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Audrey Culpepper: A Really Long Walk

Audrey Culpepper is an expert
on Russian literature. Originally, she was supposed to study Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Soviet conceptions of the Other in Russia, but given the current geopolitical situation in Central and Eastern Europe, she is conducting her research project at the Slavonic Library  in Prague. In her research, Audrey focuses on the intersections of literature, visual art and science. She comes from the University of Tennessee, but her current host institution is located in Klementinum - the complex of the National Library, a medieval Jesuit college located in the heart of Prague. The Slavonic Library is one of the most important Slavistic research institutions in Europe. Established in 1924 as a Russian Library by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs to support Russian emigres, some of the gems that a visitor can study today include the correspondence of Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Fryodor Dostoevsky. During the fall, Audrey took a special walk "from the northern border of the city to the southern border, along the Vltava, crossing each bridge that spanned it." Audrey shared that walking keeps her grounded: "...when walking, our bodies move at the pace of our thoughts. I feel that much of my anxiety arises from when my mind is too disconnected from my physical reality. You can imagine that studying literature all day is a breeding ground for dissociation. This is why walking, whether as a commemorative journey or a lunch break breather, is so fundamental to my scholarship and my life."

It was a cloudy November day when I walked to Strelecky Ostrov. I was sitting on the worn stone steps that lead down to the Vltava, and sitting there, feeling anxious and frustrated, I had an epiphany. I needed to take a really long walk. 

I’d been in Czechia five weeks at that point, and I felt, watching the coots and ducks and gulls drifting on the water, I needed to tie myself to Prague. Looking at the fallen leaves on the river banks, and the balding crowns of these trees of unknown species, I decided to walk from the northern border of Prague to its southern border, along the Vltava, crossing each bridge that spanned it, a route of some 20 miles that needed no navigation. I decided to do this on the 17th of November.

Czechia celebrates the 17th of November as Den boje za svobodu a demokracii, translated as Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day. This is a public holiday that commemorates the Czech student demonstrations against the Nazi occupation in 1939 and the events that started the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

It’s uncomfortable when we realize that we ourselves are living in the historical moment. Whether we know or accept it, we are always constituents of history, yet there are certain times, like this one, that cast us and our actions in a harsh light. I felt there was something potent swirling in this day of remembrance, Ukraine’s ongoing fight against Russian aggression, and my own individual life.

These thoughts rattled in my head as I took trams, walked cobblestone sidewalks to and from the Slavonic Library in the Klementinum, read in Russian, translated into English, etc. etc.

The days passed to the night of the 16th, and I packed my backpack. I went out to the Vecerka (night shop) and got a child’s idea of provisions for tomorrow’s trip: a wheel of Camembert, bananas, and apples.

Photo: Bohnice tram stop, Prague, November 17.

At 5:44 (my photos give accurate time-stamps), I walked to the Ujezd stop outside my apartment building, and got on the 9 tram to Lazarska, the 1 to Střelničná, and then the 102 to the end of its line. Standing there in the morning dark waiting for the bus, I noticed familiar leaves on the ground and look up to see the first gingko tree (my favorite) that I’ve seen in Prague; I took it as a good omen.

I’d timed everything to start before sunrise, and getting off at the stop, a wave of inexplicable giddiness flowed through me. I started heading in the direction of the river, and found myself on a high outlook. The first challenge of the day: how to get from up here to down there. I calculated (quickly, stupidly) the best thing to do was take a straight line down to the river.

Photo: View at Vltava river, early morning, November 17. 

It had rained the previous night, and in fact, was raining. Hence, mud. Squelching and slipping through the woods, I found myself in a steep ravine. I’ve done a good bit of hiking in my life, so I wasn’t too worried. But, clinging to saplings as I crashed down the slick rocky path, a stream of water coursing beside me, I saw myself from an outside perspective. I was wearing office slacks and leather oxfords (I only have one pair of shoes). I could even be trespassing. I proceeded to fall twice and stab my leg on a (thankfully blunt) branch. My phone had no service, and if I broke my leg out here, no one would know. The day was off to a strong start.

But through the trees, I saw the river, and managed to stumble out into someone’s backyard. I took a quick peek at the scattered children’s toys and the stacked cord of firewood, and rushed down to the road. It was just around 7 and I was soggy with sweat and the morning condensation. It was cold. I snapped a picture of the Vltava, quiet and almost still at this part, and kept going. Somewhat strangely, the one member of the ubiquitous Wolt riders whizzed by me into the countryside, the now familiar blocky blue backpack bouncing behind him. A stink enters my nostrils, and I remember the Camembert in my backpack.

Photo: Vltava river, November 17.

I can’t describe everything in such great detail. I’ve included this because it’s a fairly good metaphor for how I approach life and how that’s lead me here, to a Fulbright in Czechia. As a scholar of Russian Literature, I’m used to being adrift in the currents of history, consciousness, and human creativity. Regardless of how idiotic it might look at the time, it’s often better to fix your eyes on a question or goal and stumble towards it along unestablished paths.

As I walked, my doubts and worries, both about the reasons why I was here and about the world we all find ourselves in, took shape and confronted me. I struggle, like anyone, with justifying the worth and meaning of my actions. Candidly, I feel this is especially true for scholars of the humanities. I wrestle with the question: why does this matter? That question weighs heavier when coupled with the alienation and culture shock of being abroad. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to it.

Which is why I’ve found such meaning in what I’ve come to call “attending.” Paying deep attention to the minutiae and the sub-second perceptions of every day life. This is what I intended to do on this walk. I believe that, when walking, our bodies move at the pace of our thoughts. I feel that much of my anxiety arises from when my mind is too disconnected from my physical reality. You can imagine that studying literature all day is a breeding ground for dissociation. This is why walking, whether as a commemorative journey or a lunch break breather, is so fundamental to my scholarship and my life.

Photo: Podhori ferry stop, November 17, Prague - Troja.

The memories and the sensation of my eyes bobbing with each step come back to me as I write this. A tabby cat appeared here at the Podhori ferry stop. It yowled at me and returned to the brush along the river. I walked past the Prague Zoo, which I couldn’t see, but could hear (and smell)--the incongruous trumpets of elephants, the bleating of goats, and chattering of monkeys.

I continued to wind my way. I loved that this route was simple. Even though I was moving through unknown places, navigating by the river allowed me to be free from maps. The lack of schedule freed me from time, which is a perfect space to think, observe, and feel.
As it was a holiday, I got to see many people at leisure. Walking in the industrial areas of Holesovice, I saw people fishing under bridges and in boats on the water. I find it kind of funny that this was the first time I felt something resembling being at home. Czech people also wear camo. It’s funny how such small things can trigger fond recognition. I live in Mala Strana, and until now, hadn’t really explored anywhere other than Old Town, New Town, Zizkov, and Karlin.

Photo: Vltava river, November 17, Prague - Troja. 

Seeing broken down buildings, much like seeing Czech folks in camo anoraks, reminded me of my hometown in America. Maybe that’s a very American thing: to see trash and abandonment and feel comforted. For me though, it felt like I was finally getting away from the sculpted reality I had been living in. It’s easy to forget the workers and laborers who make Prague run when someone, like me, only stays in the city’s rich and beautiful center. When you walk along a city’s perimeters, its peripheral spaces, the city reveals itself to be a living body with a living history.

Photo: An abandoned building in Prague - Troja, November 17. 

Photo: A bridge across Vltava, November 17, Prague.

Photo: A steam boat parked in the center of Prague, November 17. 
I continued my way down, and when I saw St. Vitus’ south tower, I felt a thrill, knowing that I was edging closer and closer to where I live. To be quite honest, at this point, I was cold, sweaty, and shivering. This story doesn’t end in victorious achievement. Static filled my vision, and when I started shivering uncontrollably on the sidewalks, attracting the concerned looks of office workers, I decided to end my walk at my apartment, marking just 14 miles of my intended 20.

Getting inside, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. I also realized that I had hypothermia. Office slacks and a windbreaker really weren’t a wise idea. For the next three hours, I huddled in every blanket and towel I owned, until I finally warmed up again. In my delirium, I ran the images of the past 7 hours through my mind.
Photo: Back downtown, Prague Castle in the background, November 17, Prague

I still can’t say coherently what I meant to do by walking Prague and crossing its bridges, the bridges that keep both sides of the city connected and in conversation with each other. There’s still something in that germinating thought that I need to investigate. But I can say what it did for me in my little life, at that moment. It gave me the scope, foundation and ease to start calling this place home and to hold grace and appreciation for my time here. It’s a transient home, but every time I walk out of my apartment, now, I carry a map in my head of all the paths I’ve taken, the ones I want to retread, and the ones I want to walk for the first time.

Photo: Mala Strana, November 17, Prague.

My mind drifts south of Vysehrad, now, and to the southern marker of Prague’s border that I haven’t reached yet. I think tomorrow I’ll walk the six miles down and make that the day’s study.

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