How does one get at the essence of a place without burdening the reader with too much boring detail? That is probably one of the biggest questions that plagues all writers. At least, it has plagued me for as long as I’ve been writing seriously enough to worry.
This, especially, is difficult. How do I convey the feeling of living in a space I don’t even feel like I’ve truly inhabited yet?
Does the spirit of Prague lie in the people that sit at restaurant in the early afternoon, sipping their beer, eating goulash and enjoying the leisure of the day? Does it lie in the circus performance we saw, a parody of fairy tales with combing breathtaking acrobatics, fantastical effects and a dark, vulgar sort of humor? (At least, that’s what I grasped of it, not being able to understand the lines in the performance.) Does it lie in the peaceful dogs waiting for their owners on the streets, the cheap gelato, or the art, architecture and graffiti that litter the streets with color?
Then how about this: If Kevin Lynch was right, what has Prague evoked in me that wasn’t there before?
Appreciation. The exquisite details and stark contrast of different architecture styles, paired with an open sky unhindered by skyscrapers and excessive city lights, has taught me to slow down and look more carefully at my environment. Not just at the stores and people and how to move from one place to another, but a simple appreciation for what history and nature have cast for the modern citizens to re-discover.
Restfulness. The almost uncaring attitude of services and the hours spent in restaurants waiting and then slowly finishing up drinks has instilled in me a more tempered outlook on life. With the exception of rushing to class, I explore the streets with an unhurried pace, spend two whole minutes on long escalators in the subway contemplating sparse ads and school or life or whatever else catches my fancy at the moment. I stop by the square when I hear music, and I often award myself with two scoops of ice cream or gelato for no reason except that it’s cheap, and there are things in life that are made to be enjoyed.
Candor and wit. The way the Czech talk about serious issues—flippant, but still with enough weight to convey real concern—have led me to partake in a healthy dose of skepticism mixed with a sardonic sort of humor. Of course, I’m not in a position to make generalizations, but many foreigners here have made note of the people’s bluntness, and I have found that the Czech do not tend to shy away from controversial or sensitive topics. It makes for good conversation, and a good chance to learn what views are out there in the world, if you can get over the cultural shock and discomfort at times.
But in the end, the spirit of Prague may boil down to this—mothers strolling down the streets with babies sleeping in their strollers, laughing as they talk, buying ice cream and hot dogs for their older kids as they run around chasing each other; young people making their way to work with an air of business, or coming back from work, sitting in the metro with an open book in their hands; older couples sitting down outside a restaurant with hot food and two cups of beer, watching the tourists hustle by, always so busy and eager to reach the next attraction; and, more than anything, the nights, much too quiet much too early, six empty beer bottles sitting out on the street, a child waddling into her home yelling out a greeting to the strangers passing by, her voice echoing a whole block down, where a dog rests its head on its forepaws silently waiting for its owner to finish his grocery shopping.