My mission was to learn about marionettes. I had visited a few shops before, admiring the wooden carved and painted characters: kings and queens, Don Giovannis, Pinocchios, jesters, witches, and even a few animals. In one little shop that I had discovered hiding a few courtyards back behind the majestic Tyn Church, there were unique puppets grouped by the artists that made them. I fell in love with a puppet of an old country woman dressed in black and white, with an apron around her waist and a scarf around her head. Her feet were bare with rags tied around them and on her back she carried a basket with dried grasses sticking out every which way. I wanted to learn more about their construction before rushing to buy one, so this outing's goal was to look at different kinds and ask questions.
I stopped in each of the marionette shops and expressed interest in a few models, asking about the construction. All were made by hand yet some seemed more artful than others. In one shop, a family of jovial Israelis worked and introduced themselves to me, describing each other with insults and laughter. In another, the employees were a Romanian man and a Ukranian woman. I interrupted their folk dancing when I entered. A Ukranian song was playing, and they showed me how you would dance it in a circle. One young man told me that eight of the marionette shops were owned by the same company and the puppets, although made by hand, were made in a factory. He could go select the ones he wanted to carry. I saw a few famous people puppets in those stores, including Bill Clinton, well known for a memorable night when he played saxophone in a Prague jazz club. Some of the shop people were more skilled than others in making the puppets dance for me. In one shop, a young woman showed me her expensive and unique puppets. I marveled at a row of lovely old Jewish men in coats, hats and wiry gray beards, but couldn't picture taking one home with me.
I eventually found my way back to the Old Town Square. Although I had planned to wait a while to start buying things, there was no hurry, I couldn't resist going back to see if my old woman puppet was still there in Obchod Pod Lampou, the shop under the lamp. When I came into the store, a visiting puppeteer was showing a couple how to operate a whimsical rabbit marionette. The customer, although he didn't end up buying it, proclaimed in his British accent, "I guess it really doesn't matter if it's one you really fancy."
My little lady was hanging from a hook towards the front of the store. The woman who worked there, an attractive woman in her 40s or 50s with brassy red hair pinned up in back but hanging loose around her face, recognized me since I had asked a lot of questions on my previous visit. This time she showed me some large puppets that were between 100 and 200 years old. There were different types of constructions even then in those exquisite antique figures, she explained, with a pole and without, and the number of strings used might vary depending on that puppet's moving parts. The shopkeeper was delighted that I was interested in the old woman and, as we talked, it became obvious it was close to her heart. A craftsman makes the wooden puppet parts elsewhere that she then assembles in the shop as she chooses. She designs and makes the clothing for them. She showed me her work area tucked away in a closet sized corner - a box of puppet heads, piles of cloth, a sewing machine, puppets awaiting completion hanging along the wall.
Most of her creations are standard personalities that people expect to see, but this puppet was a character from her home town. She grew up in a small town in southern Moravia, the eastern province of the Czech Republic. This old woman would have been collecting herbs for healing, someone that people in the village would come to for advice and assistance. The puppet maker was thrilled when I said that I'd buy her. She told me she had been sad because she is always sad when there's a full moon, but now she was in a good mood. We continued to talk as I paid for the puppet and watched as it was packed up. She had lived in London for a while, which explained her ability to speak English fairly well. When I told her about my teaching plans, she expressed interest in classes. We exchanged phone numbers and I promised to stop back in the shop once I was a little more settled. She asked where I was from and I told her I was from a little town in the high mountains and she said, "We have that in common. I love to walk in nature alone."
Since then we have met for lunch several times. My new friend is creative and full of positive energy. When we meet, she gets to practice her English with me. Last week she wrote down some phrases in Czech for me to take to a salon to ask for a haircut. She has enrolled in an English class, which was just as well. It's better to meet as friends.
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