One of the things that is floating around the Internet is a way to find your NPR name. Why should Kai Ryssdal and Mara Liasson have all the fun of having odd-sounding names? Anyway, the way you get your NPR name is you take your first name and insert your middle initial anywhere it sounds good. Then your last name is the name of the smallest foreign city you have ever visited. I'm a little bit in love with my NPR name. It's pretty good. Ready? It's Alexnis Kutna Hora. I know, right? And you thought Mrike Montreal was exotic.
Kutna Hora comes with its very own story. So, sit down, make yourself comfortable and prepare to hear about The Day of Death, starring Alexnis and her good friend Byn (not his real name, but it's close).
Byn and I met at the small liberal arts school many, many years ago, but we didn't become good friends until I moved to Portland. He had just moved there from California, having spent the years shortly after graduation nursing his parents who died, one after the other, of cancer.
Byn and I bonded over cards. He was hyper-competitive. I was raised to win at cards, and I can respect a good competitor. He used to have parties at his house for the "Quiets", during which he'd invite two other introverts and me over for cards and he'd watch us interact. We were Byn's own personal social science experiment. He also counseled me after my break-up, and he talked me through a year of hating my job.
He had a wisdom I couldn't match, because I hadn't experienced as much life as he had, but I like to think that I'm a good observer, so I nudged him when I thought there was something he had been too busy talking to notice. He encouraged me to write. I encouraged him to pursue his dream of becoming the next Ira Glass. In short, we were good buddies and we were good for each other at the time.
And so, when he set off to spend his inheritance in a way he wished his parents had spent it when they were alive by traveling around the world, I knew that I'd miss one of my best friends in all of Portland. Weeks later, after I'd finally quit the hated job, he invited me to join him on his travels, and it didn't take much arm-twisting to get me to pack up a backpack, send the cat off to board with some friends, and join him for two months in Prague.
And now, finally, here we are at the story. We were in Prague. We'd found a wonderful hostel there called Sir Toby's run by a young German guy, but we'd gotten a little too comfortable around the streets of Prague and the kitchen of Sir Toby's, and we were looking for an adventure for the day. Byn had, thus far, acted as tour guide, because he was the one with the guide book, but the weather outside was February, which means I was irritable, and finally, he handed the book off to me.
"You decide," he said. "Pick something for us to do. Let's take a train, and get out of the city, but you pick where we go."
He'd been focusing on bath towns. I didn't much feel like being naked in a room full of Eastern Europeans, so I turned the page and found a grisly description of Kutna Hora. It fit my February mood exactly. In Kutna Hora, there was a bit of consecrated ground where people liked to travel to be buried. No problem. The death rate was pretty steady, so burying some non-locals in the town wasn't a very big deal, until the Plague came thundering through Europe. Suddenly that bit of consecrated ground in poor little Kutna Hora was overflowing with bodies. What do you do with stacks and stacks of extra dead people? Well, if you're some priest in Kutna Hora, apparently you make art out of them.
He made a coat of arms out of every bone in the human body. He made a chandelier of bones. He built a bone throne. I can't remember what else he made, but he was a very industrious priest, and he had a lot of raw materials, and so his little ossuary has become quite the creepy tourist attraction. Who wouldn't want to take a train to go see it on a grim February day? How much better was a bone throne than sitting in a steam room with sweaty Europeans?
Byn seemed to regret slightly his decision to hand over decision making authority to me, but he yielded to my wishes, and we figured out the train to Kutna Hora. We were off.
I reread the brief guide-book blurb about the town while we sat on the train. "Hey, Byn-Baby," I said. "Did you know that there is also a giant Marlboro factory in town?"
"There's also a cathedral," he said.
I scoffed. Really. How many cathedrals can one person see? And why would you see a cathedral when there were coats of arms made of bones? We were most certainly not traveling all the way to Kutna Hora just to see another boring cathedral.
...To be continued...