“It’s a beautiful day”, said Pavel. I looked over at him, skeptically. Yeah “beautiful” if you call standing in the hot sun for 4 hours, playing songs you dont even know with a trumpet player who doesnt listen, plays blaring notes, and can play 3 times louder than you can. Beautiful. He kept looking at me, with that goofy grin of his. That grin that was a mask that could make you laugh anytime and you knew there must be something else going on in that head of his. There was; oh there was. It caused me to take a breath and slow down for a moment. Over my right shoulder I could see upstream the Moldava River in beautiful Prague with its soaring ornate towers and bridges. Over my right shoulder was the majestic Prague Castle looming like an apparition come back from the middle ages. In front of me, countless people were happily walking back and forth buying all kinds of special things, cheeses, wines, sausages, juices, more cheeses, pork shoulders (ok they all werent special to me), fresh made apple and ginger juice. It was the Saturday farmer’s market on the Moldava River in Prague, and Pavel and his partner Hanka had asked me to play. It was hot and long but he was right; it was beautiful. Somehow I had forgotten that.
During a break, we walked around looking at all the things for sale including second hand goods. It was fun to see what was considered second hand in Prague. We found a strange pair of sunglasses that Pavel insisted on buying for me. I put them on and they all cracked up, especially Havel. “Now you can see the world in a new way, and the world will see you in a new way”, Pavel grinned at me. “Beautiful” He was always saying cosmic things like that if you paid attention. When I looked in a mirror, I cracked up too. I looked like an alien from another space-time continuum.
I had know Pavel and Hanka only about 2 weeks and I had to say I was captivated by them. Pavel was 36, and a large handsome man, about 6’ 4” and 220 pounds. His hair fell in long natural curls almost to his shoulders. He looked like an Atlas. . I was drawn to him in ways I couldnt quite understand. He was a great musician, yet seemed like someone who played haphazardly, as if his sound was by luck. He was kind, giving me chances to play, even though he knew I would leave soon, and he always had a smile, a goofy smile usually, on his face, that you couldnt help smiling along with.
Hanka on the other hand was short, maybe 5’ 5” and very thin. Her face was narrow and intense, her brown eyes always darting back and forth, following everything that was going on with great intensity. Her English wasn’t nearly as good as Pavel’s (he had lived in New Zealand for 3 years) but she understood everything that was going on. Any joke or funny thing that happened, and her serious worried expression opened up like summer thundershower
I had seen them playing on the streets of Prague 2 weeks ago with a trio, 2 guitars and Hanka on drums. I asked if I could play one song, and they, surprised, said sure. I played another one, then another. Finally , I played until the curfew at 930 started. After that, I joined him everytime because, it was fun, it was different; he pulled large crowds (I attracted only small groups of jazz lovers), and he let me play solos as long as i wanted. Mostly it was fun. He sang old rock classics but in new unexpected ways. He sang the song “Stairway to Heaven” which we are all sick of, but he did it one night in a reggae style singing the introduction with words in a made up language that had everyone, especially Hanka, laughing very hard. The next night he did it completely differently, like a fast swing song singing the melody with animal sounds. Or the minor Russian gypsy song where, “I sing to you in my pajamas, your pajamas and my pajamas are dancing together like llamas.” As he sang, notes danced from him, you couldnt tell where they were coming from, his guitar or his voice. He moved back and forth from the microphone yet his voice seemed the same volume at all times. . If you watched closely, he was doing amazing things with his guitar and voice, but it looked like he was just fooling around.
I had only a few days left in Prague and they asked me if I would like to take a trip, to a lovely town in Czech, Czesky Krumlov. It involved staying overnight at their small cabin in the woods. I had heard about his cabin. He lived there for free. All he had to do was fix it up. Some kind of squatting. I was excited to see it and to get to know them better. “But its a little messy”, they warned. “I dont mind. You should see my apartment.” “We will go after the curfew at 930” he said. At 930 in front of the national Opera building, I looked over at Pavel. “its 930. Shall we quit now?” “No I think we can play a little longer. lets play till 10.” I was surprised. the police were pretty strict here. They had recently set up new rules for street musicians, since there were so many of us. I shrugged and we kept playing. The crowd grew larger and larger. At 955 the big police van pulled up right behind and blared its loud foghorn. Oh-oh. This was it. Pavel glanced back at them and gave them a meaningful nod. I thought everything was ok because he kept playing to finish the song. As soon as we finished though he mouthed to me, “Frank, go tell them you didnt know about the curfew in English and maybe they will let you go.” Huh. Me? Why me? I did it, but the police in Prague were not stupid. After a long negotiation with Pavel, they shook hands and laughed and gave us a 200 Kroner fine (about 10 dollars) and as they were leaving gave me the ticket. “Hey its a nice souvenir for you.” They were right, it was my treasure, and maybe worth the 200 K. When they finally had gone he came up to me and put his arm around my shoulder. “That was beautiful. We made far more money in those 25 minutes than 200. Beautiful.” I looked at him like he was crazy. We had taken a big chance, because the police can fine you as much as they want, up to 10,000 K.
We loaded up the car and drove about 20 minutes to the cabin. It was dark out and we had to climb up a steep hill to get up to the structure. There were no steps, handrails, or even footholds. I had to struggle up and I stumbled and fell a few times. Once I got near, I saw that “messy” was a gross exaggeration. I was shocked. It literally looked like a bomb had gone off in the middle of the hut. It was unfinished. In someplaces there was a floor in others it was just foundation. There were boards scattered all around, there was junk spread out all over the floor. there was no electricity or running water. There were 3 cats and 1 skittish dog, who alternately barked and threatened me and ran from me. There were two kitty litter boxes that smelled foul. there were boxes of candy bars laying on the floor. “how long have you lived here, Pavel?” “About 7 months.” I looked at him surprised. What was going on? Pavel dug into the box of candy bars and grabbed a few and gobbled them up. How did he look so great eating like that. Pavel dug through the garbage and pulled out a foldout bed. Pavel and Hanka slept on a table with no mat underneath. “Mind if I put the kitty litter in the other room?” “Yes thats good. Beautiful. good idea.” I prided myself on being able to sleep anywhere, but this was a challenge.
Somehow I survived the night. They gave me a small flashlight in case I had to get up at night. I did and almost killed myself walking over broken floorboards and beams. I woke up early although it was hard to know the time because there were just small windows and no light. Finally they got up. It was too late to go to the small city because it was a 3 hour drive. “Lets go on a canoe trip instead”, Pavel suggested. He had a canoe that he had inherited from his father. “It had a few holes in it but I fixed it.” I looked at the canoe, it was filled with patched holes that were still wet. “It should be ok,” he winked at me. “but we might tip over.” he said with a menacing grin. We carried the boat down to the road and put it up on the rack of the car. The car was also rather shaky. It had a habit of backfiring every 30 seconds or so, as well as other problems, like breaking down without warning. But Pavel never worried about his car. If it breaks down, I will just call some friend nearby and they will pick me up. He seemed to have friends everywhere and they were always willing to come and give him a ride or join his band when he needed it. On the 1 hour drive to the river, Pavel kept hinting that we might turn to canoe over because it was not stable, it was very rough now, and other reasons. I guessed he was teasing me, trying to scare me. I couldnt have guessed at his real motives. We finally arrived and bought some food for later and we a box for hanka to sit on. we got in the water, things changed. Pavel was ordering me about. go this way, paddle, dont paddle , take off you hat, etc. It made me a little angry especially since I felt i needed to be on the lookout too for rocks in the front and I felt I had an important contribution to make. The water was a little low which meant that there were more rocks exposed. I had been canoeing on a river before. I was pretty competent. But I had to swallow my pride and take orders. I figured we would be done in about 3 or 4 hours. We stopped about 2 hours into the trip. I figured we were about halfway done. We werent. After swimming in my underwear, I took them off and put them on the front of the boat so they would dry and I wore only my pants without underwear.
And then it happened. We hit a rock on one side and then a second later we hit one on the other side. For a long moment, we felt the canoe totter on the brink as if delicately balanced, and then as if in slow motion, the boat went over. It became completely submerged. Pavel got tangled up in the line that was in front of the canoe and couldnt move. Hanka couldnt move well in the water. It was up to me. I went over to help Pavel get untangled as we watched many things from the boat wash downstream. her coat, her shirt, my underwear, our food. Finally we dragged the boat closer to shore and with some effort we were able to get most of the water out of the boat. We got the rest out with sponges that were tied in the boat. people floating by smiling. it was no big deal tipping over I guess, but my only pair of pants and shirt were soaked, and I had no underwear. Luckily the sun was out and the weather was warm. We were now 4 hours into the trip. My arms were getting a little tired. I dared not ask how much longer though because I didnt want them to think I wasnt having a great time. I was, even though my pants were soaked, my arms were getting tired, I was feeling a little bullied by Pavel, but I was really happy to be here. the trip went on and on until finally I heard Pavel talking about we were almost there. All in all the trip took 7 hours.
We were lucky to catch the train so that we could make another gig in the city at a winery. that was a really fun gig We were pulling people in from the street. There was a large group of Italians and another group of elegant Czechs. Although we didnt get paid much, we did get a chance to eat a bunch of fancy wine and cheese. You know the stinky stuff.
The next day my arms were like lead. They asked me if I wanted to stay at the cabin that night. I politely found a reason why I couldnt. We played another market the next day, Friday, from 1-5. I was dead tired, but Pavel wanted to play later that night from 8-930 and I couldnt refuse him.
The next day was Saturday and it was my last full day in Prague. “We have 3 gigs tomorrow, “ Pavel said, “and I hope you come to all of them.” The first one was the same farmers market from 10-230. Pavel’s regular singer, Annie, was back in town. It was fun but grueling. “Beautiful,” Pavel kept commenting. I wanted to bring my new friend Alice out to the next two gigs but there was not enough room in the car for everyone. I felt divided because I had promised her to spend the day with her. I told Pavel I wouldnt be able to go to the next 2 gigs. . He looked worried for a second and then like always with him, things worked out, Annie’s boyfriend decided he wanted to go to and he had another car. He even went with me to pick Alice up.
The next gig was up at a lake about 80 km away where Czechs went to relax on the weekends. The lake was beautiful, and surrounding area was carpeted with pine trees. The water was muddy but cool and refreshing. The management had booked bands, one after another all day. We had a one hour slot to fill. Annie was singing and here she started stretching out more and more, singing unusual challenging repetoire, sometimes singing accapella. The two of them together, Pavel and Annie, were amazing and I could see that this band could possibly get famous someday.
From the lake we hurried over to our 3rd gig, a wedding reception. it was very different from what I imagined. We entered a heavily forested area where there was an old-fashioned counterbalanced gate like they often used to have at border crossings. Inside were 3 large buildings and an outdoor area with chairs, tables, and a canopy to protect performers from the sun, (where were you when I was at the farmers market?) We met the birthday girl .She came up to me and said sadly, “I’m 50 today.” “Dont worry you look great. Peace.” Oh yeah, the theme of the party was hippy. Everyone was dressed in bell bottomed blue jeans, had flowers, and were flashing peace signs. Pavel got on the microphone. “Since its a hippy theme party, we brought a real live old hippy from San Francisco where it all started.” I could have done without the “old” part, even though it was all true. The crowd was delighted. I flashed another peace sign, and the crowd went crazy.
We played our first set under the canopy that was set up to protect people from the sun, even though we didnt really need it, since it was nighttime. At the break, it was time to attack the food tables. Cheeses, chicken, some salmon. Birthday parties and weddings were the best. As we came back to our area to eat our food, Pavel sat under the canopy and started talking. The rest of us were standing around chatting when, Pavel started talking to no one and to everyone at the same time. “We are all the same being, in different bodies. there is a basic division in the universe between spirit and matter. Matter wants to show itself and spirit wants only to be. They are basically the same thing. Therefore we are all the same, everything is the same.” As he talked his words became more and more abstract. We understood his words but they became more and more permeable so that one seemed to meld into the other. All of us were just standing around transfixed by the outpouring of ideas and energy. He seemed possessed. His eyes were rather unfocused. It was if a vortex of energy was arising with its focus on Pavel. Other people from the birthday party started to gravitate towards him. For me as I saw him sitting there at the edge of the canopy, crosslegged on the ground, he looked like a Buddha preaching under the Bodi tree. We were all under his spell, transfixed, until Alice came up and asked. “hey what was the name of that second to the last song you guys played?” I shot her a dirty look. “Shhhhh. listen.” But it was too late. The spell was broken. damn. I wish I had had that on tape. It was illuminary. Amazing. All the answers spelled out. But now they were concerned with answering Alice’s question. A few minutes later we got back on track. , “you see we are all the same being.” “yes I can understand that, Pavel but I want to experience it, not just know it with words.” He nodded wisely as if he had expected the question. He pointed, “do you see the moon over there?” “Sure” “Well my finger is pointing at the moon. My finger is not the moon. Its pointing at the moon. Words are like that. They point to things. They are not those things.” Then he smiled that goofy smile as if that explained all my questions. It seemed to, yet I didnt quite understand how it did that. “It’s beautiful, isnt it?” Alice could see it now too. “Wow, he is like an angel.” “Or a Buddha,” I added. I looked at him with great admiration as he got up from the cross-legged position. He was seemed almost like a holy man at that moment. Just then as he passed me, he slapped me on the back, really hard, sending me reeling. “It’s all beautiful Frank.” then he started dancing wildly with arms raised. His elbows were dangerously close to my face. I kept backing up, afraid that he would clip me with his elbows and knock out some teeth. He kept coming close to me. It was scary, and I felt out of control, I didnt know what to do. This went on for about 10 minutes. it was my last night in Prague. It was time to say goodbye. Hanka came over and said in a very formal way, “It was nice to meet you Frank. “ I had to laugh. We were way to close for that stock comment. “it wasnt nice to meet you Hanka. ……” She looked confused. “It was …….Amazing to meet you. “ Her face broke out in a big big smile. .Then she gave me a tight big hug. She was all feeling that one. I looked up at Pavel. I could see he wasnt much for goodbyes. Why should there be goodbyes if we were all one? He looked emotionless. I gave him a strong handshake and hug, and that was it. “Listen Pavel, Hanka, and Annie. I want you guys to get famous and have a world tour and I will join you. Ok?” “Beautiful” smirked Pavel.
We got into the car and drove away from them. And in that moment, finally I could see what he meant. He always said it over and over. “beautiful this, beautiful that”. It WAS beautiful. It was all beautiful, the good and bad, the boring, the uncomfortable, the surprises, all. All of it. I really could feel that as we drove off into the glorious beautiful night.