“Franz said,‘Beauty in the European sense has always had a premeditated quality to it. We’ve always had an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. That’s what enabled Western man to spend decades building a Gothic cathedral or a Renaissance piazza. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independently of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they spark with a sudden wondrous poetry.’” —Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The above quote is from the book about Prague that I am reading for this course, and it has resonated with me for a few days now. The very superficial image I have of Europe in general, and most certainly about Prague, is eternal beauty: historically intentional beauty. Surely the architects of this city had the objective to make an enchanting city—to make beauty as tangible as if were an ingredient in the formation of the bricks that shape this city. I have seen aerial views of the city from Letní Letná Park, from Petřín Lookout Tower, and from the Prague Castle, and I think what impresses me most are Prague’s red roofs. Paradoxically, there is beauty in this uniformity because this uniformity is also individualistic. Under those roofs, each building figuratively (and literally) stands on its own. Each one represents a particular, complex history, and on a basic level, is a different color and style. I honestly feel like I am in Disney World, aesthetically and metaphorically. Every building I see evokes a sensorial response, and as I walk down the streets I feel like time has stagnated, and anything is possible. The surreality of being welcomed in a foreign land is a dream in itself.
Although getting lost in this labyrinthian city should not evoke terror, anxiety, or disaster— because how could the colorful buildings around me dotted with rows of flowers and surrounded by blooming trees do such a thing?—I have not yet allowed myself the pleasure of getting lost. One of the first things I did when I arrived to Prague was to ensure that I got a SIM card, not so much to stay in touch with loved ones at home but to have Google Maps. They say diamonds are a girl’s best friends, well let me tell you, Google Maps are a girl’s best friend.
I am trying to understand why I have not allowed myself to get lost in Prague when it was a pleasure I afforded myself in Paris; and I think Lynch may be right. I think the thought of getting lost produces in me a small amount of anxiety because unlike in Paris, I cannot communicate as well in the local language, and I am a non-white woman. Last week, even while walking with two other friends, a local male resident came up to me, yelled incoherently and shook his head as he stuck his tongue out, imitating an obnoxious, slobbering dog. Given this, you can imagine how my fear of getting lost is a little heightened.
However, I have attempted to rely less on Google Maps and more on my instinct, sense of navigation and memory. Admittedly, I have never really been one to remember the names of streets or highways but I have an excellent memory when it comes to remembering landmarks and visualizing locality. Indeed, I have tried to make Prague a legible city, creating an “environmental image” based on imageability because when emotional memories are attached to nondescript locations, the city becomes more alive and memorialized for years to come. In so doing, I have also learned more about the culture and language. For example, in recognizing the Teta in front of the metro stop by my dorm, I know that it is a drug and cosmetic store (and now I know the Czech language equivalents!). In distinguishing the corner stores, I know they are “potravin[ies]” equivalent to outer-Manhattan’s bodegas.
I have deepened my sense of security insofar as I have determined a sense of familiarity that allows me to establish Slezská 60 as my home, however temporal. In drawing this minimal but crucial map that keeps expanding as I spend more time here, I improve my knowledge of the city and culture, and define my particular vision of the city. I do not want to be an eternal tourist but I do want to experience everything as if it is the first time, so that I can keep adding sentimental value to what perhaps is taken for granted by locals. The experience of being abroad can feel so surreal at times, I want to make it feel as real as possible!