Prague’s National Technical Museum Diary

I visited Prague’s National Technical Museum for the first time in 2023, even though I have been living in Prague for more than 25 years. I am not a big technology fan and didn’t think I would be very interested in the exhibits.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The museum includes sections on astronomy; chemistry; sugar and chocolate; transportation; printing; household items; photography; the measurement of time; architecture, civil engineering and design; metallurgy and mining, for instance.  A TV studio used by Czech television from 1997 to 2011 allows visitors to sit behind a news desk and see how the TV technology works. A mock mine from the 1950s makes up another exposition. In this post I will concentrate on my two favorite parts – transportation and architecture, civil engineering and design.

Television studio in National Technical Museum

The history of the museum itself is intriguing. Vojtěch Náprstek, a Czech patriot and world-traveler, established the Czech Industrial Museum in 1862. While many exhibits from this museum are now in the Náprstek Museum, some pieces in the collection found their way to the National Technical Museum, which was founded in 1908. Two years later, the museum opened in Prague’s Schwarzenberg Palace near the Castle. After Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, it moved to the Letná district of Prague, where it is situated today. Construction took place from 1938 to 1941, but, during the Nazi Occupation, the building was used as the ministry of the postal service. After World War II, the museum was located on Letná again, though it was not allocated the entire building. In 1951, new expositions were created, such as transportation, mining, astronomy and photography.

Wicker seat for passengers from Czechoslovak Aria BH-25 airliner, 1920

After the Velvet Revolution that had brought democracy to Czechoslovakia, the museum was able to utilize the entire building. However, there were difficult times ahead. During the 2002 floods, the museum’s depository in the Karlín district was heavily damaged, and some of the artifacts were ruined. Reconstruction started in 2003. In 2011, five expositions were opened. Still, construction wasn’t totally finished until 2013.

Masaryk’s presidential car

Zigmund and Hazelka’s car in which they traveled throughout Africa and South America

The main hall housing the transportation section is vast and overwhelming. Automobiles, a train dining car, planes, a boat, motorcycles and bicycles all make up the breathtaking exhibition. I liked the Tatra 80 car from 1935, the automobile of the first president of democratic Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, because I was interested in the First Republic era from 1918 to 1938. I also was excited to see the Tatra 87 car of world travelers Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zigmund. They traveled around Africa and South America in that car from 1947 to 1950 and did more than 700 reports for radio broadcasts about their trips. The two had been the dynamic duo of travel: They visited more than 100 countries. They also made films, mostly documentaries, and wrote books together.

The dining car of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I and later of President Masaryk

I was enamored by the dining car of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I, which in 1923 became part of Masaryk’s presidential train. When President Edvard Beneš returned to his homeland from exile after the war in 1945, this dining car was part of his train. The dining car was put out of commission in 1959.

A sailing boat called Nike was on display, too. Czech Richard Kankolski had sailed around the world in it during 1972, and, at that time, it earned the distinction of being the second smallest boat to sail around the world.

British Spitfire

Three planes that saw action in World War I also are displayed, including an American one. Dating from 1911, the plane manned by the first Czech pilot Jan Kašpar is part of the exhibition. I was drawn to the British Spitfire that members of a Czechoslovak squadron of the RAF had flown during World War II.

Germans drove this kind of motorcycle when they occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.

I was very interested in the various bicycles and motorcycles, too, even though I vow never to ride either of them. A bamboo-made Slavia bike hails from 1905. The BMW R11 from 1932 caught my undivided attention because the Germans had driven these motorcycles when they occupied Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. I tried to imagine seeing so many of these motorcycles at Prague Castle with the flag of the Third Reich fluttering from the flagpole. The very thought was chilling.

Milan Špinka’s bike

The first series-manufactured motorcycle in the world

I also saw the Jawa 500 – 891 from 1973. While the Soviet Union had excelled on ice speedway competitions, this is the motorcycle on which Czech Milan Špinka defeated the USSR in the world championships of 1974. Another motorcycle that interested me was the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller from 1894. It was the first series-manufactured motorcycle in the world. The one on display is the first motorcycle manufactured for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Indian brand, 1915, manufactured in America

Czechoslovak observation balloon, 1934

The architectural part of the museum covers the developments in the Czech lands from the second half of the 19th century to the present. Styles of historicism, secession, cubism, constructivism, functionalism and socialist realism as well as modern works are all represented. I loved the architectural models, especially those of villas in Prague, the Czech Pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels and the Czechoslovak exhibition pavilion at the World Arts and Technology Exhibition in Paris during 1936. I loved to take walks through the villa-dotted sections of Prague’s Baba, Ořechovka and Hanspaulka quarters. In this museum, I saw models of famous villas in the Hodkovičky, Podolí and Troja districts of Prague, for instance.

Czechoslovak World Arts and Technology pavilion, Paris, 1936

Director Martin Frič’s villa in Hodkovičky, 1934-35

Top: Stýblo’s villa in Podolí quarter of Prague, 1935-36, Bottom: Villa of film director Věra Chytilová in Troja quarter of Prague, 1970-75

I liked the model of the column with lantern in front of Our Lady of the Snows Church in Prague because it was unique, Cubist in style. I also took notice of the Cubist Petrof BB upright piano. The model of the television transmitter and hotel on Ještěd Hill in Liberec brought back memories of the magnificent views from the observation point at the restaurant and hotel. Some models showed off designs by masterful Czech architect Jan Kotěra, including the East Bohemia Museum in Hradec Králové, which had extremely impressed me about a month previously, and the reconstruction of Saint George’s Church in Doubravka near Pilsen in west Bohemia. The museum in Hradec Králové was constructed from 1906 to 1913 while the church hails from 1899. Architectural plans and photography rounded out the exposition.

Ještěd Hill Hotel and Restaurant

Cubist column in front of church – top photo, Cubist piano – bottom photo

I was glad I had finally visited this museum that offers valuable insights into the technical world. The main hall with various exhibits of transportation was amazing, and my interest in architecture compelled me to take a close look at the exhibits in that section. Overall, it was a day well spent.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

Museum of East Bohemia designed by Jan Kotěra

St. George’s Church designed by Jan Kotěra

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Sucharda’s Second Villa Diary

The second Sucharda Villa

I had waited months for the tour of Stanislav Sucharda’s second villa. The first time I had had to cancel due to illness. I had seen the exterior of the Sucharda Villa on Slavíčkova Street for the first time on a tour of Bubeneč in Prague’s sixth district. Constructed for sculptor, designer and medallist Stanislav Sucharda from 1904 to 1907 by architect Jan Kotěra, the villa is shaped like a cube and features a mansard roof, polygonal bay windows and half-timbered gables. To say I was impressed is an understatement.

The studio of the Sucharda Villa, now a separate building

A large studio building, influenced by Cubism, stood next to what was Sucharda’s second villa. A knight figure is featured on its steep roof. This had once been Sucharda’s atelier but now was owned by the government for administrative purposes. Sucharda had needed a large studio after he won the competition for the colossal monument to František Palacký, the founder of Czech historiography as well as a prominent politician. Palacký’s nickname was the Father of the Nation.

Jan Kotěra – Photo from Kralovehradecký architektonický manual

Kotěra received accolades not only as an architect but also as a theoretician of architecture, a furniture designer and a painter. He designed all the interior furnishings for this villa. I was familiar with Kotěra’s National Building in Prostějov, Moravia. The two-winged, L-shaped building in Prostějov was clearly divided into sections for a hall, restaurant and cafes. Kotěra had also designed half of the complex for the Law Faculty of what is now Charles University, which I had often passed on foot or on the tram.

Decoration on Sucharda’s first villa

As I have already pointed out, this was Sucharda’s second villa in Bubeneč. The first one is also on Slavíčkova Street. It is a neo-Renaissance structure that he and his family had inhabited for 10 years. An exquisite painting of the bishop Božetěch is featured on the exterior of this villa. Stanislav sold this building to his brother Vojtěch, who had made a name for himself as an artist, too.

Mašek’s Villa on Slavíčková Street

Indeed, Slavíčkova Street is dotted with villas built for artists, including architect Jan Koula and painter Karel Vítězslav Mašek. The prominent villas on this street were built from 1895 to 1907. On Mašek’s villa there is floral decoration with a painting of the Virgin Mary with Child. Both the Koula and Mašek villas feature motifs of white pigeons. The painting on one side of Koula’s villa is outstanding.

Koula’s Villa on Slavíčkova Street

Back to Stanislav Sucharda: Family members have taken up artistic professions for at least 250 years. Stanislav was brought up in Nová Paka, where his father, Antonín Sucharda, had created and restored sculptures. The five children helped out in their father’s workshop and would continue to pursue artistic careers.

Stanislav Sucharda

Stanislav attended the School of Decorative Arts in Prague, where he studied under the greatest Czech sculptor of the 19th and 20th century, Josef Václav Myslbek. Every Praguer knows Myslbek’s equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas at the top of Wenceslas Square. I vividly remember the statue being decorated with votive candles and pictures of Václav Havel shortly after the former president and former dissident died in 2011. The sight had made an unforgettable impression of me and filled me with an immense feeling of loss. Many demonstrations have taken place around the statue, too, even under Communism.  

Bust of František Palacký from Maleč Chateau, where Palacky had resided.

Myslbek had been very influenced by the Czech National Revival that promoted Czech culture and the Czech language. I was familiar with Myslbek’s sculptural portrait of František Palacký, who had supported the Czech National Revival, on Palacký’s former home in the street named after him.

Postcard of Sucharda’s Prague and Vltava (1902) printed by Museum of Stanislav Sucharda

It is not surprising that Sucharda’s early creations were greatly influenced by Myslbek’s realism. Sucharda became known for his creations of Czech historical figures and the Slavonic themes in his work, which are two of the reasons his works appeal to me. I love Czech history and studied it in graduate school. After a Prague exhibition of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture in 1902, however, Sucharda’s style became more vibrant and underwent some changes.

Postcard of Sucharda’s Liliana (1909), printed by Museum of Stanislav Sucharda

Sucharda is best known for his sculptural grouping of the monument to Palacký on Palacký Square in Prague’s second district. Many years ago, Palacký’s statue had greeted me every time I took the Metro at the square or rode by on a tram. I had become very interested in Palacký’s work during graduate studies in Czech history, and I found that having a monument dedicated to him near my apartment was refreshing and soothing. The bronze statues of the monument brought to mind the revitalization of Czech history and culture during the Czech National Revival.

Palacký monument on Palacký Square in Prague

The monument also made me think of the Czech nation finally gaining independence after World War I with the creation of Czechoslovakia, even though Palacký had not been alive to see that. I thought of the Czech nation breaking free from the Germanization of the Austro-Hungarian Empire whenever I passed by that sculptural grouping.

A cast of Palacký’s hand by Myslbek

In the same district as his villa, Sucharda had created a monument to composer Karel Bendl. He also built monuments to Czech historical figures Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius in English) and martyr Jan Hus, for instance. Other designs include sculpture for the study of the mayor of Prague from 1907 to 1909.

Sucharda also authored many reliefs, medals and plaques, and his medal designs were highly praised. His medal works even received international recognition. Stanislav became professor of the first Department of Medal Design of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague after spending two decades as a professor at the School of Decorative Arts. He had also served for seven years as the chairperson of the Mánes Union of Fine Arts, which organized many influential exhibitions in Prague and was an important promoter of modern art.

Sokol membership card from 1912. Photo from aukro.cz

For Sucharda there was more to life than artistry. He was an avid member of the legendary Sokol physical education organization, even working as an instructor there. His entire family was involved with this prominent Czech organization.

Then fate intervened. Stanislav served in the military during World War I and did battle on the eastern front. Wounded in the war, he died after returning to the Czech lands in 1916, a year after being chosen to head the medal design department of the Academy of Fine Arts. I thought it was such a shame that he did not get to see the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk at the helm.

Sucharda’s Second Villa as seen from the garden

The tour of the two-story villa was very impressive as Sucharda’s granddaughter told the group about her father’s work, the pieces of art in the building and the history of the villa. A professional guide was insightful, too. The interior consisted of an English style hall with stained glass decoration on high windows and sculptures, reliefs and paintings. The British architecture of the hall reminded me a bit of Staircase Hall in the Moravian villa of Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič, who had been inspired by the English Arts and Crafts movement.

Jurkovič’s Villa in Moravia

We saw works by Edvard Munch and Rodin as well as many Czech creations. Small statues and other artworks decorated the top of an elegant decorative fireplace. Behind plush red seating shaped in a semi-circle was a beautiful stained glass window. I especially liked a large relief by Sucharda in the entrance hall and a life-size statue.

In the narrow hallway there was a fountain with sculptural decoration that employed religious motifs. We also saw the dining room with its paintings, statues, busts and ceramics. Works by Stanislav’s daughter were very impressive. The woodcarving of Kotěra furnishings was masterful. A small conservatory was adjoined to the dining room. Intriguing artifacts decorated the piano, and outstanding paintings decorated the walls. I especially liked a rendition of the Roman Forum by Cyril Bouda. It brought to mind my passion for Italy and the time I had showed my parents the Roman Forum

The garden had an intimate feel. I could imagine sitting there, reading a good book and relaxing on a sunny day.

The Muller Villa in Prague

Visiting villas in Prague was one of my favorite pastimes. I recalled touring the František Bílek Villa, the Muller Villa, the Winternitz Villa and the Rothmayer Villa in the capital city. I had also toured several intriguing villas in Brno and the Bauer Villa in central Bohemia. I would definitely recommend touring these villas. I was glad I was able to get to know Stanislav Sucharda better via his villa and the art within it. I developed a much stronger appreciation of Sucharda’s contribution to modern art. The tour was even more impressive than I had imagined it would be.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague. 

German Historical Museum Diary

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Signs from the demonstrations of 1989

This museum was the highlight of my time in Berlin, and I visited it twice because I was so impressed with the more than 7,000 objects representing 2,000 years of trials, tribulations, joyous occasions and everyday life in German history from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The museum not only enthralled me with its portrayal of significant events but also with its depiction of everyday life during the various epochs. The upper floor, where I spent the better part of an entire day, tells a narrative ranging in time from 500 AD all the way to the Germany’s defeat in World War I. The ground floor focuses on topics from the Weimar Republic to the departure of the Allies in 1994. The section on World War II is particularly fascinating. We see Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 through the historical narrative of World War II horrors.

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A plague mask from the 17th century

Perhaps the item that intrigued me the most was a mask with a long beak that doctors had donned when tending to patients with the plague. It reminded me of a commedia dell’arte mask. Doctors wore leather gowns with these masks. Herbs or sponges were soaked with vinegar and placed into the beak in order to filter air. This mask was made of velvet, green glass and leather.

An artwork that I found thought-provoking depicted 19th century German emigrants huddled in a boat, trying to escape the awful conditions of their homeland, trying to build a better life for themselves, on their way to another country. Their sorrow of leaving so much behind and their uncertainty of what awaited them were revealed so well in the 1860 painting by Antonie Volkmar, “The Emigrants’ Farewell.” The sad yet brave people who were risking their lives for a better future moved me.

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I wondered how my ancestors had felt leaving Slovakia and Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire for America in the late 19th century. Did they miss their homeland? When they crossed the ocean, did their faces reveal sorrow and uncertainty, too? Had they had second thoughts during their long, arduous journey, or had the hope in their hearts given them strength to weather any storm, to overcome all the inevitable difficulties?

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I also saw photos of concentration camp prisoners that almost made me burst into tears. The photos reminded me of my trip to Auschwitz some years earlier. That visit remains forever etched in my memory. Sculptures of emaciated concentration camp prisoners vividly portrayed their suffering and desperation.

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The front page of one newspaper caught my attention. On it a big, bold headline announced, “Hitler Dead.” I could imagine the relief that so many people had felt after perusing those two words.

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A photograph of a corpse-ridden street in Dresden, shortly after the Allies’ bombing in 1945, made me shiver. I saw the horrors of war vividly in John Hearside Clark’s painting depicting the morning after the Battle of Waterloo, with so many dead and injured lying on the ground. I found the portrayal of the aftermath of the battle in which Napoleon was defeated to be chilling.

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Viewing parts of the Berlin Wall, marked with graffiti, triggered memories of my first visit to Berlin in 1991, when I saw parts of the wall still standing. At that time, I had found it fascinating to see how a city could be divided in this way, how two different worlds had evolved from the construction of that wall, one representing freedom, the other oppression. My perspective changed when I went to see the Wall Memorial featuring a standing segment of the Wall during my 2018 visit. Then, seeing the Wall then made my stomach churn and made me want to throw up. I had met too many Czechs and Slovaks who had lived under the Communist regime – which had asserted its own mental walls – to see the Wall as anything but horrific. I was no longer fascinated by the disgusting structure. Living more than 20 years in Central Europe had changed my perspective.

I also took notice of an 18th century ornate Swabian glass bridal crown donned at rustic weddings. I saw a remarkable tapestry of a festive procession of explorers returning from one of the first expeditions to India in 1504. Shields from the 13th century were also on display. A triptych from the 16th century included a panel with the coats-of-arms of the territories governed by Charles V while a likeness of this ruler dominated the central part of the artwork. I also saw handkerchiefs decorated with pictures of current events from the 19th century. I viewed tapestries promoting Nazi Germany plus many posters from that era.

For me my two visits to this museum gave me unforgettable lessons in German history. I learned that when Napoleon beat Prussia in 1806, he took the Quadridge from the Brandenburg Gate with him to Paris. Luckily, it was returned eight years later. I learned that in the 18th century, two-thirds of the population of Germany lived in the countryside as opposed to cities. I learned that the abdication of Emperor Franz II in 1806 had triggered a trend of nationalism in Germany.

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I learned about the industrialization and economic crash of 1873. I learned how the Social Democratic Movement had grown in the 19th century. I learned that the Marxist SPD Social Democratic Party of Germany had the largest membership before World War I started. I learned that 700,000 Germans died of malnutrition and related illnesses in World War I and that, in the summer of 1918, two million US soldiers fought on western front against the Germans.

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After each visit, I took my time in the atmospheric, bustling museum café and enjoyed an omelet. Then, when I walked out into the sunshine, I realized that the history in which I had been immersed was not only contained on two floors of the museum. It was everywhere, on every street corner, in each building, on the prominent Unter den Linden and down less noticeable side streets. Lessons from German history had allowed Berlin to grow into the vibrant city it was in the present, into a magical place dominated by the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate but also by the many cafes, busy streets, parks and museums. Most of all, these lessons of history reverberate in the city’s spirit and soul.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Teatro di San Carlo Diary

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While in Naples, I toured the Teatro di San Carlo, where I could actually feel the history of the majestic structure. I was enchanted with the main hall, boxes, Royal box and two foyers. Even the façade was astounding. I particularly liked the statue of Apollo riding his chariot and the Ionic loggia.

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I found the history of the place fascinating. Built in 1737, when King Charles VII of Bourbon was on the throne, the Teatro di San Carlo is 41 years older than the La Scala Theatre in Milan and 55 years older than the La Fenice Theatre in Venice. The architect of this building where opera and ballet are performed was Giovanni Antonio Medrano, who had served in the army of King Charles VII. He went on to design the Museo di Capodimonte, which housed the king’s palace and a museum. Later he was imprisoned for tax fraud of the Museo di Capodimonte.

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Opening night at the Teatro di San Carlo took place November 4, 1737, on the king’s name day, when Achilles in Sciro was staged. Interestingly, a woman played the part of Achilles. That was only the beginning of the glorious history of Naples as a cultural center and opera powerhouse. I wondered how many stories had been played out on the stage, how many spectators had viewed performances over the centuries and who exactly were these theatregoers. What impressions did these audience members take home with them? Did they feel as awed by the theatre as I did, or did they just take the luxurious building for granted?

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Perhaps the darkest day in the history of the theatre proved to be February 13, 1816, when a fire broke out during a dress rehearsal. In less than one hour, the dancing flames destroyed a large section of the building. The theatre was reconstructed in a mere nine months, and it took on a horseshoe appearance. The number of seats dwindled from more than 3,000 to 1,444. The Teatro di San Carlo holds the distinction of being the oldest horseshoe style theatre in the world. The theatre even remained open during most of World War I. The foyer was destroyed by a bomb attack in 1943, however. However, the structure was rebuilt promptly after the war.

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Looking around the gold-and-red decorated interior with 184 boxes plus the Royal Box, I could not help thinking about the famous people who had graced the stage and the composers whose works had come to life here. Richard Strauss conducted here. Guiseppe Verdi wrote operas for this very theatre. In the 18th century, singers Vittoria Tesi and Carlo Broschi charmed audiences with their magical voices. Niccolo Paganini cast his spell on spectators here on two occasions. Other names associated with the theatre included Christoph Willibald Gluck, Johann Christian Bach and Luciano Pavarotti.

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To be sure, the interior was breathtaking. The ceiling fresco took up a mythological theme, portraying Apollo presenting Minerva to the greatest poets in the world. The theatre curtain, adorned in 1854, also boasted a mythological scene with the Muses and Homer among poets and musicians. Putti and cornucopias played significant roles in the theatre’s decoration. The Royal Box, so bewitching in its gold color, could hold 10 people. There were workers repairing something in the Box, but we still got to sneak inside for a few moments.

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Taking a seat in another box, I did not want to get up and leave. I just wanted to imagine all the scenes performed here, all the songs sung, all the music played. And then there were those richly adorned balustrades! The 184 boxes stood on seven levels. None of the boxes was furnished with curtains because the king wanted to be able to see spectators at all times.

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The theatre was so beautiful that it made me dizzy. It seemed only fitting that such a majestic theatre was connected to the Royal Palace, which the Spanish viceroyalty had called home for 200 years, from the early 16th century to the early 18th century. I hadn’t been so impressed with a theatre since I had set my eyes on the Rococo horseshoe-shaped Cuvilliés Theatre of the Munich Residence.

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When I bought my ticket, I hadn’t known what to expect. I hadn’t thought I would be so impressed, but the ceiling fresco, theatre curtain, red-and-gold decor and gilt adornment mesmerized me. I hoped to come back here to see an opera someday. This tour was one of the highlights of my trip to Naples.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.