Last week we made a three-night trip to Prague, where we were posted for four whole years many moons ago.
This was a powerful experience for me. Prague was a very difficult post for us for several reasons: personal, medical, school- and job-related. So my memories of the place have always been mixed.
I realized during this visit that our difficulties had very little to do with the post itself. Or, I should say, we were simply posted there at the wrong time, when too many other things were unresolved, or converging. Timing is everything, really, isn’t it? Problems can be made much worse when you pile the stresses of living overseas on top of them. And the employment situation is a roll of the dice with every post.
All three of us concluded during this visit that we actually feel much more at home in Prague than we do in Vienna. It’s smaller, more manageable, less grand in scale. and still a bit tatty around the edges. It’s just cozier, my husband says, and I agree. However, I still couldn’t work up any true nostalgia for the Gringo Gulch outside the city where we lived. I’m done with compound living for good.
I was surprised at how much Czech came back to me! Considering I never had more than “courtesy level” Czech, I think it’s pretty awesome that I could still read most things, greet shop owners, order in restaurants, and surprise people with a correctly pronounced “na shledanou” when leaving. Pats self on back! Now, if I could just get a similar grip on German…
Prague itself has changed quite a bit in the interim. Some things I noticed:
English has gone from being common to pervasive. It used to be, when I entered a restaurant or shop in the tourist areas, I would be greeted in Czech, sometimes German. Now, the default is English. Even the little old museum ladies at the castle now speak English–and seem rather proud of it!
Speaking of little old ladies, in this brief sampling there was a much lower level of Grumpiness among the government employee crowd in museums and such. I am guessing that the Irretrievably Grumpy generation is either retiring or being nudged out and being replaced by the Only Mildly Grumpy generation. This is definitely progress.
Old Town now is just swamped with tourists. And we weren’t even there in high season. It’s really unpleasantly crowded at the major tourist attractions, and the vast herds of Asian tourists are frankly pretty annoying. Very pushy with the cameras. Very. But you can still escape them pretty easily just by popping into an art exhibit or getting a block or two off the major tourist routes.
The tourist shops have been more or less taken over by Russians and Turks. Oh, there are still a few shops with Czech owners, especially in Mala Strana. And the nicer chains, like Manufaktura and Blue Praha still sell only Czech goods. But many shops now sell Russian nesting dolls, Turkish textiles, and Chinese crap along with the Czech pottery and glass, and the garnet shops seem to be almost exclusively Turkish. Because of this (and possibly because of the sheer numbers of tourists) the prices are pure fiction, and you have to do some decidedly un-Czech bargaining to avoid getting ripped off. At one store, after threatening to leave a couple of times, I ended up paying 1,800 crowns for some garnet earrings that were originally priced at 3,800 crowns. Now that’s markup! The situation is much better on the other side of the river, in Mala Strana. The shop owners are less pushy and the “discounts” are the more usual 20 percent or so if there is any bargaining at all.
That said, the economy is clearly hopping. We saw many buildings that we remembered as still being in a post-Communist state of decay that are now completely renovated. There are big cranes everywhere, and shiny new office buildings along Evropska, the main drag out to the Gringo Gulch that I drove about a million times. Many of the dingy gray panelaks (Communist housing projects) have even been painted in bright colors. They are actually kind of OK now, at least on the outside.
Everywhere, even on the weekend, work was going on. It was nice being in a place that doesn’t roll up the sidewalks at 6 PM and shut entirely down on Sundays and holidays. It just feels more dynamic and fun. Not to mention convenient.
Being there with our teenage son was fun, too. We probably would not have gone on the Communism and Nuclear Bunker Tour or revisited the Museum of Communism if he hadn’t been there, but both turned out to be pretty good. Not to mention climbing the bridge tower and the 299 steps of the Rozhledna! Pics and a post about those trips later. For now, just some pretty pictures of one of the coolest cities on the planet.