The Winding Staircase: 2003-10-13
I arrived in Prague around 7pm. It had been a beautiful days ride, an unexpected pleasure given the dismal weather that had been blowing on and off in Berlin. I had considered staying one more night in Berlin for a party, but Sylvie didn't call, the weather was good, I was healthy, free of alcohol toxins, awake early, so it seemed best to take off.
Once again I felt liberated as the roads passed smoothly under my wheels. It's such a pleasing sensation to feel the bike uninterrupted, unfettered and almost as if it were not there at all, the ride was that smooth. I had taken Sabine's advice and followed a route past Dresden through a valley with dramatic scenery to reach the Czech border. I was in such ore of my surrounding that I completely mistook the border gate for nothing more than a shop or café and past it oblivious to the shouts of protest that must have yelped up from behind me. Not long after I heard sirens and could see flashing blue lights in my mirrors. Naturally I slowed down and pulled over to let the emergency pass, but was completely shocked to find I was the cause of the emergency as one car passed and skidded sideways to a halt across my path, whilst another promptly stopped behind me. "Oh shit" were my immediate thoughts. What on earth could it be, I wasn't speeding, hadn't passed through any red lights or run over any children at a pedestrian crossing. Once the engine and my helmet were off I could see two border guards with distressed faces marching forthright towards me. Being English its always a bit of a shock to see authorities brandishing weapons however they might be presented. This was no exception as the guards had a tight grip on their semi automatic machine guns combined with a nervous disposition that seemed to run from head to toe. I didn't know whether to put my hands up or what, but before I had time to think about it my passport had been requested. Nothing more was said while my passport was checked with Interpol or whatever terrorist database they were running here. While I waited I had the opportunity to witness the large number of German tourists who come to the border for the cheap fuel on the Czech side. Geri cans were out in force as queues of petrol thirsty customers filled their cars and vans with boot loads of fuel. Eventually my documents came back to me with a stern warning, next time you see the STOP sign at a border, you must stop! I nodded with a sullen acknowledgement of my apparent stupidity and was glad to be on my way.
The first thing I noticed about the Czech Republic apart from its wonderfully uncluttered countryside was the lack of road signs, a bit of clutter that a motorist doesn't like to do without. For now it wasn't so important, the sun was still high and I could enjoy the meandering back roads some more before worrying about reaching my target. I could see some real low tech farming in operation, some of it almost medieval I thought. However, the Czech republic is certainly not without its eyesores such as huge chemical refineries that look completely out of place in these surroundings. Without road signs I began to use my intuition of the landscape a little more. Traffic also gave me clues as to the direction I might take to reach Prague. Eventually I had to stop and ask pedestrians the way. One middle-aged couple that helped me were perhaps the first people who looked at me as if I were some sort of alien. I began to realise what a sore thumb or point of interest I must have become to passers by. It's not every day that you see a fully loaded Triumph Thunderbird plummeting through your town or village, so a few heads are bound to turn. I began to see the different types of expression that this spectacle could evoke, a smile of the motorcycle enthusiast, stunned bewilderment of a farmer, contemptuous frown of a commuter and coveting jealousy of a youth were but a few. I began to think again of what effect my presence in this state might bring in African or other poor countries that may take offence to my attire and expensive looking mode of transport. As the dark of night drew closer it was becoming harder to detect the most likely route that I should take. I met a Slovak motorcyclist who was also having problems finding a way through a deviation that had us both looking over a 20 meter drop from an unfinished piece of flyover. We took a look at my map and together agreed a likely route until we finally found the motorway to Prague. I reached Prague around 7pm and began to recognise the layout and some of the streets I had visited here 10 years ago.
I set about locating Howe, someone I'd not met before but was a friend of a friend of a friend, who had agreed I could stay at his place for a few days. 1 hour later I was at his door, unpacking the bike and hauling my luggage up 4 floors of winding staircase lit only by the light of my mobile phone. Finally I found a door that didn't have a name on it, and I didn't see his name on anyof the other doors, "so this must be the place" I thought. Howe opened the door to greet me "Hey, you made it at last, I was getting worried about you, sorry I didn't help you with the luggage up all those stairs, I didn't realise you had so much stuff", and promptly served up a wonderful soup that helped to thaw me out and feel whole again. I had noticed that my habit for riding often left me starving at the end of the day as I tended to feel happier to continue driving instead of taking a break to warm up and take sustenance. Not a healthy option perhaps, but somehow, like being at work, my stomach could be put at bay. Perhaps it was the everchanging newness of the senery in all that I was seeing and my ever vigilant observation of the road ahead that kept me so riveted to my seat and task of driving.
Howe, and his undying curiosity for almost anything, was naturally eager to know about who I was and what I was doing. He had an initial notion of who I was, but wanted to hear it all in more detail. Howe is one of few people I know who has those bright dancing lights in his eyes that often tell of a genius bordering on some inflection of insanity. Howe had a barrage of questions about my journey and project, but was also quite at home discussing the finer points of the business of creating products in the computer games industry. It was the first time since I had left the UK that anyone had asked me such questions of my business past with such a forthright understanding. Howe was an American living in Prague for some 5 years now and sometime spent in Holland previously, is well fluent in Czech, Dutch and some German, quite special I thought. It transpired that Howe may have been part of an organisation running a well known sauna house in Amsterdam that Willem, my friend from Utrecht, was currently working at. Howe explained the supposedly non-profit organisation was being sucked dry by several of its members who were attempting to reap profits through various forms of embezzlement. By some hours and drinks later I had found Howe to be a very entertaining personality that was deeply involved with the method and technique of manipulating minds. His current occupation appeared t be teaching business managers the power of "communication skills through a very simple but highly effective system". I had to come clean and say "I'm not too up on such antics Howe, but I'm making an attempt at appreciating the content of your theories. The thing is I tend to steer well clear of all those self-help books and tapes" Howe became increasingly intense with his observation and analysis of absolutely everything about his surroundings. I was beginning to feel that he found my conversation lacking in intellectual potency as he seemed to become further aloof and a little alienating. Howe's intense conversation and incessant pursuit of knowledge had me spinning after a long day's ride, so I was more than happy to retire. However, my sleep pattern was broken by Howe's midnight binging and early morning clatter in the kitchen where I was sleeping.
Today I found myself walking the brightly colourful streets of Prague again as I had done 10 years ago. Recalling the places I had visited with Verene, my ex wife, or Zita the Czech girlfriend of Pavel Marek, then a film student of FAMU, who had once introduced me to my hero at the time, Jan Svankmajer. In an attempt to catch up with Pavel I went to FAMU armed with a few Czech phrases hoping I might be understood. Alas this attempt failed and I meandered on through the warren like streets of Prague. So far I have not managed to find any Czech games to speak of mostly because I have not had the opportunity to communicate with any Czech people. Perhaps I may make contact with the bar hand here where I'm writing all this gibberish.
No luck there, so I returned to Howe's place to discover him presiding over an English class of his as he brought it to a close. Howe and I realised that the English lessons he was giving were a perfect opportunity to find out about Czech games. It was agreed that we would ask some questions about Czech games in his next lesson with three Czech girls the next day. That night Howe took me and his girlfriend's dog, Vashti, to the Roxy, a club/gallery/bar/internet café so many places in Prague seem to mix and shift with multi faceted occupations like this. We were having a pleasant enough time, but Howe was not brining me any closer to my goal this night, to talk to Czechs and ask them about their games. This was perplexing because Howe had an inate ability to converse in Czech at such a level he was able to humour a group at the bus stop to the point of hysterics. However, Howe didn't have any consistent Czech friends that he could introduce me to, including his girlfriend who was proving somewhat illusive. I began to submit that not every country would be so easy to access as Holland and Germany had been, making me realise that the right people in the right place, particularly 'natives', were like gold dust to my mission. Later Howe suggested I visit a bohemian Czech drinking hole, Fractal, alone. Alone I was for some time, listening to various Czech conversations and some acoustic live music played quietly in the background. After a few failed attempts to converse with the locals I gave up and turned to an English ex pat who was sitting beside me. He suggested I might talk to the Swedish owner of the bar who was an avid backgammon player and knew the Czech people well. This sounded like a fairly good idea but the owner never showed and I went home with a skin full of Czech beer and spirits sloshing around inside me.
Yet another beautiful, bright, brisk airy day. I decided to get some footage recorded of Prague just in case I managed to find a decent Czech game worthy of editing a movie. Walking along the high vantage points of the city I could see those places of extraordinary beauty right across the city, along the river and out into the Czech countryside beyond. The autumn sunshine hit the brightly coloured buildings that shone as if they were illuminations from a Trapist monk's handy work. I wished I'd woken up earlier again, as I had missed most of the early hours, a crime in a stunning city such as this. Later back at Howe's, his mythical girlfriend, Viki, had finally materialised but in a somewhat distraught state since a stream of distressing SMS had been flying between the two. Viki's drooping blond hair dangled over her downturned shoulders and slumped figure as she went about cleaning the place in a kind of compulsory servitude Howe had instigated. She was very upset and subdued but with the occassional outburst of frustration at Howe's insensitivity. This cleaning and taking the dog out for walks seemed to be Viki's role in life, accourding to Howe. The poor girl was obviously a sucker for punishment as Howe gave into very little and seemed to thrive on the unveiling of her deficiencies. That's not to say Howe is not a positive person, but his positive exterior tends to cover up a wide range of frustrations.
Conversely though this night, for myself at least, was a great triumph. Towards the end of Howe's English lesson that evening, he beckoned me in and I set up a microphone to record the proceedings. The 3 girls were a little alarmed and timid at first and in fact had very little to say on the matter of Czech games. After about 20 minutes pondering and general silence I began to show them the games I had previously recorded in my sketch book and explained I was looking for games that reflected typical qualities of Czech culture. A sudden burst of enthusiasm exploded into the room, "word games" they cried, "we all play word games, lots of them". From here on it was difficult to keep up as an avalanche of games came pouring forth. I frantically scribbled names, rules and definitions into my book as they recalled a myriad of game types. The games all involved an extraordinary understanding of their language such that player's would be able to invent new words, phrases, poetry and more. It was quite incredible to me that such a strong cultural cornerstone of these people was represented so well in games. I was overjoyed to find games that so obviously reflected a part of Czech culture through the written and spoken word. They explained that everyday Czech life naturally included a play on words and that it was not uncommon to find a heated debate over the finer points of Czech grammar in pubs and bars, something quite unheard of in everyday English conversation.
That night even Howe was pleasantly surprised by his girlfriend's sudden burst of engagement with the subject matter of games. Viki began to think of people, places, games and all manner of possible supporting materials that might help to make my research more complete. Howe had previously voiced discontent in Viki's lack of intellectual spur, but he was now seeing a side of her never revealed to him before or that he had failed to notice until now. This was not the first time that I had seen the subject matter light up minds. I was beginning to think that the subject of game culture truly held some magical or psychological force compelling minds to dig deep into childhood memories, unearthing long past glory of fun times that inspired and excited the adult mind with a surprising vigour. It wasn't all in my imagination; I was seeing this effect on all those that I had discussed games with on my journey so far. From the humble and concerned Dutch deckhand on the ferry to the incessant inquiring mind of Howe an American in Prague, I was witnessing newfound experience that liberated cognitive process sparking new exploration of fantasy and possibility. All that was required to start this process off was attentive ear with good reason to listen and learn from the answers to the key question "What games do you play?" It's simplicity and subject are completely addictive and as creatures of habit we have an insatiable desire to engage in this question.
As the evening moved on and the English Students left I began to tell Howe a long time favourite true story of mine "Leon And The 2 Bicycles" for want of a better title, in which I have a near death experience. Stupendously I managed to tell the story in such a way that had truly entertained and subsequently Howe laughed himself silly on the punch line ending. I had never been complimented on my ability to tell a story, least of all for my structure and organisation of a tale. In fact I have always deemed myself a very dull storyteller, but Howe was convinced I should make efforts to bring the story to the page. It made me realise just how many stories I had wanted to pen to paper, but never gotten around to it. Perhaps after writing the story of this journey I can find a way to write all the others.
I have been bolstered by many positive compliments of my new work, intentions and other talents during my travel. The positive energy that I have received from so many people has given a great self-confidence, a feeling that had been waning somewhat since closing my business a year ago. Now that I look back over this first month on the road I realise I've never met a bum comment or question about my work that I couldn't answer or not feel confident of my answers. Each passing conversation I have on the subject of games and their culture brings me ever closer to a kind of crystalisation or singularly of thought, honing my ideas to a smooth polished finery I rarely had time for in London life. There have been times when I began to wonder if I had chosen to research game culture only to find a way to gain access or friendship with locals, several people seemed to think that this might be the case. The case is quite the contrary of course, what I am doing now is just all part of a natural and logical progression from one life ambition to the next, any friendship or access gained has been simply an unintentional yet extremely pleasant side effect of the process.
Tonight was the night I had been waiting for. Howe had managed to organise for Viki, Staňa, Daša and her son Filip to join us for an evening to play a Czech word game called Země Měsdo. Rather a long time was spent chatting in the kitchen before the game began and Daša was concerned that we would tire Filip's patience. We quickly arranged as much lighting as possible for filming purposes in another room and began the game. Not knowing any Czech language it was quite pointless for me to join the game, so I settled down to focus on the filming. The pace of Země Měsdo was so fast that I found it extremely difficult to keep up with the proceedings and had to ask the players to backtrack a few times so that I could capture the game cycle. As the players hurriedly scribbled down their words beginning with an elected letter, they attempted to complete a table of categories for Name, City, Animal, Plant, Object, Country. The first player to complete the table with words beginning with the elected letter would win. It turned out that Daša was particularly good at this game and was often miles ahead of the rest and finished well before the others. Filip had a hard time keeping up with the adults and couldn't complete many words before his time was up, but he still enjoyed taking part none the less. Země Měsdo may not originally be a Czech game, nor is it the game that I feel most represents the inventive flair of the Czech people, but it was still a good experience to see the Czech people in action playing a word game. I didn't feel very confident about the footage that I had created and wondered if we might have another chance to film, but it was getting late and Daša wanted to rush off. I only just managed to keep her and Filip a few seconds longer to pose for a photograph and it was all done.
Staňa stayed to talk and drink some hours away with Howe, Viki and I. It was during these hours that I began to learn more of Howe's over active and scheming libido. He was concocting an intimate adventure that would involve us all, but I wasn't feeling particularly adventurous and I could tell Staňa would not be in the least bit interested. Nevertheless Howe pursued his ambition for what seemed like hours. Poor Staňa was quite in the dark about what was going on and I hate to see people on edge like this. I think she became quite worried in the end and wondered what kind of trouble she had got herself into. I finally figured out a way to diffuse the situation by taking myself out of the equation and going to bed, I had wrecked the plan. I found Howe's machinations quite exhausting anyway so this was a way to give my mind a rest at the same time.
The next morning Howe voiced his disappointment in me not going along with his scheme the night before. I admitted that perhaps I was a little conservative in this area and didn't find the circumstances all that attractive at the time.
Since arriving in Prague I have transcended from a state of hopeless to ecstatic about the prospect of finding games with Czech flavour. These ups and downs are hard to get used to; I never really had them as bad as this before. Creative people tend to go through this cycle on a regular basis as they struggle to justify themselves and what they are doing. I expect most lone travellers also have these exaggerated and heightened mood swings, so I believed I was feeling a double dose of the symptoms. This disposition is not unwelcome as there is a lot to be gained from these events and makes one feel very much alive. However, this state has its downfalls and is suspect to all sorts of intrusions and interruptions, particularly where it involves attraction to women.
In Howe's flat those added attractions were making advances into my conscious. Up till now I have left very little out of my account of such matters, but from here on I have decided to omit the finer details of these tales as they require a greater sensitivity reserved for a time when I can write with more compassion in the romantic vesture of a published book rather than the transient ether of the internet, sorry.
I took off for a walk around Prague to take photographs and to sketch a view that I had drawn here 10 years ago. Although my drawings were improving, the 10 years absence of practice showed I still had a long way to go to if I was to reach the fluidity and confidence on the page that I once commanded. I felt certain my sketches were a whole lot better all those years ago. I wished that I had them with me to compare scene for scene. I visited old haunts such as the park of Mala Strana, the bridges crisscrossing the river, endless cobbled streets, trams, smoky bars and hidden galleries. I felt quite at home in one sense, but also disconcerted by a notion of a ghost. I could see the ghost of myself those 10 years past, doing and thinking different things, but somehow the same. When I was here last I was on a mission to find out more about Czech fairy tales. I had just won an award for a short stop-motion animation that I'd cobbled together at art school. Jan Svankmajer and other Czech animators had influenced my work heavily. The one thing that always brought me back to Czech stop-motion animation was it's richly magical quality, always mysterious, very clever and deeply sensitive to the texture and tactility of its subjects. Often these animations would be based on a fairy tale, not the sanitised versions that we see from Disney, but the darker and sometimes scary sort that you can find in their original form. Prague for me, then and now, is a kind of European birthplace of imagination, where all the ideas of the world are sucked into it's mixing cauldron, a spiralling whirlpool of invention that spits out a fountain of creativity. As I walk the streets of Prague, especially at night, I get a sense that everything you want to know is here, not out in the open, but hidden in some dark nook or cranny of its interwoven maze of tiny streets, myriad of manifold doorways, windows and enigmatic winding staircases, like some kind of Kafkaesque dream.
Jan Willem, a Dutch friend of Howe's arrived to visit his old pal and was a welcome and pleasant return to my own sense of social normality. Jan is a very warm and congenial sort of person you often find in Dutch society and very easy to get on with. Jan joined me on a long walk the next day with Vashti, Viki's aged spaniel ailing a little from a huge cyst that dangles from around her abdomen. I was able to give Jan a tour of the places I knew in Prague. We discussed many subjects with a common view on most issues as we passed through the picturesque scenery of Prague's high ground and down into the stony streets of the palace quarter. Vashti, being rather short sighted, needed constant loud whistles and calls from us to regain her attention and direction. However, Vashti was also rather hard of hearing so we found ourselves backtracking or even running after her as she walked with off with other people she thought she was meant to be with. Jan and I agreed that Howe was a little intense for most people, but in small doses and a good mood Howe was a treat to be with. Never have I been accosted by so many cooing girls and women than when I have walked with Vashti. Every corner turned or pleasant spot we stopped there was a woman ready to pet and exclaim Vashti's venerable beauty. One restaurant we visited took a particular liking to Vashti. The staff, chef and manager were all bending over backwards for her. Whilst Jan and I were eating something simple and cheap Vashti was being served the best beef and mutton on the menu with side orders and personal bowl of water to wash down with. Jan and I realised it was Vashti who had been taking us for a walk to her favourite spots and not the other way around.
An entire day was finally spent together with Staňa, a beautifully intelligent Czech girl who took me to an exhibition of the prolific designer Ladislav Sutnar. I had known for a little while that Staňa had some attraction towards me. So I had followed her up with some SMS to arrange for a day out, for me one of the great ways to see a city is through the eyes and guidance of a local and even better a beautiful female one. Sutnar had actually designed the exhibition himself before he died and so it was a wonderfully complete and elegantly put together layout. Sutnar had designed everything from children's toys, book covers, trade show stands, industrial products and was one of the first to create corporate identity. One thing that struck me about his work ethic was stated in the very first panel of the exhibition. He believed that all objects and images should hold a playful quality in them such that people's lives would be enriched with fun and intellect simultaneously. The principle of play actively employing imagination and intellect remained one of the most distinct aspects of Sutnar's entire design and painting career. Staňa had introduced me to a designer I had never heard of, but whom I completely related to on my new quest in the art of play.
The day became evening and Staňa decided to join me for an evening of poetry at Howe's place. Viki arranged for a friend and poet, Katarína, to come to the flat to recite some poetry at my behest for a further understanding of Czech play on words. The audience included Howe, Viki, Staňa, Jan, a Latvian woman and myself. Katarína's performances were much more than I had anticipated. Her poems are made up from a catalogue of interchangeable texts with which she creates new stories by putting the texts in different order. She then performs with body, props and music reciting her poems just as she might perform them in the theatre. Katarína's voice is utterly captivating and one of the most enticing I had ever heard, I could not help but be transported to another land and time as she lulled us with her story of a mermaid that falls in love, takes a shower and considers her fortune, whether she will take her new lover or leave him. We the audience are given the option of which way the story should flow and so Katarína then performed to our request. Katarína also performed some of her favourite poet's work such as that of Věra Chase. It was very difficult to film Katarína's performance in the small confines of Howe's kitchen, so I settled to get as much of her voice recorded as possible.
I noticed that there was a common theme building around the play on words. Katarína's interchangeable texts were very similar in concept to some of the word games that I had found here, where players might have to invent sentences of a poem or words of a sentence that were also interchangeable. We discussed more Czech word games that evening and had a few more from other countries thrown in such as a Latvian dance and song based game where people dancing a circle will stop with the music and the person who had been dancing in the opposite direction, weaving in and out of the circle should then grab the nearest person to take his or her place. A good ice breaker at a party where not everyone knows each other. Then Jan remembered another Dutch game, Koeschyten, where farmers would grid up a field, number each square remotely on a board and make bets on which square a cow would shit next.
It had been a very enjoyable evening for everyone, but was marred by a sudden upset in Viki who seemed to be having a very heated discussion with Howe. Howe's voice was dominant and although all in Czech I could see Viki slowly being broken down into a smouldering pile of emotional debris. I could also see the expressions of horror and disgust on Staňa's face as she witnessed her friend being verbally tortured. Howe was in a world of his own it seemed and didn't see that he was saying anything particularly wrong or painful, however the effect was traumatic and Viki was finally brought to tears. I had no idea what was going on, but pleaded with Howe to break it up "Howe, she's crying, for god's sake can't you leave her alone?" There wasn't much that anyone could say. Then there was a bit of coming and going from the flat as friends and compatriots attempted to resolve the matter by conferring outside the flat. Something got sorted out for the time being at least, and we were able to conclude the evening on a slightly higher note.
I finally went to bed content with yet more supporting material for the Czech culture of play on words. Then to my surprise Viki came into my room, slipped into my bed and expected a performance. Howe eventually came to the door and demanded that Viki should leave me alone. Then some minutes later Staňa joined me and kept me up all night with the tremors and embrace of her nervous body. The companionship was most appreciated, but left us both very depleted the next day.
Staňa and I dreamily trundled out for breakfast the next morning but it was nigh impossible to keep our eyes open. We parted in a kind of nocturnal goodbye and promised to keep in touch and perhaps see each other again one day. That night I slept like a log and woke early to take on the road to Italy, some 1000Km to Firenze and what turned out to be a harrowing19 hour drive through winding mountain roads. Howe was there to help carry the luggage down and take a photo of me on the bike outside his flat for the memory. I waved goodbye to Howe and his winding staircase and was soon into the country heading south.