The Old World

Easter as a time of rebirth is far older than our Christian framework and in honor of this truth I’d like to share a relevant personal story.

I have never been a religious person and do not come from a particularly religious family. I’d label my religious influence in the ‘minimal’ category—I did go to Sunday school for a short time as a child, it was a Christian Science church that my grandparents attended for some of my young life. I remember my first experience of understanding that “JewIsh” was something different than “Christian” not until I was in high school. It made hardly an impact beyond a basic curiosity for me. What I learned then was that “the Jews” in our suburban Midwest milieu went to the high school in the rich suburbs, not ours in the middle-rent area of the burbs.

Then I went abroad and met a Jewish girl from this very high school, because all the high schools in our area shared the same overseas programs. We became friends for that short period and I consoled her when she burst into sobs upon visiting a Holocaust museum. I was moved by her pain and sorrow expressed for the suffering of a people she never knew, but still called her own. I had never experienced such a feeling before myself and the others in our group seemed annoyed or off-put by her overt signs of grief that were perhaps exaggerated, I don’t know, it’s possible, after all we were teenage girls, that does happen.

I had deep interests in language and culture from a young age that was not shared by others in my family. But my mom was open to my sense of adventure and supported my vagabond spirit as much as she could.

Traveling was the greatest rush of my life up until that time and I became quite obsessed with it. I expected my raison d’etre was to become a travel writer, which from the vantage point of today is almost humorous, considering I gave up traveling many years ago, as protest against Homeland Security measures of bodily harassment.

But for two decades I was ALL over the place. I still miss it. I still hope someday travel becomes what it once was to me, before the tyranny began in earnest and I chose to make a such a sacrifice in response.

By the time I’d visited Prague I’d seen many of the great cities of Europe. I loved Paris and Munich in particular; did not care for Berlin or Bern; would’ve moved to Amsterdam in a heartbeat.

I felt already as a seasoned traveler when the overnight train deposited me in Prague in the summer of 1990 at age 22. I knew enough to hang out on the railroad platform with my backpack until some suitable locals passed by offering a room for rent. Hotels were for aristocrats, not backpackers, and cheap lodging was not easy to come by, even in that still relatively cheap city.

I installed myself in the offered closet called a room. I got by on butchered German from my high school days and met only two other travelers who spoke English. It was the most foreign of cities I’d visited thus far, because the Soviet influence was still palpable everywhere, the Velvet Revolution had taken place the year before.

It really did feel like stepping back in time, everything felt old, and to me, drab. Gray and drab, bordering on depressing. The people seemed spent. The buildings looked dilapidated. The cars were rusty jalopies. The cafes were hardly the vibrant displays of conviviality as in Paris. But there was something else far more provocative to me than all which seemed missing having come from ‘the west’.

The first night I ventured out in tourist mode across the Charles Bridge I was stopped speechless in my steps. It was spring, but it was cold and drizzling and I was lured to an outdoor puppet show on the banks of the Vltava. I laughed because the children watching were laughing. I stayed for a while to watch them watching.

I didn’t think of my brief friendship with the Jewish girl, even in this most Jewish of cities. I’d read my guidebooks, I knew the city was seeped in old world culture and was beyond impressed with its architecture, a subject that had fascinated me already for a decade.

I integrate her now in this story for what happened next. I offered the backstory here in order to highlight that what happened next was completely outside of my influences and upbringing and any frame of reference beyond that one incident of that Jewish girl at the Holocaust museum.

When I gazed out over the Vltava from the Charles Bridge that night, quite alone in the cold and drizzle, an unknown and unforgettable emotion rolled over me. Like her, who that day could only express her emotion in tears, I could only express mine in awe. I felt as if my jaw had dropped and I stood cemented in place like one of the many towering statues.

I knew this place before, that’s all I felt. It was as if time and space had vanished and the people and the language and the events of that place, completely unknown to me, were instantly my own. It was the briefest of moments, come and gone as quickly as a dream, but more evocative than any lived experience. The past had invaded and embodied me, some sort of deep nostalgia had resurfaced, and the only word I could ever come up to try to describe it was Love, as lame as that is. Love, as in somehow, Magic.

That’s always made me curious. How could a foreign city evoke such an intense and inexplicable and ephemeral yet still fully embodied emotion?

I had no idea the answer then and still don’t have one. But something of what I experienced in that brief moment is as close as I am to a lived understanding of God.

Since the door of travel for me was closed by the tyrants, the window that opened is arm-chair traveling from the comfort of my hammock and it feels like a blessing.

That is thanks to technology (irony to the Luddite, right?) and to kindred spirits who show me that indeed, there is an old world magic that might have been built seeking rebirth through our eyes, and maybe that’s what I felt then, and maybe that’s what the Jewish girl felt, and maybe that’s happening right now to someone else at this very moment.

Thanks to Jon Levi for his fascinating work in re-imagining our history and re-igniting my nostalgia.