Once Upon a Time in Bohemia

Long ago, before there was a Time to once upon, a little star fell to Earth. There were no territories then. No kingdoms or boundaries. Only the sky, the sun, strange animals, and vast forests. And the river.

Vltavín. Named after the Vltava, which traverses the land where the shards of this star now sleep, saturating the landscape with divine resonance. Legend says that it’s the emerald that fell from Lucifer’s crown before he was cast out of Heaven. From this celestial jewel, the Holy Grail was forged, as well as the fabled Emerald Tablet of the alchemists. Modern metaphysicians say it brings profound, sometimes violent, transformation. It is a light piercing the darkness, shining the way to one’s Destiny.

In the year 1998, two friends stood at a crossroads. The man placed a tiny green gem in the woman’s palm. This stone is special, created from the fusion of Heaven and Earth. It comes from a land called Bohemia. May it protect and guide you on your journey, La Vagabonde.

She closed her fingers around it and held it to her heart. They hugged and went their separate ways. He went to the northwest, a place of perpetual rain. She went to the southwest, the desert. But true to her nature, she didn’t stay there long.

She met a kind man who took her far away to a small island across the greatest of oceans, where the world is upside down and winter is summer and autumn and spring do not exist. There she lived for many years in a house of glass overlooking mountains and sea. She learned the language, but still no one understood her. She lost her voice and became invisible. She taught herself to speak through her pen, releasing the shadows that had caught up with her after so many years of flight. She’d hold the stone up to the South Sea sunlight, mesmerized by the deep green glow. Within its depths a golden city glittered. Prague. And there she was, striding down cobblestone streets, staring out a small window over rooftops, standing at the river’s edge. A soft, secret smile of certainty spread across her face, and then she’d laugh to herself and shake the silly daydream from her head. Was it possible for any place to be farther away from this lost little island?

Bohemia. If ever a realm could embody the spirit of Once Upon a Time and Happily Ever After. Castles perched on lofty hilltops. Rolling hills of golden rapeseed. Deep, dark forests. The iridescent mist that rises from the river, veiling the landscape in its spellbinding shimmer. An enchantment that’s impossible to dispel once it takes hold.

And what of the chapters in between? The struggles and the victories. The dangers and the illusions. The monsters. For every fairy tale has a shadow side. It is here, too. A chapel decorated with bones, a castle with a gateway to Hell, the church of ghosts, the wooden sentinels that guard the forest trails. In the villages, effigies of witches are still burned every April 30th.

It was the pagan princess Libuše who cast the very first spell. She stood on the hill called Vyšehrad and pointed across the river. From the depths of her trance, she proclaimed, “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.”

Praha. Threshold. The beacon in the center of infinity. Does the magic emanate from or coalesce here? Only the river knows.

The Prophetess Libuše – Karel Vitězslav Mašek
Image source: Wikipedia

La Vagabonde meandered the streets she saw so many years earlier. Could she be any farther away from that lost little island? The calm inside. So unfamiliar. Never before had a place felt so right. Such a long and convoluted path to arrive. It’s too perfect, she’d tell herself. I don’t deserve it. Yet there she was. The things we talk ourselves out of are so often the easiest to achieve, she whispered to the ancient stone walls. It’s a question of being ready.

A woman’s voice, felt rather than heard. Divine and devilish. A sweet, hypnotic hum in her atoms. As if you had a choice. The castle rose over the city, its towers piercing the sky.

We each have, within us, every story that’s ever been written. Imprinted upon our souls. Gifts from the ancestors. In arrangements as innumerable as the stars. How much of our personal story was written in these very stars, long before we were even born? How much are we really able to compose? We are in an artistic collaboration with the Universe. Each of us have something to add to the never-ending fable of humanity.

The Vltava encircles the medieval village of Český Krumlov. A protective embrace. A back street doorway beckoned. Magic green stones laid out on a counter. La Vagabonde picked them up one by one. There, tucked in a corner, was a walnut-sized teardrop. A jolt of electricity, of recognition. A knowing gleam in the merchant woman’s eyes. The right one chooses you. She took it home and laid it on her bedside table. In her dreams that night, it hovered over her. Observing. The time has come to speak your truth. Or give your life away forever.

The story we present to others. The story we tell ourselves. The embellishments and convenient omissions. The lies. The interpretations of others’ tales through the filter of our personal perception. So much distortion. What is true? Is life nothing but one everlasting costume ball? Meticulously crafted disguises and choreographed steps. We are masked participants in a perpetual dance of delusion. And no one deceives us more than we deceive ourselves.

Something was in the path ahead. La Vagabonde stepped around it, leaning her head to the side with a wistful smile. What is this here? It seemed she had come from the dangerous way. She shook her head. All the warnings that came too late. Hers was a story of poison apples, wolves in sheep’s clothing, evil queens, and dragons. She knew how it was to lose something precious and dive to the depths of a bottomless well to find it again. She looked down at the ominous design and laughed. Were those hard lessons worth the discoveries? She lifted her head and stared down the path ahead, eyes fierce with victory. Yes.

Down the path, then, and across the bridge. The river below was named after the funny creatures that played in its waters. Moss-covered rocks in the flow. Green velvet on steel. The river’s voice was like rain falling on crystal. The truth had been spoken. She was free. She sat on a massive boulder, leaned her head on her knees, and stared at her wavering reflection. There’s no such thing as forever.

Mirror, mirror, please tell me the truth. No matter how brutal. Within your reflection is the only soul that can truly free me from towers and dungeons. Reawaken me from the long sleep. Discern the worth in the woman covered in ash, disheveled, clothed in rags, banished to the perimeter.

La Vagabonde took a deep breath and stepped inside the labyrinth. No looking back. Breadcrumbs are for those who are afraid of getting lost. Ascend. Higher. Take me in. Deep. She grasped the stone around her neck. Where do I go from here? Turn on your searchlight, baby. Show me the answer.

A demon slithered out of a crevice. She pressed her back to the rocks. But I’ve already killed you. Many times over.

It loomed over her and hissed. You really think you can go it alone now, after all these years? You have nothing. You are nothing. You’re old. You’re just going to keep going around and around.

She pulled herself upright and stared into its eyes. The blackest void. I did the right thing. Be gone.

From far within the canyon, the now-familiar voice emerged. Calm and assured and amused. Ripples across a still, deep pond. An echo in the soul. Stay.

She shook her head. I can’t. I must leave here to bring this chapter to a close. There is no other way. She stumbled out of the labyrinth, battered and empty. She collapsed under a tree and fell into a leaden sleep. In the abyss of her dreams, the echo. Stay.

A little cottage in a northern wilderness. This is where La Vagabonde now finds herself. Inhabiting the empty page between chapters. The most magical place of all. A realm of pure possibility. Watery autumn sunshine streams through the golden treetops, a light that obscures just as much as it reveals. Could it be The End? She has everything she needs now. More than enough. But what is it that you want? You’ve always been your own Fairy Godmother. Write your wishes into existence and watch the tale unfold.

The maddening intoxication of mystery becomes the beauty of being haunted. An Art Nouveau doorway on a quiet back street. The glitter of moonlight on dark water. A rural castle illuminated by a soft pink sunrise. Memory and premonition are fused together into this eternal Now. Is it possible for a place to be any closer? A wind chime laugh in the cold breeze. You know damn well you’re not finished yet. A tremor moves through her and she catches her breath. Around her neck, over her heart, the stone glows.

Every story has a message, dear readers. Be honest. Keep your promises. Look beyond appearances. There’s no place to hide from Destiny. But one message encompasses them all: memento mori. Remember that you will die.

*The English word for Vltavín is Moldavite.

Finding Lost Hope

Somewhere in Bohemia – September 2016

I go in search of Lost Hope. The trail snakes alongside the Vltava River as it slices through the forested hills south of Prague. Patches of fading foliage announce summer’s impending end. Couples, families, and groups of teenagers meander the narrow path as it twists and turns and rises and falls. Czech trails are always busy on the weekends. Every once in a while, I pass other lone spirits. We exchange glances of solidarity. I’m not sure what I will find when I get to the osada. The tramp camp. Will I be lucky enough to happen upon a gathering of tramps?

Czech Tramping has been around since the early 20th century, but it took on a deeper significance during the Communist era. What started out as a weekend pastime became an act of rebellion. Although it seemed like the tramps were protesting the regime, they weren’t interested in politics. It was a revolt against civilization itself. Against the futility of fighting. They opted, instead, for merry nonconformity. Rather than consume the culture that was forced upon them, they created their own.

Some tramps were solitary, others were members of camps such as Lost Hope. They adopted new names and identities. Inspiration came from the American West and from the hobos of the Great Depression. They dressed in military camouflage or as cowboys and Indians. Distinctive music was composed. Melancholy melodies. Songs of the road’s bittersweet loneliness. Czech bluegrass was born.

Every weekend was a temporary escape. They rode the rails to the trails. Hop on, hop off. Into the woods they would amble, their backpacks filled with the barest necessities. No tents. A roof may protect you, but it obscures your view of the sky. On Monday, it was back to work. To the oppressive illusion of real life.

An hour or so passes in wistful contemplation as one foot moves in front of the other. I have lived in a similar state of intellectual insubordination for years. I know how lonely this road can be. There is no going back. I don’t necessarily need to meet these other defiant souls, however. It’s enough just to know that they’re out there.

The bends in the river deepen. A lone swan swims in constipated little circles near the riverbank. It spews a beastly hiss at me as I pass. Up ahead, a clearing appears. Cabins dot the hillside. A faded totem pole stands on a high mound. The sign on the wooden cabin next to the river announces Ztracenka. Lost. This is the place.

A shirtless man is repairing the porch bench. The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air. I prop myself against a sturdy tree and eat some cookies. A woman emerges from another cabin, a bucket of water in her grip. She stalks across the grass, answering my smile with a territorial glare. And I understand: this place is someone’s possession now. Random wanderers are no longer welcome. I get up, dust myself off, and mosey along.

April 2017

Another day, another hike. Up and down verdant hills. Dandelions sway in the soft breeze. The trail leads from Karlštejn Castle to Velká Amerika. Great America. During the Communist era, Czechs weren’t allowed to travel to the real Grand Canyon, so the tramps baptized this abandoned limestone quarry as their own. The path along the steep cliffs is at your own risk. I slip under the barrier and walk as close to the edge as I can handle. Deep breaths and careful steps. This is the only way to get a photo of it all. The jewel-colored water shimmers in the delicate spring sunshine.

Maybe the profoundest act of rebellion is to just turn away from it all and head into the wilderness. Alone. Detox from the poison of indoctrination. Rediscover the wisdom of our own intuition. While it’s still possible.

Communism has retreated, but the fascination with tramping has not. During my many hikes in the Czech Republic, I’ve often crossed paths with solitary young people. Vintage backpacks slung over their shoulders and dreamy looks in their eyes. Cowboy hats and camouflage. They are free to wander far, now. Even to Amerika. Maybe they’ve figured out that there’s nothing more liberating than a ramble into the depths of the imagination.

Departure Lounge of the Restless Mind

Notices have been given. The unnecessary has been donated or tossed. The essential has been separated for efficient packing. Airline reservations have been made. Most goodbyes have been said. All that’s left to do is wait. I know this departure lounge of the mind so very well. The floor is worn into grooves by my endless ambulation. I pass the time in atonement for the sins of my transient soul. Turning back now would involve a hassle, and, anyway, I don’t want to. Once a decision is made, I just want to get on with it.

I’ve lost count of how many times I have transited through this purgatory. All the little moves around America and Central/Eastern Europe. Then the major moves. The amputations: leaving America for New Caledonia in 1999. Fleeing New Caledonia for Eastern Europe exactly ten years ago. The road ahead is even more obscured than it was a decade ago. I have the same concerns, but even more intense. Ten years ago, I knew where I wanted to go. This time I have no idea, and I will be going it alone. However, my mind is much more serene this time around. Despite the turbulence, the journey has always managed to smooth out.

As I reflect back on my time in this part of Europe, a wistful gratitude arises. In spite of the inherent frustrations of such a lifestyle, I have woken up every day so very happy to have had the opportunity to experience, in depth, so many different cultures. Because – even though Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic are in the same part of Europe – they each have distinct cultural quirks. They have become treasures in the vault of my memory.

Ten years ago, in June 2007, I arrived in Poznan, Poland. Alone. Stomach twisted with worry. Could I pull this off? Was the school that hired me to teach at English summer camps legit? Would my husband leave his home, a tropical island paradise, for a gray and grouchy country? I had no choice but to leave that island, which was killing me physically and mentally. The denial was gone. I had accepted the consequences. There was no turning back.

Poznan. It was there that I regained my confidence. An English teacher’s salary is pathetic, but for the first time in many years, I was able to support myself. My apartment was on the sixteenth floor of a Soviet block building. A tiny little hole with dubious renovation and toxic mold in the ceiling. I got in touch with my cousins in the south of Poland. I adopted a rabbit from a shelter to keep me company at home. It was a hard, cold, grim place. Lots of lessons learned. Lots of laughs. Lots of vodka. Wolfing down zapiekanka in the Stary Rynek at three a.m. after a night in the pubs. Jumping up and down to keep warm. My husband joined me almost a year later. He adapted to the culture shock remarkably well. I knew so many people there. Most of their faces and names have faded. I think that, probably, they have forgotten me, too.

Budapest. Ruin pubs and thermal baths. Long walks through the canyons of neglected buildings. Ghost signs and bullet holes. Both of our apartments were huge, beautifully decorated palaces. The highest ceilings I’ve ever seen. This is why we stayed in Budapest longer than any other city. My stint as an English teacher came to an end. Hungarians are the least respectful students I’ve ever encountered. The pay was abysmal. I am not a masochist. I went back to helping my husband with his work. The few expats that we met were parasitic. We retreated into our own little world, socializing only with the friends and family who came to visit.

It is during this reclusive time that I began my blog. It was my connection to the outside world, especially during those long winter months when my husband was in New Caledonia and it was just me and Flower the rabbit. I can now state that I am able to withstand long periods with no social contact. One winter was so frigid that I went weeks without saying more than jó napot/viszlát to the cashiers who worked in the supermarket on the ground floor of our building. When I did finally venture out, other humans became weird entities. The sounds that came out of my mouth sounded unintelligible. They scared me. This warped view of the outside world stayed with me until we left a few months later.

Popradske Pleso – Tatra National Park

Bratislava. But more than that: Slovakia. Those mountains. The unsettling gauze of reclusion dissipated. My students were a delight. I found a hiking buddy. Nearly every weekend, from late February to early December, we went out. We explored just about every trail in the Little Carpathians, sometimes even crossing over the narrow range in a single day. We ventured further out, to the Vel’ka Fatra and High Tatras. Eerie castle ruins and glacial lakes. I was in heaven.

Our apartments, however. Rabbits are considered livestock in Slovakia. The few places that would rent to us were barely a step above hovels. Toxic water, battered furniture. Hot water unavailable from midnight until eight in the morning. After Budapest, it was a difficult adjustment. Despite my love for the mountains and my Slovak friends, we moved on after two years. We recently returned, for a brief visit, to lay our Flower to rest on a hill overlooking a river.

Prague. I have finally learned that the places I have an initial aversion to often end up being fabulous. My visit as a tourist a few years prior had turned me off. Too many tourists. But the other options – Bulgaria and Croatia – entailed a lot more effort. It didn’t hurt to try Prague. If it was horrible, we could easily move on. As we had so many times before. The move and integration was so easy. The petty daily struggles that we had endured over the previous years were nonexistent. Decent and friendly customer service! Good quality products and so much variety! All of it is relative, of course. It’s amazing what you can get used to, if you tolerate it long enough.

It didn’t take long to be seduced by the shadow side of Prague. My one regret is that I didn’t see as much of the Czech countryside as I would have liked. For two years, I have explored this magical city, falling more in love with it each time. So many hidden corners continue to reveal themselves. It is here, in this enchanted realm, that I will while away the remaining days until I am transported into the next phase of this astonishing journey.