- They have a thing for defenestration.
- They were invaded by the Soviets in the 1960s.
- Something about a Golem?
I’m not going to pretend I always do a lot of research before I visit a city — that’s Blair’s department — but I usually have at least a little background to draw on. Aside from those three historical tidbits, I’d only heard vague rumors about Prague — that it was cheap, that it had a sad, romantic quality to it and that just about anything was de facto legal there.
Right after I graduated from college, a friend of mine tried to convince me to give up on my writer schtick and move to Prague with him. We were going to be doctors, he told me. The medical school application was only a page long, the classes were all in English and $4,000 and 18 months later, we’d have medical licenses that would be good anywhere in Europe. We would become gentlemen physicians who attached themselves to wealthy women with weak constitutions. We would heal them with “nontraditional” techniques and live like Eastern European kings — picture a cross between Dr. Nick Riviera and The Continental. And Prague was the key to it all. These kinds of things happened there all the time.
He was lying, of course. I knew he was lying while he was still talking, and not just because 51% of all the things he ever said were lies*. But I could almost believe it. Almost. It was the kind of thing people were always saying about that part of the world: That it was free; that it was dangerous; that it was not quite civilized. That it sort of place where anything could happen to you if you wandered down the wrong alleyway.
The real city isn’t like at — or at least, not quite. Maybe there was a time, after the Velvet Revolution when Prague was an anything-goes kind of town. It’s still filled with Absinthe bars and head shops and strip clubs**. It might be a little sleazy, but it doesn’t feel unsafe. And the city is cheap, but it’s not that cheap. You never pay so little for something that the price makes you inherently suspicious. It’s hard to tell how much of the grunge is organic to the city and how much is an adult puppet show put on the benefit of tourists.
Sometimes expectations can ruin a city for you, but this wasn’t one of those times. Because you know that sad, romantic air I mentioned earlier? It has it in spades. Maybe it’s the way the castle towers over the rest of the city, or the way it’s lit at night, so that every shadow is as long and thin as possible. Maybe it’s all the ties the city has to the occult. Maybe it’s the little scars of a Communist past, which you can only pick out if you know to look for them. Maybe it was just because it was January in Eastern Europe. But I felt deeply melancholy there and I didn’t mind it. It feels like a city built for the forgetting of old loves.
*He once convinced me that Russia had invaded Mexico in the 1860s. He did it by tying his lie into the very true and equally strange French invasion of Mexico under Napoleon III. He was a very, very good liar.
** All of which promise to be “nonstop,” just in case you need to see a boob at 6 a.m.