Prague – February 2019 – Zuzana first met Phillip at Lanterna Magika, a theater renowned for its multimedia repertoire and pro-democratic politics.
Even through the darkest days of communist rule, the most innovative productions flourished here.
zu & phil
Zuzana, at seventeen, a Czech production design assistant/up-and-coming actress at the Magic Lantern. Phillip is an American doctoral candidate, writing his dissertation on the implementation of digital effects into a narrative.
Diametrically opposed cultures. Similar souls.
Together, the two are prepping a contemporary stage adaptation of Kafka’s Das Schloss (“The Castle”) to feature a young woman in the lead.
Prague has always been a special place. When the Allies bombed Dresden near the end of World War II, they decided to save historic Prague. The city survived and remained architecturally intact.
The Czechs value such resilience. They have a passion for it. In 1968, came an energized national movement – the extraordinary Prague Spring that interjected a breath of liberalism and hope into ordinary life.
Czech leader Alexander Dubček displayed undue optimism. He naïvely believed former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev when he said “every communist nation should define their own form of communism.”
Dubček enacted much welcomed reforms. He proposed “socialism with a human face” and hoped Moscow would buy in. But Leonid Brezhnev, Khrushchev’s hardline successor, held a different point of view.
Thus, the Spring became short lived.
August 1968, over half-a-million Warsaw Pact troops and five-thousand Soviet tanks swarmed en masse gathering at the Czech borders. They then ruthlessly invaded.
Still believing in the Prague Spring, brave young Czech women defiantly confronted the intruders.
Joined by all sorts of courageous friends, these young protestors in miniskirts strolled up to the tanks that filled the central squares of the city.
Those people, who were able to react quickly, did and escaped to the west. Same as the principals in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. For most who remained, it wasn’t by choice.
Resistance lasted eight months until the communist forces totally clamped down. A brutal occupation followed.
Many intellectuals, locked out of their jobs, were forced to perform menial labor. An international journalist/future foreign minister had to stoke coal to heat buildings in winter. Doctors washed multiple stories of glass windows, just to survive.
But this period of painful emptiness also provided the inspiration for the creation of many cultural works that reflected the struggle.
A NEW DAWN
Twenty-one years later, in 1989, a glimpse of social daylight finally started to reappear. Hope returned to Prague. Amid Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, the Magic Lantern glowed.
In a land, where freedom had again virtually vanished, the theater secretly stood as a beacon in the dark. This bastion of free expression became the heart and soul of the nation.
The Magic Lantern served as unofficial headquarters for the democratic movement. From within, leaders planned a relentless series of mass demonstrations and coordinated the ensuing civil unrest. They went on to reinstall the tenets of democracy without a shot being fired.
WEST WITH THE SUN
Zuzana’s mother, Lenka Novak, grew up in Prague in the late 1950s. Although she learned to survive under communist rule, her dream always was to live in a western democracy.
Once, in the early ‘80s, she came close to succeeding. Then, in the ’90s, Lenka’s dream changed with the times. She now loves Prague and wants to stay.
The city reawakened just before the millennium. Although still a volatile era, this Central European capital brims with plenty of opportunity and new beginnings. And for Lenka, she soon was to meet Will, a young American, visiting from West Berlin.
will hadley’s journal
Jan. 12th: Searching for my roots. A prior life. In prior times. Back in 1620 the Battle of the White Mountain marked yet another bloody and historic religious war. Catholic vs. Protestant. Diametrically opposing views should embrace friendship rather than prohibit it.
Jan. 13th: A surfer’s realm is less complicated. In California involves a bit of patience, a bit of waiting for the right waves to break and to be able to ride them all the way to shore.
Jan. 18th: I have no family but can envision starting one one day. With that hope I dedicate this journal to my daughter for when she has conceived and born of this earth. I regret neither has yet to happened. But she has drawn me here to find a castle in the sky.
Arriving in Prague on a crisp, wintry afternoon, Will rushes from the train station to his hotel. He checks in, drops off his duffle and heads straight to a state-run travel agency to book a short excursion for the coming weekend.
The aspiring architect is determined to visit Český Krumlov. This picturesque medieval village, often referred to as the Florence of eastern Europe, sits in the imposing shadows of a towering hillside castle dating from the 1200s.
Truly, a setting out of Kafka.
The travel agency, however, flaunts bureaucracy at its worst. It operates at two speeds: slow and ultra slow. Will remains stuck in a short queue that doesn’t move. When the clock strikes five, it is simply too late. The agency has closed for the day. The last client in line ahead of him, however, catches Will’s eye.
This young woman with an educated smile turns out to be Lenka with her full head of puffy brown hair and blue eyes. She is dressed in jeans, sneakers and a gray-tweed blazer. Ahead of her time.
Will fumbles his first two attempts to break the ice. But he succeeds on his third when Lenka cautiously agrees to join him for a coffee.
Conflicting thoughts simultaneously dance through Lenka’s head. Quite a mixed signal. Hard to grasp all it implies.
“A great chance for me to practice English with an American,” she thinks, cautiously sizing him up. “But I know we mustn’t be seen socializing with westerners in public.”
With those thoughts, several warm glances and very few words exchanged, the two walk out separately. Each shoots a subtle glance over one shoulder and heads on. A minute later and ten meters up the street, Lenka and Will meet up again in time to round the corner together. And to actually stay together for another ten years.
will’s journal ii
Feb. 8th: The atmosphere at Český Krumlov is eerie. But innocuous, winding upward into the clouds. I need to design a modern version. Tenuous and closer to nature. More abstract and open. Porous and fluid. The tide must run through it.
Feb. 10th: In time, my daughter must discover the California shore. Where I grew up. Where I learned to swim, surf and dive. I know she will. No question she will be reading these words long after I write them.
Feb. 13th: I will return to where I grew up to build her a castle of her own. Many castles that breathe and swim. She must be able to smell the sea. Taste it. Feel the breeze whipping through it and know I left it there for her.
When Zuzana was old enough, Lenka shared the story with her. A total surprise for Zuzana, who was always asking about her father. Looking for answers. But never getting any.
After Lenka and Will broke up, he traveled back to the States totally unaware Lenka was pregnant. She never said a word. Her secret. Had he known, he might have married her. Lenka would have had that ticket to the west she once craved so badly. But the couple had grown irreconcilably apart.
And, at the time, Lenka didn’t have the foresight to realize how important it would be for their daughter to enjoy a healthy bond with both parents. What she did have was the journal Will left behind.
Early in 2019, on turning eighteen, Zuzana already works at the Magic Lantern. And soon, like her mom before her, she too unexpectedly meets a young American.
When Phillip, a new intern at the theater, heads to one of the city’s elegant old cafés to meet a friend, Zuzana discreetly follows. But the friend has instead texted his regrets. Phillip, clearly disappointed, tries hard to conceal it.
“An unexpected change of plans?” asks Zuzana astutely. Having followed Phillip inside. “So… where in the States are you from?”
“Most recently. Southern California.” Phillip declares on recognizing his colleague from the Lantern.
“Believe it or not, I ended up there about two years ago,” admits Zuzana as she reflects on the contrast of cultures and Kafka’s satire on life across the ocean.
“On vacation, at school… or for work?” Phillip presses her for an answer.
“Try to imagine the journal my father left behind. It reached out and beckoned,” explains Zuzana. “Said I have to travel to research for an upcoming role. I also was directed to go to a specific California beach. A spot where I should look for some sign of him. To seek him out.”
“Did his journal lead you anywhere else?” asks Phillip, surprised she’d traveled halfway around the world.
“Not directly. Goes on about people living in California having so few inhibitions,” confesses Zuzana, recalling those young people on roller blades, who zigzag down the concrete walkway. “Czech life, on the other hand, for better or worse, is framed by our history.”
Venice Beach 2019, with skate rentals, tattoo parlors and flea market sales, stirs on unimpeded even in winter. “The west coast swings to a beat all its own.”
“Some say this Los Angeles existence marks a total disconnect,” declares Zuzana. “It’s anathema to life here in Prague.”
Zuzana resumes filming the action on her cell phone. She shoots an onslaught of well-toned skaters from a multitude of angles and, in doing so, captures an ongoing shifting of facial expression.
After a short time, Zuzana kicks off her sneakers, tosses the pair over shoulder and makes her way down the beach, toward the water.
As a woman, Zuzana now looks just as her mother did when she and Will first met – in her faded jeans, a turtleneck and matching beanie. Zuzana freezes as the realization sinks in.
Smiling to herself, Zu tosses her sneakers onto the sand, then plops down beside them.
From her new vantage point, Zuzana refocuses her cell phone to film a series of waves. Catching them as they break and wash up on the shore. She visualizes the choreography to best complement and synchronize with this setting.
“A couple of days ago, this tide was made for surfing,” observes a tall fellow, who nonchalantly grips a slick yellow surfboard with his right arm. Eyeballing his prop, Zuzana assumes the guy obviously grew up in a California beach town. “Mind if I join you?” he asks, tossing her his long navy-blue towel.
Zuzana, catches the towel with one hand and sets it down but doesn’t reply. Her eyes stay focused straight ahead but they pay zero attention to the placards for the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election. Neither Hillary nor Trump interest her. American politics isn’t hers. Instead, she shoots a rapid series of shots that capture a brilliantly designed structure rising from the beach.
“So? No problem then?” persists the surfer, planting his board vertically in the sand near her head.
“Read it as you like,” responds Zuzana. Her eyes remain glued to the structure at two o’clock. There, a granular castle crowns a mound beneath it. Multi-layered, perfectly rigged with a series of circular canals winding down its exterior. A letter W is etched on the ground to the lower right.
“That a yes or a no?” clarifies the surfer. “Or simply a maybe?”
WATER FLOWS THROUGH
“Read it as you like.” Zuzana’s eyes continue to focus on the imposing sandcastle. The architectural precision totally captivates her attention. This transitory structure appears sharp, clean and functional. Leaning toward the futuristic, it reminds her of a modern vision of the multi-era castle that overlooks the village of Český Krumlov.
“Where are you from? You’re not from here,” notes the surfer, still probing. “Not with your accent. So where then?”
“Try Brooklyn,” chides Zuzana, grinning at the replica of the castle. The question is why? As her mind drifts, the sand-sculpted W continues to steadily crumble.
EAST OF HERE
“Bullshit! Just like I’m from the Caribbean. Right?” The surfer’s New York tone of speech grows more obvious by the minute.
“Calypso Joe? Nice to meet you,” replies Zuzana, struggling to keep a straight face. “Just tell me if you know the dude who builds these incredible sandcastles.”
“Only what I hear. He’s some strange middle-aged dude. Long hair, shows more salt than pepper. He comes early sometimes before dawn then disappears. Never stays for sunrise. Word is he’s an architect of sorts. Travelled off a couple of times to Central Europe. Stayed there a stretch.”
“He have a name?” asks Zuzana, straight faced. “Or an initial? Perhaps a… W?”
“Not sure. Could be something like Walter or could be Wally.” The surfer clears his throat. “I’m Gerry. But never met the guy, Wally or Willy or whatever his name.”
“It’s okay, Gerry,” she responds, careful not to acknowledge his last suggestion. “I’m Zuzana.”
“Hey, Zuzana. You got me there.” Gerry extends his hand.
“Could be.” Zuzana extends hers.
“No shit,” replies Gerry, unaware of how far her thoughts have drifted.
IN A FLASH
Zuzana blinks her eyes to bring herself back to 2022 and the present. Back to the elegant old café in Prague, and the conversation she had going with Phillip.
“Must be a similar adjustment for you coming from California,” presumes Zuzana, picking up exactly where they left off, “must be tough leaving all that sun, surf and sand behind.”
“Sure. At times,” agrees Phillip, sitting up straighter to improve his posture. “It’s tough to keep going forward. Must never look back. Luckily, Prague has given me a sense of structure and discipline.”
“I hate structure,” admits Zuzana, traversing both worlds. “I feel like a ghost garbed in white – one haunted by her past.”
“You’re playing with me,” replies Phillip as he scratches his head. “You and the old cobblestones on these narrow windy streets. Makes me feel I’m traveling back in time at every turn.”
“But you clearly are,” insists Zuzana. “Both you and the father I’ve never met are stuck in the same sort of a rut.”
“At times. Maybe,” admits Phillip as his mind races forward. “So what do you think of the elections here? The Communist Party is finally eliminated from parliament.”
Zuzana didn’t react. Nor did anyone. As if nothing happened. As if the communists had never existed. Church bells remain hauntingly silent. Wenceslas Square was abandoned. No speeches, no music. A dearth of celebration, despite these startling results. Phillip went on: “They’re the party just quietly fading away.”
For the first time since the end of World War II, the communists achieved a zero presence in the national government. “Didn’t win a single seat.”
A new emerging world is taking shape. A fresh life, evolving technology, resorted priorities, tempered emotions.
To most, the communist era feels as if it happened a hundred years ago. To many, it did. For Lenka, however, it genuinely feels “like yesterday”.
Zuzana’s mom lets out a heartfelt sigh. She feels incredible. True change finally has come. There’s no turning back. As she’s late to meet her daughter and Phillip at the Lantern.
About the Article
A multigenerational look at life surrounding a landmark theater in Prague.