I feel sorrier for other people, than I do myself. I am being selfish by saying that, but I really do feel sorry for those who have little interest in the remote, obscure, and bizarre. A fine example of this mental malady which causes me to look askance at those without the same strange interests as me, goes back to a train trip I took from Vienna to Prague eleven years ago. For whatever reason, I began to scour my memory trying to remember the people I met on that journey. I was able to distinctly recall two women in their early 20’s who were making that same journey. They were sitting several seats away from me, but when I got up to stretch my legs, I could not help but notice the title of a book one of them was reading.
Ominous Beauty – Prague
Cover Story – Prague In Danger
Prague In Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War by Peter Demetz is a book about the city during World War II. The woman reading it did not seem to be exactly enthralled. She would read a page or two, then put it down. Then later she would pick it up again and do the same thing. Her behavior was the essence of disinterest. A good part of the journey, Danger In Prague sat on the table in front of her tempting me with whatever knowledge could be found between its covers. The book interested me, along with the question of why the woman was reading it.
After almost two weeks traveling in parts of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia on this trip, it was nice to see someone reading an English language history book. I can count on one finger how many Americans I have met on a train in Europe reading a history book. As such, this rare occasion called for striking up a conversation. Halfway through the journey I approached the two of them and asked if they were Americans. They replied in the affirmative. When I asked the one with the book if Danger in Prague was a good read, she nonchalantly replied, “it’s ok.” (Note: The book has many outstanding reviews) The sound of her response stated otherwise. At most, I detected that it was mildly interesting for her. The title probably caught her eye, I know it would mine. Intrigues, spying, shadowy characters, stories of horror, and heroism. Prague during World War II is a fascinating subject, but it would have been terrifying to experience.
Dangerous times – Nazis in Prague
Urban Explorers – An Intimate Perspective
I followed up my first question with another more mildly probing one. “Are you two traveling around Europe?” That was self-evident and a good way to learn more about their travels. The trip for them was predominantly educational. They were graduate students involved in city planning. They sported a Eurail pass which they used to visit multiple places in Europe. They rattled off a litany of the most famous cities, including Berlin, Paris, and Vienna among others. They were doing the same with Prague. In one respect, I envied them. To see a city through the eyes of an urban planner, rather than as a traveler would be intriguing. To me, Prague had been setup for maximum tourist potential. The serpentine streets in the Old Town, Charles Bridge leading thousands each day across the Vltava, Prague Castle perched upon a promontory.
The city was laid out in a picture-perfect manner. One that almost made me believe that Prague was created for tourists rather than its inhabitants. These two women would understand the reasons behind Prague’s development and the reasons for its street pattern. While the architecture of Prague was not lost on me, the reasons behind why buildings, squares, and streets were arranged in a specific manner was beyond my comprehension. Listening to them I envied their knowledge. Conversely, the fact they had been traveling from one famous European city to another sounded tedious. While I do not ascribe to the cliché that if you have seen one city, you have seen them all, I thought it was rather sad that these two would not spend time in smaller, less popular cities, let alone towns and villages.
Wandering around villages in Eastern Europe gave me a more intimate perspective on specific countries and the way people lived. Nothing excited me so much as a place in half ruin or a village that was left behind by progress. These are the forgotten failures of civilization, the places that cease to exist and will only be remembered by their inhabitants, if they are remembered at all. In life, I have learned much more from my failures than successes. I would think a city or town planner could do the same. I felt a bit sorry for those two women, but I realized then, as I do today, that was not their problem, it was mine. My view of travel centered more around me more than any specific itinerary. I could follow my curiosity through the countryside or a cityscape. My pursuit of place was both intellectual and romantic. A search for facts and feelings.
Perfect planning – Aerial view of Prague
A Far-Off Place – Intrigue & Mystery
One of the joys of being beyond higher education was that I no longer had anyone proscribing my interests. I now was free to read what I pleased, just as I was free to travel where I pleased. Academics built more upon knowledge than experience. They are a pathway to careers. I had done my time inside the ivory tower. I turned my back on it after graduating from university. I did not care to go back, only forward into some far-off place where I could not only learn about the world, but also myself.
I only spoke one other time with those two women, saying goodbye when we arrived in Prague. Our initial conversation had taken only a couple of minutes. For some reason that moment remains with me. That is probably because I can still remember Prague In Danger and the conversation that it spurred. There was an element of intrigue and mystery in that title. Seeing an American reading a book of history on a train as it rolled through Bohemia only heightened those feelings. The intrigue of that moment is still with me. I suspect it will always be.