few coins. I saw graffiti where there probably shouldn’t be any. Taking advantage of my rudimentary grasp of English I spoke with different people, like some graffiti artists who were doing their art in an approved area. I danced. I laughed. I answered all kinds of questions and I also made some. I also cried a lot. I was amazed at many things in Prague such as street safety or the high level of culture of relations. Apart from this, my experiences had one striking common denominator – a sense of freedom. I believe that’s something that the young people born after 1989 are unable to fully appreciate. For people who have grown in democracy, freedom is something normal, something that they hardly perceive. My experience of freedom was totally different – to me, it was the most precious thing in the world, something more tangible and solid than a meal. It felt as if I was coming from the past and they were returning from the future.

Many overlapping historical periods are reflected in the city of Prague – I saw the Jewish Town with the Golem, the Prague Castle, Kafka sitting on his father’s suit… But there are also traces of the totalitarian communist regime. Of the whole legacy of these times, two things caught my attention: ugly buildings in the suburban area resembling “shoe boxes”, as we say in Cuba, and a bent cross of the Memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic in Wenceslas Square marking the spot where the two students set themselves on fire in protest against the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops, Jan Palach first and Jan Zajic a month later. It’s much easier for me to put myself in their place, to feel the intense need of the two young lads, so desperate to express themselves that they decided to turn themselves into fire letters.

When browsing through the city, I followed my passion for visual poetry. Prague is a place full of graphic messages and objects that communicate. On the last night of my visit I saw the performance of Vaclav Havel’s visual poems – Anticodes. Vaclav Havel was an experimental writer and an extraordinary founder of the young nation. The performance took place in the National Theatre and I must say I had never seen such a wealth of talent combined with modern technologies to create such a very modern poetic discourse: letters came alive and showered down, jumped, suffered imprisonment like their author, marched with determination, rebelled, etc. After the climax, I was expecting the only ending I could ever imagine for a performance like this – the signature of Havel, which is a visual poem in itself, and the typical heart next to it. Also, I thought I would learn the day, month and year of the poet’s death (which would be a natural ending to a chronological and biographical spectacle like this).  How great was my surprise and thrill when I saw the shadow hand of Havel sign and put to the signature the very date of the performance of his poetry on stage. It was a call to live in the present, in the continuity of ideas, to live the historical memory. March 25, 2014 was also the date of my last day in Prague – a city full of life, full of memories. In the end, I could draw the little heart next to the signature myself.

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