Our old apartment, which was built about 20-years-ago had a real fireplace, as did our old, old apartment in Prague (which was built 400-years-ago), in the Czech Republic.
I really miss the real fireplace. There is just so much life missing from the gas fireplace. And by life, I mean that thing that makes a warm home and hearth. Sure our gas fireplace provides warmth and light like a real fireplace does. But it does it at the flick of switch. There is no work, no preparation, and no clean up required.
More importantly there is also none of the magic that warms not only your body but also your heart. A real fire lives and dies. It dances on the wood, making it crackle, pop, fizz and explode. It burns and smokes, and thus also smells of that bitter sweat tart ash that only once living plants can create, as they turn from life to ash.
And that ash fills your nostrils with a gentle reminder of life, as you sweep it up the next day. It reminds you of the fire, the warmth and the happiness that just the night before danced before your eyes.
On the other hand, a gas fireplace just flicks out of existence with the click of an electric switch. It leaves behind very little…perhaps only a fleeting memory of itself and some residual warmth.
Unfortunately all too often, especially in American, life can become like a gas fireplace. It has all the convenience, but none of the crackle, pop and fizz that makes a real fire so much better.
This may seem strange, but the gas fireplace is the reason why I swim, bike and run.
Let me explain. In the early nineties my wife and moved to Prague in the Czech Republic. She was offered a temporary transfer with her company to help build the business in Eastern Europe.
I was born in Prague, but I grew up in Chicago, so I thought it would be a great chance for both of us to learn about my Czech heritage, and travel Europe a bit.
The Czech Republic had just gone from being communist, under the control of the Soviets, to capitalist. This political process was called the Velvet Revolution, as you may recall, since not a single shot was fired.
Anyway, when we moved to Prague, it was like taking huge 40-year step back in time. The communist had not improved much during their rule. The country and city were falling apart from years of neglect. There were no big box retail stores, let alone well-stocked grocery stores. Since the country had been communist for so long, all the retail stores were empty. Sure you could buy a jar of pickles, and some bread, and a slice of questionable ham, and a bottle of warm beer, but that was about it.
Under the communist the restaurants were strictly controlled. This meant that they had to have an approved menu and each item on that menu had to be severed in exact portions as approved by the government. This also meant that all the restaurants severed the same poorly made fatty Czech food in the same crappy portions.
Italian restaurant were considered exotic, and don’t even think about Chinese or Mexican food. For instance, when you ordered a coke, which initially they did not have, you got this local brew called Africola (and don’t even go there) to an exact line on your glass…not a deciliter more or less.
Just preparing a healthy meal became a week long quest. Finding a new restaurant that severed something other than fatty pork, dumplings and sauerkraut was like finding a diamond on the street. For the first few months in Prague, the healthiest meal I regularly ate was a burger and fries from Macdonald’s.
The only “health” club was halfway around town on the top floor of the Forum Hotel. This was one of the best communist hotel in the city. This “health” club tended to cater to the fat old Czech communist party members and the Russian Mafia types, so thick gold chains around the neck were required. Their dress code include Adidas shower shoes, fluffy bathrobes to cover big fluffy and hairy bellies. And their workouts consisted of a rousing jump in the pool, followed by a dash into the Sauna, followed by a cigarette and whisky.
So it was not uncommon for me to run on the treadmill and use the few old weight machines they had while second hand smoking a pack or two of the local tabak.
But here’s an interesting thing I learned those first few months in 1991 in Prague. After a day of working, hunting down something reasonably healthy to eat, and perhaps getting just 1 of the 1000 to do things done on my list, I felt completely alive and satisfied.
Everything was difficult and a challenging, from finding something basic like a light bulb to something more exotic like a chicken breast that didn’t come with the rest of the chicken. I had a friend who would drive to Germany once a month just to buy diet coke. Go Figure! But the fact that everything was challenging, also made the small victories that much more sweet.
In America we can get whatever we want, at whatever time we want, at the lowest possible cost in terms of money and effort. We can go through the day and at the drop of a hat and get anything we need or could want for a normal life. There is no more hunting and gathering. Just drive up and order.
And just like a gas fireplace, this type of day is a reasonable copy of the real thing…but it is not. It is missing the crackle, pop, and fizz of the fire. It comes without effort. And it’s missing the challenge and thus the reward. Its missing the dancing fire, the magic, and the ashes of life, as we all slowly burn you up.
And that is why I swim, bike and run.