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An American in Prague

FOLLOWING KAFKA'S FOOTSTEPS through Prague is a reminder that writing is a revered occupation here. If George Washington slept in every inn in the northeastern United States, then Franz Kafka wrote "The Metamorphosis" in as many Prague apartments, including one now directly across the street from the Inter-Continental.

Kafka spent his entire life in Prague, first in the home of his austere German-Jewish father, just a few steps from the Greed, Vanity, and Death astronomical time show. One can't help but wonder what the timid insurance clerk who wrote The Trial would make of the T-shirts, mugs, and jigsaw puzzles emblazoned with his name. Or perhaps it isn't so difficult to say. What could be more Kafkaesque than Franz Kafka as pop icon?

Kafka's father was ambitious; he did not rest until he had moved his family away from Josefov, the Jewish ghetto. Yet Kafka, later in his life, became obsessed with the Yiddish theater, chatting for hours with playwrights and actors. If Kafka were to walk through Josefov today he would find Jews tossed by the Diaspora exchanging stories of relatives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Manchester, England. More than a visit to a single museum or memorial can, a walk through Josefov peels away the centuries, so that the daily life of Eastern European Jewry becomes as tangible as their extermination was despicable.

SYLVIE WITTMANN, BORN IN Northern Bohemia in 1956, has developed a small Jewish-Czech touring empire. What started with a weekly trip to Terezin, a transit camp for Jews built by the Nazis in an old fortress town about 40 miles northwest of Prague, has become a full-time effort to reclaim a history. It is well worth following Sylvie's troops through the Jewish Quarter. The Old New Synagogue has been a center for Jewish spiritual life for more than 700 years and is still in use. Legend has it that the stones, literally old and new, were placed here under the condition that they be returned to Jerusalem on Judgment Day. In the Pinkas Synagogue, the names of 77,297 Bohemian and Moravian men and women dispatched to concentration camps are carefully painted on the walls. Layer upon layer of gravestones in the Old Jewish Cemetery attest to a circumscribed but once-thriving medieval society. Even in high tourist season, passing the 16th-century grave of Rabbi Loew—the Frankenstein of Jewish mysticism, creator of a legendary golem meant to protect the Jews but given to running amok on the Sabbath—lends the city the eeriness of a minor key.

THE COMPACTNESS OF CENTRAL Prague offers no transitions. From the heart of the medieval Jewish ghetto it's a mere two blocks to Barock, a hip bistro that could exist equally well in Covent Garden, on St.-Germain, or in New York's SoHo. The walls are covered with posters of Brad Pitt and Linda Evangelista; the menu lists salads, sushi, and smoked salmon. Barock's sister restaurant, Kampa Park, is a romantic hot spot. Nouvelle Czech cuisine attracts celebrity diners—Bruce Springsteen, Mia Farrow, and, of course, Vaclav Havel—whose photographs hang on the walls. Unlike the solitary traveler on a romantic evening in Paris, who is only too aware of young lovers, a solo diner at Kampa Park experiences the perfect balance of mystery and sexy sadness. Sitting beside four Finnish businessmen closing a deal, I was perfectly content holding my own hand.

JUDGING FROM THE SHEER NUMBER of young women in Amadeus wigs distributing flyers, there must be a classical concert or opera gala every half-hour in Prague. From lunchtime quartets at the castle to pre-dinner Bach and Vivaldi at the National Museum, the informal offerings seem inexhaustible. Though it's rumored that tickets for the State Opera and the Estates Theatre are impossible to get, I managed to book seats for the opera through the Bohemia Ticket Agency for every night of my stay.

Mozart's first production of Don Giovanni took place at the Estates Theatre. To see it performed there supports Flaubert's declaration that "the three most beautiful things ever created in this world are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart's Don Giovanni." One seldom sees an opera in such perfect, jewel-like proportions. It is as if you are among the elite audience Don Giovanni was originally commissioned for. I have to agree with English stage and opera director Nicholas Hytner that "seeing Don Giovanni at the Estates is one of the world's truly great opera experiences," intimate and immediate.

The State Opera and the National Theatre, on the other hand, are grand affairs. (One reserves special affection for a country wise enough to elect a playwright as president.) At the State Opera you'll find gala productions of Eugene Onegin and Tosca. The National Theatre stages a variety of classical and contemporary plays, including works by Ibsen, Chekhov, and Albee. The building is a neo-Renaissance triumph with a marvelous show curtain detailing the city. The National Theatre's most daring shows, however, are reserved for the Kolowrat Theatre. Here you'll find dramas written by the next generation of Havels and directed by the new Milos Forman. Under Communist rule, Czech directors found innovative ways to explore standard texts, and it's worth seeing a play for the staging even if the performance is in Czech.

THOSE WHO PREFER NIGHTLIFE to Don Giovanni needn't worry—Prague seems to have recovered from its instant fame as home to the wandering Brown University graduate. The Prague Post still advertises vegan dinners and apartments for expats, but even on the Charles Bridge the ratio of passing tourists to soul-searchers seems to have evened out. (I hear from friends that Cambodia is much hipper now.)

However, the foundations of Prague's brief period as a mecca for young Americans remain. At FX Radost, a café and record store that specializes in techno music and poetry readings, counterculture thrives every night till 6 a.m. On Sundays there are even beef-stew poetry readings equivalent to those in numerous hipeterias in the former East Berlin.

OF COURSE, YOU CAN'T GO TO Prague without going to the castle, formerly home of kings and now of the offices of the Czech president. Also not to be missed is St. Vitus's Cathedral, where Saint Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czechs, was buried more than a thousand years ago. But for those who prefer their icons pint-size, housed in the Church of Our Lady Victorious (in the district just south of the castle, known as Mala Strana) is the world-renowned Infant of Prague— a wax replica of the baby Jesus credited with performing numerous miracles, including saving the city from the Swedes in 1632. Anatomically correct, it sits on an altar costumed in a velvet robe and crown. Its 76 outfits are displayed on a side shelf. The icon was brought to Prague more than 300 years ago by the order of English Virgins. No doubt unbeknownst to the sisters, American playwright Christopher Durang impersonated the Infant in his play Laughing Wild, in which Durang appeared as the baby Jesus in a dream sequence, guiding us to the nature and purpose of the universe. Mementos of my morning with the bambino, a tiny doll and a pack of fashion photos, are now prominently displayed in Durang's house.

IN THE END, I WAS GLAD I embarked on my journey without the "right" names and numbers, though they would have given me entrée to the Prague of entrepreneurs and sparkling restaurants. In this city you can hear the melancholic tones of Dvorak simply by walking down the narrow streets, and only here could 19th-century Romanticism seem compatible with girls in Suzie Wong dresses and platform shoes. I would hold my hand and take myself to Prague again and again.

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