Our rented flat in a centuries old stone house was an oasis in a city that had apparently invited every tourist in the world to visit. Prague’s big summer holiday—the John Hus Burning At The Stake Day (a fan favorite since 1415!)—was over, but you’d never know it by the gridlock on the Charles Bridge.
“Mommy?” asked Griffin, dodging feet, elbows and souvenir stands as we crossed this bridge of Babel, each tour group leader shouting to be heard. “What does burning at the stake mean?”
“Well,” I hesitated, wondering whether to sugar coat it. “A stake is a piece of wood. If someone ties you to one and lights it on fire, that’s burning at the stake.”
“Does it hurt?” asked Ado.
“I imagine so, honey,” I replied, holding his hand tightly as we crossed a street full of cars, trolleys and horse drawn carriages. “But don’t worry—burning at the stake is so 15th century.”
Prague is over a thousand years old. The Kings of Bohemia were the original occupants of Prague Castle, and bohemian is how the city feels: artsy, edgy, gritty and historically rich. Whether it’s the independent film scene that thrills you or medieval torture instruments, Prague has it all. But it’s hard to experience this city’s coolness with two little kids in tow so I felt antsy here. Or perhaps the still unresolved question of selling our house was to blame. Either way, the castle and bridge crawls soon began to seem tedious and time spent at the playground near our flat downright tortuous.
We did visit one museum in Prague, something we haven’t done since Ado nearly knocked over a 500-year old suit of armor in Slovenia. But what could possibly happen at The Toy Museum? Old dolls stared blank eyed from pristine porcelain faces, one looking creepily like my sister Stephanie, down to the auburn pigtails. A miniature butcher shop hung with red slabs of fake beef and a tin fiddler frozen in time with his tongue stuck out proved this museum has something for everyone.
But even more interesting was the “Barbie” exhibit. Its centerpiece was a life-sized doll wearing a striped bathing suit from the ‘60s, her black hair and scowl decidedly un-Barbie-like. Ken however, was the square jawed, smiling man I remembered.
“Mom, what happened to that Ken guy you used to work with?” asked Griff, as we looked at a classic “Mod Hair” Ken from the seventies. Griff had loved visiting me at work, where he would roar like a lion at my co-anchor just to see him pretend to be scared.
“It’s Kent, not Ken” I answered. “And he still works at CBS.”
“Did you like Kent, Mom?” I thought for a second, and then told him sometimes.
“Did he like you?” Kids must have an innate telepathic ability because Griff had not been privy to any work issues.
“Sometimes,” I said again, remembering days that Kent had made me laugh and days he had made me cry. “Sometimes I think we liked each other very much.”
That night in a room with yellow walls, the murmur of a conversation in Czech drifting up from the courtyard, I dreamed I was standing in my front yard when Kent pulled up in a black corvette.
“Want to come to the CBS annual party with me?” he asked, as charming as a Ken Doll. Despite messy hair, no make up, and bare feet, I jumped in. Kent looked over at me as we drove away.
“I’m sorry if I ever treated you badly,” he said. Wow! I thought, I must be dreaming—this was not a man who was comfortable with “sorry”.
“I’m sorry too!” I replied, eager to meet him halfway. I had never lived up to Kent’s high work standards—and maybe I should have tried harder. And then we drove in companionable silence, those few words all that needed to be said.
But when we entered a futuristic building with long, plate glass windows and a shimmering steel spiral staircase, Kent began to fidget, eyes darting like a rabbit trying to determine the best escape from a foxhole. Having his ex-co-anchor along probably seemed like a really bad career move.
“I wouldn’t want to walk into a CBS party with me either,” I laughed, letting him off the hook. “It’s ok.” And he disappeared up the spiral stairs, leaving me alone in the lobby.
So far, interpreting this dream is easy, right? The uncertainty of going home, returning to the scene of career upheaval, and healing old wounds; I didn’t need Sigmund Freud to tell me these things might be floating around in my unconscious. But next, I looked down to see some designer shoeboxes stacked at my feet. Did they belong to one of the news anchors? I wondered. Or were they mine, forgotten in the chaos of my hasty dismissal? Confusion turned to panic; I knew I had to get out of there, but there was no exit, just those thick, awful windows reflecting my own scared face. I turned to run—somewhere! anywhere!–but was tackled to the ground. When I opened my eyes, rays of morning light turned the yellow bedroom in Prague to gold. Two eager, little boys were jumping on me, yelling “Love Attack! Love Attack!” And there was not a designer shoebox in sight.
Grande dame that she is, Prague had no patience for bad dreams. When I went for a run over her black and white cobblestone sidewalks that day, I could feel her mocking me.
“Boo hoo!” she wailed. “So you got fired. Big deal. I survived plague, fire, war, revolution, invasion, communism and burnings at the stake–and I’m better than ever!” Her tone was bitchy–but this magnificent old lady was right. “Let it go already.”
At a sidewalk café, Ethan and I hoisted cold Pilsner Urquells to celebrate his 44th birthday, the trams of the Mala Strana district rumbling by in a rush of red. A year ago we had celebrated in Niagara Falls, the same day we learned a vacation rental company had scammed us out of twelve thousand dollars, so things were looking up! On the breeze coming off the Vltava River, Prague’s voice came again, softer this time, sounding strangely like mine when soothing my children.
“Time to go home, angst-y American girl,” she whispered. “Sell your house. Or not. Get a job. Or don’t. Run into former CBS colleagues at Baja Fresh. Who cares? I watched the hordes of summer tourists ebbing and flowing through streets made unique and special because of–not despite–their own turbulent history. “Keep your head up and your heart open,” said the voice, “and life will come to you.