Women may buy bags for all sorts of reasons, but their main purpose is a container for things we want to carry around with us when we’re out. This carpet bag made in Prague, from a real carpet woven in Prague by old ladies who lived on the outskirts of the city that I bought online fifteen years ago, was not only a container of personal possessions, it was a bag of hope. And now it was in Brooklyn, over 4,000 miles away as the crow flies, but it looked and felt Old World. And it was something physical and tangible, an actual material I could wear slung over my shoulder or clenched in my hand. Whenever I looked at its warm reds and felt its softness, I remembered my dream of one day going to Prague. Of seeing the city in person, instead of just reading about it or viewing it on you tube.
The cards in the bag I took to Prague last month were the handy plastic kind that make a dream come true, in that they got me on the plane and into the hotel. But for fifteen years, as well as the carpet bag, there had been another set of cards that were not plastic—78 of them altogether—and these were the cards that fed the dream and kept it alive. Tarot cards. The Tarot of Prague. They helped nurture the dream. In the poem, Harlem, Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?” He wonders, “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” He suggests other, less appetizing fates. Meanwhile, I bided my time. I waited until my carpet bag so bulged with hope that it had to become a reality.
Each of the tarot cards was beautifully illustrated with different aspects of Prague’s gothic and baroque past, as well as the more recent art nouveau. Churches and statuary, bas-reliefs and carvings, bridges, archways, stairways and buildings, placed in such a way as to perfectly address the meaning of the cards. Fortune telling cards I would learn to interpret as I pored over the imagery until it was engraved on my brain. Cards that told me as much about myself as about the city’s medieval past that unaccountably had been left standing when so many others had been whisked away by bulldozers or bombs.
For fifteen years this bit of carpet and collection of cards bought online from the same shop in Prague, were my replacements for an actual visit. While I waited I found other bags that suited my more immediate needs. I found other tarot decks to engage with, and I forgot why I wanted to go to Prague in the first place. I had never thought about Prague at all until I watched the Velvet Revolution unfolding on TV at the end of 1989. It was mesmerizing. The Berlin Wall had fallen a few weeks before, and now crowds were gathering in Wenceslas Square every night, holding lighted candles, jingling their house keys, standing in solidarity. A few years later I read that Americans had started flocking to Prague, and I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could go too.
But the fifteen-year saga didn’t really start until some years after that when I read Patricia Hampl’s, A Romantic Education, a glorious, poetic memoir of her visit to Prague in the 1970s when it was still under Communist rule. Hampl, from Minnesota with a Czech grandmother, writes,
Perhaps, if you go to the old country seeking, as third or fourth generation Americans often do, a strictly personal history based on bloodlines, then, the less intimate history of the nation cannot impose itself upon you very strongly. History is reduced to genealogy, which is supposed to satisfy a hunger that is clearly much larger.
But if you go on a journey like this not to find somebody, but just to look around—then, in a country like Czechoslovakia (or perhaps only there, only in Prague), the country’s history is infused with the urgency of the classic search for personal identity. The country itself becomes the lost ancestry and, one finds, the country is eloquent. Its long story, its history, satisfy the instinct for kinship in a way that the discovery of a distant cousin could not. For it is really the longing for a lost culture that sends Americans on these pilgrimages.
Hampl describes how she “…stumbled through the ancient streets, stopped in the smoke-grimed coffeehouses,” and says, “I was simply in the most beautiful place I had ever seen, and it was grimy and sad and broken.”
The weight of its history and the beauty of its architecture came to me first as an awareness of dirt, a sort of ancient grime I had never seen before. It bewitched me, that dirt, caught in the corners f baroque moldings and decorative cornices, and especially I loved the dusty filth of the long, grave windows at sunset when the light flared against the tall oblongs and caused them to look gilded.
That was the 70s. When Hampl returned to post-revolution Prague in the mid-90s, “Not only the color of the buildings has changed, but the entrepreneurial rush, especially in the center, has created a new kind of Kafkaesque unreality.” And, “It is as if, for the new earnest visitors from the West, Prague is a stage set—the improbable dream of the baroque city where Kafka and Rilke walked in exultation and anguish—but the purpose of the stage set eludes them. They worry that they have arrived “too late,” and have expatriated themselves to a theme park. They sense that the life of the place is something quite other than the charms purveyed by the rouged-up tourist center, beguiling though they are.”
I roamed around Prague in January, avoiding the hordes of tourists, and though the streets were far from empty, I didn’t once think I had arrived too late. For me, an off-season bargain through Hotels.com was the right time. But neither Hampl or the pile of guidebooks I read, (or the fifteen years I waited) had prepared me for the unexpected tears momentarily blurring my vision. At first glance, Wenceslas Square, my first view of the city, was a garish commercial strip with giant screens advertising sportswear. But I was on a journey back through time to feel the energy of ancient stone and brick, of auras that might still linger in churches and synagogues, or medieval streets forming a labyrinth around the Old Town Square. I could see past the video screens and souvenir shops.
Praha in Czech means threshold. A place of transition between the visible world and the invisible one. That was the place I was looking for. That line, that place of transition. That threshold. The closest I came to it was in the Kafka Museum where the windows were boarded up, the walls were painted black, and a video scored with Smetana’s Má Vlast, (My Country) constantly played. It was old footage of Prague in Kafka’s day, edited with special effects revealing distorted views of tilting houses and streets closing in upon each other to suggest an altered perception, a dimensional shift. The effect I enjoyed the most was when the screen rippled as if it was under water. Scenes washed over by the waters of time. As if those of us who’d crossed the Vltava over the 15th century Charles Bridge to Malá Strana, using our smart phones to guide us to the museum tucked away on a side street called Cihelná, hadn’t had our perception altered enough.
I left the carpet bag at home, and though I took the tarot cards with me, I didn’t look at them once, or even open my guidebook until the fifth day. I didn’t want to look anything up. I wanted to be in the moment, witnessing the present without comparing it to anything I’d seen before. I looked at the cards when I returned home, and realized that unknowingly I’d come upon the sights represented on the cards that were most meaningful to me. The Hermit and Temperance.
Temperance stands for moderation, balance, and inner peace. She had recently come up as my ‘Navigator.’ I came across the image that represents her in the tarot when I chanced to walk by the art deco façade in Široká Street in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter. Though I stopped to photograph her, I didn’t recall her image in the cards.
Nor did I remember the Hermit was standing in Golden Lane, one of the places at the top of my list to visit. The Hermit, as card number 9, represents my Destiny Number, therefore who I am in the tarot. In most decks, the Hermit was an old man with a beard holding a lantern to represent introspection, meditation, a deliberate withdrawal, and often foretells a quest of some kind.
In the Tarot of Prague, he stood in Golden Lane, known as the “Street of the Alchemists.” I knew Kafka had once lived at number 22, and the tarot reader, Mme. de Thebes, executed by the Nazis because she predicted Germany would lose the war, lived at number 14. None of the houses were known to be home to alchemists, but I’d felt an affinity to the place.
Before my trip I did a couple of watercolors of the tiny medieval houses.
I went to Prague for a week, and now it’s also a week since I’ve been home. The journey that began with a bag and a bunch of cards has shifted to an inner journey. Maybe it was always meant to be an inner journey. But how would I have known that if I hadn’t gone there first? This inner journey is about digesting the experience, integrating what I’ve seen and felt, perhaps coming up with new realizations. As I write about it, I’m already starting to see past the beauty of the sights to something deeper within. While I was there in the old city on the Vltava, I was too startled, too overcome by the views and vistas every which way I looked. But now, back on familiar ground, my inner eye has begun weaving together past and present.