An Afternoon on Wenceslas Square
by Steven McKnight
Tourists tread the cobblestones revolutionaries once walked in the unrelenting glow of a sun that shines now and shone on those same cobblestones the moment they were laid there. The bustle traces up and down the square, lined with bookstores and clothing outlets and fast food restaurants of every color and shape, from golden arches to sleek and sexy chrome, all begging for one moment of attention from the purposeless droves of people who have replaced the purposeful masses over the past thirty years. Overseeing all of this is Wenceslas on his horse, great flag to the heavens. His backdrop is the Czech National Museum, newly renovated. But renovations have not fixed the chunks blown out of the columns by the Molotov cocktails my friend Anna tells me were lobbed by protestors during the demonstrations decades ago. How did they throw the cocktails so high I wonder? Nothing is impossible, I reason, with a little determination and a lot of hyperbole.
I realize I have to pee and, looking for a place to pop in and use the bathroom, I set foot in a KFC for the first time in my life. It took me twenty-one years, some of which were spent in Kentucky, to go to a Kentucky-Fried Chicken. The restaurant is familiar, except the menu has more consonants on it than I’m used to, and the staff all have accents that remind me of an Englishman who can’t remember English. I ask if they have a bathroom. “Paying customers only,” they say, so I decide I’m hungry, order a three-piece chicken and a chocolate milk shake, and hurry off to use the bathroom. When I come out, my food is ready, and I take it and find a window seat. At the Museum of Communism the previous day, I was shown footage from the demonstrations at Wenceslas Square in the 80s. In this KFC, I recognize the storefront opposite me from a scene: a man being chased by other men, screaming in Czech, “Plain-clothes police officers! There are plain-clothes police officers!” The footage cuts away before we can see him beaten any more violently. On the stones where his blood spilled, there’s a family of tourists from a country he never visited, peering at mannequins through a store window.
I take a sip of my milkshake.
I see tanks rolling across the cobblestone roads while the livid masses lob stones and jeers from afar. I see Jan Palach setting himself on fire in hopes of lighting something in the oppressed Czechoslovak people. I see that flame coming to fruition as hundreds of thousands of students my age, maybe even younger, line the streets, wielding peace signs, proclaiming, “We only have our hands!” to the riot police before them. And now I see sedation, bliss. Feet in places where other feet once were—combat boots and tank treads and hastened footsteps of revolutionaries who wanted to set an example, but not be made an example of, and where they stood, an obviously American father on an expensive vacation hand-inhand with a young daughter who will not remember this place, because money can’t buy memory before memory is ready to remember.
I don’t cry at the ends of things. I didn’t cry at the end of Endgame or Anthropoid or when Christopher Eccleston became David Tennant became Matt Smith became Peter Capaldi. I felt nothing when I left home for college, or when I left college for Utah, or when I left Utah for home. And when one of the many loves of my life and I shared our last first kiss, swaying to birdsong at 4 AM and letting ourselves fall in love too late for it to matter, knowing that was the last time we’d ever see each other before she would go off to explore her corner of the globe and I would run off to Prague to tread the earth where legends trod and write where masters of literature had written: I did not cry. But when I had the last sip of that milkshake, that afternoon on Wenceslas Square, a lone tear rolled down my cheek. Perhaps I was just so moved. Or perhaps it was just the heartbreaking fact that the best damn milk shake of my life was over.
Slow Down, You Crazy Child
by Steven McKnight
I move through Prague with Vienna in my ears, feeding into my head through my old-ass MP3 player, though I feel strange calling it old, surrounded by buildings built centuries before the exploration of our continent. I can’t help thinking of you. The tiny Billy Joel in my pocket sings his verses to me while I stare into the distance off the bridge, down the gently churning waters of the Vltava, which peters out before it can reach you. I hand my phone off to a woman. “It’s hard getting good pictures,” I tell her, “when you travel alone.”
I lean on the cut limestone rail, and she snaps a picture of me looking introspective. When she hands my phone back to rejoin her gaggle of traveling companions, I scroll through my Instagram feed, and there you are, every other picture, between theatres’ PR posts and our classmates and the girls I matched with on Tinder who just wanted people to follow their Insta’s. You’re always smiling: in some music hall in Vienna, in front of a bike in Vienna, with a group of other students in Vienna. It’s like Vienna is yours, like it’s waited for you all this time, and there you are, taking it by storm. I hover over a picture of you in a bright yellow romper in the lobby of some opera house, grinning that toothy grin of, “I am learning and I love it,” with a caption: “Woman in Gold.” It’s perfectly descriptive. I give half a thought to commenting, “And a golden woman,” and that half a thought becomes a full thought, becomes a comment typed out with my thumb above the “SEND” button. I try to reconsider, then press it. I’m a poet. I can get away with it, and you like the comment anyway, so you clearly don’t take it the wrong way, whatever that is.
We’ll run into each other in Heathrow—our groups have the same connecting flight back to Newark. And we’ll talk: about art, about history, about music both real and in metaphor. You’ll be exhausted in the best way, and you’ll tell me all about the books you’ve bought, librettos from the vaguest female composers, and I’ll tell you all about the scripts and poems I found in English and in Czech, a language I’ll intend to learn but probably never will. We’ll talk about histories, and how art is lonely, and how reverent we’ve felt moving through the places where legends were made: me in Prague and you in Vienna.
I’m in Prague, and I’m grateful you aren’t here, because I know me, and I know the mission of being in Prague would be to impress you if you were here. Nonetheless, when I’m in a cathedral with my travel-buddy early on, I think of you when I divulge the purpose of the transept and why Jesus is almost always on the stage right side of the altar because out of our whole department, only you and I care enough about that information to know it. What nerds we are.
The soft soles of my shoes contort to the uneven cobblestones at my feet as I wander down the bridge to the steps of the National Theatre. I’d seen Rusalka there the night before with the fourteen other students on this two-week theatre history intensive, the theatre students conglomerating in a way only theatre students can, and the nonmajors drifting wherever will take them. I’m in the middle. I can’t conglomerate like my peers do. I don’t really stick much of anywhere. The opera was three and a half hours of the same four people singing about “poor, sad, pale Rusalka,” and it bored the hell out of me. But at this moment, I can’t help but imagine you beaming through the whole show because, just as I’m a whore for pretentious British theatre, you’re a sucker for three hours of arias. I like my music briefer. Vienna repeats for the fifth time.
A tram I don’t hear rumbles by behind me, and the National Theatre glimmers in the amber light of the setting Sun, real and not in the same breath. I give half a thought to writing a poem about it, but the last poem I wrote was a sonnet for you that I immediately regretted, so the notion passes. I turn off the music, sit on a step overlooking a city abuzz, and listen intently for the rhythm of Prague.
by Quinn Burkhart
Brussels, Belgium. Not even a full three hours away from Amsterdam, it’s a city full of chocolate and rainwater. I, and a group of six other young women, meet at the train station at eight in the morning, crowding onto the bus with a group of people on their way en route to adventure.
Brussels turns out to be a much nicer city than I anticipated it would be. It’s relatively clean, with stellar architecture, and lots and lots of candy. It houses the headquarters of the European Union, which I openly gawk at as I walk by. This city holds an immeasurable intensity, deep within its economic roots. As with any city, there are enough homeless people to create a kickball team. A kickball team with a strange gender dynamic. I think maybe it’s because I haven’t lived in a lot of cities for a long period of time, or I rarely go places where I would see a lot of homeless women. Brussels is full of homeless people, most of them women. And they communicate their needs to you directly, holding their cup out to you when they tap your shoulder. Wisselgeld? Changement de rechange? ? Spare
Our first day there, I’m walking down a sidewalk with my friends as we pass person after person, sitting on the side of the path on a cardboard sheet. Some of them have children with them, some of them look at me and say something softly in another native tongue, some of them are too weak to hold their cup of change up to me. They place their plastic cups in front of their bodies, positioned in places on the walkway where they collect 20 cent coins all day. We walk past another woman who is either very old or beat up enough to look very old. A younger couple walks up toward my friend and me. As I’m looking up at a building in front of me, I hear what sounds like the rattling of falling metal. When I look down, the young couple is scrambling to collect the change that has fallen out of the plastic up they accidentally knocked over. The old homeless woman sits and stares at them, demanding in another language that they pay her for kicking her change. The man of the couple looks at her panicking, noticeably unsure of what to do.
“That’s awkward,” I say to my friend as we walk on by.
The following day, we’re walking past another homeless person. We’ve just walked up to the city’s main park, and now on our way to get food in the city center. I’m so tired and hungry that I’m not watching where I’m going or giving thought to where I am. I see the man sitting on the side of the path, next to a marble building stoop. I move over to the other side of the sidewalk, but I’m sure he moves his cup to where he knows I’ll kick it. He won’t make any money if he doesn’t do this.
I’m so out of it that even after I feel the weight of the cup against my sneaker and hear the change scatter, I turn
around and, bewildered, ask “what was that?”
The man is staring at me, and the two friends who were behind me are squatting down collecting coins. We get all of the money back into the cup and slide it over to him. He looks up at me and holds out his hand. In another native tongue he starts repeating something to me.
Repay me for what you’ve done you stupid tourist. You stupid girl.
My friend and I shake our heads at him. As painful as it is, I don’t give money to homeless people. Sometimes, I give them food I have in my backpack, but I never give them money.
A crowd of people is now trying to get around the commotion I caused when I kicked the cup. We stand up to keep walking, the man still holding out his hand. Everybody else seems to brush this off rather quickly, but I keep thinking about it all day long, and then some. It’s so bizarre, finding yourself in these situations so different from where you came from and struggling to adapt. I’ve thought about culture shock a lot since I’ve been here, and the cultural patterns that show their differences. It’s almost unfathomable, how much can be so unique to one country. How power differences can show through.
In the hour we decide to leave a café for the bus station, it rains. Except it doesn’t rain, it pours. Except, it doesn’t pour. It monsoons. We run like children trying to get to the candy store before it closes, stopping every so often in dry locations to wait for one another and check our maps.
On one main, busy street we run down, we run pass an entire homeless family. At least three women and four children huddle together under the dry overhang of some massive building. One of the little girls, probably around four, is barefoot. Her pajamas are soaked, and she clutches onto a stuffed animal like her life depends on it. Probably because it does.
It’s an insurmountable amount of grief to only glimpse as I pass by. But I do pass by, because I’m not homeless and I’ll almost certainly never be homeless. I’m a rather wealthy abroad student, studying in Amsterdam for a semester on a 700$ plane ticket. I’ve got a nice new Nikon camera in my backpack, and 70$ shoes on my feet. Yet, none of this prevents me from, at least momentarily, hoping that little girl’s stuffed animal never gets wet. If it gets wet, her entire life is wet.
There’s no dryer in sight.
by Katherine Mayer
There once was a young girl who lived in a world that was only gray. It was a dreary life, full of dull tones and sad thoughts everywhere. This girl couldn’t help but wonder if there was any other color out there. She couldn’t help but hope there was some other feeling besides the empty dread she experienced everyday. She began to ask a lot of questions, which was uncommon for a girl her age. “Is there any color besides gray?” she would ask. “Is there any way to feel amazed by the world?” she would question. Adults would give her scolding looks; children would rolls their eyes in disgust. “You ask too many questions,” they would snap. “Just stick to where you belong,” they yelled. But the young girl didn’t know where she belonged. In fact, she felt so utterly hopeless that she began to fall back into the rhythm of the poor dreary life. It wasn’t until she was looking out the window of her class did her teacher finally approach her. “I hear you’ve been asking about other colors in this world,” he said, pulling up a chair beside her. The young girl shifted uncomfortably in her seat, expecting another lecture. “It’s nothing,” she whispered. “Don’t be shy now, your curiosity of the world fascinates me. I was hoping that I could be of some help.” The young girl perked up in her seat, as no one has ever offered to help her with her imaginings before. “I am just so curious as to if there are other colors in the world… Ones that bring me more feelings besides sadness… or landscapes so bright they would shock my eyes so much that I couldn’t help but smile.” The teacher also smiled, a very uncommon act in this world, and leaned forward with a whisper, “I know of just the place.” With that he pulled out a piece of paper tucked into the folds of his wallet and handed it to the young girl. “Here is a map to the enchanted island. It’s easy to follow, but you must be careful. You’ll travel south until you reach the edge of the world, once you reach its edge, you must take the biggest leap of faith you can possibly muster. Once you reach the island, it’s all up to you for what you discover.” The young girl took the paper from his hand and looked at him in awe. “This will answer my questions?” .