Words. Design. Art.

Category: Travel

Prague Museum of Communism

Prague, the Museum of Communism

This essay is my translation from the Slovak of my article appearing in the 33/2013 (August 12, 2013) issue of the weekly Týždeň. The translation first appeared at Where Is Your Toothbrush?


Summer sweat brought up a sad problem during my most recent visit to Prague: I no longer wanted to see anything new here. The Mother of Cities had emptied out into a theme park. In Pragoland they now charge admission even to stroll down Golden Lane. Luckily, reminiscing is free. In addition to the Depeche Mode concert, matryoshka nesting dolls with teeth elicited memories from the posters advertising the Museum of Communism. This time I didn’t resist and for an hour willingly became a foreign tourist, the Museum’s main target audience.

No locals were to be found among the visitors. One woman past her middle age crocheted at the cash register shaped like a five-pointed red star. Another checked tickets with her head buried in a tabloid covering a 1980’s pop star’s scandal. She needed no explanations about communism. She just waved me in.

The poor foreigners find the museum confusing. A matron with a southern accent informed her husband all the dates confused her. What happened in 1969? Or was it 1968? I got disoriented shortly thereafter as I passed the museum’s jumble of artefacts, collected from flea markets and attics, thrown around the place.

Lenin’s collected works, nicely arranged beneath his bust, got me thinking, however. Had I seen them before? In about 1992 my high school principal had asked me and a couple of classmates to clean out the old Socialist Union of Youth club house. My buddies and I carted the tomes to the large garbage bin around the corner because hauling them to the recycling center up on a hill wasn’t worth the change we’d have gotten for them.

The Museum’s owner, an entrepreneurial American, wanted to say to the world how we used to live around these parts. The practical joke, with which he reduced the era into a commercial product to be consumed, turned out to be a massive success. From the shrewd marketing move highlighting the location by a McDonald’s and a casino, to the piles of merchandise in the gift shop, to the replica of the Berlin Wall inside.

I had expected all of it but I still grumbled, ‘Serves you right,’ as I climbed the path up to Letenský Orchard park where the red Prague Metronome was ticking away on the spot where a huge statue of Stalin had once stood.

The National Museum, located in the old Czechoslovak Federal Parliament building, shimmered in the distance, at the far end of the Wenceslas Square. The Bullet Never Fired and an accompanying video spot reminded me that Prague had now been a foreign city for more than half my life. Beside the commemorative bullet I pictured the real, live red-tipped bullet from World War II that my grandpa used to keep in a credenza. He took that bullet’s story to his grave. He had no video to go with it anyway.

Paris the Hyperreal

“Hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.” Wikipedia

It begins the moment you set foot in Paris for the first time: you feel like you’ve been here before. You’ve seen this street corner, that monument, this patisserie, that boulevard.

Of course you have.

Paris hyperreal - Eiffel Tower

You’ve never seen the Eiffel Tower in steel—you have countless times on screen. You’ve never walked the Champs d’ Elysees—you’ve admired its grandeur in print and pixel. You dashed with the the four musketeers through the streets you’re ambling right now. You’ve never eluded the police like Jef Costello but you know Alain Delon’s lines by your hard-boiled heart.

Paris hyperreal - Security at Paris Pride

You’ve watched it in movies, most recently in Woody Allen’s warm-hued romance Midnight in Paris perhaps. You’ve read about it in your newspaper’s Sunday Travel section and came across the inevitable photos on travel blogs. You stifled a yawn as your neighbor projected a slideshow on his living room wall, his favorite photos reproducing earlier photographers’ images long-ago dubbed iconic.

Now you walk the city’s streets and dodge mopeds and tour buses, avoid areas filled with tourists like you migrating from sight to sight, and you lose track of what’s real. You find yourself unable to distinguish where your memory of Paris from images (the screen, the printed page, the uncle’s photo collection) ends and where the Paris your feet are feeling, the Paris you are seeing, hearing, smelling, eating, begins.

Paris hyperreal - Picnic at Jardin du Luxembourg

Have you already passed this triangular place, with its cafes and brasseries and tiny benches under tiny trees casting shadows over a dozen mopeds lining the curb, or is this the very first time? Have you walked the balconies of Notre Dame in the hunchback’s shadow or are you tracing a tour group’s footsteps along the cathedral’s perimeter in a virginal daze? Is your lover going to remember the trinket you bought her on a Quai so long ago or does her hand squeeze yours now as she spots it among the tacky souvenirs? Is Avenue Kleber the location of the apartment where you helped Jason Bourne kill Castel or was that a different street? Is the cruise on the Seine your own or Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn’s prelude to a night of lovemaking? Is the American woman in Montmartre who tells her daughter, “Look at that window, that’s so French!” referring to an image of a French window she carries with her since that trip to Disneyland, to the photograph in Parade magazine, to the actual window above her, or to a mirage her mind made up to protect her from sensory overload?

Paris hyperreal - Pont Neuf from Pont des Arts

Is Paris a dream, a deja vu, a memory you’ve never had? Is it real, did you make it up, or are you walking through someone else’s fantasy?

You’ve heard people visiting the U.S. for the first time exclaim, “It’s like in the movies!” as they craned their necks from the yellow cab up at the Empire State Building, as they shielded their eyes from the fog rolling over the Golden Gate Bridge, as you drove them through small towns in the West. You are them right now: you strain to reconcile the image lodged in your mind’s eye with the one in front of your face’s, then to separate the two. But of course you can’t because it’s impossible. The images and the objects they represent become a jumble; the screen and the stone are one. Behind the memories of fictional Paris, the memories of other people’s imagination, you find nothing. Behind the experience of Paris you are living in the present space-time there is even less (yes, Paris has been called “a theme park”).

When the recollection of a moment lived vicariously or in your imagination fails to replace your present experience as a first-time visitor, you are living the real by reliving the unreal and you can’t feel what’s what. What came first and what matters more, the memory or the experience? Which is which? What is your memory? What is your experience? What is your imagination and what someone else’s?

You close your eyes in the blissfully dark and silent hotel room. You wait for it all to pass and hope for a dreamless night.

Paris hyperreal - Cimetiere Montmartre


My Top 7 Pre-World Trip Travel Experiences

As T-Day approaches, I frame what’s to follow in past travel experiences outside my home country, Slovakia. These seven memories stand out. When I pondered why, I realized they were all transformative in some way.

  1. Ukraine, Soviet Union, August 1984 (the first and only trip to the USSR). Trial-running my family’s new Škoda 105L, we took a forbidden and very potholed route through villages where pigs roamed the streets; I remember hearing my father say ‘fuck’ for the first time. I saw the Black Sea for the second time (the first had been in Bulgaria), again happy it tasted salty but disappointed it wasn’t actually black. In Kishinev, Moldova, I saw a shriveled woman in mourning black sitting in front of an empty appliances store with her hand stretched out and head bowed. I had never seen a beggar and struggled to square what I saw with what I knew.
  1. Vienna, Austria, July 1992 (the first trip to the West*). The train rolled by half-dismantled border fences, ditches, and Czech hedgehog anti-tank obstacles. Wide-eyed, I walked through the downtown streets, marveling at the sights. The colors, the lights, the wealth of it all overwhelmed me and I realized how duped we all had been. The dream-fulfilling digital watch my parents bought me at a cheap electronics store by Südbanhhof rusted within a year.
  1. United States of America, September 1996 (first time in the U.S.). After two months working at a summer camp I joined two new friends on a road trip from Boston to Los Angeles and on through Portland to Seattle. It felt like a movie: I got drenched by the Niagara Falls; I dozed whirring past the corn fields of Kansas; I backpacked and camped in the Grand Canyon; I walked through a tree at Yosemite; I ran out of money with the view of Alcatraz; I spent three days on a Greyhound bus from Seattle to New York; I craned my neck up at the World Trade Center.
  1. Croatia, March 1998 (first time in the former Yugoslavia). At a Zagreb hostel I awoke in the middle of the night to a pair of prosthetic legs leaning against a nearby bed. My girlfriend and I hiked across the deserted Brač island countryside to a closed monastery tucked under a cliff. We hitched the return ride from a Lada Niva driver who cracked jokes to distract from the dried blood on his hands, the rifle between the seats, and the stench of a dead animal coming from the back. Later we had the Plitvice Lakes National Parks all to ourselves.
  1. Camino de Santiago, Spain, July 1998 (the first and only pilgrimage). Departing O Cebreiro, where the thatched roofs of round stone houses topped the 1,290-meter hill, I gazed into valleys filled with the morning inversion mist. An atheist early into the final 210-kilometer stretch of the Catholic religion’s most famous pilgrimages, I stood above the clouds, surprised at discovering spirituality. A few days later I arrived in Burgos under cover of 5 a.m. darkness to walk through the empty streets and watch the city awaken into a sunny Saturday.
  1. Croatia, September 2001. Hitchhiking to Venice, night forced me to pitch my new one-person tent in a roadside orchard outside Karlovac. I woke up to heavy rain dripping through the cheap tent walls. In pitch black I packed up and ran down the road to find shelter in a house under construction. When I began to shiver, I kept walking and found an inn where a wedding party was in full swing. I entered the bar and asked the waitress if I could warm up for a while. She brought me tea, a shot of rakija, and some desserts from the wedding. I left with the last guests, knowing that I would find good people everywhere. I returned from the trip to see my parents glued to CNN’s coverage of 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  1. Albania, October 2001. Tirana, where I was visiting for a month, was intense enough with its half-neglected, half-rebuilt disorder and roaming dog packs. I joined a group of United Nations staff and their local driver on a trip to monitor a border crossing to Greece, through the Ottoman town of Gjirokastër and back up the coast. We bumped along the bad roads through an empty country pocked with hundreds of concrete bunkers left over from the Communist regime. On the tourist-less coast we stopped at a village off the main road that had just been robbed by men with guns, and ate fresh fish at a restaurant perched on the shoreline.
Pre-world trip travel experiences

Bonus: After coming to America in 2003, my favorite trips have been to Vancouver, British Columbia, where Lindsay and I drove several times for my birthday to watch the Canucks live. In this photo is the entertainment act before the Minnesota Wild game on November 8, 2008.

What are your favorite travel memories?

Page 3 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén