Spring is deceptively cold, this I know. So, as I watched the minutes till my bus tick away, I changed my sweater another time. There has to be a balance between eskimo and flip-flops, but, as a San Diegan, those are the only two levels I know. Czechs dress very specifically for the weather – down to the half degree. Californians wear basically the same thing for anything between 60F and 85F. Whenever something falls outside those “extremes” we declare either global warming or arctic freeze and prepare for the end times.
In the hope that the day would be warm, the long-sleeved sweater got replaced with a light shirt and a fluffy windbreaker.
7:30 is a tad early for me to be up on a Saturday morning, but I will make the rare exception for farmer’s markets. Náplavka’s, I’d heard, was rather a nice one. And I needed a break from the winding road of my weekly worries (which never seem to take the weekends off). It was a brisk bus ride and a sleepy metro toward one of Prague’s wharfs where I linked up with my Czech friend and guide, Katka. As soon as we stepped out of the tunneled stairs into the pale sunshine of the early morning, I knew I should have brought the longer sweater. It was cold.
The market had just opened when we arrived. Only a few other early-risers perused the stalls of fresh fish, local honey, traditional baked goods (with koláče the size of a bike wheel), painted pottery and several robust-smelling foreign dishes. Around us, people walked by with bags for their purchases of fresh-baked bread or their bundles of flowers. I had 50 crowns in my pocket (about $2.50) and I intended to use every last coin.
Cheeses are in plenty here, though you won’t find any yellow rounds. White cheese only – rough, sour and pungent smelling. They’re usually coupled with a sausage stall where links hang from the roof and rolls of salami are wrapped in greasy white paper, waiting to give someone’s cholesterol the worst day of its life. Today they were steaming meat in a big cooker next to the stall.
One vendor, shivering in a light jacket of his own, scarf wrapped thrice around his neck, had a whole row of home-made jams and jellies in oddly shaped glass jars. Apple, lemon, strawberry, current.
Not much farther down was a pretty girl with a long blonde braid, guarding an array of cakes and quiches. Black poppy seed cake slept beneath a thin glaze that dribbled down the sides. A carrot cake sat gracelessly in the middle of the table. And then there were cheesecakes. Cheesecakes with almond toppings or berry glazes. Cheesecakes with chocolate crumbles and creamy fillings. Just yesterday, Marilyn and I had been talking about cheesecake (a rare find in Prague). My mouth watered looking at them.
At the end of the promenade was a fish wholesaler, taking wiggling, live catches from a bin of water and slapping them down upon a slab to be hammered and gutted. That was a little more than I could handle that early in the morning so Katka and I took a break from the market and found a piece of the wharf not occupied by a vendor. For a few minutes we just watched the sunlight flicker on the silky waters running below us.
The Vltava is a thing of beauty. Swans flock her shores and bridges of every stripe and color criss-cross over her from one end of Prague to the other like the crooked stitches of a beanbag.
The stalls stretched all the way down the wharf between the old train bridge and the fancy one which trams glided across.
Walking back through the hum of activity, we stopped to get a meat pastry and some kind of crazy-delicious Asian sandwich roll. Our treasures gripped between frozen fingers, we found a block of cement beneath the stairs leading back up to the city’s winding tram system and pulled up our feet, enjoying the spot of secluded sunshine.
“I don’t know about sitting here,” said Katka, examining the block. Czechs don’t tend to sit down in public places like bus stop curbs, stairs or ground of any kind. Americans, however, have no problem plopping down where-the-heck-ever so, following my example, she finally took the spot next to mine.
“What’s life without a little dirt on the seat of your pants, anyway?” I asked as we traded bites of our breakfasts.
I feel like I’ve gotten the rhythm of this country. Not much surprises me anymore. I don’t feel offended when old women on the bus give me judgemental looks for not wearing weather-appropriate clothing. I know there are unspoken rules about what meals you can and cannot eat dumplings with that are followed almost religiously. I hear the birdlike chatter of Czech kids on the sidewalk and I know what they’re talking about, I can guess where their feet are taking them. I know that Spring is looked forward to in Prague like dawn awaits the sun – that the world changes when the clouds part and the light lasts longer and the surface of the earth finally begins to thaw and warm. Czechs love spring.
We finished our food and walked back to the metro. Katka wanted to visit the other market in Prague. I’m not a huge fan of the metro and I hate changing lines, but I did both obediently (if a little begrudgingly), following Katka around like the whiny twelve-year old I often am.
The second market, tucked beneath the shadow of an old cathedral on a littered lawn, was much smaller and much less exciting. There were some odd bobbles, tulips, and a very tempting display of cake rolls. But I wanted cheesecake.
Our stroll was short and before long we were back on the metro, re-rumbling across the tracks to the first market.
Our second trip down the plank onto the wharf gave us a much different view. In just an hour the number of people had quadrupled. It was a sea of people coming from all directions – even the river, as ferries landed passengers onto docks below the wharf!
We struggled through the wall of people to find the cheesecake again. There was a line this time, though not too long a one to deter us from our delectable mission.
Blueberry cheesecake with chocolate-crumble crust was purchased. We stood on a dock just above the glittering water and ate every bite with immense, immeasurable joy.
Sailboats drifted down the river as ferries cruised by, making waves that came slapping up against the sides of the dock. Trams and trains rumbled overhead and the swans below us posed elegantly for pictures and breadcrumbs. And the sun was out. The day warmed up gloriously.
I definitely made the right call on the jacket-sweater decision.
I think a lot of us spend time in long mental-winters that keep us cold and dreary and lost. I think humans long for hope the way they long for spring – some sign that the earth will turn and the flowers will bloom, that the endless night will melt away into something better and brighter. And while it can be hard to trust that God does in fact have a plan – that his timing is perfect and will be revealed to us eventually, it’s reassuring to know that the same God who made us also made spring, which comes every year without fail.
And for me, spring, sunshine and cheesecake taste enough like hope to keep me going till the way becomes straighter.