A "Pater Familias" on the simple joy of the "Pater Noster"

Riegrovy Sady park

This is my first "Letter from Prague" for Radio Prague and as my father back in Boston, Massachusetts would readily tell you, I haven't written a proper letter since I was in summer camp. So, it is somehow fitting that I dedicate this audio letter to my long-suffering father, although he will once again be denied the simple tactile pleasure of opening the mailbox, finding a letter with his name on it and the special bonus of a foreign stamp and postmark. But here we go.

Dear Dad,

I've been working for Radio Prague now for nearly two months. We start every morning with an editorial meeting at 8:30, which means I start my morning at home with a big — no, make that giant — cup of coffee before running out the door.

It's Spring here, finally, and after a long Prague winter and a lot of unseasonable rain, it's actually a pleasure to make the trek from my Zizkov apartment to the Czech Radio office on the other side of the green and hilly Riegrovy Sady park. One of these days maybe I'll do a feature for the radio on the life of Dr. Frantisek Ladislav Rieger, the 19th century politician for whom the park is named.

He was a member of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Parliament and, obviously, important enough to get his own park. That much I know. Every morning as I leave the park -- his park —Dr. Rieger stares down at me, unflinchingly and stone-faced, as if to say: "you are running late for work, young man. Again."

I invariably pick up the pace: Dr. Rieger has those great big lamb-chop sideburns so characteristic of his time and still cuts an imposing figure in bronze, despite the fact that the nearly all the letters of his name have been stolen from the statue's base -- and pigeons have no sense of history.

From Dr. Rieger's gaze, it's just a short hop across the morning rush hour of busy Vinohradska Street to Czech Radio headquarters. I like that word: headquarters. Anyway, I give my employee ID card a swipe and am "beeped" through the turnstile. And then -- this is the part I love --I hop once again, literally, onto the Pater Noster.

I don't know when a child stops thinking that his father has all the answers. But although we've never discussed it, and you're not a religious man, I bet you know, Dad, what a Pater Noster is: one of the earliest types of elevator. They're a kind of dumb waiter for people -- albeit only two at a time -- and they're just great.

At least once in life, you should ride one, ignore the warning signs to exit as you approach the ground floor or the top of the building and disappear into the pitch blackness. Then try to act nonchalant as you resurface, blocking the entry of more conservative commuters.

Pater noster elevator
I think foreigners can get away with this more easily than Czechs.

In any case, Pater Noster is Latin for "Our Father", the start of the Lord's Prayer, which I once had to memorise, and can still recite, though I'll spare you that. It was given that nickname by coal miners because the elevator's never-ending circuit reminded them of rosary beads, passing through someone's hands as they say the prayer.

No doubt it was something of a comfort to coal miners in the last century to imagine themselves in God's hands, as it were, for theirs was a perilous lot, and still is. For me though, it's just fun to time my entry, hop on, and then hop off again.

By the way, unlike Americans, if you happen to be sharing an elevator, Czechs don't stare off into space and pretend you don't exist. It's rude not to enter an elevator -- and for sure a Pater Noster -- without a "Dobry Den" -- good day -- and to say farewell -- "Na Shledanou" when you exit, or in my case hop off.

Sadly, the days of the Pater Noster -- once so prevalent in Europe and now mostly found only in aging state institutions, like universities or, well, public radio -- are numbered. The European Union, which the Czechs joined in May, has decided that, prayers aside, the "Our Fathers" are unsafe. Czech Radio will only be allowed to keep its Pater Noster if it also installs proper elevators, ones with doors and emergency exits, that stop at each floor, and which a person in a wheelchair or father with a baby stroller, can access.

I'm all for it -- I'm a father now myself, as you well know Dad. I just hope that your beloved grandson Oskar, whose mother won't dare let him near the Pater Noster -- no 'vay'! she says in her Czech-accented English -- will have the chance to hop on one day with his Pater Familias, his own Dad. We'll ignore the warnings, ride all the way to the bottom, and not tell mom.

Well, that's my Letter from Prague. I promise I'll write again soon, Dad. Or at least send an e-mail.