When I see it in my mind, I start high above. A length of train track slices through the countryside, an undulating patchwork of large yellow and green squares. I zoom in to find myself in an old-fashioned train car paneled in scuffed, once-luxurious wood. I sit on balding wine-colored velvet cushions pancaked by decades of other travelers’ bottoms, midday sunshine pours in, bouncing off the colors outside the window. Every hair of velvet is illuminated, every layer of varnish, the gesture behind every scrape. I feel my awareness of sensual detail sharpening, my sense of time broadening and deepening. I lean against the window and soak it all in, thrilled to be on my own, hurtling towards Prague, the Golden City.
“Bohemian countryside–lovely.” An older British gentleman sitting opposite me in the train car is taking a break from reading aloud from the travel articles he’s clipped to assess the view for the benefit of his younger male companion. He wears a beard that needs trimming and a tweed jacket full of dandruff, while the younger man is neatly dressed, precisely groomed, staring numbly out the window.
I know how he feels.
I have lived my life by the dandruff-laced proclamations of Those Who Know about how to become an adult in this world; pick a career, study hard, tend to your material ambitions and the rest will fall into place. It hasn’t. Closing in fast on my thirtieth birthday, I have been laid off twice, dislike said career, have no intimate relationship and am still reeling from the sudden death of my mother two years ago from lung cancer.
But today I am sitting on the opposite side of the car. Today my journey begins.
I sit quietly, savoring each bite of the sandwich and each sip of the mini bottle of peach schnapps my family friend in Vienna has packed me in a sturdy little shopping bag. My teeth sink into the caraway-flecked rye, giving up the thick ham and smear of butter inside. The alcohol cuts sharp through the sweet syrup of the schnapps and warms my throat. I eavesdrop with all the wonderful anonymity silence can bring.
I arrive in Prague in the late afternoon. At midnight, I’ll be meeting my best friend from childhood, who’s joining me for the rest of the trip to help me celebrate my birthday. But these first few hours are just for me. I find my way to the hotel with the maps and directions I’ve brought. I’m so thrilled to be on my own, to be finding my way with nothing but ink on a page.
I’m staying in a Communist-era block of concrete, but there is a large window framing treetops with freshly sprung leaves that lets in the sounds of the traffic and the river, and there is a mini-bar filled with Czech pilsner to be had for fifty cents a piece. I plop on the bed, pop open a beer, and feel the scratchy nylon quilt on my thighs as I eye the massive in-wall air conditioning unit and thank the heavens there’s no need to turn it on, no need to shut out all the May pouring through the windows. The golden fizz of beer sluices down my throat, loosening my limbs.
Since I’m not meeting my friend until midnight, I have the whole evening ahead of me. I’m eager to get into the city center and the sun is sinking fast. One of the guidebooks mentions that the #22 tram is a good way to take a quick tour of the city, and I notice on the map that there’s a stop just two blocks from my hotel. I find it on a curve of road on a bluff. The bluff sits above the city center, but trees and the angle of the drop-off obscure my view. I hear sounds of the traffic below mingling with the ruffling of the leaves above me. By the time the tram arrives, the sun has set.
I miss the lights that night. In Prague, as the dusk crests into night all of the major landmarks are bathed in a wash of light, each glowing a different saturated pastel hue, collaring the river like jewels. But that night, as the tram descends into the city center, all I see are shadows.
The tram shuttles down through Mala Strana then across the Vltava River. I decide to put away my map and follow my feet. I get off at the first stop across the river. Stepping off the old metal tram my shoes meet the cobblestones as I breathe in the spring night air. It’s warm in my nostrils, a cool bit of river gently laid in on top by a breeze. The lapping and rushing of the water fades behind me as I walk further and further into the city, past construction barriers plastered with posters for rock concerts for bands I’ve never heard of. The dusk turns from smoke to onyx as I wander into a closed market street, then past an arcade where a solitary restaurant serves large mugs of beer and platters of pork to patrons seated beneath old stone archways. Further on, I begin to see groups of young people clustered together, hanging out, drinking, smoking, playing guitar. The streets curve and loop into one another, leading me in and out of crowds and emptiness. Just as my steps echo through a dank stone passageway, a gas lamp glowing whiskey pulls me around a corner and into a street full of people chatting and laughing along for a few blocks until I find myself again in some deserted, soot colored lane and then again onto a busier street lined with shops selling marionettes, amber, wooden toys, myriad colors of antique Czech glass, and Seattle bagels.
I wander like this for hours, never worrying that I might get lost or drift into the wrong alley. Instead I feel light, untethered.
I wait for my friend in the hotel bar later that evening, sitting quietly with a beer and writing in my journal. The bar is crowded and noisy in the most congenial way, a friendly white noise that keeps me company while I wait. When she arrives at midnight, slinging her huge duffel off of her shoulder and onto the floor next to me, it’s the most natural yet dislocated thing I can imagine, like running into long-gone relatives in heaven.
I awaken on our first morning in Prague. It’s Saturday and out the window of our gray-walled hotel room I see brilliant blue sky. I open the window and the fresh air and sounds of the river rush in.
Soon we’re on the #22 tram heading back into the city center. But this is a completely different trip than last night. What was smoke and onyx only occasionally lit by amber is now an impressionist’s palette illuminated with gold. The shadows of last night are now crisply focused into chess piece shapes; domes and spheres and spindles. And the river I’ve only heard up until now comes rushing to life, curving and dancing its way through the ancient city.
We take the tram down through Mala Strana and get off a few steps before the St. Charles Bridge. As we walk through the winding lanes, the candy-colored buildings are still partly in cool shadow as Prague Castle rises on its hilltop behind us like a sandcastle dribbled from molten iron and the verdi gris dome of St. Michael’s crowns to the west. The crowds grow denser, the sounds louder as we approach the western gate of the bridge. Closing in on the bridge, a massive stone archway serves as a gate, obscuring the view beyond and casting a shadow as we approach. At the gateway, I hear music—an orchestra is playing—then suddenly we’re under then through the arch and the sky opens wide. It’s a hard-candy pastel blue, clear and fresh above an open, throbbing artery of silver water. Below the sky and above the river is the city, laid out in gleaming pastels and flinty terra cotta, thickly sprinkled with tiny golden sunbursts. The bridge itself—tourists and students and musicians and vendors and dancers—is a river of multicolored bobbing heads as kinetic as the body of water below. And the strains of the orchestra are now a full-blown symphony rising from forty players in folding chairs at the bridge landing just below, playing Smetana’s love letter “Ma Vlast,” My Country.
This was it. This was my arrival. I can’t say that I knew exactly to what. But something about being in Prague at that moment felt auspicious to me. Prague, Praha, in Czech means “threshold” and I felt like I was being welcomed into something greater, that my life had been in a dark cramped corridor for the last few years and that now it was opening onto a beautiful, light- and color-filled plaza. And that this plaza was more like the truth than the cramped corridor. I knew enough at this point to keep it to myself, had an awareness that to voice my euphoria, this profound change without proportionally grand reason, might be met with skepticism. So I let it fizz inside me, carrying this great golden ball of joy in my chest, gleaming out through my teeth and my eyes, a secret anointment I was content to enjoy privately. For now.
To celebrate, I bought a painting. I first saw it that morning on the bridge. The painter had seen what I had; a kaleidoscope of pastels and spindles and spires, a clear lavender, pink and blue sky in thick strokes of vibrant color. When I went back and bought it later that afternoon, the sky had changed, and so had the painting. The wind brought in clouds, first white, then deeper gray and blue. The painting was now hooded by these storm clouds, blue and moody above the brightness.
When I walked through that archway, a spark was lit. My spirit flew off, going higher and higher until at last it crash-landed a week later in a psychiatric infirmary in Paris. Though the diagnosis was bipolar disorder, I still can’t say I fully understand what happened. I think, instead, it may have been some necessary evolution I had to undergo. A stretch outside of what I believed the world wanted me to be, towards someone more like who I really am. All I know is that somehow, I needed to make this journey. And somewhere inside of me, I’ll always hold that golden ball.
About the Author:
Sandy Suminski’s work has been published in The Bellevue Literary Review
and The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. She lives in Chicago
with her husband, son and dog. You can find out more about her at www.sandysuminski.com