Finding Perspective in Prague
We were laughing a little too loudly when we entered the grand lobby of the Dvorák Hall, which probably contributed to the panic on the doorman’s face. He lurched toward us, holding his top-hat in place as he moved across the gleaming floor and thrust out his hand. Tickets! He hissed, and then raised his eyebrows as he read our seat assignments. Balcony, front and centre. I squared my shoulders and mounted the stairs.
I reached the top step as a wave of applause sounded, and the doors to the balcony seating swung open for intermission. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror; my faded jeans were splashed with muck, my sodden jacket hung limply on my shoulders, and my wet hair was stuck to my head. A sea of glittered gowns and spiffy black suits flowed around me filling the lobby. I took a step toward Arthur, who matched my state of disrepair. Let’s grab our seats now, I said. It will be heaven to just sit for a few minutes. It had been a long day...
You’d think the biggest problem when your car is stolen is that your car has been stolen. When our car went missing from the banks of the Vltava River in Prague on that cold and rainy November morning, along with our suitcases, and all the other gear we pack along on our European road trips, the big deal was the missing score. By the time Arthur shows up at a gig, he has spent untold hours studying and marking his orchestra scores so that, at a glance, he knows just where he is in a thick book that is the code to an hour-long symphony. Each of the hundreds of scores lining the walls of his studio is scrawled with red and blue, encrypted in a way that means absolutely nothing to me, but for him, represents just what he wants the orchestra to do at that very instant in time.
We were on route to Romania, where Arthur would conduct Anton Bruckner’s 3rd symphony. Now here’s the thing about Bruckner. He was super insecure. He would write a symphony, and then show it to his friends, and they’d say – oh, it’s pretty good, but you should change this bit or that bit. And he would. So, he’d end up with several versions of the same symphony. Bruckner 3 was written in 1873, and revised in 1874, 1876, again in 1877, and finally, one more time in 1889. Arthur was to conduct the 1889 version. And now, Bruckner was MIA, along with the car.
The local Policie were not a great help, other than to clear up our misconception that our car had been towed. It took them three hours of valuable time to determine, you are not towed, you are stolen! Your car is in Belarus by now. Never-mind to find it. Here – fill this papers out, and then you go.
So, we went dumpster diving. It was streaming rain. With my soaking wet clothes and dripping hair, nobody gave me a second look. I shooed away a stray dog, climbed atop a wobbly wooden crate, and stuck my head inside a smelly garbage container. It sure would be nice to find my rain-jacket! I shouted from inside the echoey, empty bin. We explored more seedy corners and dark alleys of the Malá Strana district, but as we reached the 15th century Charles Bridge, we had to concede, our stuff was long gone.
Not one to give up my amateur guiding so easily, as we crossed the bridge I went into tour mode. They used to tie people hand a foot and throw them off this bridge. I told Arthur. I’d read it yesterday in my now-missing guidebook. That guy there, I said, pointing at a statue of a man with golden stars encircling his head, St. John, the martyr. He was tossed off. Touching the statue is supposed to bring luck. We both walked over and gave it a little rub, and then Arthur called the Czech Philharmonic. We do have three scores, the librarian confirmed, but, hmm, they do not indicate version. I’ll leave them at the artist entrance.
A portly grey-haired guard buzzed open the door. He looked at us from top to bottom, glanced at the puddle forming at my feet, shrugged, and handed over the scores. After careful scrutiny, Arthur shook his head. So much for St. John. Enter St. Tomás, a cellist in the orchestra who happened to overhear our plight. Come with me! He waved us out the door and marched us a few blocks to the Prague library. He couldn’t stick around, he had to go and warm up for tonight’s concert. I’ll leave tickets for you at the hall! Tomás called over his shoulder as the librarian produced a small, worn book. It was the size of an Archie digest comic. It was, apparently, the only copy of Bruckner 3, 1889 in Prague.
No! The librarian said when Arthur asked to borrow the wee score. You copy! She steered him to an ancient machine. A behemoth that consumed only 20-korun pieces, about the equivalent of a penny.
Right! I’ll collect the coins, you run the copier, I said. It was going to take a small fortune to copy the 230-page score. I splashed through the dark streets of the Staré Mesto, cleaning out every souvenir shop and small grocer of their korun. Once I had a handful, I ran back to the library to unload. At 8:00 the library lights went off. The green light of the copier lit the centre of the room, casting long moving shadows on the walls as it scanned the pages. A guard shuffled around us uneasily, threatening to call the Policie. Oh, them again. Well, I knew they weren’t in a hurry. We’d be finished by the time they arrived. At 8:10 we were ushered out, our well-won stack of paper in hand. Are you up for a concert? Asked Arthur, Oh sure! I laughed, why not!
At the ticket kiosk, the women shrugged at our request for tickets. I looked at Arthur, maybe Tomás forgot? But suddenly, she knew us – the story had made the rounds of the orchestra. Ahhh! You! She picked up a blank envelope, peered inside, and handed it over. Nobody pick these up. For you. We walked up the wide stairs to the main entrance. We must look like vagabonds! I said, are we really going to a concert! We burst out laughing and entered the grand lobby.
I collapsed into the soft velvet seat at the balcony’s edge. Arthur sat beside me and leaned in. Those people are speaking Dutch! He whispered. A well-dressed couple were taking their seats beside us. Goedenavond! Said Arthur. Good evening! They looked startled. I have to admit, I would have been a little taken aback too, if I was sitting next to me that evening. Arthur explained that our concert clothes were in Belarus. Ahhh! All of the Dutch community is here, the woman explained, there was a Dutch piece premiered in the first half. Please meet my husband, he’s the Dutch Ambassador. Of course, the ambassador. I shrunk down into my seat. And then she extended an invitation. You must come to the Ambassador’s reception down the hall after the concert!
I panicked. I’d just been invited to the Dutch party of the year in Prague, and I was a filthy mess. Of course I wasn’t going to the party. How could I possibly go to the party? It’s a good thing Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony is 45 minutes long, because it gave me time to find perspective. Logic prevailed. There would be food. I went to the party.
Our new friends introduced us to the group, and our story made quick rounds. Come to the buffet! Here! Have a glass of wine! Judging by the amount of attention I received, the Prague Dutch community were ready for some fun. Everyone in the room came to chat with me and make me feel welcome, delighted that we’d somehow ended up here. I felt like a bit of a celebrity, and who really cares what a celebrity wears to the party.
At midnight Arthur and I laughed together as we sauntered hand-in-hand back across the Charles Bridge, not a soul in sight, recapping this remarkable day. The rain had stopped, stars were shining above the castle, and there was St. John, his ring of stars gleaming in the moonlight. Apparently, he brought us a little luck after all.
The camera disappeared along with Bruckner, so there are no pics of the day. Here are a couple of archive photos for context.