Nell Irvin Painter


Our Trip to Prague, 3-6 May 1997

Getting up at 4:45 doesn't start a trip off nicely, especially if you're middle aged and had stayed up past midnight the night before writing a proposal to the provost (more about that later). Making our 7 AM Saturday flight from Charles De Gaulle had us dragging the rest of the day, despite a lunch that impressed me for being subtly delicious--salad and wild boar with potato pancakes--and Glenn for being dirt cheap. Scrumptious lunch for three, dessert for four, and four liters of excellent Czech beer came to less than 500 crowns, or around $16. Sunday evening Glenn had a whole roast joint of pork, served on a cutting board. We were expecting frightful Russian-ish food, but we tasted nothing of the sort. Lots of pork, lots of potatoes, but gorgeously fixed with vegetables and the ubiquitous Czech beer, which people also drink for breakfast. I suppose if I spent any time there, I would, too. It's the best beer in the world, honestly.

We were only in Prague and the nearby countryside, which isn't very much of the Czech Republic. Our host, who had invited Glenn to give the Sbovda Lecture, lived up to my favorable impressions, based on the sweet-tempered Czechs I met in Ghana in the 1960s and Czech movies. True to form, our Sunday consisted of a luscious lunch in a village inn, a walk through the lush early spring countryside to and from the Karlstejn castle, then six hours in another country inn, during which we drank beer and talked, ate dinner and talked, and drank digestif liqueur and talked.

Prague deserves a visit, and not just because the food is delicious and cheap, but also because the heart of the city is full of gorgeous buildings half Copenhagen, half Modena, half Brussels, and the cramped, poignant remnants of a Jewish ghetto one thousand years old.

Prague is said to be the Paris of east-central Europe, and there's something to that. But Prague also has a recent communist past that pokes through often, in the shoddy, unkempt ugliness of buildings, cars, and sometimes even countryside. I found the unrelieved whiteness of the people disconcerting, for not only are all the locals white-white, but also the tourists. The Czech Republic supposedly has three villages claiming to be the exact geographical center of Europe. The streets of Prague corroborate that boast, with representatives of more European ethnicities than I had ever encountered before: Bohemians, Moldavians, Silesians, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, Italians, French, Albanians, Bulgarians, Latvians, Ukrainians . . . Though lots of French people disdain North American multiculturalism, the multi-hued Paris metro looks like New York City after Prague!

The proposal for the PU provost was to raise money to run new public interest programs, including a series of roundtable discussions of racial issues in the news. I've agreed to serve as PAAS Director for three years, so wish me luck!

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