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I remember the lifelike but disinterested statue faces, which came into and disappeared from my sight when I looked up at the buildings in Prague. I remember that I hoped for some release from the tension around me, as I walked next to my boyfriend after another inconsequential fight.
I have to ask myself: “Are you sure that there was no classical music in the background as you walked along that street in Prague?” No, there wasn’t. The classical music had been in the background of Kolja, the 1996 Czech film I had watched two days before my trip, as a feeble attempt to acquaint myself with their culture. When I was finally in Prague, I wished I had watched and read more.
They do that a lot in Prague: creating and preserving statues. It is not uncommon to see rooftops with five or more elaborate life-size statues. There is a relaxing sense that comes with age about the grey, refined statues. They are no longer there to shock or impress you, unlike the newer ones, such as the Franz Kafka statue which features him sitting on the shoulder of a giant man without a head.
There are also statues in the large cemetery which was five minutes away on foot from where I was staying. Some of the statues have become disfigured. Some are covered almost entirely by moss. Some are already blending into the surrounding landscape of grass, wild flowers and small trees. The statues inhabit a city of the dead in the middle of lively Prague.
After a few hours of walking around central Prague, you will get used to its contrasting architecture. Or the architecture could even be your reason for visiting the city. There are peculiar Gothic towers, with their pointed arches and strikingly darkened walls, residing right next to buildings of much more temperate tones from the Renaissance or Baroque era.
I must admit, while you walk around central Prague there might be moments when you feel like rolling your eyes at the luxurious brand stores. You might think, “Oh, it’s just like all the capitals in Western Europe.” How easy it is to fall into the trap of bashing globalisation just because it disappoints your craving for the exotic. Don’t judge too soon…
Before you know it, your heart will be captured by the charms of the city. The under-lit alleys will stir up your excitement even if you know that they lead to another crowded street. You will realise mass-produced souvenirs can be a great joy to look at when they are displayed behind beautifully framed windows. Walking along the Charles Bridge after it gets dark, too frequently you will find yourself stopping and turning around to make sure you don’t miss any view of the layered buildings magically lit up against the dark sky.
You will slowly fall in love with Prague, and you won’t know exactly why. And that will be way before you discover the unconventional little museums, or the shop that sells CDs of an old Czech cartoon series. CDs that have beautiful covers, even though you won’t be able to find any English information about them from the Internet. “Čarodějné pohádky”, or “The wizard’s fairy tales”. Does this not sound enticing to you?
After less than an hour of walking in Prague, my boyfriend and I came across a little stall that sold some kind of potato dumplings. I can’t find their correct name online. They look somewhat like pierogi (a dumpling dish that is more popular in Poland and Ukraine), but the pastry is potato-based. I bought one filled with ham and sauerkraut. Thanks to the right balance of meat and sourness, it was easily one of the best things I ate in Prague.
As I had my first bite, I asked myself, and I’m still asking myself now as I reflect on my trip: why don’t they sell this wonderful street food in the city centre? In central Prague, I only bought a huge “trdelník” cake. I purchased that because it is apparently a must-buy for a tourist in Prague, even though one fifth of it is too much for a person, like me, who has no sweet tooth at all.
Outside central Prague, the fascinating mixture of different architectural styles disappear, and communist-style buildings start to show up. The Czech people call them “panelák”, or “panel houses”. We found a small park with a line of trees and a line of benches. The park had a basketball ground that looked dusty. I wish I could have walked across it when a group of local people were playing. Would they let me join the game as a lost tourist?
Instead of the iconic bridge, we walked across an unremarkable one that had neither spectacular statues nor men kneeling on the ground with their hands opened for cash. Under the unremarkable bridge, I caught sights of a sofa, a TV, a rack of clothes and a rack of cups. A man standing in the middle of these belongings saw us and gave us a warm smile. We smiled back and shyly kept walking. I wish I wasn’t so shy. I gathered much of my information of Prague from the official tourist website and museums. What more could he have told me about the city?
A big part of what I remember from Prague is the Vietnamese people, as I myself am from Vietnam. If you see a non-tourist Asian in the Czech Republic, then that would probably be a Vietnamese person. I didn’t know that I would find Vietnamese people in Prague, until I was there and started to hear familiar songs and TV shows in convenient stores.
Prague sell phở and Czech food in the same food stalls. They serve both Thai dishes and sushi in their Asian restaurants. They sell souvenirs, shoes, beers, and sausages, even though when I asked a woman something about the sausages (in Vietnamese), she said that she didn’t know because she had never eaten them. Prague even put in those otherwise completely Czech stores, packs of Vietnamese instant noodles. I can’t find them in Lancaster: not even in the two Asian shops that are a bit bigger than Tesco Express.
I admit that my spirit livened up a little whenever I spoke to a Vietnamese shopkeeper. It would have been so easy to stop trying new Czech food and eat Vietnamese food for every meal instead. Seeing signature dishes that are dear to my heart and speaking with shopkeepers in my mother tongue was more than enough to make me “feel at home”.
We stayed in Prague for three days. It was not enough time to experience everything. On our last night there, we were sitting on a bench in the very middle of the Old Town Square. I looked dearly at the Gothic tower not far away, begging the universe to let me stay a little longer. Maybe just long enough for me to get a bowl of phở (less expensive than in England). But I also wanted to stay because of the museums, CD and book shops I hadn’t yet seen; the many bridges I would love to cross; the scenes of blended styles of architecture which still fascinate me. And, also, because there must be many more hidden food stalls that sell wonderful treats. (I could convince Prague to start selling this food in the city centre.)
But in the end, I booked tickets back to England which left me enough time to write my essays for deadlines after the holiday. One can’t be a tourist forever. I will keep feeling nostalgic about Prague, until I see it again.