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Fur and foxy cities

To get lost in Prague and Vienna when you are young and free and surrounded by the company of people who get it

Fur and foxy cities
Charles Bridge Prague. — Photos by the author

I only ever saw Prague at night. The Charles Bridge studded with saluting sculptures on both sides, the Prague Castle overlooking a million domed towers, the gothic cathedral of St Vitus wet in midnight light, the little alleyways, pubs and parkland sweeping in and out, all surrendered their grandeur to the absolutely silent night. ‘How Kafkaesque’, I remember thinking. Just for a moment, sometime before sunrise, the City of a Hundred Spires, a city with such beauty, almost pure power, lost all pretense to evoke the same painful emotions that its most famous literary son Franz Kafka was known for. What had the Old Town Hall – crowned with spires and footed by the famed Astronomical Clock – not endured from its construction in the 1300s, to its near-destruction during the Second World War, and its later reconstruction? Maybe Kafka was not taking about himself but about his city when he wrote, “I usually solve problems by letting them devour me.” Just how many times had Prague been devoured in tragedy to metamorph into Baroque facades and Dancing Houses (architectural landmark of the post-revolution era), it became clear under the crystal night sky.

Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.

Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.

To pay tribute to Kafka and the haunting gloom of his city, we walked on the moonlight-glazed cobblestones till they lead us to the New Jewish Cemetery, where his remains are buried. Somewhere amidst the endless tombstones, crooked as a peasant’s teeth and endowed with a scatter of historic monument, we sat shoulder-to-shoulder gazing at death. By the time the sun yawned from behind the hazel fog, we were so overwhelmed by visions of millions of Jews, crammed in shelters with heads between their knees, that we hugged and with tear-filled whispers prayed for peace. Every year, tourists throng to places in Europe to gasp, laugh, cling bubbling rose glasses, and celebrate weddings near azure canals and in ornate castles, completely oblivious to these graves, and many like them, hidden underneath everything historic and remarkable. We passed the Spanish Synagogue, not even taking a second look at its Moorish motifs and gold galore, so heavy were our hearts. Swooning in grief we stumbled our way into Double Trouble, a beer hall in a Gothic Cellar, to have a breakfast of beer among the locals. With beer knocking against our bones, we left Prague all smiles and cheer like the rest of the tourists.

Prague Astronomical Clock.

Prague Astronomical Clock.

We were creatures of impulse, but we knew that. So whenever our capricious tendencies and last-minute decisions manifested themselves in the most ridiculous and unexpected of places, like in the middle of a flea market in Vienna, we were quick on our feet. Andrea checked us in the Wombat’s city hostel, few paces from Naschmarkt, the most popular open-air market, Arnav accompanied me in search for Deutsche bank and Rebecca google-mapped our way for us. And soon our band regrouped, bargaining for antiques and trinkets like we had meticulously planned our run to the market like the middle-aged Austrian women next to us. Of all the places I could recommend in Austria, I would unequivocally point to the Viennese flea market. We found ourselves in a sea of a hundred stalls, being rained on by objects, faces, fragrances and delicacies like zaatar and baklaava imported from the Middle East, to carpets from Turkey, to love letters recovered from Italy, to Russian merchant suits, to ripe strawberries from Austrian vineyards. We could conceive any possible object and come to Flohmarkt to find it in the belly of a pile of fascinating old pictures, vintage toys, or weapons – such was its magic.

At this point, we were so saturated with the history of grandiose cathedrals and palaces that we cared not to affect accents to pronounce monument names or buy another ticket to a museum we had never heard of.

As we traversed these huts in Vienna for hours I was often teleported to childhood Sundays spent in the frenzy of walled city markets back home: too poor to buy anything, too greedy to leave. There were postcards from centuries past, objects d’art, vinyl records once owned by French grandfathers, paintings so smudged they seemed to have been dug up from the sinking titanic, tea sets pulled out of Charles Dickens’ novels, and all the kitsch and humorous items that could be imagined. In the end, we settled for three pieces of unstitched, ruby fur with fox heads still hanging from their ends. Proudly, wrapping our necks with fox skin, we pompously marched through the rest of Karlsplatz, dining on sauerkraut and cheese samples being handed out.

Vienna State Opera.

Vienna State Opera.

At this point, we were so saturated with the history of grandiose cathedrals and palaces that we cared not to affect accents to pronounce monument names or buy another ticket to a museum we had never heard of. The tourist hangover had finally subsided, and we simply talked and walked along the elegant Ring Road around Innere Stadt feasting on Mozart chocolate (because Mozart’s face is the perfect thing to wrap a chocolate in) and munching on Sacher chocolate cake (because have you even been to Vienna if you have not waited two hours for an underwhelming but overhyped slice of cake).

Vienna Christmas Market.

Vienna Christmas Market.

Although it was still early November, the Christmas market decorations drenched the entire city in frosty lights and angel wings. To fully rejoice in the Christmas spirit, we crossed the heavy gates of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which stretched so tall they might as well have been the gates of heaven, into a river of candle flames lashing at the crucified Christ. It was the kind of divinity that inspired pure belief, and reminded me why religion was capable of such power.

Read part 1 Living and dying in Germany here

The night was spent with our heels in hands and our silk red dresses flagging in the purple wind as we walked back from Vienna State Opera, drunk on the romance of the ballet performance. Romanticism: longing and merlot became the theme of the evening, because in the morning everyone would leave, and everything would be different. In the basement tavern of our hostel, I leaned in and without looking into Rebecca’s eyes said, “Whenever I get comfortable, everything changes.” This is the last thing I remember saying to her before she left for the United States and took Andrea and Arnav with her. As for me, I stayed in Europe for another winter and another spring getting lost in new places, with new people because according to Kafka, “I am free and that is why I am lost.”

Fatima Bakhtawar

Fatima-8
The writer is a Princeton University graduate, currently doing research in Experimental Plasma Physics at Government College University Lahore. She can be reached at [email protected]

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