I WAS BORN ON THE BANKS OF THE MOLDAU, and left with my parents very shortly afterward for the New World. Since then, I’ve lived in the Czech Republic intermittently, never settling down. Today, when people at parties hear my accent and ask me where I’m from, I reflexively say Prague, even if it feels like only part of a truth. ‘Truth’ is, after all, a composite of ideas and perceptions. Over the time I’ve spent there and the time I’ve spent away, here are things I’ve found to be true about Prague.
Things I Know Are True About Prague
— It’s true that our beer is good, but not a gourmet sort of good. You can’t start talking much about hop composition and fermentation time and essence and aroma. It does not, under any circumstances, have apricots in it. In pubs it’s cheaper than water, which is invariably of the artisan variety. It is the same every day – fullbodied and mellow and supremely drinkable, our birthright.
— It’s true that most buildings in Prague centre predate the New World by a solid chunk. When I moved to stately east coast America, I was always amused to see all the discreetly dignified plaques: “St. Wordsworth’s School For Boys. Founded in 1850.” It’s not much of an exaggeration to say we Praguers are more interested when a building was founded after 1850: chances are the mortar isn’t crumbling quite so much.
— Partly because of the above, it’s true that much of the architecture is devastatingly beautiful. I was baptized in an exquisite church built in 993. It still stands, part of the backdrop of everyday life – I walked past it every day for the short while that I went to elementary school in the neighbourhood.
A few years ago, I watched European Cup matches under the courthouse in Old Town Square. Centuries of monarchy, loyalty, war, desperation, hope, and betrayal looked down on us swilling beers in plastic cups and worrying about the fact that Turkey demolished us in the second half.
— It’s true that the men here still sometimes wear socks with sandals. No one understands why.
— It’s true that there are gypsies, but they don’t wear coloured scarves and ride on donkeys – this is not Carmen, and there are no dancing villagers at the end. They wear cheap jeans emblazoned with nonsensical logos and sometimes they can’t read. Some of them ride the trams picking pockets or playing the harmonica for change, and one time the only person I saw give anything was the lone African man. They are a people on the periphery.
— It’s true that absinthe is legal and available for purchase everywhere, but I don’t know anyone who actually drinks it. Once, on the 22 tram, I was asked by a polo-shirted lacrosse player from North Carolina, “If this was the shit that made you see fairies,” and I wasn’t sure what shit, or what fairies. The summer that I was a bartender in New Town, only foreigners ordered it.
— It’s true, but not advertised, that the bread is fantastic. If you are ever in Prague, figure out where the neighbourhood bakery is and when it opens. Go there at that time and buy a loaf of bread while it is still hot. Cut it open and put butter on it and savour the darkness and fullness of a rye that is not bitter, whose texture has substance without grit, whose crust is perfectly supple and covered in flour. The French go on about baguettes, few things beat a Montreal bagel at 3am, and New York pizza can be sublime, but I have yet to recreate the quotidian bread of Prague’s mornings.
— It’s true that it’s a terrible idea to cycle across streets paved with hand-set cobblestones, especially after the rain.
— It’s true that some of us watch a lot of shitty old American TV – Sex and The City, Friends – dubbed in a way that tries to mimic a laid-back cowboy-style American accent within the cadence of a completely different language. It sounds terrible. But it’s also true that every night in Prague, a city of 1.2 million people, the theatres and concert halls put on shows for 3.4 million seats, and not all of them are empty.
— It’s true that in the twentieth century, this country experienced five regimes. I do not feel I can adequately talk about the oppression that came along with this, but I would appreciate it if my fellow North American university students would stop throwing that word around. I cannot fathom what it would be like to wake up to enemy tanks in the town square, or to watch one’s family members taken away by the Gestapo. I don’t know what it’s like to secretly pack up and leave everything and everyone you’ve ever known and loved, with the knowledge that in all likelihood you’ll never see them again. I do know people who know all too well what this is like, and for this reason I do not think the past has stopped reverberating in the present.
— Possibly in part because of the above, it’s true that Praguers can be reserved to the point of mean. As a kid, I had an acute fear of going to the corner store because the fat lady reading Woman’s World behind the counter was often casually cruel, no matter which corner store it was. Thick, cynical shells, developed over years of mistrust of the casual stranger. Just like people everywhere, we are kind, we love, we care, we find beauty, we do things that make us happy. Sometimes, though, we are not nice.
— It’s true that Czechs are not prone to flag-waving, to singing the praises of their country. They complain about appalling corruption and the slowness of the trams and the state of the education system and the high cost of living and the underhandedness of it all, and with good reason. But when asked whether they’d ever leave, most of them shrug and say no. Some simple, untalked-about love for being alive in this place, at this time.