Once upon a time– there was an empire centered in this city. The King and Queen lived at the castle with their family and a retinue of sycophants and servants. And sometimes – the Royal couple had a party for their servants. To thank them. They were a very nice, kind royal couple. And then one day- there were no more royals at the castle. The country became a republic. Twice. But the castle remained the seat of power with the President of the Republic living there. The President also had sycophants. Lots of them. Unlike the Royal Families of old, he had to pay his employees. And seldom if ever did the President hold a party at the Castle to thank anyone.
There were – and are many old European capitals to fit my parable but right now I happen to be in Prague – the ancient capital of what is now the Czech Republic. And as the seat of a kingdom or a Republic it has always been a city always full of music. Except for a dreadfully dismal detour into the gray-black world of communism and the Soviet Union. But since 1989’s Velvet Revolution, Prague has been its old self. With a new, modern overlay. And at least once a year there is still a party at the castle. For the people of the entire city – as many who wish to come, sit on the old courtyard cobblestones and lose themselves in the magic of the night.
And so – for the third time – my husband and I were among those standing or sitting on the cobblestones recently on a perfect summer evening, at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s traditional free concert ending its formal, concert hall season.
It was a huge crowd. Old, young, babies in carriages. Many drinking beer bought from the tiny pub on the edges of the square. Beer they held carefully as they picked their way through the rest of us to find a cobblestone or two of their own. There were a few relaxed guards at the castle gates. But not a police uniform or car to be seen. Most of us didn’t know each other. Or even speak the same language. But we all smiled. And smiled. At the music, each other, the little kids – and the dogs. As we all peacefully shared this party at the castle.
A few weeks later there was another “party” you might say. In the Old Town Square in the oldest part of the Old City of Prague. Which dates to the 14th century. Or even earlier. The Bohemia Jazz Fest – which – like the Czech Philharmonic concert at the castle – hadn’t been held for two COVID-restricted summers. And is also always free. As in pull up a cobblestone or two, maybe grab a beer – and just groove.
For Czechs – it’s normal. But for me – who lives most of the time in the too often violent US – it’s downright amazing!
Yes, there were probably some undercover police mixed among us. At both concerts. But if so – they weren’t needed. We were all there simply to enjoy the music. Free in an increasingly unaffordable world.
Maybe it’s the magic of gathering in a place that’s withstood so many wars – big and small – over the centuries. Not to mention the fires which plagued so many old cities.
You can feel the ages, almost physically wafting from the buildings, seeping up through the cobblestones. Even as the Jazz Fest employs the video, lighting and sound tricks used at most concerts now – in 2022. Incongruous yet perfectly normal. The old merging with the new. In a country with a difficult history – which includes the murderous Soviet Union and the deadening burden of Communism after World War 2 – a burden the Velvet Revolution threw off in 1989.
Whatever the reason – I cannot imagine such peace at ANY gathering in the United States. Czechs are allowed to own guns to defend their homes. They have their political differences and often don’t mix well with others’ cultures and histories. But there are no explosions of rage ending in massacres at these celebrations of life in what is now their own, free country.
So I groove to the music, and suck up the vibes. Two peaceful moments in a turbulent time. How perfectly lovely.