Because it's old and even the most inconspicuous alley carries within its cobbles 1,100 years of history.
Because even modern doors devoid of pomp or notoriety seem to have been knocked on by the whole of humankind.
Because it is Romanesque and Gothic and Romantic and touched by Renaissance and Modernism and nobody cares which period was the best or the worst.
Because Prague's story is terribly violent and deeply religious and fiercely secular and outrageously literate and devastatingly beautiful....it could also be defined in any variation of the above. That's why.
Because these men sat on a park bench at the Old Town Square to swig an unidentifiable drink out of a paper bag, chain-smoke, and share a loaf of dry bread while peacefully soaking in the wintry Praguian sun.
Because these winos, we tourists call Praguers, Praguians, Czechs, have Celtic blood running through their veins and can very well be descendants of their ancestral Roman Emperors.
Because I found these two men with wrinkled faces, yellow finger nails, cheap cigarettes and bagged brew chitchatting right where the Protestant Reformation was conceived; probably right on the same spot where a few centuries ago eleven political leaders were sentenced to death by defenestration; that so Praguian habit of throwing nasty politicians out of the window.
Because in Prague I was reminded of the universal commonality of friendship. Like the old men I photographed in Sicily, in Timbuktu, in Costa Rica, they represent what getting old and having a pal is all about.
Soak in the sun. Pass the booze. Shut up and breathe
Because you can adopt a fully postrate position in the middle of a busy street, rattle a few coins inside an empty can, break tourists’ hearts, collect some Euros, then get up, dust your knees off and walk into a bar to guzzle a tall glass of green absinthe of the highest cannabis content available on the market. Repeat when the astonished tourists have moved on.
Because apparently books make great sculpting material. This tower is made of nothing but books kept together with pockets of calculated air, love for books, and a very Praguesian conviction that anything built upon words is meant to stand the test of time.
Because you can stop on any corner downtown and have a glass of hot wine with corn, or a glass of hot wine with the Czech equivalent of cinnamon rolls, made in-situ in front of your eyes, or skip the starchy distractions and focus on having one glass of hot wine after the other.
I stared at an old woman
took note of her nasolabial folds, the creases forming an accordion on her upper lip, the stab marks of her frown and remembered something that happened to me sometime ago.
I’m not supposed to call it a wrinkle.
My girlfriend, a Botox/derma-fillers/fat-transfer/implant veteran tells me it’s called the nasolabial fold.
“You have a fold not a wrinkle,” she tells me as she stretches the right side of my face. When she does, the wrinkle disappears and I’m young again.
“See? Folds are reversible. Two shots of Juvederm and you’ll be like new.”
This particular day, we are afflicted by a sort of Latin melancholy and decide to hit a salsa club nearby. I have second thoughts as I look at myself in her bathroom mirror. The skin in my face wasn’t sagging yesterday, I'm sure; it started sagging five minutes ago as I watched her struggle to tuck her brand new breasts into a tiny bustier. Her skin is flawless and the Botox has paralyzed some muscles just enough to keep her face looking natural. Her body is taut from cosmetic surgery and long hours in the gym. She’s older than I’m and wrinkle-free.
"You don't have to look like crap just because you are old," she says and I wonder if she means that I look like crap. She hands me a business card.
Botox Parties When you Want Them, Where you Need them.
“Repeat after me,” she says. “I don’t have a wrinkle. I have a fold.”
Tonight, all the beautiful women in the world show up at the club, a dizzying parade of rock solid bodies, cheeks bursting with collagen, curves and dimples. No nasolabial folds in sight. I tap on my newly found wrinkle after the first mojito, follow its crease all the way from the tip of my nose to the corner of my mouth. It’s not so bad, I think and I treat myself to a second drink. By the third mojito I’m definitely digging the wrinkle. It separates my cheek from my upper lip. It’s got purpose. I need this wrinkle, I say to myself. Then I order another mojito. -------- -------------
I hope this beautiful old woman doesn't use euphemisms to describe the evolution of her skin. I hope she looks at her nasolabial folds and says, I've earned you wrinkles; I hope she doesn't freeze the deep stabs of her frown with botox. I hope she goes to some Amsterdam centrum bar and has many mojitos, not to forget how old she is, but to celebrate it.
I visited the Red Light District.
Walking down the dimly lit alleys, getting puffs of mind-dulling Moroccan weed as one passes Amsterdam coffee shops, window shopping adult stores, stealing glances inside brothels, tasting pale lagers at the many bars overlooking the canals, being invited by bouncers to walk into a peep show ….that’s a night anywhere in old Amsterdam Centrum. But at The Wallen, the Red Light District, there is something else: about 250 shop windows behind which approximately 6000 prostitutes from all over the world, especially Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia (in that order) entice passersby with gyrating hips, lacy underwear, whips, feathers, and the promise of a disease-free encounter.
Of course I was curious.
Of course I had to go.
Of course I felt compelled to see with my own eyes this flesh market set against the backdrop of 14th century buildings and history. This is what I found. That legalizing prostitution in the Netherlands has not eliminated the existence of pimps nor has it been a deterrent for human traffickers. As we walked down the canal, an African man followed us, offered the both of us first, later my husband alone, anything my husband wanted: the best night of his life, the man assured him. And as we walked down the red-lit window cabins, some girls offered threesomes, invited us both to the back of their painfully sad workplace we could see from the street: behind her tiny cabin and separated by a curtain was a cement bed with a thin mattress. Rolls of toilet paper piled up against the wall. My heart sank.
Down the same block we found a beautiful young girl: porcelain skin, black shiny hair, fake eye lashes, diminutive black leather bikini, and a set of glossy eyes deep, blue and high. She struggled to stand up. She swayed her body and blinked heavily as if commanding herself to remain on her feet. I felt a feral desire to run inside and give her some water, ask her what was wrong with her and what the hell she’d smoked, inhaled or injected to make her look this sick. But she was on the clock and she smiled a jagged smiled, licked her lips and dispatched me with an obscene gesture. By now, I was a lot less curious, less interested, more disgusted. Less the tourist and more the woman. I thought these were free sex workers, women who had chosen to use their bodies as their livelihood, adult women who had made educated decisions about the risks inherent to selling their bodies. Some of them were old and seemed cunningly savvy, like old dogs who knew every corner of their neighborhood. Some were less attractive than others, some overweight, some black, some Latinas, some ridiculously gorgeous with perfect bodies, others out of shape and warped with stretch marks, moles, scars, life. Then there was the school girl. She seemed to be just out of Amsterdam Middle School: pony tails, goofy reading glasses, flat chest and bony legs. She was impossibly young. Too young to be a legal prostitute. I squeezed my husband’s hand and he squeezed me back. She has to be of legal age, he said as if he could read my mind. But she was there in front of us, looking like she could use my help to finish her homework, like the never-before-kissed girl I once was, younger than my daughter, younger than everyone around us in The Wallen. I wanted to walk inside and save her, from herself, from her Johns, from predatory eyes, from Amsterdam’s jaws. Instead I hid my face from her behind my husband’s shoulder, I asked her to forgive me for not doing anything, and we walked away until the night devoured me whole.