9 Minutes Before Eleven
“ On the Wings of Fallen Angels..”
Richard Ozanne c 1999
It seemed a long time agobut still fresh in my mind, a brief glimpse, of time passed, butfocused memory, those streets of Prague and those slalom structures,a thousand spires that built the city. The town breathed with thehearts of ancients as well as some surrealism left in bygone agesthat were sandwiched between ages, with soft coals smell driftingthrough the streets and a subtle bent of newness entrenched withinthe Gothic parable of bygone ages, gray, mustard and tinder.
An essence of restlessness wasaround each corner.
I could feel the riddle writtenin the streets between Nove Mesto and Staromestska, a fulfillment ofthe treats of sausages baking on the grills between places downtowards the center of the old village, still patched and scraped withmemories of all who lived there.
I too was the walker andsojourner of these channels and matrix of streets wandering everimpatiently as a newcomer, feeling a fallen spirit placed here again.
I walked these streets a gooddozen miles a day at times, and perhaps more on some occasions. Thestone beneath my feet always played an uneven sway in my step ascenturies had worn them, prominent ages, and providence giving me achance once more having a glance at the raised towers and historywhich made this town drifting through my head on each walk, andjourney throughout the streets from the old and grainy mustard Jewishcemetery, with its oracle crows calling “break” at the falling ofanother eve, to the young lovers whose hearts beat tenderly togetherin the magic of youth and of love which was admired as well asjealously wanted.
This was another evening lookingup at the sunset between those lofty buildings so old, and longforgotten, that one couldn’t really describe their history, thosecoal suited buildings that lay between my eyes and the sky as Iwalked, feeling those cobblestones under my feet again on such aneve. I was walking from Opalatova Street up, my valise heavy withteaching documents, my class ended in English, I a free man of sortsto think about other issues, a full 4 hours down of speaking,teaching and scratching diagrams all over the blackboard. I wastired, I moved with a quickened pace home. Still the dream likeessence of Prague was insistent on my attention.
This was my nightly path betweenthe center of Prague and the subway line to “Museum” or rather“Hlavni Nadrazi” (The train station) which was a mark half wayhome from the center. Usually I was taking the bus, but on somenights I walked the parallels between the crowds, elbow room only,Germans, Italians and then some Russians.
This was a real walk, far frominternet, and hard stones under my feet, pounding pavementunder-foot.
Tourists arrived like clockworkhere, different groups every week, arriving and departing on theirholidays. Somewhere here seemed at times like a city that was betweenspatial references, way out there in the midst of a giganticinternational world. Today it was a group of Italians that weregathered walking evenly following their guide, his pole held high.They were following, I was escaping.
I could seen the last rays oflight spread upon edge of the Museum out the the end of Wenceslassquare, watching traffic, being especially careful of the trams thatwould appear out of nowhere as I moved on my special path up,crossing the street and over towards the Hotel Europa, that hotelwhere I had residence for many months and sometimes still resided inmy mind.
Time plays tricks it is said.Was this the late 1990’s or the early 1930’s, still in an oldstyle movie, faded color but true to the essence, a poetic moviewrought before me, through my vision, in polite integrity of realcircumstance, somehow measured the details, and put upon the pedestalof time for investigation.
Suddenly a thought passedthrough me, and upon the wall, like a shadow; to stop by Europa andsee if Dieter was working the desk. Dieter had been an old friend whomade violins up in the attic of Europa during the days of residenceat this legendary hotel. There was the Europa, grand in style andoffering music in the Cafe heard from across the boulevard. The oldEuropa now demoted somehow to one star from five, by the period ofreconstruction after the fall of communism. There is stood, andarchangel of great gilded times past, the dim lights from withinshining, one savored this time of thin harmony of music from the cafeas I approached. It was Bedrich Smetana tonight. Sometimes it wasjazz.
I rolled around through theturnstile of a revolving door into the lobby. It was like a merry goround between centuries, entering the last of the 20th through aportal of the 19th.
A passing friend from the hoteltipped his gray Czech brow in welcome greetings. I could smell thecafe, something fresh was cooking that included meat, onion andgarlic.
I sank myself in towards thefront, half covered by the red velvet curtain that provided somecovering from the doors in winter. Yes, I could feel the snap fromthe back of me of the cold as well as the steam from the radiatorthat was at my legs as I peered into the Europa Cafe from the sidedoor, bolted shut. None of my friends could see me here. Carefully Iscanned for Petra, Vossek, Dmitri, and Vera. They were not at theirnightly chairs at this time, sitting drinking wine or coffee andabsorbing this old expensive place and its nostalgia of the turn ofthe 20th century guild. No, they did not come tonight.
I turned around and looked atthe front desk. Peter was tending the desk, the German-Czech withmany legends, known and unknown. There were two people just receivingtheir room keys, and set off. Casually and with a great sense ofbalance he seemed to turn around and see me there, glancing straightat me as I approached, addressing me with a smile. He reached to thekey box behind him and produced a key. It had been many months that Ihad stayed there, this was still automatic with Peter. He smiled, “Myfriend...you must have your room key!” I laughed and told him I wasliving elsewhere, in Zizkov this time and didn’t reside at thehotel but would return one day to my room. He again looked in back ofhim and pointed to #10, my room, “It is here for anytime..” hesmiled, and then asked me about my life and what was new. We talked abit and then I asked if Dieter was working that evening. Peter pausedsmiled and then shook his head. Out of the corner of my eye afamiliar friend Vacek appeared. Shaking hands, we greeted each other,conversed lightly and bid farewell. I spotted the clock and I hadbeen already almost ½ hour off my usual schedule home on this night.I would have to grab the buss at Halni Nadrazi for the trip up,making some better time. Natasha had cooked some dinner and was eagerfor me to come home for supper. I bid farewell, headed off into thenight, up the street, catching the bus and seating myself on acrowded coach toward Zizkov, paying close attention to the bus stopsas they passed not to be confused with my stop.
Soon I was at my street andviewing my apartment building, not as ancient as the old town amidsta group of 1920's era 12 story structures. The large door opened andI walked in, tired from the walk as usual, up one and then twoflights of stairs and a mustard colored Mezzanine, typical of the oldSoviet designs.
Ringing the loud harsh soundingdoorbell Natasha was eager to see me, gracefully inviting me into thefront room and setting me on the sofa for the evening Becherovka, anaperitif. My greeting home was endearing after the often cold day onthe frontier, I one of the very few who seemed to have driftedthrough Prague, and on this occasion decided to establish an outposthere, and now with the drink of Becherovka, toasting to the day whichwas not easy, but difficult only now to have my kindness given to meat home before dinner.
Tatyana was a lovely lady. Herinspiration was Prague for me, her smile an effervescent light at theend of an often dark street, living and trying to make it in atotally foreign land. It was my first year. I had been lucky.
I went back in memory at thatpoint to the first sight of Prague from the train station, the timewhen I stepped off the train was given a room at the Hotel Europa tostay and all of the dramatics that I had seen. Memories had theirwilling target, I a nostalgic person. But this was my first year andI had started teaching via a good school in Czech and was invited toteach continuing education courses at the Faculty of Pedagogy as wellas at the television NOVA. It consume all my time, but these postswere work and paid a bit, though I was always open to more prosperousprojects, and still a most willing subject to my own visions, as anartist and designer, independent and working for myself. In thelarger picture it seemed as though everything I had done in Praguewas work all the time to this fine time when I pulled forth myBecherovka to my lips, forgot about the past and brought that sweetliquid to my lips for a partial fulfillment of the present.
I looked at Tatyana and gave hermy full devotion with a kiss and sweet words for the dinner table wasset.
The meal was phenomenal as usualwith fresh baked bread and sausage, sauerkraut (Cabbage rather) andsome home-made dumplings with a wedge of Pork. I loved thesimplicity, but moreover I loved to return home to a kind and warmsetting, appreciating Tatyana for her ability to keep a happy home,and kindness on her lips despite the storms I often encountered.
It was such an evening whenlightning was crashing, and the rains were gathering puddles in thestreets the water heard down below beating, as one could catch theflashes outside over the silhouettes of the buildings and dim lightsalong the structural walls and chasms of the apartment buildings inZizkov.
As I finished the meal I thankedTatyana and tipped the napkin to feel away a little cabbage on theedge of my lip. She smiled at me with a most courteous smile and toldme of her deep love for me, encountering the position of romance ofthe highest order. I looked into her smiling eyes with a touch ofsentiment, and not so shallowly to bestow a radiance of love that wassparked here. Her eyes breathed the light of a nearby candle as thesoftness and glow of her temperament set golden promises adrift inthoughts, both hand tenderly embraced and promises made, I knew thatthis was an engagement.
The phone interrupted some driftin consciousness here, as always at such subtle moments before thetouch of love, bestowed an impassioned moment with intercoursefollowing.
That gnashing ring, obnoxious,as though an old woman was letting loose her rage of not being young,that damned phone rang and the talk began. It was Lesha, and thenJohanne, two students who scheduled lessons.
Afterward the desert wasbrought. Zmrzlina, or ice cream and cake of the best variety,followed by light coffee and then small talk, Tatyana relaying to mesomething she had forgotten.
She told me of a message fromDieter as well as my friends associate Vronkman who managed some ofmy work in Prague and was a friend of Sarka and Millionen. With allthe names that went by and their difficult pronunciations I had adifficult time keeping track of the many, coming, going and inbetween. But the message was from Dieter asking me to accept one ofhis packages which I may find in my postbox and to please deliver itto an address, given in the message. It was the same as many timesbefore, a letter or parcel or even a piece of statuary given to me topass along. “Oh yes!” Tatyana added, “Dieter wants to meet youat the Kafka Cafe...he say you know where it is”
All of a sudden the phone rangwith that almost yelling bell. I had never been use to it ringing.Tatyana grabbed it and answered, then beckoned me to come in to takethe call. It was Dieter. “You must...” a strange restrained voiceremained, “Meet me tonight at the Cafe ..K.” He then put thephone down. It went into a repeated tone.
“Well another night..”I saidto myself as I told Tatyana that I had to meet my associate inPrague, apologizing that it would only be an hours meeting. Tatyanalooked sad but we came to a halfway resolve of the issue to meet intown later in the evening at yet another cafe Gulu Gulu in anotherportion of Prague.
I grabbed my bag and set out. Itwas still only 7pm and the night was young.
I arrived at the Kafka Cafeabout 7:45 a quarter to 8. The place was still open, but not asbustling as usual. Tonight they had the televisions blasting somesports game and a marginal crowd that was interested. I looked forDieter and he hadn’t appeared yet. Ordering a coffee, I settledinto a still and dim corner of the main room of the cafe. A few nicelooking ladies came in, smiled and took their seats opposite me as Iwaited for Dieter.
Checking the time on a bolddecorative clock, I paced the time. I usually paced time. It was likea ticking clock, the footsteps made on the pavement. Endlessticking,.,
He was never that late. Dieterwas a man of precision though seemingly a little show on the catch,too sharp on the catch, a man of a disguise, not of face value. Thiswas kindly Dieter. He was a man filled with a joke, forgetting thepunchline only to exacerbate on the articles and syntax of thesentence as well as specific words in vocabulary as he slowed, markedit all out, and surprised one with his wit about bending words andsentences. But when Dieter was happy, he was happy, and sad...hum, Ican say sad of course as he was filled with a very establisheddiorama of gray emotions. He had a long face, kind and lost, abrilliant man at chess, and discussions and discourse on religion,pragmatics. All inclusive, a kind man of honesty and convictionhaving only one drawback...thistime being late.
He would never excuse himselffor his behaviour. I would listen to this for an hour or maybe two,or maybe he would draw back and say, “I'm sorry…” or theexcuses being laid on the banner of honor, or simply laid aside. Iwas not this time bandit! But now I was pacing, foot-by foot,stepping down, and then stepping on the curb.
And then I went back in my mind.
I drew an envelope from mymailbox, early this morning and now from my coat sleeve and measuredit, wondering the contents and placed my hand on it retrieving somenews from a vacant newspaper left on another table. It was inEnglish, a preferred language arguably since my Czech was never thatgood, making attempts at times to learn it conservatively. Trying notto be suspicious, I tapped it to the content, lightly as I watchedeach face around me, dodge, excuse and walk around to go in the cafe,the weather getting cool, a breeze coming about, stirring in anotherdirection still, a premium on my neck.
It had been 45 minutes and nowwas approaching an hour, Dieter still had not arrived. I put theenvelope in my coat pocket and began to think he got caught up insomething, thinking our meeting wasn’t that important.
Suddenly Dieter appeared in thedoorway, a 6,7 shadow, the backdrop of light making his silhouetteseem strange and gnawing. I walked over to him and he stood still andacted as if he didn't know me for one minute, then gave me a word, “Icannot meet you tonight, deliver the mail to Peter...” he commandedin a silent breath, turned and walked out into the dark.
I did not ask questions. SomehowI knew.
The night passed with a strangefeeling. I walked on as though the night were young, laying a whistleinto the air, passing the pharmacy, and the old town square, lookingup for a moment, checking the time, walking over to Gulu Gulu andmeeting Tatyana there.
Oh I progressed not to think.The night was love and still to be enjoyable. Tatyana had been mygirlfriend for some time. It was like the darkness was given lightwhen she would appear.
We met, and kissed in a welcome.Our evening had consumed a few cocktails and an hour at a jazz club and then we set off for home.
She had never met Dieter, butwas constantly asking about many of my whereabouts from differenttimes, seeming somewhat jealous.
I gave alibis for this evening,kept quiet, or even jovially attendant and of my speech, even in achildish joke. It was better that way, better to seem wandering thansuspicious, no jealousy here but another life, dare I speak, or say,or tell.
Yet it was a dream. Prague was adream and so I measured each day by practical clockwork consumingtime as it was given in various ways.
The next day on my way to ateaching engagement I stopped by the Hotel Europa where I waspromptly greeted by Peter and Vacek.
I was given a piece of paper inmy palm with my hotel keys by Peter. “On Saturday, your reservationis made...#15” He slipped another envelope to me from the AmericanCenter in which I was invited to a formal engagement. “You are verypopular!” Peter said and smiled.
I never asked and was never toldabout the efficiency of numbers, rooms, envelopes, or markings onnewspapers as general descriptions of things which I was not supposedto know. I would appear on Friday and continue on to the trainstation going down to Cesky Budowica on Saturday, running as analibi, my location as both Prague and Budowica had “Hotel Europa’s”I laughed, shuttling envelopes, the most pure white type, or themanila forms. It was the days before internet, presents being given,but underpinnings being less known for the benefit of all.
I played aloof tomiscalculations of bills, especially to my benefit, wrong change..tobe given a benefit??
Alas this was only a dream, acomplete dream of envelopes and documents flying here and there,unknowns being counted among shadows, or packages being delivered inthe freezing cold of the night to sources that are mere fog, relatingto one point where life was only normal in the Czech Republic at thistime. But the enhancement, therein, might maintain a certain elementof imagination.
Room Number #15 did not existbut was a broom closet. Room #10 did. Memories of that chasm ofEuropa's Mezzanine did provide allot for the imaginations getting.
The smiles were there at Europa,with Peter always guessing if it were #10, #5 or #47 or #356 where Iwould hang my hat for the evening! We laughed, and our partydeparted.
This afternoon was the sameepisode, along the same line, distributing myself to variousquadrants in Prague at 2pm an hour in a basement, on an old grandpiano which I was allowed to practice and at 3:35 another episodewith a class in Hradczany, moving again to Biskupcova St, for anotherhour session with a private client, and then the rite of eveningclasses at the Pedagogical institute in which I would pay 2 hour duesuntil that 7 o'clock bell would ring, I remaining hoarse from talkingthe full period about vocabulary to attentive students.
It was the same regiment everysingle day, changing clients to Pancras and another client down inthe center of Prague at periods. Indeed what was made of the day?Hours of walking, tramming and then the silent period of practice,possibly a concert for an hour waiting, as the other assembly wouldplay, first a flutist, then a classical guitar, I pulled out in allexcellence for a Chopin Etude, or set, disguised in my name for agroup of anxious tourists wanting to hear Mozart, Bach and TheBeetles.
One day I sat besides myself,fulfilled in the abstraction of a living breathing creator, here onthis planet, to do a variety of things, not always known, nor seen,in the prejudicial variety show of commercial culture, only to be anEnglish Teacher and a piano player where Liszt was liked, and Chopinwas liked, now disappearing again to a class where I would garnishthe same suit, appear in tails at times, maintaining another profileand live in Prague practically unaffected. History and traditionsomehow were intact here, not played against one another like a twopiano concerto where each pianist have a different score. Europe wasfar different in its tastes and traditions which were learned, notjust assumed.
Slowly I walked on my 2pmjourney to that mustard colored building and in through the backloading area, those doors reminding me of some gateway to paradise,down one level and then to another. There was a long corridor filledwith seats, boxes and drama from the last century. At the end of thiswas a clearing and a long black piano laid with thick padding thatwas open, and somehow always in tune for its age. It was there that Ipracticed and there that I weaved my soul with music as the workmenwould sometime come, smile and sit listening but not disturbing me.
I would look overhead at thethickly coated pipes and the mesh door that looked as a chasm to acorner, and then the table where there was as much music as could behad, where I stored all that wasn’t needed on my shoulder or in mybriefcase for another days trial.
The hour would end, and likeclockwork the busy workmen would come through gathering ladders andbuckets and smile as the started their afternoon work packing.
It was like this was a hidingplace for me. I could come and go if I chose in the afternoon orevening so long as those great doors were not locked. Sometimes afterclass I would come. Sometimes late in the evening. My refuge wouldchange as the months passed to a similar place in Old Prague, an oldschool, a basement once more, or a teaching room where theperspective of a portrait of Brahms would tower over me, Mendelssohnthere feeling free to express, and I insulating myself until I wasfinished, and closed the door behind me walking, marching to anothersession of teaching in another vicinity of Prague always leavinghours open to remain at my flat in Zizkov for artwork to appear, astudio and sessions like clockwork for some exhibitions, be theymany, untold, and undiscovered among the cataclysm of renownedcenters here and there.
This day was like others. It wasa common night. Tonight I returned home tired of the day, sameroutine, only stopping briefly at Gulu Gulu before my return home tosee if one associate of mine, a quite intelligent young fellow fromLebanon “David”, a Phd in Chemistry in residence, was availableto pattern, edit, and put some of my notes on Disk, the only fellowwho had computer in Prague that could proceed with this at that time.It was 1997 and the Internet Cafe was a weak commodity in Praguewithout signing up for rather expensive sessions. I would writeeverything in hand-script only for later transcription for editing onmy lusciously equip 486 laptop, slow but sturdy archaic element fromdays when EMail was a relatively unknown thing and Facebook a dream,especially in Czech.
As I walked into the smokefilled Gulu Gulu David was present, as usual drinking a firm glass ofPivo (Beer) and affirmed that he could process some 150 pages for meat a reasonable cost on his bosses computer. The trade was a snack,sandwich, and beer, but moreover some companionship sitting, bothforeigners in a place where expats and tourists unraveled theirinterests and travels, locals keeping busy on the relaxing timber ofchat, football games and ephemera. There was interesting conversationin periods however, people gathering together by mutual interests inthis place, some less common than the rest.
I had been formatting thisdocument in what seemed as a forever time...the last part of myso-called dissertation, changed dramatically from two years process,the feeling of this anticlimactic being a little of memory.
I turned around and there were afew of my students that cheered me on from a different table, Sarkaand Denis were there, George (The American) and old Zdenek who soldthe candles of Lenin, Stalin and Marx was passing again around theplace. Choosing to sit down and enjoy the atmosphere, a thick cloudof smoke enduring the entire cafe was layering the visual, as onefriend rushed toward me and announced that Tatyana was going to comesoon.
I smiled, knowing she had aphone and I was at the mercy of that decrepit payphone adjacent toGulu Gulu. Somehow everything worked out always, like precision, asper some kind of thought mail.
I turned and there she was,neatly dressed from her work at the design shop. We greeted eachother with the usual overwhelming embrace as Sarka stood and cameover announcing in a giddy voice to us, “She knew the power ofPrague when it came to Love” To her it Its a most amazing place...”she added, “where couples can be lost and found in the manycorridors of the streets, a bench or special park where lovers wouldwander, find themselves and suit themselves to entanglement inpassionate love making at the feet of Macha.
Tatyana seemed to know mywhereabouts as though by telepathy. How she did I never could know.Tonight she was specially graced in a black skirt clear to herankles, a high collar, the pitch of her hair, extravagant andelegant. She stood in the doorway of the Gulu Gulu, and people didwonder of the occasion when she entered, peering up in suprised at anelegantly dressed lady. She was dressed for me not for the situation,as jeans and T-shirt would be enough.
I didn’t have a phone at thetime, but she always appeared many times out of the blue, in directconnection to where I was in Prague. How this was seemed amazing butkindly!
I could never get over Tatyana'sincredible light blue eyes, fair skin. It was always hypnotic. Asalways I was taken in a kind of mesmerizer and a dream world when itcame to her appearance. She always dressed well whether in tastefuldress or sneakers and T-Shirt, the latter not too well remembered asshe always mesmerized my attention.
Of course she was always askingabout the days events. Many days were ordinary. Same..Same teachingand of course waiting for some time to do some more, tranquil andintense work at home in my art.
We laughed a bit, I held her inmy arms and we descended into conversations about world events, andliving in Prague.
I remember those days withfascination!
It seemed a long time ago sinceI lived back in America. Actually it was only a couple of years inretrospect. During this time I had made trips back for business butonly short term, a month or two at most and then I was back toPrague, which seemed then like a home, a foreign land which I assumedto be a home.
Sometimes memories would skipback to busy Phoenix traffic instead of walking or taking a bus. Inmy arrival back I always felt it was like a visit to a busy casino,lady luck always on my tail for the winning numbers. Life in Czechwas more practical, pragmatic, but hard earned, and in ways easier,but there were difficulties being a foreigner at times. I amAmerican, though no one really knew my nationality. I always lookedback in nostalgia at things that could have been, but were not,playing the scenes that were more of a made-for-television movie thanreality, and in someway nonsensical dreams, painted realities. That Iwas able to live, able to work here was a gift in many ways. Thatthis was a reality far away from American dreamlands ofmega-millions, big bucks and business at all costs seemed a sobrereality for an artist, painter and a musician, who in his time wouldlive a life that was simple and endearing here without being muscledby primate concepts of keeping up with the Jones methodology and livelife simply and among friends.
At the cafe, I sipped cafe wroteand filled pages of my sketchbooks, worked at home, at night writingjournals, reflections. The in-between pages lifting to some thoughtfilled dreams of the past which seemingly never really went away, norever could.
I was present here in Prague,not at home, for this was my home, for the time being. I was working,and living life in a simple way, measurably being productive.
I would drift forward at timesto wonder, if I returned to my homeland what this reality that I wasexperiencing would mean in the greater aspect. This did not goodhowever, for present is the greatest gift of experience.
I would spend seven years inCzech Republic which in memory would be the experience of a lifetime,each moment assembling itself upon the next, in artistic notions, andstranger dreams, and experiences which would be irrevocable.
The morning was brisk. The lateautumn air was catching a strong chill as I would gather pastry inthe morning for breakfast from a little shop of homemade breads inZizkov, on my route passing by a bookstore where I viewed the latestnews from America in the Herald Tribune, or some new novel...entitled“On Wings of Fallen Angels..” by an uncommon, and unknown authorof nonfiction poised in a world of the virtual.
-End Chapter One-