I’d take you to the smaller towns
Flattened cobblestones with poor grip
You’d carry on regardless
Enjoy the river
Drink beer beneath a canope
Wear a hat
I built a life after you
In unexpected places
And grew and grew
You’ll never know how proud you’d be
Or how short five years is
Maybe in another life
I find you where I least expect to
Maybe in another life
I don’t have to
My sister would have been 29 today
I wander streets you’ve never heard of
Couldn’t place on a map
But you’d have gone here in a heartbeat
Given the chance
I remember your habits
Soft hair, and eyes like a lioness
I wanted to be you
You left before we knew you’d gone
I’ve got a decade on you now, and more
It doesn’t matter
You’re still older than me
I’m running for a plane and I am crying.
It’s a stupid reason to be crying. I have tried to buy something using the last of my Czech coins, which unlike notes, I won’t be able to change once I come back to the UK. But my sleep deprived brain wouldn’t do the maths properly in my head and I kept picking up more items than I could afford. Eventually, I put all the money into the tip jar. The salesperson doesn’t want me to. “Please”, they say, “Just buy something”
And then I say a stupid thing. In an attempt to be blasé, I say “It’s fine, I will literally never be in the Czech Republic again”. And then I start to cry.
It’s a stupid thing to say and blatantly untrue. There is no reason that I couldn’t come back to the Czech Republic. But I suddenly remember the pleasing size and shape of a 50 CZK coin and immediately regret throwing them aside so thoughtlessly.
On the plane, I read my book, Prague in the Heart. It details almost 200 true stories from the city which took place over the last 2 centuries. I read about a man who set himself on fire in protest of the soviet occupation. I read about how Nazis stormed the University of Prague following student demonstratons there, and how 1,200 students were sent to concentration camps, and this is where International Students Day comes from. I read about the construction of a statue of Stalin overlooking the city, which was torn down and replaced by a huge metronome, each movement of which is intended to represent a minute lost to communism. I remember reading about how, when soviet tanks first appeared in the city, Czech civilians had no weapons with which to fight them, so instead took a different route; swapping around the road signs to confuse them. This action ultimately failed, of course, but they must have known it was going to. But that wasn’t the point.
I arrive for my stopover in London. I am surrounded by images of Big Ben and the Eye. All grand spectacles intended to show off our wealth. Hungry, I go to buy food, and find that the only thing I can eat is a mezze platter for 8 pounds. The falafel is too spicy to eat.
I get my second flight to Glasgow, which takes less than an hour total. The bus from the airport to my house has gone up to £5.
I go home and promptly pass out in bed. My partner comes to visit me and we hug as I fall asleep on them. I have no idea how to feel. I tell them “I cried in the airport like a fucking dweeb” and they give me a hug.
The next few days are supposed to be days of rest, but I’m not very good at resting. I meet up with old friends, have a BBQ in the garden, go to a meeting for a local queer film collective, talk to my old boss about some freelance work. I visit my boyfriend in Edinburgh and dance with my partner at a queer club night. I have brunch next to the park I grew up playing in. I cycle as much as I can and it is glorious. Everyone asks me the same question.
“So is that you back then? For good?”
I don’t have any concept of “for good”. I am 24 years old and dreaming of Thailand and Vietnam, of Copenhagen and Iceland, of all the places for me to visit and live and grow and grow and grow.
I’m out in the early evening with a pair of jeans and a light jacket, and I’m so cold, it’s knocked the energy out of me and all I want is to be curled up somewhere warm and cosy, and I ask myself; “How does any country get by with being this cold?”
In Prague the weather has been over 30 degrees every day and there are thunderstorms where you can literally feel the pressure drop out of the sky and a friend and I sat one day whilst I was hungover with the windows wide open just listening to the rain and feeling the temparature dissappate and I felt like I could breathe again. And in Prague every household has at least 8 different types of tea, including 3 flavours of green tea, and no one ever thinks you’re strange for asking for it, and everyone owns a dog and the cats are all well trained and friendly, and everywhere is easy to get to and your travel ticket covers you all across the city, even to the airport, and all the travel announcements are in English and in Czech and sometimes in German and Russian too and in Prague, you are never more than 5 minutes walk from a vegetarian restaurant, and never more than 10 minutes walk from a Vietnamese restaurant, and because there’s a lot of Vietnamese food, it’s always really easy to get tofu when you want it and I used to make my friends tofu scramble and completely change their minds about beancurd, and soy milk is available even in tiny little corner shops, and faux meat can be found in almost any supermarket, and in Prague you can buy a bus ticket to Vienna for just 15 Euros – on the day! You can walk home late at night and never have to worry, strangers leave you alone, and catcalling is almost non – existent.
One night, someone asks me: “What was wrong with it?”
“Nothing was wrong with it. I just didn’t want to live there.”
Something must be wrong with it if you didn’t want to live there”.
I remember the stories of repression, of resistance, of strength and cunning, of constant reminders of a city which survives, collecting within itself debris and relics of centuries gone by, and feel painfully in love.
I remember friends and faces of people whose paths I never would have crossed otherwise, lessons that I learned and the faith I got back that maybe, for the most part, humanity isn’t completely off track.
I remember the person I was a year ago and how much I’d needed to get far, far away from Scotland to even begin to learn how to breathe again.
Nothing was wrong with it.
I just didn’t want to live there.
In Prague, almost everyone I know has had something stolen during a night out. It’s the only city I’ve ever been burgled in. Sometimes it was so hot, I couldn’t breathe or move and the exhaustion caused me to sleep in and miss my classes. One time, on the tram, a man getting off decided to push my head to the side, rather than moving arm around me, deliberately giving me whiplash which lasted several days. The beaucracy in the bank is exhausting, confusing and tedius. English teachers are essentially on 0 hours contracts and that’s worrying at times. It seems as though no one really understands how to get a work permit. And no matter how beautiful or breathtaking or just plain fucking cool it was, I could never feel at home there.
It’s easy to idolise places when we leave them. You can’t live everywhere forever, that’s obvious, but the point of an experience isn’t for it to last forever, it’s for you to learn and build from it when it happens, and after, wherever you want to do it. Prague isn’t in my heart, but it’s in my bones, and that doesn’t mean I have to stay there.
I hesitate when buying wine
Unable to remember what country I’m in
So what bank card I should be using
And I can’t find the SIM card
For the phone that I use Over There
(Which I’ve accidentally referred to as “Home”
Three times now.)
But I have been stretch stretch stretched
Across borders and oceans
From Scotland to the Mediterranean
To the Americas and further, further
And a man who I adore sounds exactly like home
And another I care for sounds nothing like it
And a third, a girl, with tight dark curls
Inherited from her Jewish babcia
Speaks to me a mix of Yiddish and New York slang
Belonging is an odd concept
I’ve always just drawn voices together
Different tongues, languages, dialects
My heart makes its home in all of them
The only way it knows how
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.