It's 10:00 pm, and I'm walking across the historic Charles Bridge. It's a cool September evening, following a warm summer-like day. I'm enjoying it as much as possible, because I know Winter will come to Prague very soon. Being Saturday, the bridge has it's usual gathering of tourists, though not the crowds of July and August. I hear German, Czech, and British and Scottish English being spoken around me; the number of American tourists has dropped off dramatically in the last week.
A puppeteer is doing a show for around 30 spectators, his bizarre-looking skeleton puppet playing a miniature grand piano along to a taped soundtrack. A few meters away, a statue of Jesus dying on the cross ignores the performance, its surface illuminated by a bright half-moon.
Stopping just past Jesus and the puppeteer, I gaze up at the moon. Looking to my right, I see Prague Castle. Several of the city's "thousand spires" rise up between myself and the ancient royal residence. Looking to my left, I see the National Theater on the opposite bank of the Vltava River. More majestic spires stand guard around it, black stalagmites in the night's shadows.
I become aware of a soft drum beating in the cool night air. A low, wailing horn plays a lethargic tune, and I walk further across the bridge, passing more statues. Behind me now, applause signals that the puppeteer has finished his show. I hear his thickly-accented English remind the crowd that there's a hat nearby where they can deposit coins of appreciation.
Between the statues of St. John of Nepomuk and St. Anthony of Padua, an old musician has set up shop. He has a large assortment of instruments arrayed around him and a small cart that doesn't look big enough to have held them all. As I approach, the old man finishes his song and replaces the horn in a row of wind instruments before him, all standing on end. He unslings his banjo and places it in a case at his feet, opens another case, and pulls out a bizarre contraption I've never seen before.
As the determined musician sits down on a stool and prepares to play the mysterious instrument, a young couple walks by, hand in hand. They're both dark-haired and tan, Italians or Greeks maybe. In a city of romance and lovers, they wouldn't stand out at all, but I notice them, because they're both speaking English, and it's obvious from their thick accents and awkward grammar that it's not their mother tongue. They're trying to decide which night club to go to, and they pass me, the old man, and the saints without notice, walking across the historic bridge as if it were an ordinary, every-day street.
Turning back to the balding musician, the shock of dark hair that still grows on his head wild and unkempt, I back up against the opposite wall of the bridge and watch him work. The oblong wooden contraption on his lap appears to have strings, but he doesn't touch them. Instead, he reaches for what looks like the handle on a pop-up-box, which protrudes from the bottom of the boxy instrument, and starts cranking. The instrument begins to moan and wail, and, with his other hand, the musician pumps keys at the base of its body. My analytical mind struggles to categorize the strange piece. The best I can do is say it's some unique hybrid of a bulky sitar cousin (by the strings and shape), an accordion (by the keys), and an organ-grinder box—though the whining-yet-pleasant melody bespeaks a bagpipian ancestry.
The tune is syncopated and, at first, sounds random, but I pick up on a pattern just as the old man begins to sing. Momentarily startling, his scratchy voice sounds like someone in pain. The whole piece sounds like a funeral dirge, yet it's not unpleasant or depressing. Maybe it's just my surroundings and the fact that I'm finally living out my dream, but I find the odd song soothing. Leaning back against the stone wall of the bridge that was built more than 500 years ago, I take a deep breath and look up at the sky.
"I’m really here. This is my life," I tell myself contentedly, reveling in the moment...the reality. For a fleeting second, I think of my previous existence and the former coworkers I left behind in the USA. They're in the first few hours of a Saturday afternoon so are probably nursing hangovers from a late Friday night of drinking away the stress of the work week. What is it exactly I feel for them? It isn't guilt, not really. Sure, I feel bad that they still suffer in jobs they dislike, but they could choose to leave if they really wanted to. And it isn't gloating I feel, though I am thrilled to not be there any longer. I guess it's something in between the two.
I have the momentary thought: "if only they could see me now!". My friends who supported me and were excited for me when I left, they would be glad to see me happy and at home at last. And all those people who thought I was crazy, who didn’t believe I could pull it off…well, so maybe I am gloating a little. But honestly, I don't think about the life I left behind too often. My friends from that time are important to me, but they're a world away now, reduced to words on a computer screen via email and snapshots in the photo album of my memory.
“Yes, this is my life now,” I whisper to the wind, basking in the night air and my contentment. Retirement…what a wonderful concept. I laugh to myself, thinking of a coworker back in my former life. She was in her sixties and told me one day “youth is wasted on the young,” to which I replied, “retirement is wasted on the old”. Now I have the best of both worlds.
The old man—he reminds me of my father in a way—has now finished his ominously beautiful song and is standing again. The sitar-accordion-grinder is nestled back in its felt-lined case, and he's putting the banjo back around his shoulder. Rather than a strap, it’s secured by a simple string tied from base to neck. Slowly, and with a careful haphazardness, he arranges a foot-drum before him and starts to play.
There's the hollow beat from his drum and a dancing melody from the strings. Several meandering tourists down the bridge turn their heads toward the new sound, taking notice of the musician for the first time. Two women come toward us, one of them with a small video camera attached to her arm like some cybernetic extension of her limb. She and her friend walk up and stand a few meters from the musician, and her camera gawks at him. He's either used to it or absorbed in his art—surely a combination of the two—for he continues playing and singing, looking into the night air at no one in particular.
As he plays and his music massages my soul, I study the oddly familiar man. His thinning, wild hair and goatee make him look like a professor, which is possibly what causes the comparison to my father. He works steadily and artfully, but is he happy, I wonder? Does he like making music for strangers, or is this how he makes ends meet? Has his art now become his yoke, a load he must bear to put clothes on his back?
Many of the street merchants are easy to read. The ubiquitous trinket-sellers who set up shop each day on the bridge or in the various squares, many of them smile at their patrons obligatorily but can't hide the sour look in their eye. Whether it's apathy or contempt they feel for the customer, there's no joy showing through the small windows to their souls. Selling goods is merely their lot in life, just as sitting behind a computer was for me the last two years. Then there are the merchants and performers who smile with their eyes as well as their lips, genuine personal happiness showing through when they make a sale, or even if they don't. Some of the musicians and puppeteers I've seen are like that, while others fall into the former category.
So what of my new friend, the multi-talented musician? He's now picked up one of his many ornate horns and is playing it with one hand, mimicking the tune he'd been singing moments before. His foot keeps time on the drum, while his other hand plays back-up on the banjo. It's amazingly simple-looking, matter-of-fact. So is he satisfied, or better yet, happy?
I am. I'm happy and satisfied, and, after ten weeks in Prague, still in awe of the city, still able to spend a whole day just walking, looking, and absorbing. It's already home, yet there's still so much to explore. And I'm drawn back to the tourist hubs every now and again like tonight, taking pleasure in watching others enjoying my city.
Well, usually it's pleasurable. Although now, as I watch the woman with the video-camera hand walk away with her friend, I'm annoyed. She filmed my musician for several minutes and is now leaving without depositing any coins in his purse. I'm insulted for him, whether he noticed or not. (And I judgmentally assume the pair of women are Americans. I've discovered in traveling around Europe that the rudest tourists usually are.) She could have at least thrown a couple 10-heller pieces in as a gesture (worth about 2/3 of an American penny).
Unfazed, the patient musician has picked up another horn and is playing the same refrain again. I've got the pattern in my head now, and I fantasize myself joining the artist in his work. I have enough latent musical talent and usually play by ear; I could probably walk over and take a horn and rattle off the same tune (or something close to it) with my second or third attempt. It's a wonderful little day-dream, and it creates a yearning inside me, but I don't dare disrupt the man’s work. Surely I would only be a disturbance. He probably would think I was stealing his horn as I reached for it and become quite agitated. Instead, I listen quietly for another few minutes, reaching into my pocket for some change.
A young man comes walking down the bridge with a determined pace. He's not here for the sights and sounds, but merely to get from one side of the river to the other. Yet, as I watch, he passes me by, pulling some coins from his jacket and tossing them in the musicians purse without pausing. He is the antithesis of the video-camera woman—paying for entertainment he doesn’t even admire or absorb, while she took of the fruit and did not pay. The careless, perfunctory manner in which he deposits the money is almost as offensive as her disreguard for basic courtesy. He looks more like a man leaving charity for a beggar, than someone appreciating an artist. I shake my head, confused and amused by some people's behavior. Once again, my musician doesn't seem to notice.
After another few minutes, my legs tell me it's time to continue walking. I've got no destination tonight, am merely out enjoying my city, but I've stayed here long enough. So I walk over slowly, making sure the dark-haired man sees me and knows that I am admiring his art and not simply giving an obligatory coin donation. As I lean down and drop ten crowns into his purse, we make eye-contact, both showing appreciation for each other. In that momentary linking of vision, I'm struck once again by the desire to join him in an impromptu duet. Surely, after seeing my eyes, he would know my intention, and we could jam away like two friends. But my rational mind stifles the reckless impulse, and I simply drop the coins and walk away, feeling refreshed and envigorated.
Yes, he is one of the happy performers. His art has not become a cross he must bear, but rather he is one of the lucky few who makes his living doing something he loves...once again, a similarity to my father. I envy those people. Perhaps it is that, more than any innate desire to create music, that spawned my yearning to join him this peaceful, cool night. It's something to ponder as I walk the rest of the way across the bridge and up toward the main square of the "small quarter". After weaving my way through the tourists outside the Macdonalds on the end of the medieval street, I’ll probably catch a tram back toward home. Or maybe I’ll just keep walking…who knows. After all, I am retired, it’s only 10:30pm, and I’m only 28.