Living in the City

Living in the City

April 17, 2013 0 By Michaela Freeman

The city is, in my case, Prague. I was born here but, until a teenager, didn’t spend much time in the center. Although full of history, in those communist days the center was a rather gray area, with many crumbling buildings and sad looking shops. As a kid, I lived on the outskirts in a modern apartment and spent my weekends and holidays at the summerhouse. It wasn’t until I got together with my friend Daniel and, subsequently, my boyfriends that I began to hang out downtown. By then, it was on its way to becoming one the world’s most splendid areas, the entire downtown designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. When I began to meet my ex-pat friends, my understanding of Prague shifted again. Suddenly I saw it from their perspective and learned to really appreciate it. I still remember my feeling when Anthony Tognazzini showed me the cubist lamp behind the Bata building on Wenceslas square – how could I not know about it? Well, I didn’t.

Among the Garbage and the Flowers

My experience of those times is best expressed through the poetic lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne:

Now Suzanne takes your hand
and she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
from Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
on our lady of the harbour
and she shows you where to look
among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed,
there are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
and they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror…

I’ve had many such “Suzannes” in my life, although they were usually male. But they did show me where to look among the garbage and the flowers. My husband, with the keen eye of a designer, has been my best guide to date. But my special thanks also go to Daniel Kupsovsky, Jakub Sommer, Eric Gelehrter, Shelton Walsmith, Richard Giles, Ken Nash, Joseph Morris (all visually oriented artists) and my many other friends who walked around with me and pointed out the things one must look at, to discover beauty. They held the mirror both to me and to this city, as it transformed after the revolution.

The Return

Our return to Prague, after 10 years in the mountains, was involuntary and if it wasn’t for those circumstances, we’d probably still be shoveling snow and chopping wood. But once here again, I appreciated the city far more than before. There is the convenience factor. If I neglect to buy onions, all I need do is walk downstairs and a place open until 11 p.m. will save my dinner plans. Easy. Most city dwellers assume it will be there, considering it natural. It’s not. It’s very, very special to find everything at your fingertips. Of course, I jumped into all the activities that were difficult in the mountains – yoga classes, swimming, movies, theatre … but they felt different than before. They felt like an added benefit.

New Reference Point

What I brought back from the mountains was integrity — some deep-seated understanding that there are as many trees out there in the forest as people in the crowded streets of Prague. An understanding that my urban landscape is not all there is, a human construct, not the real thing.

In villages, nature is the reference point – the weather, the harvest, the firewood… you are forced to deal with them and they are real. They haven’t really changed in eons. In the city, people and things made by people (architecture, traffic, parks) are the reference point. City people get excited about being with other people or enjoying what other people do (culture, sports, social occasions). These things are subject to changes and fashion-fads. They are not a solid foundation upon which to build your understanding of yourself. Like a display in the shop window, they tend to change when you next walk by.

I quickly realized that while I now really enjoy the convenience and beauty of the city, I still keep the reference point of nature. What used to be buildings with green grass between is now grass, with buildings between. I find myself paying close attention to seasons, weather, plants in the park … they have become my landscape and, within them, hold the places, people and events I’m involved with. And I’m grateful for them. Having been away from it all, I now appreciate the beauty of the city, the value of my friends, culture and amenities in a way I didn’t expect. I love being back.

Photo: View from my studio (2010) by Martin Kámen