Prague: A City With Claws

I was at a laundromat in Santa Cruz, California, reading the New York Times travel section. It was the spring semester of my senior year of college, a period of complete uncertainty for me. I was about to graduate. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I only knew what I didn’t want: to stay in Santa Cruz or move to San Francisco and get an office job of some sort. I needed a purpose. I needed a direction.

And that’s when a life-changing thing happened to me at the laundromat. When the guy next to me, who was reading the main news section of the Times heard the buzzer to his dryer go off, he dismissively tossed the paper over his shoulder. It hit me in the face. Well, okay, it skimmed my face. Alright, it almost hit me in the face.The point is … I picked up the newspaper and the first article I saw was about how bird poop and pollution (poop-lution?) were combining to rot the statues on Prague’s Charles Bridge.

I’d been to Prague three years earlier. I was only there for three days but I was almost paralyzed by its beauty. It had a down-on-its-heels feel to it, having just come up for air from 41 years of Soviet negligence. I met a young American couple that told me there were thousands more like them there. Young yanks just hanging out. They had planned to open a pizza-by-the-slice placed and call it Brooklyn Pizza. I moved on to Berlin a few days later but I couldn’t stop thinking about Prague.

And then here I was reading the article about the city and its eroding statues. What was in the article was unimportant to me. I was having an epiphany, a realization that was so simple I never thought it was possible. I thought my life needed direction and I was going to take that literally. I needed change and it almost hit me right in the face. I would move to the capital of poop-lution: Prague.

So that’s what I did. I spent my days teaching English and my nights drinking beer with drunk old men in smoky pubs. I wandered the city’s narrow streets, gawking at the Baroque palaces. I took classes on the art history of the city. I stood around Charles Bridge – yes that same bridge that was supposed to be dying from asphalt cancer, and one of the most beautiful bridges in the world – staring up at the Prague Castle with the gothic St. Vitus cathedral plopped in the middle.

OK, so I still didn’t have a purpose. In fact, in Prague I had less of a purpose in life than I had in Santa Cruz. At least there I was getting a college degree.

But, while sitting in a café in Prague on a random Tuesday afternoon, I realized, that was sort of the point. Prague let me exist there; it let me hang out and do nothing except for live a rather debauched life, and it didn’t care. It didn’t judge me.

To be fair, though, I didn’t exactly move to Prague to live like a bohemian (and I mean that with a capital “B” and a lowercase “b.” I actually wanted to go somewhere slightly out of my comfort zone. I wanted to struggle a little – to learn something about myself. Yes, I could have chosen a more challenging place (Afghanistan, anyone?). But the beer and sausages are so much better in the Czech Republic. Anyone ever had an Afghan sausage? They’re TERRIBLE.

And so for three years I lived in Prague. I traveled around the country. I made friends. I even learned Czech. How I didn’t come away from there with a gorgeous Czech wife is a miracle. It doesn’t sound very challenging but three years later, I was a profoundly different (and, I hope, a better, stronger, wiser) person. And then one day I woke up and realized my life was so great in Prague there was nothing left to do but to leave it, to find another challenge.

And so I waved goodbye to the City of a Hundred Spires and did something else. But now over a decade since then, I still go back again and again and again.

Why? Because Prague is me. I am Prague. Prague is the reason I’m a traveler and a writer and a travel writer. I go back to get that reminder of the lesson that Prague first taught me: it’s OK to not live a normal life. It’s OK if you don’t have an office job and live in the suburbs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). It’s OK that I’m not making a six-figure salary. It’s OK to go out in the world and let yourself drift. You’re not a loser for doing that! Unlike my mom and dad, Prague never said: What?! You want to be a travel writer?! But they make no money and, really, they’re just losers who can’t do real journalism.

Kafka likened his home city to a mother with claws that won’t let you go. Perhaps. But to me, Prague is more like your friend’s cool mom who lets you party at her house. And after you drunkenly jump off her roof into the pool, she’s standing there waiting with a towel to wrap you in.

So, who else is ready to jump in the pool?

[Photo Credit: David Farley]