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December 15, 2006


The first time I set foot in Prague I was eighteen and confusing to my companions. One moment I was guileless, enchanted by everything; the next, surly and closed-off as only a college student can be. This is, I imagine, how my mother remembers it, although I have never asked her. Probably when she recalls that trip, she remembers not my fluvial changes of mood, but her own emotional landscape. That was her parents’ last trip before their decline set in, which must have given her plenty to deal with even without my mercurial temperament.

Thirteen years later, as I prepared to return for a long weekend, I tried to remember as much as I could about that first trip. I called up a few images: cobblestone streets, the thick medieval walls of the Staronova Shul, the horse-and-rider statue in Wenceslas Square. My great-aunt on the Charles Bridge beneath one of the religious statues, a figure of Jesus whose golden crown popped out against the soot-darkened and streaky stone.

I squeezed memory of a few sensations from poems, one which compared the sunrise seen from the airplane enroute to Prague to jam spread on toast, and one which offered woodsmoke and mushroom soup and the sound of Czech folksongs.

For more than this, I turned to my journal – but my interior monologue offers mostly glimpses of me. There are pages of musings on my eagerness to return to school, mixed with anxiety about how the campus would feel with my boyfriend gone to Accra. I described my bafflement at my cousins, approximately my age but different from me in a dozen ways that seemed critical at the time. I chronicled my profound exasperation at all the places where my mother and I failed to connect. But I wrote surprisingly little about where we went or what we saw, or how the voyage felt while it was unfolding.

Even the treasure-trove of letters to Ethan written on Hotel Intercontinental stationery, which I never sent but instead tucked into the back cover of the book, say more about being eighteen than about being in the Czech Republic. A place in time I can’t revisit.

Here is what I know. My first time in Prague I liked the oldest synagogues, and the two cemeteries we visited. One was a jumble of stones eleven layers deep. The other, where my great-grandparents are buried, was serene and austere. It reminded me of Pere Lachaise, where three years previously I had made a kind of pilgrimage to Jim Morrison’s grave. (I don’t know now what I was looking for there amid the stubbed-out joints and graffiti, but I remember the elation of sneaking out of the hotel with my high school best friend. We fooled our chaperone that we had run off in search of “female products,” a fib that sent us into gales of laughter for days.) I liked the ability to order tall glasses of crisp Pilsner, still forbidden to me in the States.

That’s what I’ve got. Synagogues and headstones and beer. Whatever else I liked and disliked about Prague, whatever else might have moved or surprised me, just isn’t what I chose to record.

This time, I kept a detailed journal of every impression I could scribble. The restaurant we ventured into, our first jet-lagged morning there, and our laughter when we realized that our Lonely Planet guidebook didn’t include a section of useful restaurant phrases. The bright red street carts in Wenceslas Square which sell sausages and hot spiced wine. The unexpected chance to tour Parliament, which is open on weekends and is adorned everywhere with frescoes. How it felt to stand in the light rain and watch the famous clock in Old Town Square at noon, when the little windows opened and the procession of clockwork apostles whirled slowly by.

What I’m still not sure how to chronicle is the sense I had, sometimes — fleetingly, and never in the places where I was expecting it — that my grandparents were making the journey with me again. 1993 was their last time in Prague, and already their sense of place was failing. I remember overhearing my mother tell my aunt that their parents had gotten lost on the way out of the hotel restaurant, unable to find their room. They weren’t always present on our family trip: sometimes they were caught in earlier days, confused by the disjunction between then and now. I didn’t fully understand that at the time, because I wasn’t fully present, either. I was wrapped-up in my own dramas. Mindfulness wasn’t high on my list when I was eighteen.

But when Ethan and I went for a hot spiced wine on our one Saturday night in Old Town Square — rolling our eyes at the guitarist playing Bob Marley and Beatles tunes, settling in beneath the outdoor space heaters that mark the few sidewalk cafés still open in this season — it seemed to me that my grandparents might once have done the very same thing. Sat at an outdoor table in November, fingers curled around mugs of hot wine, and laughed a little at the tourists, and enjoyed each others’ company in the cold nighttime Prague air. It is possible my parents did something like this too, on their first trip together to Prague. It is possible my children will do the same.

That’s what I was really looking for: a sense of the generations unfolding, a kind of connection with my parents and my grandparents who each, in their own time, walked the old city’s nubbly streets. I didn’t find it at the old synagogues, monuments to a decimated community, Judaism under glass. I can’t recapture it from the one time when I was really there with my mother and my grandparents. But in a few ineffable moments on my second trip to Prague, that feeling of connection rose in me like early-morning mist on the Vltava. Shivery and palpable, and then indescribable, gone.

by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi

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  1. December 15, 2006 at 4:14 pm

    What a very interesting take on “first time” — understood only in the context of the second time. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  2. December 18, 2006 at 2:04 am

    Yes, wonderful story about finding that connection Thank you for the glimpses of Prague that bring back memories for me of a trip there a few years ago. I remember a cafe with heaters near that wonderful old clock that we often sat at when it was raining that June. A city with history and memories.

  3. December 19, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    I loved this story, Rachel, and the pairing with your photograph sets the reader up for a meditative journey with you. It’s beautifully written and remembered, and your last sentences have stayed with me especially; I’m glad you found a little of what you were looking for.

  4. December 21, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, Pica and Marja-Leena and Beth. The trip was a wonderful experience; writing about it was, too; and sharing that writing with you, and with the others who read it here, has been a real blessing.

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