This is a transcription of Episode 1 — Prague: Castles and Cobblestones.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: And I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it. We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us. [music].
David: Welcome to season one, episode one of Strong Sense of place.
Melissa: It’s our first episode! Hi everybody.
David: Thanks so much for listening and thanks for letting us into your home or car or run or whatever you’re doing right now.
Melissa: Thank you so much everyone for listening and joining us on this exciting journey of books and travel.
David: Today we’re going to visit Prague. We’ll recommend five books that take you to Prague and we have a special guest travel writer, Mark Baker. Mark has lived in and written about central Europe for over 20 years and I’ll talk to him about literary travel and Prague, the architecture and secrets of Prague as well as his relationship for the cold war era spy. Now Prague is particularly special to us because it’s 2017 it’s been our home.
David: Yay. Yeah, we moved here.
Melissa: In 2010 we visited for the first time from the United States, from the United States after, I think I was the one who kind of was the driver behind us coming here because I was kind of obsessed with the movie Gotcha.
Melissa: When I was a teenager…
Movie trailer: ‘Now the CIA is after him. Russians are trying to kill them. Russians… He’s having the vacation of a lifetime if he lives.’
David: That’s why we’re in Prague now?
Melissa: I think so.
Melissa: I really do think so because in the movie there’s this student in California, who plays a paintball game on his college campus, and he travels to Paris, and he runs into this really sexy, beautiful girl with a Slavic accent and she convinces him to go on a caper with her to East Germany. He thinks it’s all pretend, but it turns out to actually be a real spy mission. And I think all of that romance and glamor and espionage and Slavic accent got stuck in my brain at a really formative time of my life.
David: And now we live in Prague… I feel like it was, it was a little more complicated than you watched a movie and then we moved here. Okay. But yeah. All right. So we decided to kick off our first season in Prague because we love the city and we like to get other people excited about it. And the Czech Republic is just rich with elements that make for great stories. We’re going to start every episode by talking about the qualities of a place that make for good stories. So what are the characteristics that inspire stories that come from the people and the culture and the history and the mythology of that particular place. So let’s talk about that. Mel, if you were coming to Prague, what would inspire you to write a story?
Melissa: I think the first thing that always jumps out for me when I look around Prague or even when people are coming to visit us is that it feels really magical. I’ve asked my Czech friends if they think that too because like is that just an outsider’s perspective or the architecture? It looks like it’s straight out of fairy tales and the cobblestone alleys are twisty and turny and you get lost all the time. And I wondered if it was just because I’m not from here confirmed. Even Czech people who are like, yes, this place is a very magical and special and beautiful.
David: It’s a little bit of a dark magic. It’s not Southern Germany has a castle that inspired the Disney castle. It’s like beautiful and just so, and it is also a magical, but it’s very clearly good magic. And here it’s like maybe I don’t know, I’m not sure what’s going to happen as an example, not far from our house. There’s an a train station that was built around the 1900s that is now abandoned and you look at that thing and you pass it and you’re like, Oh, it’s totally haunted.
Melissa: Definitely haunted. It’s super cool. Yeah.
David: And that’s the kind of magic that Prague offers.
Melissa: I wonder if part of it is that there’s so much turbulence and the Czech Republic is history and that kind of adds a little shadow side. It those more magical elements. Because if you look at the history of the Czech Republic, it started out not as one country but as two kingdoms, the kingdoms of Moravia and Bohemia, which people might be familiar with those names. And there’s a Slavic history here. So a lot of Slavic folklore, really dark characters like Morana, the goddess of night, and my favorite, ‘He Who Hides Behind. ‘ So that’s how the Czech Republic kind of started out. And then it was part of the Habsburg empire. And then after the first world war, there was this shining moment where the Czech Republic, it was Czechoslovakia at the time, was an independent country and had actually a really close relationship with the United States and was very interested in democracy.
Melissa: And that’s when the Czech language came into prominence. And artists like Mucha and Czech literature. And it was this beautiful moment where there was a strong feeling of nationalism and things that were really, really Czech. And then world war II happened and there was the Nazi occupation and then after World War II, it was the communist regime. Yeah. So all of that adds this kind of shadow side too. All of the beauty of the Czech Republic. And that’s really right for storytelling. There’s a lot of interesting things to play with there. I think what happens is people from outside come here and they learn the history of the alchemy and the mythology and the witches and the ghosts and they see the beautiful architecture and they write these magical fantastical novels. And then there’s also people who are a little bit closer here, maybe native writers, and they’re tackling some of those tougher historical things. Lots of great stories that we’re going to dive into in this episode.
David: Okay. So we start as you know, in the vast history of Strong Sense of Place we’ve started every episode… long, long tradition… by playing two truths and a lie. So I’m going to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is fiction. Mel doesn’t know which of these are true.
Melissa: I do not. I haven’t even seen them on a piece of paper. I know nothing.
David: But this is a little hard because you live here. So I had to dig a little deep. First statement. So as you know, there’s an astronomical clock. There is a giant clock that is attached to the old town hall and it shows the time and the month and the date and the position of the moon and sunrise and Twilight, the houses of the Zodiac. It is super complicated. It was built in the 1400s. Then at the top of every hour, there’s a parade of apostles that come out a while, a figure representing death strikes a bell.
Melissa: That is my favorite part. A skeleton comes out of a little door and rings a bell to let you know your time might be up.
David: And it’s a famous landmark here. I have yet to walk past it and not see at least a hundred people sitting there waiting for death to strike the bell and the parade of apostles. So all of that said, the first truth or lie is there is a working replica of the astronomical clock in Seoul, Korea. Second one. On average, every Czech person, man, woman, babies, the elderly. Well, will drink two and a half kegs of beer every year. [laughter]
David: That’s 40 gallons. That’s 350 pounds. That’s 412 red solo cups of beer every year.
Melissa: Even the baby.
David: Everybody: babies, old people…
David: No dogs were not included in this. Third, Elton John is responsible for the lighting at the Prague castle.
Melissa: Okay. That last one sounds like crazy to maybe be true. And I do know that Czechs drink a lot of beer. Yep. Even the babies. I’m kidding. The baby’s don’t. We did, however… on the first time we went to the farmer’s market on the naplavka, which is the boardwalk along the river, at about nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. The very first time we went, the very first person I saw, was an elderly gentleman drinking a beer. And I was like, okay, things are a little bit different.
David: Beer is literally cheaper than water here.
Melissa: It’s also very good… but back to the game. I’m going to say the last one is a lie. Well, the Elton John one is not true.
David: It is not true.
Melissa: I won!
David: The Rolling Stones are responsible for the lighting of the Prague castle. So the story is that in 1989 right after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel became president and the very next spring the Rolling Stones came through because Vaclav Havel, who was a poet and a playwright, generally amazing or human was also friends with the Rolling Stones. Rolling Stones came to town. They’re talking to Vaclav Havel. They’re like, you know, the Castle’s really pretty and we like it and it’s too bad you can’t see it at night. And Vaclav Havel said, I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.
Melissa: Just birthing a new country. Don’t sweat it.
David: But if you guys want to do something about that, that would be cool. And the Rolling Stones went to their lighting director, spent $35,000 and lit the castle and those systems are still used today.
Melissa: We will put a photo of the Prague castle lit up at night and show notes that you can see just how pretty it is.
David: Oh, and let’s talk about the other ones.There is an astronomical clock in Seoul, Korea. It’s attached to a Czech restaurant there that looks like the Old Town Hall here. And it’s true that every Czech resident on average drinks 412 red solo cups of beer every year.
Melissa: Someone is definitely drinking my share of the beer.
David: So let’s get to the main event. Let’s talk about the books. We’ve got five books that are all set in Prague that represent Prague in different kinds of ways. Let’s talk about book one. What’s book one. Mel?
Melissa: I started with a crime story collection called Prague Noir edited by Pavel Mandys and I picked this for two reasons. One, all of the stories are written by Czech authors and I really want in this project to read literature and novels and nonfiction written by people from the countries that we are talking about. But as outsiders, I think it’s also useful to read stories by outsiders as well, so we get both perspectives, so I’m starting with a Czech story collection. The other thing I like about this collection is that the stories are set in every neighborhood in Prague and the location is actually listed under the title of the story. You can open up Google maps, see where the story takes place and kind of cross all of Prague, visiting each neighborhood. You can look at photographs. It’s really fun way to get a sense of the city. The other thing that’s really fun is that the stories are arranged thematically. So there are stories about crime teams. There’s a section on magical Prague and the supernatural. There’s a collection called shadows of the past that digs into World War II and communist history. And each category kind of looks at the culture and customs through the eyes of people who are marginalized — criminals, ops, informers, witnesses.
Melissa: So it’s a really different look at the city, kind of the shadowy side. One of my favorite stories in the collection is ‘The Dead Girl from the Haunted House.’ It’s set in a carnival at the Prague exhibition grounds. And in the story, a cynical private detective is hired by the patriarch of a carnival family to investigate a murder. There are so many things in that sentence that are catnip for me. So the girl was killed in the haunted house. Everyone associated with the family and with the carnival is a suspect. The action kind of kicks off at a pub. There’s tattooed carnival workers. I mean, it is everything I love about a creepy traveling carnival.
Melissa: In real life in Prague, there is in fact a carnival on the exhibition grounds. We have been there and even in the full sunlight of daytime, it’s really colorful and really garish and a little bit creepy.
David: So, I know that you did not use to read short story collections. And you’ve started reading short stories. And I know that you have a secret about that.
Melissa: I don’t know if it’s so much a secret, as a handy trick that I read from an author of short stories. Okay. So here is my advice. If you too sometimes struggle with short story collections, the idea is instead of reading the book from front to back the way you would with a novel, look at the table of contents, pick a story that appeals to you at that moment based on its title, and read that one and kind of jump around inside the book. Because if you read something from front to back, your brain is expecting a through line or a narrative with a beginning, middle and end. And short story collections generally are not put together that way. Sometimes they are, but usually they’re not. So if you jump around you kind of get to enjoy the story in itself as is and that has completely changed how I feel about short story collections.
David: I like reading like a short story between a novel or something. So sometimes you get to the end of a novel and you’re like, Oh that was so good, I don’t want to read anything else. And then you read a short story just to sort of, palate cleanser.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s like sorbet. So, that is Prague Noir, edited by Pavel Mandys. I think it’s a really fun way to get a sense of Prague’s neighborhoods and the culture in a way that’s really entertaining, not heavy handed and kind of shows you another side of the city that you might not get. What’s book number two?
David: Book number two is the wall by Peter Sís. This is one of the best books about life during the Cold War that I’ve ever read. It’s children’s book. So it’s a full-on picture book with lovely images and yet it describes hard times.
Melissa: So, juxtaposition of imagery and content.
David: Yes. The author of the book grew up in Prague during the fifties and sixties. He was here for compulsory political indoctrination classes and mandatory Russian classes. He was here when children were encouraged to report on their families.
Melissa: So reporting on your family, that would be like a teacher might say to the kids, what was your dad doing last night? Who was over at your house? And then without really realizing what he’s doing, the kid could really get his parents in trouble.
David: Yeah. And then the teacher reports that to the state. Can you imagine, can you imagine being, the teacher is being asked to do that? That’s pretty dark. So he grew up in that, and in the 60s Czechoslovakia was an independent communist country. It wasn’t part of the Soviet Union, it was its own thing. It was a communist country, but they also had blue jeans and rock music.
David: The beach boys played here. It was all sort of wrapped in a package called ‘‘socialism with a face. And then all of that was crushed by an invasion in 1968 The Soviet Union got worried that other countries were going to look at what the Czech Republic had and want that. And they were like, Nope, we’re not going to do that. And they rolled tanks in one day.
Melissa: So then what happened?
David: Well, they installed different leadership and they tightened up travel quite a bit, and they took control of the media and they regulated speech. Just as a small example, the Soviets created what they called liquidation committees.
Melissa: That is a really ominous sounding title. What were they liquidating?
David: So the liquidation committees are tasked with removing crime fiction, horror and adventure stories, thrillers, romance novels, and science fiction as soon as possible from every outlet. So basically all of our favorite genres, yes, all of those just gone.
David: So Sís grows up in that. Eventually he escapes his own country and he gets asylum in the United States. He was a graphic artist and he went to Los Angeles in 1984 to work on the Olympics. I’m not sure how that worked, but then he just left one day there was an open door, I’m out and he never came back.
Melissa: I feel like as Americans, it’s really hard to imagine just going to another country and being like, okay, this is where I’m staying now because where I’m coming from is way too hard.
David: Yeah, yeah. I’m leaving absolutely everything behind. Yeah, so in the United States, he was an illustrator. He gets employment as an illustrator and he starts making children’s books and he gets married and he settles down and he has kids and in my imagination, one day those kids ask him about his history and he answers them by writing a children’s book about it.
David: He tells them the story of what happened to their dad and the book is called The Wall. It’s got his art and his maps and pieces of his teenage journal entries. The book has a very accessible style and is also somehow very cool. It’s a black and white line drawings with spot color, mostly red, but also has a lot of color when he’s, when the emotion kind of goes that way. We’ll put some of the pages on the site so you can see for yourself. The book goes on to be a New York Times Book Review, Best Illustrated Book of the Year, and it won a Caldecott Medal in 2008. This is a kid’s book, but it’s also really a book for adults too. I think it hits everybody. I’ll say there’s a Kindle version of this.
David: Don’t buy the Kindle version. You will want to enjoy the book as a full-color tactile, real world experience. Um, if you’re interested in what it was like to grow up behind the Iron Curtain, I really can’t recommend The Wall highly enough. That’s The Wall by Peter Sís. What’s book three?
Melissa: My next pick also covers the timeframe of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. It is called Prague Spring, and it’s by the British author, Simon Mauer. This is a mashup of a road trip story, and a spy novel set in 1968 communist Czechoslovakia, but it’s by Simon Mauer. who is kind of a literary author. So this is a literary character driven story.
David: Okay, so you’re getting sort of the best of both worlds. You’re getting an adventure story, but you’re also getting the emotional insight of literature.
Melissa: Exactly. Simon Mauer is a really gifted writer. His descriptions are super evocative and STUFF happens in this book. It’s really fun. Very suspenseful. And it doesn’t feel overly dramatic throughout most of it until suddenly we are in the deep end with these characters.
David: Okay, so who are these people?
David: The first two people we meet are our roadtrip characters. They are two Oxford students: a really spoiled girl, and a boy who, bless his heart, is just desperately smitten with her. She’s pretty and smart and kind of sarcastic and he is all-in on this girl.
David: So he follows his crush into trouble.
Melissa: He definitely does. So they’re drinking in a pub one day and they decide that they’re going to spend the summer backpacking together to Italy and he’s over the moon. ‘Cause going to Italy. Bathing suits, hot weather, sexy times. It’s all going to happen. So they head out on their trip and it goes about how you would expect. They drink a little too much. They flirt with each other, they get into fights, they meet other people on the road because again, it’s the sixties — things are groovy, man. It’s all happening and as he continues to pursue her, she kind of advances and retreats just enough to keep him on the hook. And to keep us on the hook — we want to know what is going to happen to these people.
Melissa: And then at one point, before they are going to cross over into Italy, she decides she wants to go to communist Czechoslovakia and he does not want to do that. Number one, it’s dangerous and scary, and number two, Italy: beach, wine, fun, romance. This is his expectation, but she kind of goads him into it and they decide to go the communist Czechoslovakia.
David: So she’s interested in the Czech Republic.
Melissa: I think she’s just really into the idea of adventure and doing things that are kind of taboo. She’s a little dangerous. There’s this really excellent scene where they are physically crossing the border from Germany into Czechoslovakia, and it’s very stressful and tense because they’re going from a land of freedom to guns, border crossing, the unknown. Simon Mawer did a really awesome job kind of making you feel how incredibly tense that would be if you were in that situation. I mean, we have passports and visas and I still get a little anxious when we’re crossing borders. I think that’s hold over from watching the movie. Gotcha.
David: Yeah. While you’re walking through the Paris airport and you see guys walking around with big rifles and it’s a little intimidating.
Melissa: So those are road trip characters. Meanwhile, in Prague, we meet our other set of characters. There’s a British diplomat and he has fallen in with a group of Czech students who really want a revolution, including a sexy Czech girl named Lanka. And this is significant because as an employee of a foreign government in Czechoslovakia, he is not supposed to be getting involved in politics. But he does because he can’t resist Lenka. And he, of course, agrees with some of their ideas even though he’s not supposed to. So eventually through happenstance, the backpackers and the revolutionaries all meet up together in Prague and become friends and hang out and get to know each other. And that’s kind of the central part of the book where we’re meeting them and getting to see them go on a camping trip together and having parties and making out like it’s the 60s, everyone’s having fun. They’re young.
David: All right. So the first half of the book is kind of a road trip through great Britain and then Europe and then onto the Czech Republic and then the tilt happens.
David: Then the tilt happens because the Soviets invaded Prague in 1968, and the consequences of what everyone has been doing finally catch up with them. And that’s when things get really tense.
David: How big is this book?
Melissa: It sounds big. It’s about 400 pages. Mawer packs a lot into it. So this book has intrigue and spy craft, romantic sparks, bugged rooms. Secret conversations, dangerous adventures, and really awesome descriptions of Prague that put you right here at a really remarkable time in its history.
David: Sounds like a James Bond novel with a lot of well-written romance and that kind of thing.
Melissa: Yeah. It’s got lots of action, but also really big feeling.
David: Well that sounds great.
David: Well, there was one kind of lighthearted thing that I really liked after the invasion, everyone who is not Czech, I’m was trying to get out of Prague. The roads were jammed with cars. Planes were trying to take off from the airport, and a famous band was trapped on the tarmac at the airport for awhile.
David: Which famous band?
Melissa: It was The Moody Blues. [music clip of The Moody Blues singing ‘Nights in White Satin.]
Melissa: They were in Prague for a TV show and they taped their segment just a few hours before the tanks rolled into Wenceslas Square.
David: Can you imagine? You’re here to just play your song and have a show and move on and then you’re caught in the overnight invasion and you’re on the wrong side of the tanks.
David: Yeah, and we’re talking about the moody blues, like this is a groovy band wearing like velvet suits and spreading the word of love. There’s this really incredible video on YouTube of their performance on the Charles Bridge, lip-syncing to their song with cute Czech teenagers in the background. The video on its own is a pretty amazing time capsule. But then if you think about the fact that just a few hours later, there was an invasion and The Moody Blues were literally stranded at the airport trying to get out — really amazing and impactful. All of that can be found in Prague Spring by Simon Mawer. I also want to mention he has another novel set in the Czech Republic called The Glass Room, which takes place in Brno, which is the second largest city in the Czech Republic.
Melissa: That story centers around a mid-century modern house where this family lived and went through all of the upheaval of the 20th century. The house is actually a character in the story. Really, really well done and really gripping. We’ll put a link to that in show notes so you can check that out too.
Melissa: We’re coming up on our final books. Dave, what is your next pick?
David: My book is Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia written by an author whose name I will now butcher. That name is Mariusz Szczygieł. He’s a Polish investigative journalist. He wanted to explore everything that the Czech Republic is and has been. It’s a series of essays. Szczygieł paints pictures of many different characters and times. The first essay is about the Bata family. They now run the Bata shoe empire, which employs about 90,000 people worldwide.
Melissa: I actually just bought my first pair of Bata boots this year.
David: Yeah, they’re huge. It’s an enormous…
Melissa: My boots are not huge. My boots are totally normal. [both laughing].
David: No, I meant the Batas…
Melissa: I know my feet are a little big for my height, but that was kind of cruel, Dave. [more laughing]
David: The Batas are hugely successful. They started in absolute poverty in a cottage with a dirt floor, destitute. Not a dime to their name. They don’t have dimes here, but you get the idea. In 1904 Thomas Bata came to the US and he worked in one of Henry Ford’s plants. And he brought the ideas of assembly line back to the Czech Republic and he opened a shoe factory based on thatm and the family revolutionized shoe manufacture in Europe. They changed the whole game.
Melissa: Right on. Because prior to that they were, everyone was making shoes by hand. Right? Every pair of shoes was custom made.
David: Yes…. Gepetto. Everyone was making little shoes on little tiny box stands and then, then he was like, you know what? We should do it this way. And they did all of that right in the middle of the turbulence of recent Czech history. So in the ’30s some of the tech people accused them of being Nazis and they had their factories taken away by Soviets.
Melissa: You kind of hear that story a lot here, where people’s lives were just rewritten by the Nazi occupation and then the communist regime. It’s like everyone’s lives kind of took a little pause for 40 or 50 years.
David: Yeah. Well, and then reset entirely again when capitalism came back in 1989. So the Batas fled to the US and then to South America where they reestablished their business. And then in 1989 after the fall of communism, Vaclav Havel, previously mentioned president, asked Bata, or the members of the family were greeted as heroes when they returned to the town they created.
Melissa: That must’ve been something to have the new democratic president invite you to come back to your home country…
David: And then be welcomed as heroes in your own hometown. Ah, that’s nice. So Szczygieł writes the essay about the Bata family in these short one- to four-paragraph chunks and it gives you just a little picture of what’s happening and then he moves onto the next bit. And that first essay for me is alone reason enough to get the book and read it. It’s just, it’s a great story and it’s well told.
Melissa: And what else is in there for people who want to read more than one story in a collection?
David: All right, so through the book you go on to meet a whole lot of different Czech characters. You meet Lída Baarová who’s an actress who was also the mistress of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. You hear about how that changed her life.
Melissa: I’m guessing not.
David: Well, yeah, it didn’t turn out well for Lída. You also meet Jaroslava Moserová, who’s both an expert in skin grafting and also translated 44 Dick Francis novels into Czech.
Melissa: That is a really interesting combination of skills, isn’t it?
David: Yes, doctor of skin grafting and she’s also… Dicl Francis is more popular than Agatha Christie.
Melissa: Yeah, I was going to say, when you go into a used bookstore here, you see a lot of Dick Francis paperbacks on the shelf. And I actually, I love Dick Francis. You can find write-ups of some of his books on strongsenseofplace.com, and I actually asked my Czech teacher if she thought I could buy a Dick Francis novel in Czech and use that during my lessons to try to increase my vocabulary.
David: Yeah. How did she take that?
Melissa: Yeah, she said no. Okay. So back to Gottland and not my check lessons. Okay. So back to Gottland and not my check lessons. Yes. What does that title mean? Gottlan…
David: It’s about goats. [both laugh] The book’s title references Karel Gott. Gott was a popular singer in the Czech Republic who somehow weathered the Nazis and the communists and capitalism. He died just a little while ago. He’s been called the Czech Elvis. [music clip of Karel Gott singing ’60s song]
David: So in 2006, he opened his own museum Gottland just outside of Prague and he modeled it on Elvis Presley’s Graceland.
Melissa: Na zdravi, Karel Gott.
David: We pour one out for Karel. So the book I kept wanting to turn to you and be like, um, read bits of the book out loud, even while you were reading your own book or maybe even sleeping, that’s how good this book is. It’s a ‘you should wake up and listen to this awesome phrase’ book. It’s really great. It’s Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia by Mariusz Szczygieł
Melissa: My final pick is HHhH by the French author Laurent Binet. And I could summarize this book by saying it’s historical fiction about the assassination of a Nazi during World War II.
David: Yeah, that would be enough to get me to read it…
Melissa: But that doesn’t really describe everything that’s cool about this book. This is an amazing book. So stay with me here. It’s written like a memoir by an author who is writing a historical novel about the assassination.
David: So the author has kind of written himself in as a character?
Melissa: A little bit. Yes.
David: Laurent Binet said, this is my experience doing the research of writing this book.
Melissa: Yeah. Laurent Binet is kind of acting like a Greek chorus and commenting on the action. And his asides and his footnotes add a little bit of humor and some warmth to what otherwise could be a really heavy story. It’s kind of like you and he are having a discussion about what’s happening in the book while it’s going on.
Melissa: Unless people are into Czech or World War II history, they might not know who Reinhard Heydrich was. I feel like I didn’t really learn about him when I learned about World War II in school. He was a Nazi, he was tall and blonde and very clever and super ambitious and really, really cruel. Just to tell you some of his nicknames, the butcher of Prague, the Blonde Beast, and Hitler had a nickname for him. The Man with the Iron Heart.
David: He liked all of those nicknames? He was alking around being like, Check me out… I’m the Butcher of Prague.
Melissa: Yes. They were definitely considered compliments. So it’s a 1942 and Prague is under the rule of Heydrich. He is the big bad boss and Hitler loves him because he’s deporting Jews. He’s coercing people into informing on their neighbors. He’s making life miserable for everyone who lives in Prague.
David: Evil Nazi doing evil Nazi stuff. What happens then?
Melissa: Then the Czech government in exile in Britain decides that he needs to be assassinated. They recruited two young men that came to be known as The Parachutists and I want to say their names to honor them even though sometimes names and podcasts are a little confusing. So we’ll just take a moment and raise a glass to Jozef Gabčík, who was a Slovak factory worker, and Jan Kubiš, who was a Czech soldier. Those two were selected because they represented both halves of Czechoslovakia, a Czech person and a Slovak person.
David: So sort of a symbolic position….
Melissa: Yes. And then they sent them to England for training and they got all kinds of weapons and espionage training. And then the plan was they were going to fly them over the Czech countryside and they would jump out of the plane with parachutes, and they would make their way to Prague with the help of the resistance. And they would kill Reinhard Heydrich.
David: And that’s exactly what happened, right? Goodness prevailed. Everybody lived happily ever after. Good night! Thanks for coming! That’s right. That’s it. We’re done.
Melissa: It would be great if that’s what happened. It is not a spoiler to say a lot of people worked really hard on this plan and then lots of things went wrong. So I don’t want to give away the big bang of the story if people are not familiar. So, that’s all I’m going to say about the plot plot. But I will say that this thing is a page-turner, even though it’s an 80-year old story. Part of the reason this thing is so suspenseful is because of the way it’s written. It’s 326 pages long, but it has 257 chapters. Some of the chapters are only one to two pages each. And what this does is it really keeps the action moving and it makes it feel really fresh and really dramatic.
David: Yeah, I really like reading books like that.
Melissa: One of the chapters is only one sentence long. I really admire the confidence of a writer that puts down one sentence then is, like, and that’s the chapter. This is the only way the story can be told. It’s brilliant. I think it’s really brilliant.
David: That’s great. So what’s up with the title? HHhH?
Melissa: Yeah, it’s Capital H, capital H, little h, capital H, just to be really specific. Yeah. Reinhard Heydrich was the right-hand man to Heinrich Himmler who was head of the SS. Okay. And the book’s title stands for Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, which means ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’.
David: Okay. So… Heydrich Is the engine behind Himmler.
Melissa: Yes. And Himmler was right next to Hitler. [pause] I really, really loved this book. The author just vividly described streets and churches and parks and squares and restaurants in Prague. And most of them are still here today. You’re just kind of transported to this particular place and time in history. It’s really gripping and really moving. I felt like I was in the room where these decisions were being made. Even talking about it now my palms are a little sweaty. It’s a really intense story. I will say, of course, this is World Wa ar II book and there are some pretty brutal descriptions of the Holocaust. So if you know that kind of stuff upsets you, tread lightly. All of his descriptions are very vivid. Oh, I should also mention that there’s a brilliant nonfiction book about the same topic that I also read, called The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Callum MacDonald. And that’s a much more straightforward, fact-based look at the story, and it was remarkable to me when I read both of them how closely Laurent Binet was able to stay to the facts of the story while also crafting this amazing moving narrative around the facts. Both of them are great.
David: Okay, cool. So those are five books we’d love set in Prague. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you talk about the special blog posts you wrote for this episode?
David: I may have gone a little crazy with the Prague content for this episode. [both laugh] Over the course of our time visiting and moving here, I have read 35 books set in Prague. I recommend 15 novels that capture the magic of Prague and those are in a blog post on strongsenseofplace.com. We also have a Czech inspired recipe. We have a guide… six unusual travel guides to Prague that even if you’re not visiting here, are worth reading because they have so much cultural and historical and mythological information. We also have a story about our search for the best strudel in town. A story about the Strahov Monastery Library, which by the way has a cabinet of curiosities.
David: It does. It’s so cool. There’s also a horn of a narwhal there.
David: A giant crab…
David: … little books made out of trees.
Melissa: Yeah. It’s a very magical place and we have lots of photos and the story of how you know, what kinds of things you’ll see in the library on our website. And also a little writeup of our favorite literary cafe and much, much more.
David: Next up, I’m talking to Mark Baker about vintage bookstores, spies and the ghosts of Prague.
David: I’m here with Mark Baker. Mark was a journalist for 20 years covering central and Eastern Europe for The Economist and Bloomberg News. He’s been a travel writer for the last two decades, writing for publishers that include Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Fodor’s, and magazines that include The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic Traveler. Mark, thanks for joining us.
Mark: Hey David. Thank you very much.
David: So, uh, you’ve been a traveler and you’ve lived in Prague on and off for a long time, right? 30 years or so.
Mark: Yeah. Really. Yes. Exactly. [laughter] I try not to tell people the 30 years part. I go with more than 10 or more than 20 right now.
David: Well, we’ll just, we’ll just say a while… so what is, what’s your pitch on people who have never been to Prague? Why should people come to Prague?
Mark: That’s a great question. I think Prague has two, you know, if you want to use marketing speak, unique selling points, or for me, two unique aspects of its charm and one is pretty obvious. I think Prague’s best asset really is the architecture. I think that is ed, you know, if you, if you are a fan of European architecture, if you know something about European architecture, you know, you can find everything from Romanesque and the very earliest buildings through Gothic, through the Renaissance, through Baroque, through the neoclassical period of the 19th century. And then some of the more modern forms like our art nouveau and communist architecture in the 20th century. You know, there were not many big cities in Europe that survived World War II entirely intact or mostly intact. And Prague is one of those rare cities. So you can really see how a city developed and unfolded through the middle ages and into modern times. And if you’re into that kind of thing, then Prague is really your town.
David: Yeah. You can often find those things right next to each other. Like you can look down the square and see the development of architecture over time.
Mark: Absolutely. I always think that if you ever really imagined how a medieval cityscape looked, you know, like a 13th century or 14th century cityscape, really look to people who are coming from the provinces in their stage coaches or on their horseback come through the gates and see the towers in the same way that we look at a city like New York City or Dubai or Hong Kong today. That’s how they would have looked at Prague in the 14th century. And I think it’s really, it’s really interesting to see that perspective.
David: Absolutely. So you mentioned there were two.
Mark: Yeah. Okay. The second one is something a little bit harder to describe and you really have to use your imagination to get to it, but there’s a lot of secrets that Prague has hidden over those centuries. So for me, the city has a lot of mystery, you know, maybe for lack of a better term. You know, you think about Austrians, the Habsburgs were here for 400 years or so. And that was a kind of benign dictatorship in a sense. And then you had the Nazi occupation, of course, that wasn’t so benign at all. And then you have four decades of communism, you know, in modern times, again, not very benign, but, but hid a lot of, a lot of things went on in Prague. That gives the city to me still a kind of very spooky aspect. A very mysterious aspects. I’m always looking for ghosts. You know, when I’m walking around Prague…
David: [laughs] Agreed.
Mark: I bring them up in my own mind as I am right now for your listeners. [laughs] I really do feel it when I walk around. Every place has something, even, even, even once Wenceslas Square, you know, the big square right in the center of Prague.I remember going there back in the day in the 1980s when I was working as a journalist. And, um, I had a couple of interactions with some people who would later turn up on spy lists, etc. And so maybe that kind of gave me that, that I was always being watched and recorded when I was down there and there was always a little bit more than meets the eye that was going on on the public streets.
David: Yeah. And you were here early enough that that was in part true. Right?
Mark: Yes. When I was a journalist I was covering Prague, um, for The Economist Group, the magazine and some of their other publications based in Vienna at the time. So we’re going back to 1988 or ‘89, just before the revolution of 1989. And I would come up here and I didn’t speak Czech at the time. I didn’t really know much about Czechoslovakia at the time. Um, so I had to work through a translator and a fixer, a person that would help me translate, arrange my meetings, and pick me up and drop me off and stuff like that. And then I only found out many years later that he was actually a relatively high-ranking member of the Czechoslovak security services. And his job was really to watch over me. Yeah. It gave me goosebumps when I found out about that in 2012 when I Googled the guy’s name, like, whatever happened to him. And then I found a very long report, uh, online in Czech of course, um, by an Institute, a military Institute here in Prague. And the headline was that person’s name, colon, high-ranking, member of the state security service and journalist. And then as soon as I read that my blood went cold.
David: Yeah, that’ so spooky.
Mark: Yeah, we had a good relationship at the time. He was my translator, and he was my, my friend in quotation marks, if you will. But um, you know, and at the time I always knew probably something that’s going on like that, but I never really thought about it that much. But then just to read, you know, the blood-curdling page after page of this report. This guy, this guy was tough. It was really his job. Anyway, so maybe I have more ghosts, you know, than most people would come into Prague, but still.
David: I think you do, yeah. So what part of Prague do you think is the most haunted?
Mark: Great question. Maybe the part that I actually live in, it’s a residential area called Bubeneč. We’re talking about the most hidden right now in modern times, right. Because this was one of the more elegant parts of town. I’m not saying that my apartment is particularly elegant, but, um, it was the first one of the, one of the most important suburbs in the industrialization process. So a lot of millionaires and billionaires for their times would build their mansions in this part of town. And this is still where the most of the embassies are located and the ambassador’s residences, including the United States ambassador’s residence, which is a beautiful mansion from the 1920s. Anyway, during the, during the World War II, German occupation and Nazi occupation because of all the villas and mansions in this part of town, all the Nazis wanted to live here. So most of these big buildings during the Nazi occupation were actually occupied by, you know, real Nazis. Now after the communist, um, you know, after communism came to Czechoslovakia in 1948, the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation maintain all of their buildings in this part of town. So we like to call it little Moscow. It’s, it’s quite stark. So when I walk around, I think of these as haunted mansions because some of them are owned by the Russians, but are still empty to this day, and I wonder what’s going on in there.
David: There’s a train station near where we live that has been abandoned for a long time and it’s crumbling and falling apart. And every time I walk past it, you know, it just totally looks haunted. And you do wonder what the backstory is, right? Why is nobody taking advantage of this really good resource?
Mark: Every time I see an abandoned building, I think of that, you know, who, what story lived here? Why is this not being fixed up in some way? Who owns the place now?
David: Yeah. So, I know you’re a lover of books. I know you probably have book loving friends. If your book-loving friends come to Prague, what do you recommend that they do?
Mark: So when they would come to Prague or tell me my book loving friend would say, Hey, I’m coming to Prague, what do you think I should do first? I would say try to get into some of the literature. Of course there’s always Milan Kundera, you know, his books are widely available in any bookshop and he writes, you know, whether you like him or don’t like him or like some of aspects of the style or not. There’s no denying that he’s a very, very talented storyteller. And he manages to mix very high-concept philosophical issues with very low-brow love affairs and relationship triangles and all kinds of stuff that keep the reading kind of fun. You know, you’re not just completely buried in the very high-concept stuff. So, so that’s what I would first do.
Mark: And then try to, you know, walk around town without any kind of necessarily, any type of real itinerary in your mind. Another thing you might want to do is, um, maybe download some of the old music, pop music from the 1960s and seventies and create a kind of soundscape in your mind. And with those kind of fun stories, just try to enjoy the city, you know, and try to absorb the aspects of the city from the books that you read. You know, if you’re reading Klíma, you might listen to some pop music from the 1960s or something like that or 1970s.
David: Yeah, that’s a fantastic travel tip. I’d love putting together a playlist for a place that I’m about to visit that I think is appropriate to the location. And then listening to it while you’re exploring that environment is it’s such a great experience.
Mark: If you have no idea where to start. Like, what is a Czech pop stuff from the 1960s, who are they? All you would have to do is just Google words, Czech pop star, 1960s and all kinds of YouTube videos will come up. You can click around and see, you know, they made some really, really great and very evocative music that even today when you hear it on the streets, it takes you right back 50 years ago.
David: Okay. So walking around town, and listening, are there any locations that you recommend that they stop into?
Mark: You mean like as a book lover where we talked a little bit about the antikvariati, you know, those old, old bookstores, etc? Yeah, I think that if you’re really a book lover, you know, there are some modern bookstores. You know, I used to be a bookstore owner in this town, so I know a little bit about the book trade here and you know, you can pick up books here. So don’t, you know, I mean, it’s nice to bring your own books and especially about Prague, but, but even if you arrived empty-handed, you can go to a modern bookstore somewhere and find some good Czech literature and English translation, so you’ll have something to read. But if you really want to kind of get into the book world a little bit, then you really need to stop off at one of these used bookstores that you find all over town.
Mark: They’re called antikvariat. It means, basically, used bookstore, but you have to think a little bit beyond books. When you think about these stores. These shops, they specialize in basically any memory that can be put to paper. So they have books of course, but they also sell posters, old posters and old lithographs. They sell maps, they sell postcards. You know, it’s just an amazing world of stepping back into time. And I love these shops and Prague is filled with them. They’re in every district in every neighborhood. You know, I guess a lot of people have just over the years donated their books or whatever they had in their family collections. And um, and so there’s still a really rich supply of this type of historical material on paper in all forms. And it’s just so much fun to stand in one of these shops and kind of pick up the books and go through them and read a little bit. Of course, a lot of the books are in Czech, so no point in reading too much about it. But there’s also posters and as I said, all kinds of other things that you can see. And I think that that’s something that my book lover friend would really enjoy doing.
David: Yes, I totally agree. There’s, there’s a… you get maps and posters and book plates and all sorts of great stuff and they make great souvenirs and great gifts and it’s just so fun.
Mark: Yeah, exactly.
David: Are you ready for the speed round?
Mark: Go. Cool.
David: Here we go. First question, carry on or checked baggage.
Mark: I’m a check baggage guy.
David: Must-haves in your suitcase or carry on.
Mark: Must-have in your carry-on is clean underwear, clean t-shirt because you never know when your checked bag is going to get lost.
David: [laughs] Okay. Good tip. Ask for directions or get lost.
Mark: Absolutely get lost.
David: How do you document your trips?
Mark: On my iPhone.
David: If you could, go right now to a train station or airport and visit another place. Where would you go?
Mark: I’ve got Bucharest on my mind right now.
David: What’s your favorite format for books? Paperback, hardcover, audio book, ebook?
David: Fiction or nonfiction.
David: If you could unread one book, what book would it be?
Mark: Oh dear. Oh man, that’s a good one. That’s a really good one. I would say almost any book that I had to read for grad school… on eastern European political history. [laughs]
Mark: Some of the books that I had to read to in order to write my thesis to graduate, which of course my thesis was on communist Eastern Europe and it totally unraveled a few years later. So all that reading and all that money down the drain.
David: Are you a book quitter or a book sticker?
Mark: I’m a book quitter.
David: Okay. And finally, if you could magically transport yourself into any book, fiction or nonfiction, what book would it be?
Mark: It would have to be ‘Between the Woods and the Water,’ Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic travel novel from when he was a young man in the 1930s walking through Transylvania on his way to the Danube.
David: Wow. That’s a great answer.
Mark: That’s an amazing book. Just the people that he ran into, just the tribal people that he ran into, the different nationalities that were living in that part of Europe, which of course now vanished because of the wars and Ceaușescu and all that stuff. But that just seems like, and he’s also a very embellishing and good writer. Of course he embellished a lot perhaps, but it would just be amazing to have that chance to retrace in the time, you know, with the means of transportation that he used, but basically on horseback and on foot through that wilderness of Transylvania back then.
David: I love that answer. It’s been great talking with you. Thanks so much for your time.
Mark: Oh, David. I really enjoyed it.
David: You can follow Mark and his many adventures at MarkBakerPrague.com. Don’t miss out on his ‘10 places to visit in 2020.’ It’s full of tempting places to add to your wishlist. Thanks again.
Mark: Thank you David.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place for more on Prague, including the books we’ve discussed today, more book recommendations, information about our guest and literary landmarks in Prague, visit our website. It’s strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: Be sure to sign up for a free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book and travel related things. And please, please join us on Instagram for photos, illustrations, short book reviews, and other things we love. We are @strongsenseof.
David: If you enjoyed the podcast, please rate it, review it, and tell a friend and don’t forget to subscribe so that you never miss an episode. Mel, what are we covering in our next show?
Melissa: We are jumping out of the fire and into the frying pan with a look at life behind the scenes in restaurants.
David: Thanks for listening everybody. [cheerful music]
Top image courtesy of Fabrizio Verrecchia.
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