chapter03

May 1967
'
Praga Caput Regni' - Prague the City where the Kings reigned. When Ottokar II. Přemysl was King of Bohemia, his lands extended as far as Trieste on the Adriatic coast. This is probably where the Mariner in Shakespeare's 'A Winter's Tale' arrived with his ship when he abandoned Perdita the Sicilian baby. Trieste was the only coast, the Bohemian kingdom ever knew. Then, in 1526, Louis II. Jagiello was defeated by the Turks and the Habsburgs of Austria. The empire was split up: one part went to the Ottoman Empire and the other became part of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations. In 1583, Emperor Rudolf II. Habsburg set up his headquarters in Prague and transformed the city into his eccentric feudal vision of a centre for the arts, culture, sciences and commerce. This is how Prague acquired its name:The Golden City. Under the republic, Prague has retained this modus operandi. Tycho Brahe who had a prosthetic golden nose and gazed at the stars may be no more, but in 1967, the papers were full with news about Vostok spaceships, Laika the dog, Sputnik satellites and Soyuz missions. People were eagerly waiting for the Soviet spaceship programme to land a man on the moon. And so to these days, a foreign feudal overlord is shaping the arts, culture, science and commerce - and above all the politics of the Golden City. Šnabl Jr at the state paper mill was right.

The sun was setting when I arrived at Florenc Coach station. I could barely contain my excitement when I put down my suitcase, took my wallet out of my satchel and bought the latest edition of the Prague Evening News. I left the station to wait for my prospective supervisor to pick me up in front of Café Arco located nearby.Professor Pavel Varady from the Institute for Historical Literature at Charles University and his wife Olga - a senior civil servant at the Soviet Embassy - arrived shortly afterward. The Professor introduced himself and his wife in perfect Czech. He was a stout man with a receding hairline. His hair was silver, he had inquisitive eyes and a bushy Karl-Marx beard. He wore a brown three-piece corduroy suit. He looked intimidating and even more so when he volubly spoke in a gravelly voice. Olga Varadyová looked dour. She wore an unadorned dark-blue frumpy dress with a white collar and a head scarf to protect her hair from the rain. She was a woman of few facial expressions and even fewer words. As her large blue eyes stared at me, I suspected her to have a good memory and top notch observational skills, hence I remained on the cautious side and did not venture beyond polite formalities. We drove off in an old white Škoda.

The Professor, talking like a book, described the city with a litany of names and sound-bites. The car went into Hybernska Street, towards Republic Square, then underneath the feudal Powder Tower. It slowed down along the tortuous Celetna Street, turned at U Radnice – 'famous for the astronomical clock' and speeded on the Krapova street along the river Vlatva river – only to be slowed down by the traffic-lights. Then it crossed the Manosav bridge. The Professor told me to look out of the window towards the famous Charles Bridge and its ornamental statues - I could distinguish Christ on the Cross and St John Nepomuk. Very few people were outside at this time. A sharp turn on the left of the Manosav bridge led us into the Malá Strana district where the couple lived.

At the turn of the century, German-speaking upper-class people used to live in the Malá Strana. They called it 'Kleinseite' (the Small Bank). In 'Two Stories of Prague, Rainer Maria Rilke writes about a couple from Český Krumlov coming to work for a rich German-speaking household. I struggled to understand the finer details of the story in the same way as German-language learners might have done before me. One thinks, just because we can read a few words, it is possible to understand book. Pronunciation is easy enough  but knowing what you are reading is the challenge. I hoped that my job did not entail an understanding of the German language. My understanding of the Russian language was marginally better. Times have changed since 'Two Stories of Prague'. In 1967, the Kahestche (my nickname for the Czechoslovakian Communist Party KSČ), the Nomenclature and the civil servants were the ones residing at the foot of the Hrád Castle.

The Varadys lived in a yellow house in the Cihelna Street. The ground floor shutters facing the garden were closed. There was a cherry tree in bloom growing in the overgrown garden behind the high iron gate. We passed the gate and went up an outside flight of stone steps to a door opening onto the first floor. We entered through a narrow hallway adorned with numerous framed photographs and postcards – the Professor left my luggage there. Then we all settled into the living-room for some light dinner. The living-room was basking into the orange glow from an electric fire. The Professor switched on a floor-lamp, and this lighting gave a theatrical effect to the room. The old-fashioned furniture and pictures gave the whole interior an early 19.C Russian atmosphere. – a décor similar to these Tolstoy adaptations at the theatre. Whilst Olga Varadyová was preparing sandwiches in the kitchen, her husband put on a vinyl recording of the 'Prague Symphony' by Mozart. He prattled about himself and Olga enjoying a play about Mozart by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov at the Black Theatre down-town. They ended up buying the stage set when the production ended. It was very handy because they had just moved into this apartment.

During the table conversation, I learnt that the couple lived in Leningrad and that they appreciated ballet and Russian literature. The Professor had studied at Leningrad University. He was proud of a massive illustrated tome of eight hundred eighty eight page,  and explained that his thesis revolved around the Napoleonic Wars as perceived by Tolstoy. Until 1963, he had been lecturing in Cambridge, United Kingdom and at the London School of Economics, however, after a British spy called Kim Philby defected to the Soviet Union, the British authorities became more suspicious of Soviet academics. Babbling on like an academic dissertation, the Professor explained how exchange students from Cambridge, London and Leningrad took his courses at Prague University. Would I be interested in attending some of his lectures? In Russian of course, as he had switched languages.

Russian... Oh yes. Now,  I saw my job prospects slipping away nevertheless I had to be honest. I explained in Russian how my knowledge of the language would not be good enough to understand Tolstoy. The Professor laughed and looked at his wife who smiled thinly. He told me that my main job consisted in typing notes on a Latin-keyboard typewriter and on a Cyrillic keyboard typewriter. I said that I could read Russian all right: my previous job involved typing memos, minutes and other basic office correspondence as well as warehouse stock-lists on an old Consul. The Professor concluded that these qualifications were perfect for the vacancy, then he declared that it was time to retire and asked me whether I was comfortable sleeping on the sofa for tonight? I said that I was and thanked them. Olga Varadyová fetched a quilt blanket.

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