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My Prague Haunts

by Tereza Stehlíková

Cover InIt often feels to me that a large part of my growing up in Prague was spent wandering Petrin hill, just across the river from the apartment we lived in. My grandmother would take my brother and I walking there every day after school — because my mother was working —, determined to give us a healthy childhood. As we strolled along the woodland paths and crumbling gardens, we were absorbed in the stories she told us. She had a knack for storytelling, retelling stories she came across in books, the films she watched — always embellishing them —, our own family’s intricate histories that span not just across Europe but whole continents. On our demand, she also retold us over and over the various mischiefs that my grandfather got up to when at school, and later as a young man: adventures full of playfulness and imagination, as well as small athletic feats. He, a highly creative and spirited man, an artist and a talented figure skater, was also in a circus as an adolescent. My grandmother would recount a memory of my mother as a toddler, sat in a small chair at the top of pole my grandfather was balancing on his chin. He tried teaching my brother and I tight rope walking, with little success. Of the most personal stories my grandmother told us, I particularly loved the story about a little lion talisman, which my grandma made for him. It was to bring him good luck when he was sent to a forced labour camp in Germany during WW2, on reaching 18 years. One time, when my grandfather was out, digging out bodies from the rubble, a bomb was dropped on their living quarters. When the boys returned, there was nothing left, all their possessions vanished. But few weeks later, in a completely different part of town, my grandfather found the little good luck charm, hanging on a tree. The explosion catapulted it into distance, and the talisman remained there, intact.

Across the Unseen Sea 6

As a child, I was deeply affected by the sense of rich, layered history, seeping through the very fabric of the city. I was intrigued by Prague legends and stories about its ghosts – especially the ghosts who haunted my local streets, right in the center of Prague. The house where our apartment was built in the exact location of an old Romanesque church, and was thus a fertile ground for all kinds of beings to materialize: there was a white lady, and knight aflame, he may have been headless too and there were plenty other eccentric spirits roaming the streets. And although I never saw them I was certainly aware of their presence.

Sometime in my dreams, I would enter dark catacombs below the house, and get lost in the infinite abyss of the earth. These dreams were the archetypal nightmares whose powerful and timeless atmosphere still haunts me now. They stayed with me also because they made me realize there is little distinction between the dream building, with its floors and underground caverns, and my own mind, with the dark abyss of the unconscious stretching endlessly below the known.

Across the Unseen Sea 1

In the 1980s, Prague was a subdued, grey and crumbling city, but highly atmospheric for those who were open to its mysterious essence. There were no easy distractions either — the shiny and plastic world of the forbidden West was so far from here it was a kind of utopian fantasy. In communist Prague we children were free to imbue the world in front of us with the colours of our own imagination — and how richly nuanced and complex these different shades and tones were! The city was a living, breathing being, it was animate, full of stories bursting to get out… This may be why I became so drawn to the medium of animation and the work of the wonderful Prague based artist Jan Svankmajer, whose use of stop motion animation makes manifest the latent inner life of objects.

I’ve always had a fascination with what lurks behind the familiar, the slightest alteration that has the ability to transform the homely into the uncanny… the facade behind which whole other reality may be hiding. In just such a spirit, my best friend and I — about 10 years old at the time — decided to go on an expedition one afternoon after school. We prepared notebooks and pens, and took a turning into one of the side streets, which we always passed but never explored.

Melusine Bridge

By simply framing this walk as an expedition lent the everyday an exciting element of the unknown. It was as if by simply taking one new turn within otherwise completely familiar setting, we managed to enter a parallel dimension and perceive everything differently from that moment on. Our decision to look for stories made us irresponsible — an old man invited us to enter ancient catacombs and we happily obliged. The underground space was beautiful, and we dutifully took notes. We were lucky of course this man was benign and of no ulterior motives.

Even now, in its very different coat, Prague preserves the essence of its idiosyncratic character. If you look carefully enough — beyond the generic —, you may encounter a levitating chair, or a jester who suddenly emerges from the city’s sewage system. I always like to stop and listen to the musician who appears from time to time on different street corners, playing medieval instruments he himself builds, while dressed in scrappy medieval garments. For many years I was convinced he came here from a different time period, a visitor from medieval days, who somehow sneaked through the cracks in the city’s pavements and walls. Later I became friends with him on Facebook, the most unlikely context for my mysterious time traveler. But I like this clash of realities too.

Tereza

The Czech culture I come from and which is such a part of me, has a strong element of the surreal. It is not surprising therefore that the surrealist movement found its home there, and grew its own unique branch, which is still alive and thriving today. Even people’s surnames can be little stories in themselves. One of my joyful past times of childhood was reading through the Prague phonebook – laughing at the most bizarre surnames imaginable: “He jumped into the field”, “I don’t know”, “Don’t eat bread”… stories were all around us.

The most important landmark in my own personal “mental morphology” — to borrow the term of the Czech surrealists — is the staircase in the house of my childhood. This staircase, shaped like a spiral feels like the materialization of time itself. It is here where my earliest childhood memory resides, directly traceable to a specific date: a day when my mother was returning from hospital four days after my brother was born. I remember my mother emerging from below as I stood at the top, carrying a baby wrapped in white blankets. It was through a strange synchronicity that 33 years later, working on my short film Melusine, I recreated this memory scene, on the very same February day.

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Dressed in Leaves
Melusine
terezast.com

2 Commenti su My Prague Haunts

  1. Wonderfully written. Your writing is like an epic written by one of the classic masters from the past. It weaves a beautiful tapestry of a past rich in small memories that paint a wonderful picture in the mind.

  2. Thank you so much for such a generous comment.

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