Bittersweet Days in the Golden City

ONE cold but sunny February afternoon, Olga Maresova stood on the Charles Bridge. It was one of the rare winter days when everything is flooded with a unique golden light and it becomes apparent why Prague is called the Golden City. In the midst of the swarm of pedestrians, Olga stood between two of the 30 statues that line the bridge. She was an island of peace on this otherwise hectic pedestrian bridge. On her right, a man offered ``portraits in 15 minutes''; on her left, two young men sold Russian Army hats. Olga just watched quietly. I couldn't help myself. I had to take her picture.

The instant I pressed the shutter she noticed me. My instinct was to nod and move on. But she has the kind of rare smile that captures you. We approached each other across the cobblestones. I thanked her and explained that she had looked so pretty in her red hat, especially in this light. To tell her that the peace she emanated had also moved me to photograph her seemed banal, almost silly.

``Oh, how nice of you to say that.'' She glowed with a faint blush. ``I have lived in Prague for 50 years, and I still like coming to Charles Bridge.'' Obviously she wasn't in a hurry. ``You know,'' she said, ``really I'm still a tourist.''

A YEAR has passed since our first encounter.

That afternoon and almost every week since, I have visited Olga in her small apartment on Lazenska Street around the corner from the Charles Bridge in Prague's famed Lesser Town. As we sip tea we talk, mostly about Prague. ``Prague,'' says Olga, ``is bittersweet.'' Even before we met, I thought the city was bittersweet. Sweet - the breathtaking architecture in the golden light, the deserted Charles Bridge at 3 a.m., and the brightly lit Prague Castle on the threshold between day and night. Bitter - the crumbling facades away from the tourist path, the gray housing districts on the outskirts of the city, and the fact that periodically and without notice the hot water is turned off in my apartment.

``Prague is the castle and the Jewish cemetery. Everything began there. There you can see the fight for survival that the people of Prague have fought for centuries,'' Olga says. I'm beginning to understand that ``bittersweet'' means more than my water problems. ``For instance, in the Jewish cemetery you can see how the Praguers have learned to live in a confined space. They know how to live in close quarters. That's why the cemetery has so many layers.'' She pours tea from a beautiful silver pot. Olga once told me it had belonged to her mother.

``I wish tourists would know more about the history of the city. Prague is more than just beautiful architecture.'' I sip my tea, keeping my eyes low. My knowledge of the city's history is limited. ``You know,'' she continues, ``many tourists are deeply moved by Prague. I love those tourists. But there are many for whom Prague means nothing, and they clog everything.'' Olga has witnessed the rise in visitors to Prague virtually from her doorstep. More than 40 million tourists trod through the streets of Prague last year, most of them past Olga's apartment. She lives on the well-worn path between Old Town Square and the Prague Castle.

Restaurants and money-exchange offices have sprouted up all over Prague's Lesser Town. In her neighborhood, it is now easier to buy a full-color guide to Prague than milk at an affordable price. ``I try not to see all these tourists,'' Olga says. ``But I have one weakness. When I see someone searching on a city map, I ask if they need help.'' Again she smiles that unassuming smile that goes straight to your heart.

In the course of our conversations, I begin to realize that the masses of tourists are just another chapter in Prague's turbulent and, as she said, bittersweet history. Before World War II, Olga moved to Prague from a village on the border between Moravia and Bohemia. Her first impression of Prague was marked by the rainy November day when she drove through Pankrac, a not-particularly-attractive district in the south of the city. A few months later, at the beginning of 1939, the Germans occupied Prague.

`I REMEMBER standing on Na Prikope Street in the New City with my husband-to-be,'' she recalls. ``It was snowing. The German troops had arrived. Everyone was terribly sad, many cried. It was an atmosphere of deep depression. And then, between all these tanks and trucks with German soldiers, a boy rode his bicycle, pulling a wagon with bread rolls behind him. The people reacted almost hysterically. They waved and cheered him on. Can you understand this reaction? Here we were so sad, thinking this is the end, and then suddenly this boy on his bicycle....''

During the war, Olga spent much time in the country with her parents, ``because we had more to eat there.'' When the Russians freed the city in 1945, she was again in her home village. ``You have to understand, we saw the Russians as liberators. We welcomed them into our homes and invited them over for dinner. But I'd always hide the silver before they came. I know the Russians did many terrible things, but my experience with them was good.''

Two years later, when the Communists seized power, she was living with her two small children in another of Prague's less-attractive quarters, Sporilov. The next 20 years she skips entirely, mentioning only the job that she had to take at a technical institute - and her guest book. ``There were names and addresses of foreign visitors. When the Nazis came I tore out the pages. When the Communists took over I did it again. Now I don't keep a guest book anymore.''

But Olga still has many guests, including foreigners. She speaks English and German fluently, even if she claims that she barely speaks any foreign language. ``My German was much better before the war. But I rejected the language during the occupation.'' Her reaction explains why many older-generation Prague residents still speak German but do so only reluctantly.

In the fall of last year, an American and British film crew was shooting near Old Town Square. To convert the area to its World War II appearance, only a few signs had to be removed, and black, red, and white banners with the swastika were hung from the facades. One night, as I was watching the shoot, I saw an old woman approach. When she saw the long banners illuminated by the bright spotlights she stopped, turned white, and gasped. Then she hurried away, disappearing behind the Jan Huss memorial on Old Town Square.

THE night when the five member-states of the former Warsaw Pact rolled their tanks into Prague's streets, Olga was lying in bed, ill. On Aug. 21, 1968, she already was living in her present apartment. ``I could hear the tanks and airplanes and was about to call the police to complain about the noise, when my daughter called. She said: `Mother, go buy bread and milk. The Russians have come.' ''

Twenty years later the nation changed again, as Olga puts it. ``Just like in '68, people were so friendly and nice to each other in 1989. They opened doors for each other. They smiled at each other. It was wonderful to see.'' She was happy to find peace and quiet in her small apartment that faces onto a tiny inner courtyard.

She watched television and called to check on her grandchildren who, like most students, were participating in the demonstrations. ``I remember how I came out of the Obecni Dum [Municipal House] on the Republic Square after a concert in late October. So many police cars stood there. I didn't think then that everything would go so quickly.''

The nation has changed again, not necessarily for the better. ``Today the people are at best apathetic. They have lost much of their feeling.'' So often we speak about the rise in crime, the wheeling and dealing. Of course, both existed during the Communist regime.

In the early 1970s, Olga passed the tough state exam for tour guides. She still remembers all the names of the architects and sculptors, the architectural styles and periods. She still enjoys standing in front of the entrance to St. Vitus Cathedral in the castle to admire the facade, in particular the middle and right-hand sections. ``The rest is Neo-Gothic.'' She wrinkles her nose. ``Awful.''

SHE has never given official guided tours of Prague. ``There was a control person. You had to say things like: `Here the anniversary celebrations of the pioneers took place.' One of my colleagues once said: `Here workers' blood was spilled.' The control person corrected her, because she should have said: `Here red workers' blood was spilled.' '' Tour guides also had an internal system of bribery.

``There was a clique within the state office responsible for tours. If you were part of the clique and bribed all the right people, then you were assigned the rich tourists from the West. With the tips you earned - the salary was very low - you could buy a car in a few months. But if you didn't bribe anyone, you got the poor East German tourists.'' Her smile carries a hint of embarrassment as though she were responsible for this system. ``Maybe it sounds a little pathetic, but I couldn't talk about the history of this city to be tipped one deutsche mark. There is too much pain connected with this city's history....'' She shakes her head. ``You know, I loved Prague very much.''

Today she rarely crosses the Charles Bridge. The places where she witnessed the history of the city, of the entire country - the streets Na Prikope or Narodni Trida - she sees only occasionally. Much has changed there. ``I move in a small circle,'' she says. Her favorite walk takes her from the Charles Bridge down to Kampa Island and from there past the French Embassy, across from the John Lennon Wall, back to her apartment. When everything is in bloom and the lilac trees emit their sweet smell, she likes to sit on a bench in the Vojanovo garden, the oldest of Prague's many parks, and watch people.

Once again I leave her apartment and dive into the sea of people spilling over the Charles Bridge. Young tourists sit on the sidewalk in front of the pizza parlor. A man sells Russian caviar from a small table draped with the old Soviet flag. A cacophony of music and voices drifts down from the bridge. Once Nazi troops rolled across this bridge, and 20 years later tanks parked on it. In the same spot a money exchange office has opened for business. Suddenly, a man brushes past me and murmurs: ``Change money?''

By the time I reach Old Town Square, the golden light has turned pale pink, blue, and yellow. The square, edged by elaborately decorated houses and churches, is quieter at this time of day. A sickle moon glows above the tower with the famous astrological clock. ``Prague may be both bitter and sweet,'' Olga said. ``But no other city can be so magical.''

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