Wunderkammer #1: Russian nesting Doll, Prague, 1998.
I bought this fake Russian nesting doll on the streets of Prague in May 1998. It had a sweet face and the blue background had caught my eye. The folk-art flowers were very much in vogue back then. It was a gift for my Nanna, who was sitting in her little retirement home in South Australia perhaps wondering what on earth her ‘flippety gibberty’ granddaughter was up to next.
I had come to Prague for the long weekend with J, when we were in our ‘courting’ phase. I had just finished a two-month German language course in Goettingen, and I was pretty exhausted from getting up at seven every morning, as well as grammar wrangling that impossibly logical language. We had booked a coach trip, all-inclusive, and made everyone late by waiting at the rest stop on the wrong side of the autobahn. The trip to Prague had us sitting in different seats next to punctilious and punctual Germans who spent the whole journey scowling at us for making them late.
We stayed in a monstrous concrete tower on the edge of the city. It had heating and a basic breakfast and there were a lot of cool heavy metal radio stations we could play on our walkmans, plus a moonshine vodka stall on the road outside. This Vodka not recommended if you value the lining of your stomach. The taxi rides into the old city were like blasting off into space- the drivers were all insane and those little eastern bloc cars were either going flat out or had given up on and abandoned on the side of the road. I would not have been surprised if we had mistaken the roadside vodka for the rocket fuel they used to propel those taxi engines.
The old city, of course, was stunning. Lots of Mozart impersonators and people wearing serious expressions and colourful rain jackets. In one of my long since-abandoned romantic fantasies, I wanted J and I to walk on the Charles Bridge, where INXS filmed the clip for ‘Never Tear Us Apart’. That is when he told me he had never seen the clip and he doesn’t even like INXS. Alarm bells did go off in my head- how on earth can you not like INXS? I mean-SERIOUSLY!
So I walked on the bridge by myself and it was magical.
J’s favourite memories were me getting into trouble with a becostumed steward for almost interrupting a traditional parade as I was trying to get a photo, the fossils in the natural history museum, and the heavy metal bar which was dark and felt like a nightclub even at three in the afternoon and where we were served beer by a guy with a shaved head and leopard skin print tattooed on his scalp.
Mine was eating everything in sight. The food was amazing- fresh salads, big hearty meat dishes and butter noodles. Even in the cafes in the historic centre the cost was a fraction of what student food was in Germany. Two months of pasta and cheese, crumbed cauliflower and the occasional ration of pommes frites had made me hungry. To be fair, I always had enough cash for a couple of beers a few times a week- I don’t make any apologies for my priorities.
Also, I was pleased to be able to practice my German in Prague. English wasn’t widely spoken and many of the menus were in Czech and or German. The history of German-speaking peoples in the area which is now the Czech Republic is not something I had given a lot of thought to until recently: my ancestors came from an area which is close to the borderlands of Poland and Germany.
J’s most favourite memory of all was at the then very boring Prague airport waiting for a flight to Frankfurt. (The thought of being on that coach again filled us with dread). We were all sprawled on the floor to catch the warm sun from the picture windows, and some gypsies were doing some card tricks next to us. J reckons he’s never seen me so quiet- I was staring at them open-mouthed wondering how on earth they did it. Even today if I am talking too much, he says ‘Do I need to do some card tricks?’
When my Nanna passed away, the nesting doll was given back to me. She had written in her gloriously pretty cursive writing on the bottom “17th July 1998” (her birthday) and “From Jane”.
As I hold it in my hands today, I feel the love she had for me, and the precious time I had in Prague with my husband.
He still doesn’t like INXS.