• Daniela Kankova

A Set of Two Vignettes 'Sunflowers', Vignettes of Prague and My Hometown

Updated: Jun 17

Fallen Leaves


I came to London as a stranger, but when I was leaving, the city was strange to me. My memories were faded and they always seemed to be of other places rather than London. I really don’t know how and why it happened. I suppose it’s just how our minds work. And honestly, autumn has never been of my favourite seasons. I’ve always seen it as dull as it was, empty of lives, and even memories. I can’t see it clearly, but I believe it was somehow like this. One rainy November day I was enjoying a pint of fresh Pilsner in a bar at Spitalfields. I was observing the giant dressed up ants parading passed the window. The yellow trees were melting, dripping like honey on a spoon in an invisible cup. I took my beer and went outside for a cigarette to see it closer. And I just sniffed the cold air and felt it. I missed Prague. And I had never missed Prague so much before.


I saw myself waiting for a tram in front of the old gloomy building where I lived. There wasn’t a single cafe to go to, not in this part of Prague, but there were three old man pubs I entered a couple of times for a reason I don’t know. I guess it was the local character that dragged me in. Apparently, the pubs were closed in the morning, but I’m pretty sure that the seats were still warm and the cigarette smoke was yet struggling to get out through the keyholes and under the door. I heard the tram squeaking. People at the stop started to get nervous and peeped if it was their number. It was theirs, but not mine. The tram sucked their shadows in and I saw them shiver and leave. In a minute, I was leaving as well. I was following them but then my tram turned a different direction and the shadows disappeared.


The tram was passing a picturesque riverside route. On one side there was this long-forgotten industrial city - an iron bridge and an abandoned factory - and on the other one, the castle and its cathedral rose over the now wilted orchards and vineyards. The castle could be itself on a grey autumn day like this, as in spring it would hide ‘cause the pink cherry blossoms would always try to steal its beauty. I like cherries. There was also this sweet shop by the river where they made fresh cherry ice cream and I imagined that if I could savour the spring, this is how it would taste. Sweet and zingy and colourful. Some birds craving to go down South woke me up. It was too cold for them, I thought, yet the plastic swan pedal boats were already waiting for summer. I knew that route quite well. I often rode or walked around, but daily, ordinary life didn’t let me realise how nice it actually was. Up till now when I was no longer there.


I was contemplating the National Theatre with its old statues and golden handles when an elderly lady with an embellished saffron hat got on the tram and sat right behind me. I think she saw me staring at it from the outside already, and it made her curious. ‘Excuse me, darling, but do you by any chance know what that building is?’ So I told her it was the National Theatre, one of the landmarks and boasts of Prague. She nodded and agreed with me, and then she said she was from London and that they also had one there, but that it certainly wasn’t as beautiful. At that time I didn’t know what she meant saying that it wasn’t as beautiful, only now I can fully see the relevance of her words. She got off with me at the Old Town tram stop. Clearly, she was a tourist. But I wasn’t. For me, it was just a regular autumn morning when I went to the university, which was lucky enough to be located in the very middle of the Old Town of Prague, right next to the time-worn story-telling Jewish ghetto. The tram squeaked away and before I entered the university I just vaguely glimpsed the lady for the last time shuffling slowly to one of the synagogues, and as the wind rose, her hat flew away, but she didn’t notice.


I grabbed a cappuccino in the university bistro and headed to class. We talked about philosophy and literature. It was a rather exhausting seminar, but as far as I remember, I always enjoyed these classes. In my mind I travelled to Spain and Germany, I travelled to the previous centuries and then I felt pity, as I had to come back to that old new Prague. My mates and I, we all got hungry. We had been thinking too much. So, when the class had finished, we burst out through the door straight away to Casa Blu, a Mexican restaurant we would visit quite often. It was in Goats’ Street, which was so crooked it had a banister. You could still notice little holes in the ground from kids playing marbles. I loved those aged streets with the names of common objects. I imagined they’d sell goats, goat’s cheese, and milk in those alleys and that maybe sometimes they’d hold little goat’s races there. There were such streets in London as well, Bread Street where they’d bake bread or Fetter Lane where they’d sell chicks and duvets, but their stone and wooden houses were devoured by modernity. I like modernity, but only in literature and in other forms of art. One wouldn’t expect a Mexican restaurant in the Old Town, but somehow it fit in. Even when the street was covered in snow, which would be soon.


I took my friend to an antique bookshop. It was just a street away from where we ate and every time I passed around I just had to peep in. They also had this quid shelf outside. That one was my favourite. Some people would call it rubbish, but you wouldn’t believe how many gems one could find there. Classics, cookbooks, unknowns. Books that looked like the past itself and that once were used to dry out flowers and leaves for a school herbarium. I picked up one and my friend did too, and we both walked away contented and babbling about what an idea it was to go to a bookshop. But we hadn’t had enough. We wanted more. So we ran to an antique book storehouse we knew about. It was just a spacious underground room full of boxes of books that no-one had an interest in anymore, or that someone inherited and didn’t know what to do with. We rummaged through them and I picked ten. Then I was fully satisfied. I still have the books on my shelf by my bed back at my parent’s house, but I haven’t managed to read them yet. And I’m scared that one day they’ll end up in a box in the antique book storehouse again, but that no-one would pick them.


‘Did you buy some more books, again?’ my date asked when I met him. He knew I soon had to move out of my flat. Suddenly, I felt guilty. But as soon as he kissed me on the forehead I knew he was just kidding. He didn’t read, he didn’t understand, but I love him anyway. We wanted to go to the movies, but it was quite early. It wasn’t raining anymore, yet it was still a little bit cloudy. We decided that we would stay outside and go for a walk. We wanted to climb up towards the castle and the viewing hill Petrin. We wanted to meditate on the cherry trees and observe the city from above. We flew by the Wenceslas Square which had been stolen by hungry tourists and had never been returned back to us. We glanced at the Powder Tower and astronomical clock, and soon we were crossing the river and found ourselves in the Lesser Town.


We grabbed a pint in one of the Pilsner pubs whose history we could track back to the Middle Ages. Despite its historical value and worldwide fame, they still had the cheapest Pilsner in the town, and that was what this place could boast about. Otherwise, it would be just another pub in the Lesser Town - worn off wooden tables and wrinkled bartenders. Then, driven by the clumsy hops, we headed up passing St. Nicholas, an Irish pub and the US embassy. We walked through the orchards and wide fields where hardy yogis were practicing up facing dogs and bridges. It was getting dark. The yogis soon wrapped up their mats and went downtown, but by then we were already up at the top of the hill watching the city. It was calm and mysterious.


The Petrin tower was still open, so we bought two tickets and went up. From the outside it reminded me of the Eiffel tower, it was of a similar shape and material, but it was rather shorter. It took us 299 steps to get to the very top. I felt dizzy because the stairway was spiral, but it soon passed as I took a deep look in the Prague panorama. The city lights were glowing like tea candles. They said there were a hundred towers in the whole of Prague, so I counted all the lights that seemed to be high enough to be a tower, and indeed, I counted a hundred. You couldn’t notice people, they were too small, but you could notice cars moving, going out of the city centre back home crossing the bridges. The castle was unusually close to me. I could clearly see what was inside through the windows - sumptuous chairs, sofas, and closets. You could even notice the grapes in the vineyards. I could also see a little summer house somewhere further away on the horizon. The other day we went for a long afternoon walk, and we ended up there by the summerhouse. We had never noticed it before. Apparently, it was just another restaurant, but it had splendid views and quite oriental architecture that was clashing with the rest of the gothic and renaissance city. And all that covered in serene evening and mist. I like autumn walks and evenings like these.


When it got late and the ground was already frozen and slippery, we took the funicular and rode back to the city centre. I still wanted to go to the movies. The journey was rather slow. The carriage was lazier than usual because of the icy rails. You could touch trees and pick their leaves from the window. And when we were in the middle of the way, the funicular stopped. There was an inn in the woods. What a bizarre stop. But I guess that a long time before they build the funicular, the inn would be a handy stop for a quick sugary drink when going up, and then for a well-deserved lunch when going down. I imagine that even now it can work in the same way, but as long as you walk because taking the funicular is cheating.


At the foothill, we took a tram and rode to my very favourite cinema. I don’t know why, but I’ve always found tram rides in the dark scary. You see your reflection and reflections of other people in the windows because of the sharp lighting and thus when you get out you can’t see. I was aware of the river when we crossed one of the bridges but that was it. Then we found ourselves in front of the cinema. It was inconspicuous and most of it was underground. Its interior wasn’t very charming. There was a huge staircase leading to the screening rooms where people would sit and wait for their friends before a movie started. The walls were red and blue and the curtains were black. The movies were always brilliant there, though. It was my round to pick a film that evening, so I chose the one I had heard so much about - Egon Schiele - Death and the Maiden. We went to get some drinks and snacks at the tiny cinema bar. They had craft beer, early wine, raspberry lemonade, and salty breadsticks. I never realised how Czech this cinema was. Raspberry lemonade and breadsticks. No popcorn. Perhaps that was what I liked about it, its Czech personality. We bought two pints and entered the screening room. It was already on. We sat in the last row. There was my hometown in the movie.


That evening after the movie had finished we also went to my favourite cafe. As someone once told me, cafe Tynska was maybe called a ‘cafe’, but no-one ever saw anyone to actually drink coffee there. It was more of a bar. It was hidden in the streets of the Old Town, and every time I invited a friend who hadn’t been there before to come in and join me for a pint of unfiltered beer, I had to go outside to search for him. It was modest and ordinary from the outside, but from the inside it was marvelous. There was an old out of tune piano that I once played, and loads of antique books to leaf through everywhere in the shelves, cupboards, and windows. I wasn’t afraid to go there on my own, because there I felt at home, and there I knew everyone. In summer you could sit outside on the patio. The green parasols would protect you from the burning sun, and homemade lemonade would refresh you from the inside. The air would be thick and sticky, full of cigarette smoke and mixed sweated perfumes. When the skies became covered with stars that you could barely see in a city like Prague, they packed the parasols and you could adore the verandas and balconies of the building that were once used for doing laundry and neighbours chit-chatting. Now we were chit-chatting by the bar moaning about the shitty weather and that jazz wasn’t like it used to be. It was rather warm inside. The air was boiling, full of rain vapours. I drank beer with a very big head and so did he.


There was a sister cafe a couple of steps away from there that I also once visited. They had the same unfiltered beer and cloudy lemonade. Similar types of people would come in and they’d have the exact same conversations about jazz and weather. Instead of a terrace, they had a cellar. They’d hold various talks and workshops there, that was lovely. I don’t remember there would be any books in the whole cafe, though. But what I remember vividly is that every fifth of October, when there were celebrations of the Bernard brewery, they’d give away a pint of beer for five Czech Crowns, which would be like twenty British pennies. The place just had its own different vibe, or maybe I just didn’t spend enough nice time there, because though it was a sister bar, for me it was just a cheap copy I didn’t buy.


We had another one for the road. It was a rather exhausting day. We already saw ourselves in bed, in my old flat. I’d open one of my new books and I’d want to show and read it to him, but he’d already be sleeping. We said bye to the bartenders and left Tynska. While we were waiting for the tram he looked at me and laughed. I said what? I had a white mustache from the big fluffy head.


There was only one bar in London where you could get a big head like in cafe Tynska, the bar I was now sitting at. They had Pilsner and other beers. In winter they’d do mulled wine and mulled cider. They tried all they could to make me feel like home. And I did feel like home there indeed sometimes. They’d always greet me with a smile and a Czech hi. It wasn’t the same, though. The other people who’d go there were different, most of them were city boys, and there wasn’t such a thing as city boys in Prague. There was a vinyl player, but no actual piano. There was a terrace, but no green parasols. There were no old books. As I was looking out the window at the giant parading ants, I couldn’t help but wonder. Will I ever have such a memory of this city as I have of Prague, or will all the London memories keep fading till they disappear.


Sunflowers


I spent hot days like these in my hometown writing on the terrace of a little cafe that sat under a bridge right by the river shore. The breeze of the woods coming with the river would keep me and my mind brisk and the iced coffee with cream the landlady made herself would stop my craving. I’d be looking at the paddlers on the river. I’d be looking at the crowds of tourists crossing the bridge. I’d think and write poems either happy or sad depending on my mood and what had happened the previous day. That one particular day, I was writing a poem about the sunflowers I saw in the fields when I went to take a dip in the country-like part of the stream. I wanted to give this poem to my mother because I thought she liked these flowers.


I first described their colour and size and how they spat seeds all over the fields. I described how they’d slowly move in the rhythm of the trees rustling and how their heads would swing and follow the sun, but I ended up portraying myself, dipping my feet in the lush summer stream. The stones in the water were nice and cold. Slippery, but he was holding me so I wouldn’t fall. Then we sat on a white blanket with my beau that he brought with and we let our feet dry. I had my nails painted red. I think he liked it because he was looking at them red nails. We were waving at the paddlers passing by and we were looking up at the clouds trying to figure out what they looked like. They looked like sheep, hearts, or broken hearts, but some of them were just simple clouds.


I had a sip of my iced coffee and I looked up. There was a huge, old house overlooking the town, covered in burnt vines and daisies. It was almost a ruin, but I thought one day you will be mine. When I told my friends, they said I was lunatic. They said the house was an abandoned wreck no one wanted, and thus I shouldn’t want it either. But I longed for a morning when I’d wake up in white sheets, I’d open the blinds and windows of that house and I’d go outside at the balcony. There would be daisies, pink roses, and other flowers clambering the railing. I’d stretch my body and I’d welcome the new day looking at the awakening town. My partner would bring me coffee and fresh-squeezed juice from oranges and lemons from our little garden and we’d eat a blueberry pie that our grandmother would bake for us. I’d look at the town again and I’d say this is my hometown, the place I’ll adore forever.


I was afraid to say forever, though. I was afraid that as soon as I said it, the endlessness would pass and disappear. Every time I looked at the church where I wanted to marry you, I got scared that I’d have to promise I’d love you forever, and thus our love that could have once been eternal would cease. We were like a ceramic China mug. Beautiful, but fragile. I wasn’t scared to say forever to my hometown, though. It was in me and in my bones. It raised me and it would never betray me. And you were a part of it. We were a part of it. So I looked down in my papers and started to write a poem about the town of Cesky Krumlov.


I praised the little streets and their stone paving. I glorified the castle and how magical it looked when there were fireworks. As a little kid, my nanny would take me and my cousins in the castle to see the chambers. There were tapestries and jewellery and armours. There was a golden carriage. She’d also take us to the castle gardens. It was divided into two parts - the French one and the English one. The French garden was neat, with short bushes, flowerbeds, and little fountains. The English garden was more of wood. Large bushes, spruces, and maples. There was also a little lake with a couple of boats, ducks and water lilies. Everyone loved to go to the gardens, especially in the summer. Then later on you and I were sitting under the castle, contemplating its poor lighting and drinking bottled beer. We listened to the river murmuring. I petted your soft hair and kissed your stubbly neck. You kissed my neck. And at that very moment, in that exact position, we somehow got captured forever.


I had a feeling that the poem about the town was rather about me. I don’t know if it was the writing itself or the afternoon heat that made me tired out, or both of them, but I had to switch places. I couldn’t sit in the cafe anymore. I needed to go somewhere different to get some new, fresh ideas. I went to greet my father at his workplace. The stones in the pavement were hot, I could feel it through my flip flops. I quickly hid in the shadow of the buildings. My father was on his lunch break, and, apparently, he went to take a swim in the river to cool himself down. I spotted him playing ball with other citizens in the water. I waved at him and left for the garden that was attached to the old Josef Seidel’s house of photography.


You could still get photographed in that house. The photos would come vintage, as the whole place was stuck in the twenties. In the times when the town was yet flaked and nonchalant, but already somewhat attractive. I once went to the photography house for a guided tour. There were old cameras and other different apparatus. There were various ateliers and a room made just for costumes. Laced dresses, leather shoes, knitted handbags, and umbrellas. And then they had a room to store the old camera films. When I was there, a photographer was taking pictures of a baby. I guess they were supposed to be the pictures that its nannies and aunties would hang on their walls. It was dressed like a doll and they sat him in this antique buggy. But, apparently, the baby didn’t want to get photographed. It was crying the whole hour of the tour and I remember they had to distract him with old wooden toys. I think finally they did take a picture of him and it’s now hanging in someone’s house and I guess every time they look at it they say oooh remember when our Johnny was a little baby.


In the garden, there were flowers and trees blooming and I could see that soon they’d start to fruit. They were half in the shadow half in the sunshine. There were honey bees and bumblebees. I sat on a white wooden bench under a birch tree and I observed the garden for a little while. I saw a blue butterfly drinking nectar off a ripened red rose and a little bird taking a bath in one of the fountains. I heard someone talking in the house as well. I guess they were holding a guided tour again. Then I took my book and I continued writing the poem of the town.


On our second or third date, I can’t remember clearly, my boyfriend took me out for a drink. We both made an effort and dressed up nice, but soon we realised it was maybe too nice for just a drink in a casual pub we actually had met in. So we went to a neighbourhood’s summer celebrations clapping our shoes on the cobblestones. The fiesta was in an open gallery, with some techno music, rave dancers, and canned beers. We bought a couple and went to chatter outside with our neighbours. The skies were clear that night. You could see Cassiopeia and Orion and all of the other constellations. We got a little bit tipsy of the beer and the deep love that we would soon encounter. He knew me by then, he didn’t want me to get bored with the people and the event itself so he decided we’d switch places, again. We went to a little bar by the river that also served as an atelier. I loved art and he knew it. He didn’t care about art, but later on, I taught him to actually like it. There was a hanging golden staircase, red carpets, and wooden walls. There were old instruments and plenty of candles in shapes of toes, of various colours and sizes. Outside there was a sheltered terrace with garlands and paintings of the town. I would describe the whole place as Bohemian, but when we came in that evening, everything looked a bit different. It was rather busy and the people were dressed smartly. We finally fit somewhere, we both thought. There were loads of fancy food. Chicken escalopes, roasted pork, and potato salad. And a gypsy band was playing. There was a wedding. We were at a wedding party no one invited us to, but they didn’t mind. We danced with them and contemplated the art on the terrace. This is a quirky wedding, but a nice wedding, we thought. They wined us and dined us and we went home late at night with our bellies full of vanilla cake and cream puffs.


They had delicious homemade cream puffs in the cafe of the Egon Schiele Art Centre gallery as well. Yes, there was Egon’s gallery and also his atelier in my hometown. It was full of precious pictures of his and other guest artists and I’d go there every time I needed to think. I went there the day after I met you. I went there when we had an argument and we didn’t speak to each other. It was a place of unconditional peace and endless creativity. From sculptures and sketches to huge colourful oils. It was quiet, airy, and cold. It was dark and mystical, like Egon himself. In Prague, I saw a biographic movie about him. It was shot in Cesky Krumlov. I saw the castle there, the courtyards and the river. I like Egon and his works, but I don’t like that he married a rich aristocratic girl instead of the one he truly loved and who was his muse. Well, at least he got what he wanted. Fame.


But I don’t know if I got what I wanted in my poem. The blue butterfly already flew away and the sun slowly started to hide its sharp rays. It was time to leave. I packed my writing and stood up. I looked at the house of photography. It stood proud in the garden. It was stunning. I passed my father’s workplace. He was watering the lawn. I didn’t wave that time, because I knew he would want to talk and I wanted to concentrate on my writing, so I continued walking. I crossed the bridge, underneath was the cafe where I’d write. It was rather quiet as it got closer to the dusk. The pubs around the river started to get busy, though. I could smell roasted trouts splashed with lemon juice. I looked at the church. It made me tremble. I walked down the street. I passed a wax museum and our little square. There were tourists in the expensive restaurants eating traditional Czech pork knees with cabbage. For us, there was ice cream and slush. I went down the main parade. There was a toy shop, a hotel, a handbag shop. I found myself on another bridge under the castle. There were musicians playing flutes and fiddles. For a minute I thought I was back in the Middle Ages, with all the fires and horse carriages. I turned right towards the other bank of the river. Because the river flowed as it was hugging the city centre, and everyone loved it. And I sat there on small improvised stairs made of flat stones. By my back, there was the bar where my boyfriend and I went to that wedding. The candles there were lit. I was observing the serene embankment, sniffing fish, water plants, and algae. My poem’s finished, I thought. And I shut the book.


I asked at the bar for a pint, I sat back by the river and I waited for my boyfriend. He’d often take me there for dates because there we could be alone and we could observe the town life. When hot, we would dip our feet in the river and we’d build castles from stones. The sun was setting behind the horizon already. He didn’t take long. He came on his bicycle and he brought me a sunflower. Where did you get it? It’s precious, I said. I picked it uptown, in the fields, he responded. I sniffed it. It smelled like him. Sweet. He sat next to me and had a sip of my golden lit glass. He looked satisfied. He took my hand and we observed the town. Then he told me about his day and I told him about mine. I wish we could have another evening like this, but we moved on.


Hot days like these were different in London. No matter if it was a hot summer, people remained restless and busy. And they would still wear suits and ties and boots. There was nowhere to escape the heat in the city centre. The buses were hot, and the carriages of the underground were like cooking pots, and most of the buildings didn’t have air conditioning. The concrete pavements were warm and the lawns, if there were any, were all burnt, already in May. The patio of our house was like a desert. Full of dust and pollen and sand from I don’t know where. I guess it was pieces of broken plastering. When the city was awakening, children would play ball or hopscotch there. I’d often had my morning coffee and observe them. But as it got closer to noon, they’d leave the wasteland and go hide back to their shelters. You’d just see an abandoned ball that would be slightly moving because of the tube running underground. They’d return in the evening for a little while before going to sleep, but sometimes they’d stay up till late. Their parents let them because in London you couldn’t enjoy the sun. It was too sharp and savage.


But later on, I learned to enjoy the London sun. I admired how it reflected in the glassy skyscrapers and how the reflections entered my room. I also made myself a habit to go either to St. Katharine’s Docks or to my Czech little bar in Spitalfields. In the Docks, I’d chill out in the shadows of the willows observing yachts and sailors. I’d drink coffee with ice cubes there, I’d listen to the loud cars horning and I’d read books. The docks were rather artificial, but I could notice the smell of the sea in the river. And I liked the English seaside and their pebbly beaches. In my bar, I’d sit at the beer terrace with my boyfriend. We’d read the newspaper and we’d chat. We’d talk about ourselves, what we did last summer and what we’d do next summer. And then I’d think and write. I’d write about my three great loves, Prague, my hometown, and him, and I’d question myself if we could be captured in that blissful moment forever, as we already once were back then kissing in our hometown under the castle by the river.


In the streets of London, photo credits to Nels Challinor

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