On the Wednesday the 5th of January, 11.56AM, it begins. An ominous male voice, faded and cracked, barks instructions in Czech through old tannoy speakers, which echo across the city. Whilst this is a habitual occurrence in Prague, it is the first of the new year, and the first I’ve heard since my return to the city days before.
I cannot understand the words being spoken, but I know what they mean. I hesitate, eyeing the newly fallen snow outside, before cracking open a window, chest infection be damned.
At 12 midday on the dot, the sirens start blaring. A loud, grating wail encompasses the city, echoing on every corner. I sit on the floor beside my window, listening in silence, and I feel the strangest calm wash over me, a connectedness I can’t find words for.
After 3 minutes it’s done.
Air raid sirens are not romantic. They are not exciting. They shouldn’t be a part of the appeal for this city, which has so much incredible culture and history to offer. I definitely wouldn’t recommend them as a tourist attraction. They are part of the remnants of a broken and troubled past, the reality of which is a not so distant memory for many still living in the city.
And yet, days later, when asked what it is that I love about Prague, those sirens are the first thing to come to mind.
On the 9th of October 2015, a plane flying from Gatwick airport touched down onto Vaclav Havel with me on board. I knew no one in this city. And as I watched a it fly by me for the first time from the window of my prepaid taxi, I began to realise that I knew nothing about it either. “Where are the cobbled streets and golden turrets?” I thought. “Where is Prague?”
Prague has always held an appeal to me. But the strange thing about this, and something which became apparent to me once I moved here, is that I didn’t actually know much about the city, or the country at all. I knew that it was very old, supposedly very romantic, and that it used to be a soviet territory. Other than that, I couldn’t even tell you what famous landmarks it held. Central and Eastern Europe has always drawn me, and Prague in particular, ever since I was a teenager. And yet, I have no idea where that idea came from. Somehow, this city has been calling to me. But for what unconscious purpose, I’m not sure.
A few days after I arrived, I found the Prague I had dreamed of at 17. In the old town and around the river, in amongst the hidden treasures and the tourist traps, the pub crawls and the astronomical clock. But even having found what I was supposedly looking for, the city left me cold. And between that time and now I have struggled to find the words to describe it, with its mess of post soviet architecture and streets which have remained more or less unchanged since the 15th Century. For a long time, all I could think of was; picture the most beautiful place imaginable. Now imagine somewhere really ugly, to the extent that it’s almost charming. Now throw them together and cover them in graffiti. That’s Prague.
Which isn’t to say that I regretted coming here. Within a month, my mental health had improved Suddenly, rather than depression weeks or months, I had depression days. I had “bouts of anxiety” rather than generally feeling anxious. Coming here gave me the distance and the perspective that I needed, with a job I enjoyed, fantastic people to get to know and an amazing history and culture to experience. What’s more, the rent is cheap, the public transport is excellent, and despite the backdrop of traditional Czech goulash, Prague is surprisingly vegan and vegetarian friendly.
Still, returning to Scotland for two weeks at Christmas felt like returning to reality. Suddenly, my life as an English teacher in Prague felt like a far away pipe dream, something as strange and unreal as its pastel paint coloured buildings. I felt as though, having got some perspective, I could be ready to move back and carry on building my life there even earlier than I originally intended.
And I return in January and, once again, find myself torn between two countries. How can you not love a city where at any point you might look up and see a castle surrounded by mist? Where every street corner seems to encapsulate a multitude of centuries, both modern and not. Where there is never any shortage of a new square or cathedral to explore. Where every week there is a new film festival or cultural arts show to discover. Even the trams seemed more enchanting in the new year. Somehow, despite not being what I thought I wanted, Prague has found its way under under my skin.
I don’t know what brought me here, and I don’t know how long I will stay. I know that the
Czech Republic isn’t where I want to settle. But something about this city hooks into your guts and won’t let go, leaving you giddy and breathless. Something about the way the trees grow sparsely, the open spaces and countryside interspersed with run down, dilapidated mansions. The timelessness of it. The history. The feeling of hundreds of years still existing in a single space. The way you can look up one street and see glass office building, and down another to golden spires and turrets, a perfect mix of beautiful and grotesque.
And the sirens? They bring home the strangeness of it all. A monthly reminder of a history which is not always apparent on the surface.
Czech people are known for two things; their fabled coldness to strangers, and their honesty, which can at times be brutal. Regardless of whether these things are true, they both appeal to me on an instinctual level. When I first arrived here, part of me was hoping that the city would freeze me, make me hard and timeless too. That’s no longer what I want, but I see the appeal. And something about this city finds its way inside you in unexpected ways, and sticks there, not in your heart, but in your bones.