First impressions of ‘The City of a Thousand Spires’

For me, Prague is still a strange town. I welcome the adventure.

I moved to Prague nearly two months ago, as many Westerners do, to teach English as a way to pay for my travels around Europe. I made the decision to leave New York easily enough, but the question of just where in Europe I wanted to settle bothered me for several weeks. Europe, after all, is rather large…

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon pictures of Prague that I thought to consider somewhere other than Paris, Madrid, Rome, or the usual western European hubs. Oh. Oh. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I thought. With its varied, colorful, old buildings, Prague seemed not only remarkably lovely, but remarkably characterful. Its architecture reminded me of daguerreotypes, or very early photographs. It was attractive because it suggested a wealth of stories.

And as someone who likes a good story, that was all I needed.

The Good

- Is Prague as lovely as Google Images led me to believe? To a large degree, it is. The storybook appeal of the city has not diminished through these overcast and often drizzly winter days. Prague wasn’t as damaged by the bombs of World War II as many other European cities. It was bombed just twice: In 1945, by Americans who, legend has it, mistook it for Dresden and accidentally leveled 93 of its buildings and killed 700 of its inhabitants; and then again, one month later, when the northeast suffered an attack that killed another 300.

Horrible as these numbers are, considering the devastation visited upon cities like Dresden, Berlin, Osaka, and London, Prague was fortunate.  Many of its historic structures remain standing today.

For this, Prague’s modern residents and visitors, who live, eat, drink, and drink some more in buildings that date back to the 14th century and are in enduringly good condition, are fortunate. In the center of the city, it’s a matter of course to walk medieval cobblestone streets on your way to the pub for a pivo, or beer that is among the best in the world. The sun sets early this time of year, around 4pm, but the lights of the National Theatre, of Prague Castle, of the buildings lining the Vltava River and shouldering one another in Old Town Square, provide ample compensation for the city’s lack of sunlight.

- Traveling from one of these sites to another, or from one neighborhood to another within the central 10 or so of Prague’s 22 districts, is also easy. I speak no Czech, and have no trouble navigating public transportation. (For Smartphone users, the GPS app “2GIS” helps immeasurably -- and is in English, to boot.) Prague’s network of Metro, trams and buses is intricate but comprehensible. Clearly ordered timetables mark each tram and bus stop. Signs in the Metro stations indicate, via large, helpful arrows, which train, on which side of the platform, makes which stops. (Walking these stations is also fun for foreigners unused to traveling so deep below ground. With their steep and swiftly moving escalators, many Metro stations double as bunkers.) In other words, Prague does not assume, as New York City does, that you know intuitively where you’re going and how to get there. It’s a city for those of us who need our directions outlined clearly and in bold.

- If you’re a native English speaker, the amount of English spoken and displayed throughout the city is comforting, if surprising. Many restaurants, even those outside the touristy Old Town and Wenceslas, offer menus in English. Many twenty-somethings are not only proficient English speakers, they often appear eager to speak the language.

The Less-Than-Good

- Of course, Prague is not all fairytale spires, pivo in Old Town Square, scenic tram rides, and friendly young people. In fact, there’s a noticeable difference in the way the city’s older and younger residents regard foreigners. The 23-year-old sales clerk in the giant book emporium in Wenceslas Square, Neoluxor, for instance, may be happy to help you, but don’t be surprised if the 63-year-old clerk merely shrugs, or says something curt in Czech before turning away.

This brusque treatment may be a function of my inability to communicate, or it may be a function of Czech culture in general. Or both. Communism fell only 25 years ago. Under the old regime, many Czechs learned German or Russian in school, but not English. (These days, English and German are the most popular languages, other than Czech, spoken in Prague.) Many older Czechs don’t speak English with the confidence of their kids and grandkids, if they speak it at all.

The Czechs also have a reputation for unfriendliness, as many digital message boards will warn you. But this is ungenerous. Under communist rule, even the warmest of Czechs would have been discouraged from being too friendly, and thus standing out. Whether learned or innate, this reserve is likely difficult to shake – assuming one wants to.

The Ambivalent

- I say “assuming,” because it is also likely Prague’s older citizens act in a way my American mind has interpreted as “curt” and “brusque,” because they’re a little weary of us Americans, or of foreigners who don’t speak Czech in general. There are a lot of Americans here, and a lot of British people, too. Western accents fill the streets and trams and subways of Prague. These English-speaking expats can’t possibly all be TEFL  (Teach English as a Foreign Language) teachers like myself, but a large portion of them certainly are. Prague is one of Europe’s most popular TEFL destinations. It’s cheaper to live here than in other major European cities, there are numerous language schools that hire year-round, and it’s easier for Americans to obtain work visas here, too. With so many foreigners milling about, speaking only English, not daring much Czech beyond “good evening,” “goodbye,” and a shortened form of “thank you,” is it any wonder many older locals don’t smile wide with enthusiasm?

- The large expat community is both a blessing and a hindrance. It’s comforting to know there are so many people who speak your language so nearby, just like it’s comforting to know that, should you enter a restaurant and ask for a menu in English, posing your question in English as well, you’ll likely get what you want with little trouble. But this can be dangerous. It’s easy to remain contained within an English bubble. One can imagine any number of foreigners living long, full, social lives in Prague without ever learning more Czech phrases than those words mentioned above, plus “pivo.”

Prague’s vibrant party culture adds to the allure for, and thus swells the numbers of, young Americans, Brits and other foreigners. Our attendance at bars that cater to us specifically (bars with American names like James Dean and Harley’s) further tightens the expat circle, for better and for worse.

What’s Next

So, what are my impressions of ‘The City of a Thousand Spires’ after two months? It’s beautiful, navigable, and still elusive. If you’re an English-speaking foreigner, it’s easy to feel comfortable quickly in Prague, and yet difficult to quickly and truly assimilate. As long as a language barrier remains, no matter how kind many younger Czechs, full integration will remain out of reach. But then, maybe that isn’t so bad.

“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world,” said the travel writer Freya Stark. “You are surrounded by adventure.”

For me, Prague is still a strange town. I welcome the adventure.

Author: Anna Storm (Prague.TV)

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