BEFORE COMING TO PRAGUE, I had heard that it was the most beautiful city in Europe. Friends most often used the word “magical.” And, in my first couple of days, I saw Prague the same way they did—defamiliarized by the cobblestoned streets, the ornate centuries-old buildings, the charming red streetcars, the looming Baroque clock towers, the Gothic cathedral spires jutting into the roof of the cloud-pleated sky.
Yet after a couple of weeks of wandering around, bumping into people because I wasn’t watching where I was going, I began to feel the seediness. The posters advertising Darlings, a “cabaret” famous for the midget prostitute who is rumored to dress up like Chewbacca or maybe an ewok. The smell of urine in the old town square.
Though the castles of Disneyland are modeled after those of Prague, the city wasn’t a Disneyland, and the denizens of Prague were not paid to smile and tell you Dobry den if you wandered within a magic meter of them.
Even the beggars started to seem fake humble to me.
But I could see how the residents of Prague could be sick of the tourists. I was sick of the tourists, even though I technically was one–spending a month in Prague at a summer writing program. To the locals, I was no different than the Germans with their pink ice cream cones, the Americans shouting to each other in their twangy English, the packs of Japanese waving video cameras around, filming the Starbuck’s tucked into a Baroque building, the KFC sign in front of Kafka’s birthplace—would Kafka himself have appreciated the irony? The Velvet Revolution may have freed Prague from a communist regime, but the city seemed to have passed hands directly to a tourist regime.
“I want this sandwich,” a man with an electronic guide around his neck would shout and point. “Cut into four pieces.” In a hurry, because there’s a tour guide with a giant yellow umbrella outside waiting for him.
“I cannot cut four ways. Just two pieces. You do it yourself.”
“May I please have tap water?”
“We don’t have tap water here.”
“No tap here? What do you mean?”
“Bottled, still or with gas.”
“Alright, to go.”
“To go. To Go. TO GO.”
I would find myself siding with the woman behind the counter. So smug was I with my five Czech word repertoire.
Yet eventually I made my own travel faux pas – lost myself – because after a month living out of my suitcase, frustration met exhaustion met a little bit of entitlement.
I had decided to treat myself to a pedicure. I reasoned that I could read for my writing workshop, maybe do some writing and editing, and get my toes done at the same time. The perfect way to multitask. Plus, it was raining. Again.
The man at the salon was Vietnamese. He had been in Prague for three years, so he spoke a little Czech and about as much English as I knew Czech. I thought we had settled on a price before the treatment.
He cut my nails too short and then picked at the skin around the nails with his mean little metal tool until each toe bled. As I put my feet back into the grubby water tub, I hoped that my hepatitis shots were current. There was no salt scrub, no calf and foot massage. He must have wondered why I had hiked my pants up to my knees. This is a different place, I reasoned, determined not to be the typical tourist who expects to get everything just like at home.
When he was finished with the short torture session, he said, “You got paint with your French pedicure. Cost extra. 600 crowns.”
“Paint comes with a French pedicure,” I said. “It isn’t a French pedicure without the paint.”
He just shook his head. “600 crowns plus tip.”
I reached for his calculator and divided 600 by 16. “That’s 37 dollars. I am not paying 37 dollars for that.”
“Extra for paint.”
“A French pedicure is defined by the paint.”
“Extra for paint.”
“Do you know the word for thief?” I asked in English.
He shook his head.
More head shaking.
“What about stealing? How about swindler?” Now, I was really reaching. Thankfully, those words were not in my Czech repertoire.
“600. Plus tip.”
“Listen,” I said, “I have 500. That’s what we agreed on. And here is your tip. 50. 550, that’s plenty. That’s a lot. Too much, even. And it’s all I have.”
He shook his head, crossed his arms, and “Tsk, tsk, tsked.”
What was he going to do? Run after me? Call the police? It was true, that was all the money I had, so I turned on my 550-crown toes, and headed for the door. Another ugly American. I wanted so badly not to be this thing I couldn’t seem to help myself from becoming. Yet, this man had swindled me, hadn’t he? He, in fact, had treated me more poorly than I had treated him.
Walking back to my dorm room in the rain, the metallic ring of the streetcars sounded more like a whine than the song I had heard when I first arrived to Prague. But the pitter-patter of the rain and the cooing of the pigeons soon fell into harmony, and I realized that I had met wonderful people in Prague. The in-country staff of the writing program couldn’t be more lovely. Yet, there was that Disneyland feeling again: were they so nice to me just because they were paid to be? The people on the streets were not nice to me, but then again, most of them were fellow tourists.
My friend Sandra was to visit me in Prague. Before she arrived, I had told her the same thing about the city’s historic architecture, the beautiful parks, the graceful Vltava River. Did it never before occur to me that no one ever mentioned the warm people?
When Sandra arrived, we decided to visit Vyšehrad Castle. We wandered the grounds, relieved to be away from more of ourselves, the dreaded tourists, but also the waiters telling us there was no tap water, that the stale pretzel you thought was complimentary and just took a bite out of would be 50 crowns.
On our way back, we walked past the river, the swans preening and wagging their tails. Baby ducks swimming after their mother. The water refracting the evening light. We both wanted to extend this feeling of peace before heading back to the touristy center of town. So we wandered through a quiet neighborhood and came to a crowd overflowing from a small shop. They were all holding glasses, filled with white, pink, and red wines.
“Should we go in?” I asked.
“It looks like a local place,” Sandra said. “I’m sure they don’t speak English. But I think it’s a wine tasting. Czech or no Czech, we can do a wine tasting.”
Sandra was a wine representative back in the States, and I used to work in the industry and write for a small wine publication. This was our turf, our terroir. If wine couldn’t break down the language and culture barriers, I wasn’t sure anything could. We at least had to try.
“Listen, I know how to say hello, please, thank you, red wine, white wine, and sparkling wine. We can do this.”
“Okay.” Sandra was game.
We headed straight for the bar, and I didn’t stop to wonder what it says about me that I can order wine in about 10 languages but can only hold a conversation in two.
The rotund, bald man poured wine from barrels and bottles behind the wooden bar. He looked at us from the corner of his eye but didn’t speak to us. I bumped into a man next to me, and when I said, “Sorry, I mean pardon,” he turned to look at me, and I recognized him. How did I know him? The Rolodex of my mind flipping through the possibilities. Who would I know at a small local wine shop in Prague?
“I know you,” I said. “You’re um, um, um….”
He smiled and said, “Um, um, um.”
The Rolodex flipped to the right entry, and I blurted out, “Ummm. Milos, Milos, the guide.” He had guided a walking tour I had taken nearly a month earlier on my first day in Prague.
“Yes, so nice to see you,” he said.
“I am in the Prague Summer Program. The writing program.” Milos guided many of the trips and is known as The Best Tour Guide in Prague. The writing program uses him because he specializes in the arts, specifically music, which was the theme for this year’s program.
“Welcome. How did you get here? You have found the best wine shop in Prague. This is my second home. Do you want to try the wine?”
Sandra and I both nodded. Milos told Roman, the bartender, that we would like to taste.
“He says you have only half an hour, I am afraid,” Milos said. “They close at six.”
“That’s okay,” I told him. “Tell him we’ll be quick.”
Four hours later we were still at the bar, trying every wine on tap. Roman also started opening bottles from the shelves, and eventually we all switched to beer. I had made friends with a woman called Ana. Milos translated. Though I couldn’t talk to her directly, I felt the harmony of female friendship through the clinking of glasses, the laughing at wordless jokes. Roman introduced us to his son, invited us to come back again. “I am honored to have you here,” he said through Milos. We took photographs arm in arm, all hugged goodbye.
“You have found the soul of the city,” Milos said. “You are true Praguers.”