Inside the Spanish Synagogue

I have a new design project that seems interesting. It’s a competition between five designers to create a new identity for the Prague Jewish Museum. What makes this especially compelling (beyond the fact that it doesn’t involve selling sneakers, or producing Flash banner ads with involve breakdancing clowns, or adding a Miffles stream-of-consciousness feature) is that the fact that the Prague Jewish Museum isn’t just a museum per se but rather a group of six interrelated historical sites in the Old Town. So, it’s like designing (or trying to design, anyway) an identity for a considerable chunk of the Josefov district.

This is what differentiates the Prague Jewish Museum from all others, I would say: Berlin might have a cool Daniel Libeskind-authored concept, another city might have a great exhibits, or artefacts (or actual Jewish people living in the city, for that matter, something Prague essentially does not have)… but Prague is the only city I know of that can bring an actual historically-preserved Jewish Quarter to the table. Famously, the area was left intact by the Nazis during WW2 following Hitler’s chilling decree that it should remain standing as a ‘monument to an extinguished race’. Interestingly, though, when I met the museum directors to discuss the logo project, they were eager to dispel the general misconception that this marked the beginning of the attempts to preserve the district (which would make Hitler the de facto founder of the museum, in a weird way… so you can see why they were eager to correct this notion). Actually, the preservation effort had already begun in the beginning of the 20th century, when urban renewal projects in the New Town started to prompt concern about the potential destruction of synagogues and artifacts contained within.

This is a architect's sketch of the above-mentioned cool Berlin concept. The museum's logo is simply this distinctive shape.


Anyway, my strategy this time is to avoid all attempts at ‘creative thinking’ and go straight for a trusty cliché. So, I’m thinking: a star of David… but instead of the star having points, each point will be a well-recognized Prague tourist site, such as the Charles Bridge or Prague Castle. It can’t miss!

One fun thing about this project is that I’ve been furnished with a pass to all six sites and a special form granting me permission to take photos (as to gather fuel for my awesome and mysterious ‘creative process’, if you will). On the downside, this entails setting foot into the utter tourist INSANITY that is happening at all times but especially during the springtime in the Old Town Square. It’s indescribable: a constant rate of chaos and oblivious people with backpacks bumping into each other in narrow spaces that you COMPLETELY forget about the existence of if you’ve lived in Prague for a while. Still, it’s well worth it for the chance to see these sites again, and also for the opportunity to ham it up and self-importantly brandish my photo permission at the smallest of pretexts.

I used my ‘press pass’ to take the photo at the top of this post, which is the ceiling of the Spanish Synagogue. I would love to post a bunch more photos, but worry that I will get in trouble for abusing my photo privileges. (It seems to me that the ceiling is known and photographed enough that it shouldn’t be a problem to post this one lone shot– if you are a director for the museum and reading this and thinking about getting angry at me, please consider this logic.) The artifacts on display inside this building included lots of lovely old book covers (my favorite!) and also a few sample bills of the special worthless ‘funny money’ that was issued to Jews inside the ghetto (back when Josefov was a walled-in apartheid zone). The text on the bills was, of course, written in German (naturally… but still strange to see) and really did look like Monopoly money.

However, my vaunted ‘press pass’ did not allow me the exalted, unmolested status I’d hoped for. The photo at the top of this post was taken milliseconds prior to me being subjected to a lengthy and melodramatic plea from the security guard not to take any more photos. This despite the fact that I’d already shown her my pass and she’d already okayed it. Apparently, her thought process was that she first accepted my right to take photos but then freaked out when she realized that the Synagogue was full of people (as it always is, duh) who were likely to take my lead and start trying to take photos themselves. Therefore, her appeal to me was delivered not on the grounds of museum policy, but rather as a sort of desperate personal favor: Can’t you come back on Saturday instead when I’m not here? You’re making my life harder! This, I must opine, is a classic example of the old-school Communist generation mindset at work: the beleaguered functionary’s total inability to consider both sides of an equation and make everyone’s interests meet within a given dynamic. Go do your job!, I considered hissing at her, but in actuality wilted under the barrage of her long, insistent pleas (delivered exclusively in Czech, what’s more– maybe that’s part of what wore me down) and just made little sketches of whatever else interested me.

Shot of the Ghetto funny-money discussed above, taken by somebody else (i.e. not me further abusing my photo pass)

Not As Good As Before, But Still Pretty Good

There are many annoyingly two-horse aspects to life in Prague. You can’t get a half-decent burrito here, for starters. People don’t throw parties with American red cups. (In fact, Czech people aren’t really much into throwing parties at all. I’ve been to three proper house parties in Prague and one of them was my own. This is a depressing thought that makes me glad I’m leaving here for a while.) But every now and then, the two-horsiness pays off in the form of an opportunity you wouldn’t have in a more culturally fished-out place… as in, the chance to go see Belle and Sebastian play their first-ever show in Prague two nights ago to a crowd of about 500 people.

I’d seen Belle and Sebastian play on their last tour, in San Francisco in 2006, a few months before I left for Europe. What I mainly remember about this show is (a) liking it, but also (b) the fact that I’d never gone to any show where my preconceptions about the scale of it were so entirely wrong. The 2006 show was at the San Francisco Design Center on Townsend St., which I’d quizzically biked by a few times and took to mean ‘a large room about the size of Slim’s or Bimbo’s with a few hundred people watching’.  Instead, it turned out to be in the Design Center’s MASSIVE concourse, which basically reminded me of an aircraft hangar and seemed to involve about 10,000 people. (A check of the SFDC’s web site indicates that the concourse can accommodate ‘6,800 for a reception’, which would seem to confirm about 10,000 people tightly packed in). Of course, this happened a long time ago, and I’d been drinking beforehand, so I could easily be off by a good 15-70%, but still… it seemed really big.

This time, it really was in a big room (the Roxy) about the size of Slim’s or Bimbo’s with a few hundred people watching. Once the band took the stage and made the obligatory effort to speak a few words in Czech, they launched into a song off their new album. Which established the only persistent downer of the evening: each time they played a track off the pretty boring ‘Write About Love’, the energy would immediately droop noticeably and it seemed like both the band and audience alike would rather just Tivo through the song to the next one. Still, it wasn’t SO bad for three reasons: (1) they played lots of old stuff; (2) sometimes, a new song would end in a sort of instrumental build-up, and that part they would get legitimately into it; (3) Belle and Sebastian seem like nice, realistic people who aren’t going to let the evening be ruined by the fact that their new album isn’t very good. I’ve been at other shows in such circumstances that seemed infused with a cosmic hostility, as the band visibly raged against the evidence that they’d lost their earlier powers. Anyway: since they opened with a song off the new album, I had nothing to compare it against and just thought, ‘Wow, the sound is REALLY bad.’ But as soon as that had ended and they’d moved on to ‘Step Into My Office’, it was though the ‘sound’ had magically ‘cleared up.’

Two other points:

  • The evening also scored remarkably low on the ‘annoyances of being around large groups of people’ factor (something that is itself a positive characteristic of Prague- people seem to know how to congregate in large numbers without being homicidally irritating). The only exception was during the subdued beginning of ‘Judy And The Dream Of Horses’, when some guy took it upon himself to whistle along with Stuart Murdoch. Can you imagine the thought process (or lack thereof) that would cause you to do this?
  • For me, the evening was a personal introduction into a classic trope of adulthood: the ‘getting a babysitter so you and your wife can go see a band that you started listening to 10 years ago’ routine. In perfect form, the sitter was 20 minutes late, leaving us to anxiously hustle there and imagine that we’d perhaps miss the first song or two.

Existential Confusion In The Czech Marketplace

These local establishments seem to express a certain amount of uncertainty vis-a-vis the existence of an objective and extrinsic reality:

1. Kuchnyě Dada (‘Dada Kitchenware’)

Fun shopping environment. But why did the refrigerator we buy there arrive with an old boot and a bird nest inside? And this iron is totally damaging my clothes:

This stupid bowl and spoon need to be dry-cleaned after every meal:

2. Probably The Best Czech Art Glass

If I had to design a promotional brochure for this place, here’s how it might look:

Misadventures In Self Publishing

My friend, it turns out, has three or four manuscripts of his own unpublished fiction kicking around. Now, I know this sounds boring… but before you head over to What I Had For Breakfast, consider the following:

  1. One of the manuscripts is titled Vomiting Across America and is based on personal experience
  2. A second is about his misadventures in Prague. Half the action is set in legendary local dive bar The Blind Eye. But the author had the literary wherewithal to create a fictionalized version of this bar called ‘The Other Cheek’. Now, that’s good– you’ve gotta admit.
  3. A third includes accounts of the sexual exploits of a grandmother deranged from senility.

On balance, the only tiresome aspect of my friend’s writing persona is the fact that he maintains the whole predictable reluctanct-to-talk-about-or-share-his-work posture that all my friends who aspire to write fiction invariably pull. When clearly the only goal of this stunt is to entice interest in their writing and general persona while allowing them to appear aloof and above the fray. Yawn. That’s why it was nice to finally meet one guy on my vacation in Poland who would freely talk about the manuscript he had just finished with anyone who was willing to listen. What a relief.

Anyway, my friend sent me the second manuscript discussed above– the one about Prague– which I read and found totally enthralling in trashy, Bukowski-esque way. One thing is that he has a great ear for accents and the way that people speak, which allows you to express more about, say, Czech people and how Czech people really are than I can manage in blog post after post of tedious sociological generalizations. Another thing is that it’s just riotously funny. I mean, c’mon: ‘The Other Cheek’.

This manuscript has also added an enjoyable and enduring physical presence to our household. I received the digital files from my friend and printed out the whole 400 or so pages on my office printer… then, once I was done with it, I discarded the whole spent husk into a pile of scrap paper that we use at home for grocery lists and the like. This has the unintended effect of really livening up mundane household tasks. The other day, I was getting a list of groceries that my wife had written down and turned the sheet over to find the following passage:

Lift it up, full and steaming and… what the fuck?! Jesus! JESUS FUCKING FUCK! The Head! The fucking head. The dead eyes open, the mouth too, in an eternal, silent, scream and there’s soup inside the mouth, there’s a pea and a bit of carrot swimming around in there

(In fact, what’s funny is that when I searched my hard drive right now to find this passage again, I did a search for ‘Jesus fucking fuck’ and the only results that appeared were all four parts of his manuscript).

I honestly think these writings could achieve a certain dubious mass popularity if they were published, and find myself at times struggling to think of a way to facilitate this (the publisher for whom I design the book covers is, I think, a bit too self-respecting).

My friend once sent one of his short stories off to a literary blog that was sponsoring some kind of young writers contest. The story was posted on the blog– it’s about braining somebody to death with a soda can and contains 13 instances of the word ‘fuck’ in a 600 word story. Anyway, my friend recounts that he once went for the second round of a job interview process and was confronted with the actual story– his would-be employer had googled him, found the story, printed out a copy and asked him to explain what it was all about. Safe to say that the Obama administration won’t be tapping him for a position anytime soon.

Prague’s Most Desolate Bars

Seeing as I’m leaving Prague in a few weeks (maybe permanently… more likely just for six months), I thought I should do justice to some of Prague’s most shudderingly bleak bar spots. Now, there’s a lot to choose from, and everyone who’s lived here as his or her own personal nominations. My friend always talks about a neighborhood bar he ventured into only to kill time one afternoon when he’d locked himself out of his apartment…. only to discover that Tuesdays are ‘Topless Barmaid Night’ there… and ‘Topless Night’ also extends to include afternoons… and the barmaid on duty at the time was old enough to be someone’s grandmother.

I promise no such NSFW delights here, but focused on a few places that I’ve noticed while walking around or that are (cough, cough) familiar to me from personal experience:

1. 777 Bar, Vršovice

If your idea of a good time is a window-less octagonal bunker settled in a totally residential, out-of-the-way neighborhood, then you’re in luck:

You might reasonably assume that this bar is simply closed for the afternoon and will later throw open its shuttered windows to take on a more welcoming persona. You’d be wrong, though:

The signage on the far left side of this picture indicates that it is ‘Nonstop’ (Czech parlance for ‘open 24 hours’… and also a notable teenybopper anthem). Indeed, the open door reveals that this place is in fact as open for business as it will ever be at the ripe hour of 3pm on a Sunday. I must admit that I was legitimately frightened to venture inside, but did take a peek– it looks like the indoor portion of Zeitgeist, except pitch black and with no customers.

It’s common knowledge in these parts that a lot of the more improbable bars around (especially the ‘Herna bars’– i.e., ones that advertising gambling) are just money-laundering operations for the mafia (the adjective ‘Russian’ is usually thrown into this equation as well, but I have no way of evaluating how widely this assumption applies). But, then, the stubborn question persists: why stay open all day and night if your bar is simply a ruse? Sadly, braver souls than me will have to venture inside to investigate the truth…

From a design perspective, I love how the ‘777’ theme is suggested mainly through ‘bang’ graphics on the shuttered windows… but then is also reiterated on the weird banana crescent sign hanging over the door.

2. Hostinec U Starejch Hadru, Vršovice

OK, this place is (regrettably) familiar to me, since it’s open late and in the neighborhood:

I think this means ‘Tavern of the Old Rags’, although I could be wrong about the ‘rags’ part. One thing that is certain is that the distended Scooby Doo-style haunted-house lettering creates an accurate premonition of the terrors that await you in this local speed metal bar.

The thing that really sets this establishment apart is the fact that it’s encased in a metal cage and the bartender has to actually personally emerge from behind the bar to let you in with his key (no buzzer). It’s essentially like checking into prison for an evening:

Once inside, you’re free to gaze at the exit and dream longingly of freedom…

… but to get out, you need to ask the bartender, who is apt to momentarily disappear behind these two regulars:

Once back on the outside, I didn’t know how to adjust to the real world again (as lamented by so many reformers of the criminal justice system) and immediately committed a petty crime in order to get back in.

3. Ventilation Duct, Hlavni Nadraži

On the way to investigate Wolf Prefa (see below), I passed this place, which at first glance looks just like the sister bar of 777 Bar:

As it turns out, however, this structure exists only to release air in and out of the underground metro system that runs right nearby. Interesting, right?

4. Wolf Prefa, Holešovice

Also not a bar, as it turns out. Bear with me here:

If you take an international train into Prague, you will arrive at one of two stations. If you come into the more obscure station of the two, Nadraži Holešovice, one of the first things you spot from the platform is the fantastically forbidding structure:

Without really thinking about it, I’d half-consciously assumed that this must be some disused nightspot– the homespun lettering is something I can only associate with nightclub, rather than a legitimate business. Obviously, I was forgetting the fact that, during Communist times, homespun lettering was A-OK. Anyway, upon closer research, this turns out to be the headquarters of a semi-disused cement factory.

One more bleak view, for the road: