Archive for June, 2010

RHUM: Vienna Storm

What happens when a clean cut city gets hit by a big crazy storm.

Hostel Salzburg

This is not like any other hostel I’ve stayed at before. I am in Salzburg, and not wanting to stay at the place that boasts screenings of Sound of Music “Every Night!” I stumble instead upon this one. It is built into the side of a church and the silence inside is thick in the way only church silence can be. The bells in the tower go crazy every 15 minutes, crazier every hour, but as soon as they’re done, the silence rolls back in almost aggressively.

On the ground floor, the reception desk is manned by a lady who, when her English runs out, simply speaks to me in German and points. She takes my passport, carefully records my details, says something incomprehensible about internet access, and hands me the keys.

I follow her gestures to a modern elevator that has been punched into one of the walls of the ground floor. Further up, the floors have been coated in the white chipboard panelling and single-coloured feature walls of the average hostel, but the ground and first floor have retained their wooden beams and dark stone. The walls and surfaces carry dried flowers and the usual array of violent religious statues in various stages of undress, sprawled upright, thrusting forward their stab wounds. Opposite the elevator stand two vending machines, glowing in the absence of windows.

I dump my bags in my dorm room and lie on a bed for a while, listening to a couple of American girls talk about the Adventure Tour they had been on that day. The bells go off and they roll their eyes. Later, early evening, they go out in search of an internet place and I wander through the empty corridors.

On the more typically hostel floors, the walls are decorated by the sort of paintings you’d find at op shops. Some have whole corners taped under signs in German and English that say, “Bilder an der wand lassen bitte” and “Leave the paintings on the wall please”.

People take the paintings off the walls?

On the second floor a Chinese family lay out an elaborate meal, rushing back and forth from the kitchen, fussing over candles. In the corner, tennis plays on the television. Later, when I pass by again, the door is closed.

There is no fifth floor. On the sixth floor, which is marked D in the elevator but 6 on the doors, there is a door  marked “Musik”. Behind it a woman plays Beatles covers on a baby grand. Downstairs, behind the closed door of 414, a violin answers in nervous spurts of notes.

I meet a girl from Barcelona named Nora, a dancer who is studying at the dance school around the corner and who has lived in the hostel since September last year. We are sitting on the fourth floor smoking, in what I guess you would call the hallway, only it is as wide and big as a living room.

“What do you see in this painting?” she asks me, pointing at one of the op shop pieces.
“Um, I dunno. Tulips. Stencils of tulips. Spray-painted on the canvas.”
“I see faces there,” she says seriously.
I look closer. “Oh yeah. Just in the middle. I see what you mean.”
“It looks like there are ghosts. It is scary, this painting. I do not like it.”

Outside, the church bells start up again. We smoke and sit and listen to them in silence.

Drunks, tourists and drunken tourists in Prague

New RHUM article up. All about why your average Prague local isn’t particularly fond of the average foreigner.  Find it just HERE.

The Plastic People of the Universe

In second year, I took a course on Central and Eastern European history that was responsible for my decision to move to Prague. The lecturer was this tiny, transparently pale man with a stutter, who played music before every lecture; usually, sombre, booming classical, which made us all feel very studious. Then the first slide of the powerpoint would be the name of the composer and how that piece of music related to the section of history we were going to focus on that day.

One week, roughly mid-semester, we arrived to this messy rock music that we could hear from the end of the hallway. We were immediately curious. The music lurched over the recently vacuumed carpets and soft lighting, the gently arched rows of seating, in a way that seemed like it should be offending someone. Like a drunk at an opera. Those responsible stood slumped in their powerpoint slide in a fuzz of hair and electric instruments. Our lecturer introduced them to us as The Plastic People of the Universe and began his lecture on the Prague Spring.

Two and a half years later – four months after arriving in Prague and one week before leaving – and I’m standing in a basement club complete with low-slung ceilings and pokie-parlour lighting. I am two rows and a photographer away from a much older but just as wayward version of the very same Plastic People of the Universe. Their music is tight and full and unpredictable, their fans love them like family, and I wish wish wish I could understand their lyrics.

Behind me towers a loud, hairy Pole I know from one of those Exchange Student weekend activities. Every now and then he leans forward to inform me that this or that song is one of their old ones, one that they used to play back in the 60s and 70s, despite the Communists, despite the threat of incarceration, house-searches, interrogation and deportation. Their main intention was never claimed to be a  political one, they were just determined to play their Western-influenced music, which made them as political as those writing up and signing Charrter 77, or the more outspoken members of the Union of Czechoslovak Writers. But then the wall fell, and now they can play as much as they want.

With him, the Pole has brought a wildly obnoxious Canadian from the student dorms, who has a name like Dave or Mike. I’m going to call him Mike. Mike buys two beers between sets and calls it being handcuffed. “Yeah, I’ve been handcuffed a few times now,” he says as casually as is possible while blatantly showing off one’s incredible, ultra-manly, imperviousness to alcohol. He demonstrates how much he knows about music by using “Jazz” as a prefix.
“YEAH!” he roars, deep-throating the vowels in the middle, “Jazz-violin! THAT’S what I’M taking about! YEAH!”
He develops a liking for Vratislav Brabenec, the jazz-clarinetist/jazz-saxophonist, and spends most of the gig commenting constantly on his progress. Czechs tend to deal with things they don’t like with facial expressions – by shooting angry or disapproving glances rather than direct action – so it takes another foreigner to finally ask him to shut up. “Ok, OK!” he says, and is slightly quieter for roughly a song and a half.

On stage, the musicians play anyway, grey and boney, flat eyes in the sort of expression you might don while doing the dishes. They are expressions that speak of years of this – the smoke-cushioned ceilings, the tangles of wires over small stages, the lights blanking out the great collections of heads, shoulders, staring eyes all undulating back and forth in unison to the beat. Set up, pack up and those unrelenting, end-of-set chants: “Ješ-tě jed-nou. Ješ-tě jednou!” So they oblige, and play one more, and then, again, disingenuous now: “Ješ-tě jednou. Ješ-tě jed-nou.”

Brabenec has a long break in the middle of one of the songs and he stands slackly mid-stage, staring over the heads of the crowd. It is a broad gaze, focusing on nothing, and behind it could anything at all. Most likely, he’s thinking about same mundane things most people think during those sort of pauses: domestic details, plans for the near future, something noticed from the tram the other day, a comment from a friend. Still, I can’t help wondering what he makes of all this: what we did when communism fell.

Mike leans forward. “Check out that look man,” he tells the back of my earlobe. “That is an AWESOME look.” Then he screams something else at the stage, is shot with a new round of disapproving looks, while all around us wall-to-wall heads just go on bobbing to the music.

*   *   *

A few days later I am at Shakespeare and Sons, a  bar and English-language bookstore that is the closest thing I have to a local. The book prices are a bit steep for my malnourished little wallet but the beer is reasonable, the music is always good and played at a conversational level, and they serve mugs of hot chocolate as big as a human head. It’s the sort of place I can go and sit and read in the corner and nurse a beer for an hour and nobody really notices.

This time I am with my friend Ben, who I know from Australia and am about to go travelling with, and my other friend Ewa, who is Polish and lives in Prague.  We’re sitting in my favourite corner playing cards and drinking. I look up and notice, in the corner opposite to ours, is Brabenec. I realise I’ve seen him here before – quite a lot, he’s one of the regulars – but before I saw him play he was just another old barfly Czech hunched over his beer.

“I should go and talk to him,” I say to Ben. He is being my fun conscience for the day so he says yes, definitely. Now, I hate approaching famous people. Even though it is praise and attention, it must get very fucking tiring after a while. But I am leaving the city in two days and probably won’t be returning in any sort of really substantial way, so I’m in a inconsiderate, bridge-burning sort of mood. I pick up my beer, walk over to his table, and ask him in Czech if he speaks English – which he does, of course – and then, “You’re of the Plastic People of the Universe, yeah?” He has been reading through a stack of printed out papers and he nods, gathers them aside, and motions for me to sit down.

The conversation that follows is difficult. The papers are the manuscript interview for another book about the Plastic People, and the Prague dissident movement more broadly, and I am much the same sort of thing – a history student who has studied the conditions of the period he has lived through but has never and will never experience anything like it. In the years since the wall fell, he has probably spent more time commenting on that period than it took to live through it. Dissecting the preserved corpse of communism has by now probably more than made up for the amount of silence the live version enforced.

I bring up Joe Karafiát, the Plastic People guitarist, and the fact that I’ve seen his side-project, Garage, play. He mentions that another member plays in an Irish band, and that they have a gig in the bar around the corner in about half an hour, and that I should come along.
“You guys still play a lot, hey?” I ask and he nods. “Must get pretty tiring – so many years of it.” He glances at the manuscript, nods again.

Ben and Ewa come over and join me and the conversation continues for a while but we’d planned to leave soon anyway and nobody really knows what to say to each other. I tell him we’ll probably head to the Irish gig later, even though I know we probably won’t, and we gulp down the rest of our beers, pay, and head for the tram stop.

It is early evening, still light out, and our conversation switches to plans for the evening.
“That was one of The Plastic People of the Universe,” I interject into a pause. “I studied those guys at uni. They’re part of the reason I’m even here in Prague.” But I am not really as excited as I think I probably should be, and we have an evening to plan.
“So what now – should we go to the Irish gig?”
“Nah,” I say, “let’s just head to that place in Karlín.”
“Alright. Cool.”