It was the end of our epic Easter Holidays trip a few months ago that Whitney, Beth, and I found ourselves in Prague.
Earlier that day a Welsh football (soccer) team had arrived at our hostel, and it was clear that they had had a bit to drink on the coach ride over. Although we tried to avoid them one of the drunker lads cornered Whitney in the bathroom, and we could hear them talking from our room. I turned to Beth – herself a Welshwoman – and said, “What do you want to bet that Whitney will sell you out – give you away – as Welsh?” Before she could answer Whitney could be heard doing just that: “My friend who I’m travelling with is Welsh!” Beth hustled out to save Whitney, and I heard her tell the guy she was from near Bridgend. “Fuck me,” he replied, calling to his mates in disbelief, “she’s from Bridgend!” The guy then stumbled into our room, and after some effort fixed me with a stare. “Where are you from, America?” he asked accusingly. “I’m from Canada.” “Oh, Canada! Ooooooh, Canada!” He then started to goose step around the room, his right arm out in a Nazi salute/Hitlergruβ, doing his best to sing Oh Canada.
Prague: that city loved by travellers, prized for its old architecture, its status as a party city, and as a gateway to Eastern Europe. Before now the three of us had only really concerned ourselves with Western Europe, Germany in particular. Dresden served to whet our whistles a bit for what we might expect, but we came to Dresden full of expectations from all the hype. “Prague’s great,” people tell you. You’re likely to hear people praise its beauty, and it’s not uncommon to hear “The best night of my life was in Prague.”
Up on the hillside above Prague, on the site of a former Stalinist monument, there stands a large metronome. From the spot one can see much of Prague’s Old City, wedged between a bend in the Vlatava River. As the metronome arm sways back and forth, making an audible clunk at each extreme, its measured beat might set a philosophically minded person to considering the progression of time, of history. And, as people will knowingly tell you, Prague is a city with History.
Beth, Whitney, and I stood next to the metronome in reflective silence, gazing out over the city skyline. We had arrived the day before after a harrowing ride-share experience, and by this point we had been on the road for a week, battling our way across eastern Germany in one of the coldest winters on record. Behind us skateboarders clattered and smacked their way over the remains of the Stalinist monument’s platz.
Without anyone saying anything we all started together back down the stairs to the city. Halfway down I turned to the others and shared what I had been thinking about up top: “Prague’s beautiful and all, but… I don’t think I see what all the fuss is about.”
The girls agreed. We tried to figure out what it was – was it us, were we just too tuckered out to really enjoy the place? I wondered if maybe the “Prague Experience” was one best had by people away from home for the first time, those who for the first time find themselves in a place free of the rules they associate with rigid home life. If that’s the case then the magic wouldn’t be Prague’s, but rather its role as a place void of responsibility, where one can sit around and drink cheap beer and absinthe and hide – but from what? I know though that’s not fair.
One thing was clear: Prague made us feel like tourists, a feeling we never had in Germany. All of us by this point had lived in Germany for some time, and that country felt like home, the language, customs, architecture seeming as normal to us as those in New Mexico – Wales – British Columbia. For some people I suppose Prague and Eastern Europe offer the chance to glimpse into another world; for us, the city just made us feel alienated amongst foreign architecture and a language that we could not hope to understand. Rather than glimpsing a different world we felt cut off, unable to comprehend this place – perpetual outsiders.
It was very much a feeling like in Lost in Translation.
Despite its beautiful buildings, Prague felt cheap. The baroque architecture was beautiful enough, but something felt lacking. I don’t know what. It was alien enough though to feel – I shudder to say it – authentic, which ought to be more than enough for most people. Maybe we were just greedy. I can see how – were you to meet some locals and break through that barrier – you’d be treated to a glimpse into what is no doubt a very cool city. We weren’t so fortunate.
But then that’s true of any city.
We made our way back into the main square. The square was as busy as when we left it earlier that day – a stage had been erected – a Czech Oompah Band squeeked out a merry tune and the gloomy Tỳn Church loomed over it all, dominating the twilit skyline. All our adventuring had left us shattered however, so we repaired back to our hostel to rest up before dinner.
Maybe I’m being a bit harsh on the old city. Trust us, we wanted to enjoy Prague, and I think we did, in our own way, but between the fact that we had been on the road for over a week already, and the extensive over-hyping of the city, Prague had a lot to live up to. Try as hard as it might, it didn’t quite live up to those expectations.
My friend and history colleague Patrick went there a month or so later, and observed that it was more of “a show city for 90’s western capitalism slapped all over a baroque paradise.”
Would I recommend Prague? Sure, I think so. It was certainly beautiful enough. But is it a city of life-changing experiences? I can’t say. Maybe we just did it wrong. I’ll have to return again some day and give it another shot, maybe when I’m not shattered and freezing cold!
There were a few cool things about Prague though: