At first, Prague was to you what it was to everyone else–a word, devoid of meaning or form.
It would be fair to say that you followed Kundera to Prague. You finished your second year of college and abandoned the slow freezing prairie of Grinnell, IA to spend the summer in New York with four-dollar sandwiches and four-dollar people–indulging completely in the coked up psychobabble of trust fund babies. You took a plane out of JFK, out of O’Hare, out of Indra Gandhi International; pushed the places you knew far away until they became distant and unrecognizable, dots on a map under your thumb.
The night before you left the country, you overcooked your pasta, lay on your bed, and reiterated everything you knew about the country.
Fact: There are over 2,000 castles, keeps, and castle ruins in the Czech Republic, one of the highest densities in the world.
You contemplated the meaning of ‘ancient’ and ‘ruin’ and imagined yourself time traveling. Out of both precaution and habit, you packed obsessively: printed pictures of your friends from home, a collection of cotton sweaters, running shoes, journals, underwear, a map. You sensed an odd spiraling in your stomach, its momentum surging slowly up your chest and into your throat. Unable to speak, you fell asleep; woke up on LH1694 from Munich to Prague.
On a warm, rainy Thursday morning, you landed at Vaclav Havel Airport. The pre-rain fog rendered everything around the airport out of focus. Every window was a wall. Outside, you boarded a bus overflowing with American University film kids–students from a program different than yours. The bus dropped you outside your apartment in Southwest Prague and your program advisor–sporting an unkept beard and grey hair controlled neatly in a ponytail–handed you an envelope with an itinerary, emergency contacts, a syllabus, and a used Nokia 1200. You turned to face your apartment building and thought, home. You stared for longer, more carefully, said the word ‘home’ eight to ten times just to get the image to stick.
The next few months turned to mush. You met wonderful, new people with wonderful, new ideas on the Prague that you all temporarily shared. Before you are able to call a city your own, you must meet those who have owned it long before you. In and outside class, you absorbed Czech literature and history at an unrelenting pace; spent most of your time lolling in coffee houses and beer gardens, inhaling Kafka and Havel, Kundera and Klimt.
You were sold completely on the bookish culture you manufactured in your mind, associated yourself almost immediately with its people and history. You saw your classmates become preoccupied with an idea of ‘abroad’ that you all had been taught–that transcendence was pocket change, that experiences like these ceased to exist if not consistently recorded and filed. In their quest to be the anti-tourist, they forgot how to be humbled by nuance.
Fact: On January 19, 1969, Jan Palach, a history and economics student at Charles University, ran up the slope of Wenceslas Square, drenched in petroleum and lit himself on fire to revolt the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was one of many that year.
How long can you burn before you become poetically relevant?
You soon realized that a city can’t solely be learnt through its literature and art–it demands to be walked. With the fast moving demeanor of a freight train, you were propelled into the innards of nighttime in Prague. You stumbled deep into bars with the people you now knew fairly well, pushing back Becherovka and beer until the ground turned soft and the city turned warm and bioluminescent. You stood outside bars for hours–sometimes, even days–exchanging cigarettes for conversation, meeting heartbroken spacemen, war journalists, professional mimes.
It did not take long for the rhythm of the city to take you completely. Its regal, near-Baroque bongo drumming charm–centuries old, soaked in art and conflict. You tapped your feet and bobbed your head to the Arcadian thumping and clapping of dress shoes on wet cobblestone pavements. You made music of this as well, before returning to the sky that grew dark from the factory exhaust near your apartment, churning mechanical clouds while you slept. You swallowed sunsets whole, did this until it saturated you.
That really was what Prague became for you in the end, a kind of miasmic assemblage of booze and literature, of conversation and an elegiac love that dissipates in the absence of its subject. The bags you packed on your last day were heavier than the ones you rolled in on. There was no music to your departure, no grand goodbye.
You decided not to sleep the night before leaving the city, spent most of the evening wander- ing empty corridors in Old Town–long after the street saxophonist had abandoned his regular station. You took pictures of the places you had lived in for the past five months, pressed your palm against the cold, stone walls of Charles Bridge, convinced yourself that the city would remember you.
Fact: Prague sees an average of 1.6 million tourists every year.
Can places love you back?
As the plane pushed itself off the ground and began to wrap itself in the thick, cotton clouds, the first stanza of Ashbery’s “Late Echo” hummed in your head:
Alone with our madness and favorite flower
We see that there really is nothing left to write about.
Or rather, it is necessary to write about the same old things
In the same way, repeating the same things over and over
For love to continue and be gradually different.
What an interesting arrangement, you thought. A love that is gradually different, and more importantly, growing, from the point of conception. You were sure that your love for this city would evolve in many different ways once you were in its absence. Surely, you would never stop writing about Prague. Surely there is a kind of beauty that can come of lack. Surely, there was never anything new to be learnt here in the first place.
Maybe that is what distance did to places and people after all, brought them back to life in a strange, almost unbearable way. If this was the case, then there was substance to your sadness. The city had orphaned you almost as quickly as it took you in. It was true; there was loss here, but also renewal. You had to leave Prague to love it better.