“Now that we’re inside, I just don’t want to move anymore,” I say, sprawled out on my unmade bed (sorry, Mom, some habits die hard). Hosanna, my childhood friend, bosom buddy and fellow expat, throws something solid at me and tells me to get up.
We’ve both had a long day – I’ve been teaching and she’s been on a train. We’re both tired and feel slightly disgusting. But today is also April 30 and we’re in the Czech Republic, which means something very specific: Witch burnings are afoot.
Hosanna is fidgeting with her GoPro camera and I am still trying to pull myself back up to my feet.
“Should I bring a jacket?” Hosanna asks.
“No,” I respond. “It’ll stay warm.”
That’s the whole point. Today is Pálení čarodějnic – in English that translates into “burning of the witches.” The ceremony is an age-old tradition that ushers in the year’s warm weather by burning effigies of witches, thereby ending the spell of winter. Prague has been gearing up for the ritual all day. Children left school early to help build pyres to light in their neighborhoods, and as I rode into the city center to pick up Hosanna I saw girls with witches hats and black make-up.
By the time Hosanna and I reached Zbraslav at 8:30 the air was hazy with smoke and we could see huge fires burning across the river.
Many people lit fires in their yards and gathered around with friends and family. We, however, wanted to find the BIG fires – the neighborhood celebration that brings the community together. We do not do things as small communities much where I come from. We definitely do not burn witches. So tonight is a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience and I did not want to miss it.
This is the thought that finally pulls me out of my slump and pushes us out the door.
Nine o’clock in late April is milky blue and speckled with stars. Visibility is decent on the street, but when we turn into the forest we step into a soft darkness that makes us giggly.
It’s nice catching up with my oldest friend. She tells me about her travels and I tell her about teaching.
“Do you know where we’re going?” she finally asks.
“Nope,” I say, reviving our nervous giggles. Occasionally we pass couples or small groups and I take that to mean we’re headed in the right direction. So we keep walking up the hill, into the forest.
Before we hear the band playing Czech rock music or the distinct shrills of laughter, we see the smoke. It’s hard to decipher in the dark, but the bottom of the grey, willowy pillar glows distinctly red and small sparks waft over the tree tops. That’s our marker. We follow the smoke.
The groups of people we pass get larger in number and we’re soon just two of a crowd, following a crooked, unpaved street toward the growing sound of music. Where the road leaves us is not necessarily magical. There are no wild people dancing in circles around the fire. In fact, the fire itself has died down considerably, having fought its battle with the puppet witches and won over an hour ago. Now it seems to serve only as a place for people to congregate, shuffling around the ashes and embers.
Next to the band’s stage (which was vacated when we arrived) is a make-shift playground for children. At least a dozen little witches and their brothers chased each other around on the rubber tubes and string ladders.
We are in the back lot of a restaurant, nesting like a meadow lark in the open space between the wooded hills. Tables and benches have been pulled out under large awnings and a stand selling steaks and Euro dogs has been set up outside the bar entrance. People seem lost in conversation.
“Should we get something to eat?” Hosanna asks when we finally move away from the fire’s remnants. Several men pause mid-conversation in curiosity. English is a common part of Prague’s city landscape but it’s a little out of place in the surrounding villages.
I nod and we worm through the bundles of people toward the restaurant’s double doors.
My plan was to give Hosanna a taste of malinofka – a carbonated raspberry drink that I happen to adore – but they were out. So we settle for some Pilsner beers, taking comfort in the excellent craftsmanship of Czech brewers. Waiting for our drinks, I notice the barista filling shot glasses with a crystal-turquoise liquid.
I nudge Hosanna.
“That’s absinthe. It’s about as Czech as it comes. The alcohol is made from wormwood and I’m pretty sure it’s not even legal in the States.”
We both stare at it.
“It sure is pretty,” she says.
We take our drinks and head outside where the night has fully embraced the velvet sky and soft breezes of a warming earth.
Laughter and a hum of conversation that we can’t understand floats on the air the way bubbles are led over toe-headed children and hot sidewalk pavements in the summertime. The gathering of maybe a hundred people seems intimate and close, as if everyone is someone’s friend. No one notices two American girls.
“Should we head back home?” I ask Hosanna. We’ve seen what’s to be seen.
I believe you shouldn’t dilly-dally in a moment or you’ll stretch the magic right out of it.
But as we start for the crooked path back through the forest, a soft whizzing followed by an oh-so-familiar ‘pop!’ stops us in our eager tracks. Excitedly, we search the sky for the same thing. In less than a second our hopes are rewarded by big, beautiful bows of glittering gold that shower down on us. The crowd is enchanted by the display. Drinks are set aside, children are scooped up for a better view and a hush falls upon us as we soak in the beams of colored sparks that explode against the ebony backdrop and then drift into the tree branches below.
Fireworks will always be inherently American to me. In a single moment, a lifetime’s worth of memories well up in my soul and overflow into the part of my mind that is always thinking of home. Summer evenings climbing the hill above the swap-meet, sitting on coolers and tuning the radio to hear the broadcast that syncs with the Independence Day fireworks show – quintessential American childhood.
A clash of two worlds – mine and theirs, the old and the new, one foreign and one lost. Here they celebrated a centuries-old European tradition with fireworks that look exactly like the ones from home, from America, from the new world.
Earth. What a world. What a life.
Hosanna is still trying to capture glimpses of the sky with her GoPro as we finally leave. I’ve come to realize that some things cannot be caught on camera.