Eight months have passed since I moved to Prague. Other than one post about an art exhibition, I have been silent about the city. The reason for this is not a lack of enchantment, but rather too much of it. Where to begin? There is no shortage of travel blogs that feature photos of the usual iconic tourist attractions and the same groan-inducing puns: Czech, please! or Czech out Prague! There is so much more depth to this city than I had ever imagined. I’ve only begun to peer into its mystery.
I much prefer being a resident to being a tourist. After so many years of living in wilder countries, Prague feels like coming back to the world. I had learned to do without a multitude of good restaurants, consumer goods, and cultural events. “Maybe we should have come here first,” my husband said after a few weeks here.
If we had come here first, we wouldn’t have appreciated it as much. I would have always wondered what life was like elsewhere and felt the itch to move. Besides, I wouldn’t trade the years in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia for anything.
Regular Czechs, in general, are more pleasant that I had previously thought. Hard to read, but very down-to-earth and funny. The general attitude to tourists is either pride that so many people want to visit, or resignation that they will always have to share their city with thousands of tourists, not all of them respectful. The kind that travel in packs, completely oblivious to others. They clog up the sidewalks and refuse to let you pass unless you push your way through. Selfie Sticks and Segways are an added menace. It takes some vigilance to avoid being smacked in the head or mown down. It is said that it’s still possible to have the Charles Bridge to yourself. If you venture down there at four in the morning on a winter weeknight.
“We need to build a second Charles Bridge,” one Czech acquaintance told me with a deep sigh, “Only for Czechs.” So far, the only animosity I’ve encountered was when I visited as a tourist in 2010. However, I’ve learned that those who work in the shops and restaurants in the tourist areas very possibly aren’t even Czechs.
An unexpected disappointment: the large number of American expats. It’s not that I don’t like Americans. It’s just that, after seventeen years of almost no contact with any in my daily life, it sometimes feels like I’m not living overseas anymore. The initial disappointment dissipated, however. I simply adjusted my behavior. My husband and I speak French in public, to lessen the chance of being understood. I don’t want to fall into the trap of where ya from as has happened so many times before. I listen, poker-faced, to conversations in trams and restaurants.
One of my old-timer American expat acquaintances vented to us about the newbies. “It used to be the really interesting Americans who came here. The adventurers. The ones who wanted to get out of their comfort zone. Now it’s the Daddy, can you send more money type.” He shook his head in disgust.
On several occasions, I’ve witnessed a curious phenomenon. It usually occurs on public transport, most often a tram. I enter and take a seat. A stop or two later, a pair or group of young Americans gets on. After a smug look around, the dialogue begins. Drawls of feigned nonchalance. The discussion is usually about classes or partying. A stop or two after that, another pair or group gets on. The first group, when hearing the new voices, falls silent. Eyerolls are exchanged and backs are turned with disdain. The cycle repeats. The record, so far, is four such groups on one tram.
When this happens, I cast a furtive glance around. Surely I am not the only individual disguised behind a stoic expression. The slightest flicker of recognition, the twitch of a stifled snicker. I never know for sure who is also in on the joke.
Sanctuary can still be found. In Prague, so much hides in plain sight. I slip into the labyrinth of cobblestone alleys and shadowy staircases and get myself lost. Once insulated, the din recedes. The voice of Prague emerges, both angel and witch. Casting her spell and bestowing blessings. A full moon over the Charles Bridge on Christmas Eve while my husband and I stand hand in hand on the bank of the Vltava. The celestial chime of the bells of St. Vitus as I stroll through Petřín Hill during a gentle Sunday morning snowfall. There is no other choice but surrender.