I’ve been writing this blog entry for a while. Mostly in my head, occasionally with pen and paper and now with a keyboard and electrons.
I started writing this when we went to Prague early in October.
Prague is beautiful and has a certain gentle energy. A friend said, “Prague is healing,” when she heard we were going there. A few decades ago, Prague filled the center of town with thousands of people till the Communist leadership said, “enough.” Perhaps because they knew that there were no more tanks coming from USSR who was also mid-revolution. Perhaps it was because they knew one can govern from fear for only so long. Prague has lived with rulers outside its borders for more centuries then not. One sense we got from Prague was a willingness to go with the flow. What can one do?
We liked Prague a lot, but I started thinking about what it means to be a tourist-stranger and what it means to be a resident-stranger. I’m still thinking about it.
Part of it has to do with stories – what do we know about the stories of a particular place, how do we learn them, and how does our presence, our own personal story intersect with the stories of the place?
Every place has a story. I like learning the stories of the places where I live. It helps me feel more deeply connected to where I live. It makes the place become home.
For example, when I moved to Santa Rosa, I moved into a 1980’s development on the northern edge of town. When we exited the freeway, we drove past a huge barn and an open field that had been planted with grapes. The name of the road that connected the freeway to the development was Lavell Road. About a month or two after arriving, I found an book filled with maps of the area over the century(s). I learned that the farm we drove past was originally owned by a family named Lavell (HA!) I learned that the farm was platted not very long after the civil war when thousands of families were leaving the devastated South. Along Lavell Road was a grade school – which while it was a 1950’s building + modifications, was standing on the location of the first school built to serve the children and grandchildren of the original Spanish-Mexican land grant holder. Every time I drove past that barn and that school I thought about that story, and how the decades have shaped that land since.
A tourist doesn’t have access to those stories except through some interpretive medium such as a museum, a book, or a tourist guide. A resident has a chance to learn the stories from another resident or from a historian. A resident has a chance to encounter the stories in their long form, which can include the complexities of motivations, mis-understandings, and on-going implications. On the other hand, those stories get packed up into quick, simple, entertainment bits for easy tourist consumption. In Prague, we walked past an twenty-something English-speaking guide making jokes about a 17th century woman’s sexual purity to his twenty-something crowd. A real woman’s life got converted into a walking comedy routine: thank you, here is the hat, please pay for this tour as you see fit*
Part of being a tourist-stranger or a resident-stranger has to do with consumerism and with community co-creating.
The act of being a tourist is heavy on the consuming end of the community building scale. A resident alien, although limited in the ways of participation in the community (language skill, civil government engagement), has more opportunity to become a part of the community’s story.
In Prague, nearly all our interaction with czechs was transactional and monetized. Give us food in the restaurant and we will pay you and leave a tip. Give us shelter and we will transfer funds from our account to your account. Let us look at the inside of this castle or this museum and we will give you money to help pay your salary and maintain the building. Except for shelter, we never even exchanged names, our transactional moment was so impersonal and fleeting.
On the other hand, moments of community still snuck in. I have arthritis in my left foot. Most of the time, its a low-key issue but sometimes pain flares if I do a lot of walking across uneven surfaces. We recently bought a set of walking sticks which I started using as a tourist in Prague.** When I climbed onto the street car with my sticks in hand, other people often stood up and offered me the seat. That was a community-centered transaction and one for which I was grateful.
Here’s a story about our visit to Prague where we snuck past the tourist marketing machines for a few moments.
Out on the edge of Prague is a hillside called White Mountain. Today, one of the tram tracks run that far and no farther. A neighborhood runs up to the edge of a field and then, stops. If you walk out past the bus transfer point, past the 1700’s cloister, and along a path, you find a rock cairn built up on a mound at the crest of the hill. The cairn holds a simple plaque and the mound is planted with a few small shrubs. Old men ride their bikes to the cairn, they pause to look at it, then continue on their journey. Young couples come past the cairn on their afternoon jog. They also stand for a moment to check their pulse perhaps. A mother with toddlers in tow herds them about at the base before returning to her home. Everyone seems to sense what Bill and I sense as we sit for a few moments at the base of the cairn.
White Mountain is a battlefield. It is an improbable battlefield in that when the two armies finally found each other it was late in November in 1620, it was raining and cold and just plain crappy weather. One army hadn’t been paid in weeks. Both armies were hungry and tired.
They were facing off because a couple of years earlier Protestant Bohemian leaders threw some representatives of the new and deeply Catholic Hapsburg king out a three story window. As tourists the day before, we had stood in the room of the castle from which the Catholics had been so abruptly defenestrated.*** and read the officially printed cards announcing that this was the particular fenestrate from which the no-longer welcome emissaries had been defenestrated. As you can imagine, neither the Emperor, nor the Pope was impressed.
Here’s the thing about rebelling against empires. The Empire may take a while to get their army together but they will come back to reclaim their land.
The Catholic army was professionally trained and season soldiers. The Protestant army had more passion then training and it had already been a hard summer. The Protestant army had the uphill advantage but on that day, it didn’t matter. The Catholics sent in group of soldiers as a test on on flank of the Protestants. The Protestants broke and ran. An hour later, there were 4000 dead Protestants on the field and hillside and only about 700 casualties among the Catholics. The Protestant King that Bohemia had adopted rode out to the edge of Prague expecting to tour the men in position and found himself surrounded by Bohemians on a flat out run. The thirty year war was on in Europe and many many peasants were about to die due to starvation, plagues, and the hands of self-funding armies.
Inside the castle, Beloved and I were on the tourist gerbil trail. We had a specific starting point and a specific ending point as we walked from the entrance to the grand hall to the rooms in towers and back out the horse and rider’s door.**** The sign in front of the window of defenestration was a whole two paragraphs long and the thirty year war is something you kind have to history-geek out about to know any details. We’d know almost nothing if we had only that sign to tell us why this spot was so important. We’d probably be talking about how everything apparently happened in the great hall itself or the gigantic silver shrine set up to a saint over in the corner of the cathedral.
The cairn is even simpler but it felt more honest. It felt like a local story that local people knew and honored even now, 400 years later. The field is open. We sat there and looked out toward the southwest and imagined the exhausted troops of both sides slowly arriving. We imagined the hour where it all went horribly wrong. We felt the deep story of White Mountain as we simply sat and listened to the wind moving across the long summer grass.
I’m never going to know all of Europe’s stories. But I’m grateful I have a chance to listen for a few of them.
The year 1618 was like many others in those uneasy decades of armed neutrality which occur from time to time in the history of Europe. Political disturbances exploded intermittently in an atmosphere thick with the apprehension of conflict. Diplomatists hesitated, weighing the gravity of each new crisis, politicians predicted, merchants complained of unsteady markets and wavering exchanges, while the forty million peasants, on whom the cumbrous structure of civilization rested, dug their fields and bound their sheaves and cared nothing for the remote activities of their rulers.
– page 1, The Thirty Years War, C.V. Wedgewood 1961 Edition Anchor Books; original text, 1938 Jonathan Cape Ltd.
*I have to admit we had the Rick Steves’ walking tour of central Prague dialed up on our cell-phone kindle apps.
** I’m embarrassed to use them, I think I look pretentious and who wants to admit physical limitations anyway? Even so, I noticed I extended my walking time by several hours when I used them. So, now I use them.
***I just love this word. No one every uses it. It means to throw out a window.
****Apparently, back in the day, they used to hold jousting events in the main hall. As in two horses and riders running at each other with those long stick things. Hey, these guys were what, 20 years old? What could possibly go wrong?