The Harmony of the Herd

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Prague, Czech Republic – October 2010

Autumn in Prague. The muted sunlight infuses the clouds with a golden glow. We stand at the edge of the Vltava River and watch the steady stream of people moving across the Charles Bridge. We are psyching ourselves up to jump into the human current.

My eyes come to rest on a lone fisherman. He has managed to find some peace amid the masses.

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Prague is beauty as far as the eye can see.

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There is no low season in Prague, only slightly more room to move. When I was younger, I used to be contemptuous of those who travel on organized tours or those who only go to the popular places. Now I realize that it’s good that people are willing to make any effort to expand their horizons. My tolerance only goes so far, however.

Last night, after a day of waiting in lines and dodging aggressive souvenir vendors, I asked the receptionist at our small hotel, “Do you know a good local place to eat? We don’t want to be around tourists.” I rolled my eyes and smiled.

Her eyes narrowed. A scornful sniff was her reply.

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As we follow the herd across the Charles Bridge, I suddenly understand her reaction. We are merely two faces in the hoards that have overrun her city. We had a lot of nerve thinking that we were different. The locals want to keep some places of their own.

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When we arrive back at the Old Town Square, my husband points at a crowd that has coalesced in front of the astronomical clock. “Something is happening there.”

“Oh, yeah, at the top of the hour, the clock is supposed to move. Or something. We may as well look since we’re here.” I’ve done enough research about Prague to know that the clock show is probably overrated.

We merge sideways into the crowd. The spaces between shrink as others arrive. Glances become territorial. Elbows emerge. A large group of Polish tourists pushes to the front. A tall guy with a fat neck stands right in front of me.Β  The crowd has swelled to several hundred people. The chatter becomes a din.

“A photo of the crowd is probably more interesting than the clock show,” I mumble to my husband.

“Do it.” His eyes sparkle with mischief.

I take his camera and turn around. Another gargantuan individual is standing behind me. If I lift my husband’s huge Nikon camera, it will be right in the guy’s face. I sigh and turn back around.

The chatter subsides as the clock begins to chime. Faces are upturned, rapt, as the small figures begin to move. It’s nothing more than a glorified cuckoo clock.

All at once I feel the harmony of the herd. I understand the appeal of conformity. It feels good to like what others like. To just go along with what we’re told. This is what one does when one visits Prague! Tears of joy spring to my eyes.

“Wow, that’s so interesting.” The sarcasm in my husband’s voice kills my buzz. “I feel incredibly ridiculous for waiting for this.”

“Party pooper.” I giggle. I look around at the other faces, expecting to see disappointment. However, they are totally blank. The crowd disperses into the various currents that move through the Old City. On to the next special attraction.

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I ponder that brief synchronicity as we make our way back to the river. I now understand why most people are natural followers. It’s so much easier to leave the responsibility of making even the smallest of decisions to others. My aversion to conformity caused me much grief as a child and young adult. However, I’m now grateful for those character-building experiences. The loneliness has ebbed away, but the curiosity has endured.

I say nothing of this to my weary husband. He usually tolerates crowds better than I do. I won’t further burden him with my melodramatic reflections.

Because, sometimes, a clock is just a clock.

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55 thoughts on “The Harmony of the Herd

  1. The best time to see the clock is at 3 or 4 in the morning. There might be less of a “show” and you might be joined by a scattering of inebriated non-Czechs in their post-party haze. On the other hand, as one who’s big on history and a recovering astronomer, I learned a lot about this copy, as my Czech friend provided plenty of information and historical context. Sleep is highly overrated, especially when there’s the golden glow of a sunrise to witness.

      • Hi! You’re welcome! If I remember correctly, the original version of the clock (or something very close to that) is housed in the City Museum near Florenc station. When you’re back in Prague, have a look around in the early hours of the morning around sunrise, and in the hours after sundown.

      • I’m sorry that the jadedness was something that coloured your visit. I hope you give the place another chance in the future.

        Something I forgot to add in my reply but one of your commenters also stated, taking a picture of the crowd looking up at the Astronomical Clock is a fascinating exercise: for example, http://instagram.com/p/dFibUkJItJ/

        Finally, these are some reasons why one might want to wake up early or stay out late in Prague, respectively: http://wp.me/p1BIdT-13s | http://wp.me/p1BIdT-3B8

  2. That “hotel receptionist” should be in a different line of work. Tourists are silly, but they pay the bills. Thank you, Julie, for sharing your artist-eye and your poet-mind with us.

    • Yeah, I was pretty stunned. On many occasions, I’ve asked for recommendations on local places from hotel receptionists and have never had such a hostile reaction. The main problem with Prague, and other places that are overrun with tourists, is not so much the crowds, but that the locals are jaded. They really don’t care if you ever come back. There will always be more to replace you. I’ve heard real horror stories from friends who’ve been ripped off by waiters and taxi drivers, and/or screamed at by restaurant staff. By comparison, we were treated fine, but neither of us is really motivated to go back.

  3. Julie
    I have seen such a change in your writing since you started. I have always treasured everything you have written but now your writing is like a picture. I can see it all in my mind. Thanks for staying with it, you bring a lot of joy.

  4. The three sentences that stood out for me was: β€œAll at once I feel the harmony of the herd. I understand the appeal of conformity. It feels good to like what others like.”

    I have felt the very same affect; it comes unannounced and in places that have surprised me. In a crowded restaurant, a bus stop during a downpour, even an airport. These moments stick in my memory. In general, humanity leads a solitary existence; and yet, we strive to find a way to participate and engage with others. Sometimes, it happens naturally. It feels amazing!

    Another excellent post! BTW, I like your new format!

  5. Interesting observations. We all want to be individual and special but sometimes it is easier to be anonymous amongst the crowd. Regardless, the receptionist though was wrong not to give you the advice you wanted. It is a service industry.

  6. “don’t be foolish be intelligent don’t follow the masses, if you want to be an idiot or mediocre follow them”
    my uncle always says this to me and Charlie Chaplin once said “Man as an individual is a genius. But men in the mass form the headless monster, a great, brutish idiot that goes where prodded”

    …so you are very intelligent πŸ˜‰

    the two links added to the story
    great photos, when I went to Prague
    I went in October it was cold, there was
    not a lot of tourist I enjoyed my time there
    but it was too cold for me.

    • Honestly, the masses creep me out. While I can understand the natural instinct to seek safety and comfort in the herd, I’m disturbed by how easily such a large number of individuals can be manipulated.

      Traveling in cool/cold weather takes some getting used to. I’ve been in Europe of over 6 years and have only recently learned to like walking around these beautiful old cities in the rain and wind. It’s all about dressing for it. πŸ™‚

  7. I was there in April 2002 on a business trip which had the advantage of our hosts proudly giving us a free guided tour and of course they knew all the best restaurants. Lovely city but cheap flights from the UK meant there were far too many drunken hen and stag parties roaming the streets at night – embarrassing – we (Brits) have a lot to answer for

    • A local person showing you around is definitely the way to go. That way you avoid the tourist traps and crappy restaurants.

      Stag and hen parties are a normal occurrence over in this part of Europe. There’s nothing like seeing a hairy man in a bridal gown barfing in a beautiful fountain.

  8. i’ve been in Prague five years ago and i still want to return in spring. It’s a beatiful city with a particular gothic charm. In winter it’s wonderful! so good shots!
    Cris

  9. Pingback: The Harmony of the Herd | 心藝 遊記

  10. Thanx, Miss Vagabonde for this amazing post! πŸ™‚ I’ll always miss Prague… been there twice!
    Have a great weekend and my very best… cheers! MΓ©lanie

  11. Sometimes when visiting a place as a tourist it’s fun to be, well, a tourist, and to do touristy things. The genuine experience, whatever that is, is difficult to achieve in an age of mass tourism. The key for me is to have time and to travel slowly. Otherwise, how would one ever be able to distinguish between the real flavor of a place and the touristy veneer?

    You’ve got a great blog; I much enjoy to read it!

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