Sunday, January 26, 2014

On the Kafka Museum: Getting There

Like many a flawed pilgrim, I had decided the meaning of this journey before I took it.  I would end up in the Kafka museum, after a trip that confirmed something I had expected in the first place.  There I would see things to reaffirm my comfort and my confident position in the universe. 
                But this is what happened on the journey.  My task is to set down the process, to suspend some judgment even now, until I have it on the page.
                We emerged from the Underground into the cold Prague sunlight at the Malestranska Station, at once faced with yet another slippery tangle of streets, an overpass leading me (as Google Maps had promised and as I had planned) along a street running parallel to the Vltava River.  So far, so good: the turns written down in my little notebook leading to the destination, I guessed, within two city blocks or so, one way or another.
                And it was haywire from there, I'm afraid.  Unmapped or unreckoned, roads sprouted from the seminary street that was my directional plumb line, then the Charles Bridge (our second and, for me, secondary destination of the day) loomed straight in front of us.  It meant that we were past the museum, and no matter the most celebrated bridge in a city of bridges—and no matter my desire to see it—the search for the museum was not over.
                So around the labyrinth of side roads and alleys and cul-de-sacs we wandered, as I found other landmarks—ones to which I had listed directions from the yet-to-be-visible Kafka Museum.  I tried reversing those directions, figuring that you could reach the Kafka Museum from Shakespeare & Sons Bookstore by simply flipping the directions to Shakespeare & Sons from the Kafka Museum, but it wasn't happening: like the old Vermont farmer said, "You can't get there from here," and somewhere in ghostly Prague the Master had to be smiling.  I found myself back at the foot of bridge, increasingly irritated at Rhonda's calm and kindly suggestion that we might be able to see something (the museum, perhaps?) over its span.
                You see where this is heading.  If you don't, you are as clueless as I was, when I consented to the bridge, climbed up among the subversive and Baroque statues lining its cobblestoned arch, to discover if you walked about 100 feet up its arch, moving toward the eastern side, you could look over the railing and see the big red-and-white sign for the Kafka Museum hard against the western bank of the Vltava.
                Was it a version of John Lennon's saying that "life is what happens when you're thinking about something else"?   So I was thinking as I congratulated myself on resolutions, like a plot line in a story clicking into place, the answer somewhere between the Lennon quote and the setting aside of my bull-headed masculine refusal to ask directions—in short, listening to Rhonda in matters of logistics and simple compass sense, where, quite frankly, she is definitely superior to me when all is said and done.  Such could have marked the story's end, were it not for our losing our way the instant we came down from the bridge.
                Because without the distance, all Prague closed in, towered over us.  Our expected path by the riverside was cut off by a fenced-in canal, and an alternate route was blocked by friendly but insistent waiter, standing in a restaurant courtyard we were trying to cross and directing us, with no negotiation permitted, around to the front side of the building.
                We ended up beside Shakespeare & Sons, full circle from an earlier route and, frankly, no less sure of our destination, no matter how clearly we had glimpsed it from the bridge.  I felt like Joseph K. in The Trial, lost in the maze of the city's plan and my own suppositions.  Here we were, no longer certain of where we stood, as though the compass points themselves were moving.
                Then I saw a queue of tourists, their line crossing the sidewalk, spilling into the street, and ending on the opposite curb. I'm thinking, "wouldn't they all line up for Kafka?"  But given our luck over the last hour, I took nothing for granted, circled the line, and found it led to a narrow passage between buildings, too narrow even for an alley, that ended in a little alcove where someone had placed a crossing light, flashing "walk" to "don't walk" and back again, a young woman striking poses in front of it for the benefit of passers-by and their cameras.  And I was thinking that now I'd seen everything until Rhonda jostled me out of stupor and disappointment by calling out that here it was, that, yes, there was a sign ahead, and an archway, it turned out, that opened into a court ringed with two cafes, a gift shop, the pissing statue, and the museum we'd been hunting for two hours.  She took the picture of me by the statue, urging me to remove my hat for the shot, because obviously a bedraggled, half-old and ankle-tired man standing between two urinating statues should preserve his dignity by going hatless, am I right?
                And still, the odd pride I felt in having stumbled upon the place.  I had set aside the directions I had taken down carefully and mapped at home, had walked every street in Malastranska (including, I am sure, this one several times), had seen the destination from the height of the famous bridge and then across a narrow canal, only to get there by accident.  Peace, resolution, and complacency were my brief reward.  
But the museum lay in front of me.  And the journey darkens from here.  ©2014 Michael Williams

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