I have only been in Prague for a little over a month. I do not think that is nearly enough time to accurately describe the spirit of Prague. Even attempting to articulate it now scares me for fear that I will not do Prague justice; for fear of misinterpreting its spirit, or making a broad generalization based on few interactions, or expressing its spirit in a reductionist way. I am wary of being another Westerner who imposes her view or claims to know a place simply because she did some research and tried some local food. However, I can attempt to discern the spirit of Prague, and do so in the most respectful way possible because certainly, to a large degree, I traveled to Prague in order to understand its spirit, even if just minimally.
It is quite interesting that Durrell writes that “travel wouldn’t have been necessary in the time […] when there really was a world religion which made full allowance for the different dialects of the different races practicing it: and which realized that the factor of variation is always inevitable the landscape and not the people” (160). Often I wonder: what would our world be today if there was one massive nation-state with one language, one ‘race,’ and one religion? Surely, life would be easier for everyone, and marginalization would not exist. But I recognize that that is purely idealistic. Civil wars would break out. And life would just be plain boring, and there would be limited knowledge to gain. I would not feel the need to travel and learn, which would mean I would never have ventured into Prague, a land quite foreign to me. The factor of variation definitely is the landscape but I would argue that to an extent, so is the people; especially when both elements are exposed to drastic, sometimes terrible, historical processes. Such is the case with Prague.
When I first arrived, I was shocked by the lack of a customer service culture; by the lack of at least, a small, awkward smile exchanged on the street between strangers; with the constant staring on public transportation. Quite frankly, I wondered if I was the recipient of curtness at a restaurant and excessively longs stare because I do not quite fit into the still homogenous Czech population. (I am tanned skin, have curly dark brown hair and brown eyes, whereas a majority of the locals are pale-skinned with light colored eyes and blonde hair.) Nevertheless, I spoke to some locals about this—in a way that I hope sounded curious as opposed to judgmental because we have to welcome culture shocks—and was given excellent explanations for my observations.
I was told that Praguers are still a bit untrusting of others, and this stems from the forty years of Communist rule. Prague suffered and survived an Austro-Hungarian empire, the Nazi occupation and the Soviet Union’s regime. Its landscape has certainly changed a lot but it still maintains its essence—its spirit. I would dare say that its spirit is resistance because although people are not quick to trust others, you can feel an almost tangible, visceral desire to escape the clenches of the past.
I am sitting in a cafe as I write this. The server’s customer service was not exceptional towards me or the customers at the next table, but I watch the way in which she interacts with her coworker, with the frequent customers who walk into the cafe, and the air transform into joviality and lightness. On the metro over here, I noticed that the stares towards the unknown quickly turned into smiles when someone was recognizable, or when someone let their guard down and smiled first. Though it seems difficult, I do get a sense that Prague’s spirit is a willingness to resist the suspicion of others instilled in the populace by the past, and develop human connections; and its own identity, untainted by external (or historical) factors.