Monday, February 24, 2014

The man who met Papa Masaryk

In some recent tidying up, I came across a piece of paper scribbled with some notes. It was the quick recollections of a chance conversation in Stromovka, the large park near our apartment in Prague. The notes were on the back side of a printout of items that were checked out to me from the Prague City Library on my card. As best I remember, that’s the paper I used because it’s what I could find to get down some of the details of the conversation before I forgot them.

The date on the printout was June 6, 2011, and we left Prague on July 1, so that puts a reasonably tight window on when the conversation happened.

I’m writing them down here in case they might be of interest to someone, and so I can throw out the piece of paper.
We’d gone down to Stromovka to play on the zip line and stroll around, and I don’t remember how, but I got into a conversation with an elderly gentleman who was there.

He said his grandfather had been a park warden in Stromovka.

The lawn where the zip line stands today was a meadow with grass 4 ft high. Men would mow with scythes, and they were known as sekáči (“sekat” means, among other things “to mow”). Now a “sekáč” means a well-dressed fellow, but then it meant a mower.

“The president used to ride here.”

I asked which president?

“He was named Masaryk.”

Papa? (“Tatíček”) I queried.

“Yes, exactly, so you know who it is.”

The man’s grandfather (or maybe it was his father?) went to school by St. Antonín. He would sometimes be late, because he stopped on the say to hunt squirrels. “At least, that’s what my grandpa said. I don’t know how they knew—maybe he brought them to school, maybe he slipped them into his bag.”

“In that building over there, there was a well. People from the neighboring streets would come down here with jugs to get water.”

When the king used to come here to ride, he would be preceeded by men beating drums (drum = “buben”), that’s why the neighborhood is called Bubeneč.

“When I was kid this was tall grass.”

When was that?

“Maybe ’38, maybe during the war.”

The man’s name was Zdeněk Havel (apparently no relation to the former president). He said that Zdeněk was “Sidney”, also the same name as St. Sidonius. There was a maternity ward at St. Apolinarius, in the Klarov district of Prague, by the north end of the Nusle bridge; they convinced a lot of mothers to name their kids Zdeněk.

Nusle Bridge (
The man’s great grandfather had worked on the completion of St. Vit (the cathedral inside Prague Castle). He fell to his death from bad scaffolding—maybe they hadn’t put in the cross ties. “So my grandfather was an orphan and couldn’t get an education. He became a park warden. My father couldn’t get an education either. I got my Engineer’s degree. I worked in a planning office. Jy father and my grandfather had the same brain cells as me—they could have had different lives.”

“I worked with an architect who did palnning for Ostrava.” They planned sídliště (“settlements”)

Just below the horizon, a settlement outside Brno.

And there my notes end. These sídliště were those neighborhoods of generally identical, prefab, high-rise apartment buildings. They were a response to a real housing shortage, but they became a metaphor for the barrenness of life.

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