Sunday, July 20, 2008

Greetings from TEREZIN, back to PRAGUE, Vinohrady

The first sunny day in Prague.

I fear that I’ve been using the word “ghetto” frivolously, letting it meaning “cheap” or “gaudy” or “trashy and full of bling.” But a day trip into Terezin reminds me that the word had a meaning long before it became associated with the contemporary African-American idiom. It will always mean a heavily populated area of a single ethnic or racial group, but in Terezin, I’m reminded of the darker implications of the word.

But—and I hate to say it—the city itself has a sort of tackiness that rubs me the wrong way. The victims of the Holocaust should be rightly remembered; the Holocaust itself should haunt humanity until the end of days, but I felt like the remembrance had become the major industry in Terezin. When you name a hotel the “Terezin Memorial Hotel,” it’s pushing the boundaries of taste. As well, it’s disconcerting to see normal Czech families living their lives in the houses that you know once housed thousands of doomed Jews. Of course, it’s unrealistic to imply that the buildings should have been preserved in amber as a static monument. But the everyday nature of the town itself makes the reconstructed dormitory in the Magdeburg Barracks seem artificial. It doesn’t help that outside of the Small Fortress, just past the field of gravestones and roses, many bereft of names, religions of the dead demarcated by the humongous cross and the Star of David emerging from a mound of black rocks—just past that were a strip of tourist shops, selling Bohemian glass or, at the shop closest to the road, Native American dreamcatchers and beaded necklaces.

And yet, I was still moved. The exhibition on the artists in Terezin struck me; maybe this is the only way to understand tragedy: huge numbers of deaths—humans shipped around like livestock—take on greater significance when extrapolated from a singular experience. To privilege a writer over, say, a mother of four seems terribly elitist of me, but there you have it.

From Terezin, we hiked a pleasant 2 km. to the small town (to say “quaint” runs the risk of being patronizing) of Bohušovice, which I imagine gets some spill-over from the tourist trade, but not much. On one side of the street, more Soviet-style block apartments; on the other, individual houses (or as Matthew phrased it: “proletariat/bourgeoisie”). The menu at the Restaurace Radnice was handwritten and in a plastic cover, with no translation, so I simply picked something and ate it. Discovery is the best part of travel. The barkeep, with his thick broom-like moustache, looked at us askance, but was good-natured enough to indulge us intrepid travelers.

* * *

I’m not one to stand on formality, so after returning to Prague, we went to Club Termix, a gay club that seemed to have a high patron-to-prostitute ratio. Is it ridiculous to want an “authentic” gay experience in a foreign country? Because—from what I can tell—gay clubs everywhere are pretty much a monoculture. Who needs Esperanto when you have Madonna? Even though I suspect very few people there spoke English, everyone knew the lyrics for “Ray of Light.”

Still, I was curious. The early 90s saw a huge boom in twinky gay Czech porn stars (the blame falls squarely on the hairless shoulders of Bel Ami); surely there was more than that. It really was like any other gay club in the United States. A smattering of older men, some bearish types—no one danced with their shirts off, thankfully—but still dominated by young men in their 20s. The only difference was that I only saw two other minorities—two black men (not together)—and I was the only Asian.

Well, maybe it’s not that different from the US, come to think about it.

To think: I would have happily danced alone on the floor there (tiny as it was, maybe 20 ft. square). I would have sacrificed my lung capacity to secondhand smoke and my hearing to the bass. I would have danced atop the speaker box with wild abandon. But I have a more fully-formed sense of shame now. And besides, I’m no longer in my 20s, so I gladly cede my position, especially considering the high preponderance of diva house being played. When the DJ started repeating tracks he’d spun earlier, I knew it was time to leave.

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