The City of Eternal Recurrence

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It was Milan Kundera who convinced me to visit Prague if I had the time. When I was a very pretentious twenty-something(I am still pretentious but I’ve mellowed), I carried Milan’s book “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” to restaurants, coffee shops, and on public transportation. I was posing as Someone Who Reads Literature. It was through Milan(note my casually calling him by his first name) that I encountered Friedrich Nietzsche’s Theory of Eternal Recurrence.

Eternal recurrence is a concept that the universe has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. Basically, we have already done and said before what we are saying and doing now and will repeat them in the future an infinite number of times.

In his novel, Milan made a counter-argument that there can be a definite resolution of things. He first made his characters go through a cycle of getting together and breaking up, getting together and breaking up, and getting together and breaking up. Finally, the characters exercise choice to commit to a particular person. They were no longer subject of circumstances and coincidences. Well, that’s my take on it anyway.

Right here in Prague, I had the opportunity to experience eternal recurrence.
Prague is a beautiful city, in an austere way. The Gothic architecture of buildings, festooned with crosses and statues of saints, can make you suddenly remember all your sins. It gives me the feeling that God is watching out if I commit more sins. It has been raining for the two days that I’ve been here, and there’s a certain gloom over the city. The atmosphere makes me want to hide in dark alleys, pounce on unsuspecting passers-by, and sink my fangs into their necks.

The city’s layout is not for the direction-challenged. The few times I’ve asked for directions, the very friendly and helpful Prague residents would scratch their heads and begin their sentences with “It is difficult…”. Why not use a navigation app, you ask? Notice a smirk forming on the right side of my mouth. Maps will not be of much help either as attested to by the bewildered looks of scores of tourists I’ve passed by.

There is no concept of a block here. A “block” is a an irregularly-shaped plot of land with an assortment of Gothic buildings clustered together. The cobble streets are winding and somewhat circular although they give you an impression that you are walking straightforward when you are trudging on them. If you go around a “block” do not expect to end up at the exact spot where you first started. Instead, you will be transported to a different neighborhood. If you make a wrong turn, there is a likelihood that you’ll never be able to go back where you came from. Also, the buildings – very gorgeous – tend to look alike.

On my first day, I took Tram 9 to Wenceslas Square. I missed the stop because, despite my best efforts to listen to the automated voice announcements, I did not hear the name correctly. There is no relation between the pronunciation of Czech words and their spelling. I got off somewhere and started to wander. I knew that the square is nearby considering the high concentration of people scurrying about.

I ambled into a park and saw a man walking his dog. I asked for directions to the square.
“Hmmmnnn… It is difficult to give directions” he said while scratching his head. “Okay, follow me. Sorry, my dog does not like the rain. He wants to go home”. After a few seconds of brisk walking, he said “You see that street? Just go through that street and follow the tram tracks. You will be there in three minutes”.

I initially followed his directions. Then I asked myself why I should stick to the tram tracks. Why not take that small street over there? It seems to lead to the same direction. I took the small street and promptly got lost. I decided to move forward, since that was the most sensible way, until I found a small square with shops catering to tourists.

“Turistiké informace” read a sign. Tourist information! I asked for a map and directions to Wenceslas Square, which turned out to be a few steps away around the corner. One glance at the map and I immediately knew it was of no use to me.

I decided to just wing it and entrust myself to the universe.

So began the endless cycle of getting lost and regaining my bearings. I just meandered through the streets and suddenly found myself at various points of touristy interest without meaning to. I would strike out aimlessly and eventually find myself in a place I’ve been to before. Afterwards, I’d get lost again and so on and so forth. One time, I wanted to go the bridge leading to the oldest part of Prague. I did not want to walk beside the river and opted to walk through streets that I presumed were parallel to the river. After twists and turns, I found myself at one part of the river that allowed me to admire, from afar, the whole length of the bridge that I wanted to cross.

So, to experience Prague you must lose yourself in its universe in infinite number of times. It is the only way to know the charm of a city that somehow manages to retain an air of mystery in these modern times.

Sleepless in Paris

 

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Hotel de Ville

It was around 2 am when I stepped out of the brasserie. My companions were in a hurry to catch their respective night buses to their destinations while I had resigned myself to my fate of riding a taxi home. I would lose three good meals because of this, I thought.

I struck out on my own to flag a cab down. All had their red lights on, indicating that they were full, and all whooshed past me. Other people were also flailing about in the cold night and got ignored as well. I walked on Rue de Rivoli and saw a taxi stand. A guy was sitting on a bench with his backpack on his lap.”While you are getting another shot, I am waiting for a cab” he said miserably into his phone.

The €6.20 bottle of Coca Cola I drank with a twist of lemon had passed through my kidneys and found its way into my bladder. It wanted to get out. I lifted my nose and caught a stench. I walked away from the taxi stand and followed the stench to its source – a dark corner of a building. I did what the Parisians had done before me.

I decided to go to Hotel de Ville to see if I could catch cabs there. I waved at them and they flashed their red lights back at me. Great, I thought. I might as well wait for the Metro to open. Three and a half hours to go. I turned my attention to the fountains and the lights. If it had rained, the streets would have shone like silver. If I had gone to the Seine, the lights could have been misty in the river. I was ready to burst into song about being on my own, when a teenage boy suddenly fell flat on his face. His two companions picked him up, laughing. Under a lamp post, two lovers were conversing while staring into each others’ eyes. A man was walking past me when he realized that he dropped something from his back pocket and he ran back across the square, leaving his two companions behind.

As I walked, a man approached me, made eye contact, and addressed me in French. He was wearing one of those large pink and blue earphones. For some reason, I leapt aside like a cat and my legs positioned themselves in a way that would make it easy for me to pounce at him. My body did this instinctively. Maybe it was the way he approached me, the empty bottle of water which he offered for me to drink from, the fact that he could hear me perfectly while he had his earphones on, or the way he smiled, or the way he asked me in French and English where I was from and if I had children. With high fives, fist bumps, clasps, and chest to shoulder bumps, he told me it was alright and Paris is safe. I was ready to push him at any moment and kick his face.

“You are not that interesting and no one will have this keen interest in you if he does not want something”. Thank you my dear inner voice for the vote of confidence. I was thinking of a way to gracefully get away when three teenagers converged on us. “Excuse me” one of them said to me and the man turned his attention to them. They conversed with him and I slunk away. After I got away, they ceased their conversation.

I walked to a street corner. A man in a shirt and pajamas looked at me quizzically. “Ca va?” He asked. “Bonsoir!” I smiled broadly at him. He followed me with a puzzled look as I trudged around his neighborhood. I sat on a bicycle parking slot and watched people go on their way. I heard shouting from a couple of blocks away and instinct told me to sit on a bench at the bus stop across the street. As I made my way to the bus stop, three teenagers at 10-second-intervals successively ran past the spot where I had just sat. It was unclear who was doing the chasing and who was being chased. Three people made their way to the middle of the street and danced to music from a device one of them was carrying.

A block away, I saw green flashing lights. It came from a parked van amidst metal barricades shaped into a rough square. I decided to go see what it was. The van with the green lights was a police van and it was parked beside a DOFRAISE truck. The truck had apparently figured into an accident. As I approached, a policewoman asked me if everything was alright. “I’m waiting for the Metro to open”. She nodded. Her four male companions ignored me.

I leaned on a lamp post right next to the scene of the accident. A police officer was looking intently at my lamp post, crouching down and taking notes. There was a bicycle in the middle of the barricade. If people made the mistake of walking through the barricade, they were sternly shooed away. A teenage boy walked past the barricade and was immediately asked by the police “Ca va?”. He gruffly replied that everything was fine and for no reason glowered at me.

A bicycle went by with a man sitting on the handles while another man rode it. The two of them were talking and laughing very loudly. A black man and a white man brushed past me with the black man muttering about taxis. The cabs they chased flashed red lights.

A dressed-up girl and an older man stood in front of me. The older man was holding up his mobile phone as if it were a boombox while trance music played. The girl looked at me intently with her glazed eyes while trying to maintain her balance. “Is the music good? Do you like it?” she asked. “Yes” I replied. “Give me five!”. I gave her five. “Give me another five!” I gave another. “Give me ten!” I obliged. “You are good!” She smiled, touched both sides of my body, and she and her companion walked away.

“Police stop him! Stop him!” cried the black man from out of nowhere. He was asking the police to stop a cab with the green light on it. Someone got to the cab he wanted first.”Nnnooo!” he cried and abruptly shut up when another green-lighted cab appeared. “Get in” he hissed to his companion. A man in a suit came up to me and stood beside me. He smiled at me benignly while I inhaled the scent of strong alcohol from his body. He looked at the van and the truck, began to sing under his breath, and ambled away.Two men went inside the truck and took out some plastic trays. The police were wrapping up their investigation. A while later, both the van and the truck came to life and pulled out of the barricade. I was all alone again.

I walked to a bus stop on Rue de Rivoli and sat on a bench. I looked at my watch, it was 4:45 am. I still had a lot of time to kill. Lest another lost soul would think of me as an appropriate companion, I left the bus stop and walked on the sidewalk. I stopped in front of a small patisserie and read the menu written on a blackboard. “Chocolat chaud” caught my eye. A nice cup of hot chocolate would do me good. I went in, gave my order, and seated myself on a table near the door. People trickled in. Some were in their very rumpled office clothes, bleary eyed from a long night. Others in t-shirts were resting their heads on the wall, napping before the food arrived. My hot chocolate came in a small metal pitcher paired with a small white cup. I poured the thick liquid into the cup and took a sip – strong cocoa taste offset by very sweet milk.

I looked at my watch. It was already 5:30, thank God! I poured some more hot chocolate into my cup. Maybe I could stay for ten more minutes, I thought while clasping the small warmth in both my hands. No need to rush.

When I stepped out, the street lights were already turned off. Faint light was creeping up into the sky. The trees from afar seemed bare and the strangers in the street were just strangers. The phantoms had retreated. The night was over. As the light grew stronger, my steps went faster. I wanted to escape from the light and slumber in a dark room, to be at peace. I hurried down to the metro, another phantom running away from the light.