Tales of a Serial Expat: Prague Sixteen Years Later

An American writer returns to work and live in the Czech capital after nearly two decades away

I arrived by misfortune. A stay in Venice had fallen through, and with no backup plan, I called a buddy with an Airbnb in Žižkov. Deposited on the corner of Ondříčkova and Čajkovského Streets, late in the frozen morning of January 23, I was given a key and a handshake, and left to Prague.

In 2001, I’d taught English for the Caledonian School, crisscrossing the city to meet with students, like a car exec who made me promise to always always buy German, or a self-proclaimed crazy Russian forcing vodka down my throat while showing me topless pics of his wife under a waterfall in Greece.

Would it still be the same? Had rents and restaurants bloated to New York price points? The new, Twitter friendly name for the country, Czechia, seemed to indicate this direction.

Would that intoxicating mix of history and grit still perfume the air and stain the buildings? Or had Starbucks and IKEA buffed it to sterility?

The author in Prague, 2001.
The author in Prague, 2001.

Of course, my own memories of Prague are admittedly hazy and suspect. Did the announcer’s voice on the metro (Ukončete, prosím, výstup a nástup) actually used to slink from the lips of a Czech Brigitte Bardot when today’s warning seems issued by a ticked-off librarian?

Similarly, had Klub Újezd, once my ideal of Czech barhood, now redolent with stale urine and cigarette smoke, changed or had I?

Certainly my profession in Prague had, arriving this time as a journalist, with only the need for Wi-Fi to make my daily chléb.

Such an arrangement would not have been possible in 2001, when email remained the main purpose of the Internet which was only accessible in scheduled half-hour blocks in the school computer room. Now firmly wired into Prague, it provides sustenance, but sadly not easy conversation in the city’s increasingly laptop-silent cafes.

Bohemian countryside, 2001.
Bohemian countryside, 2001.

Luckily, the new Prague still adheres to the old values when it comes to healthcare.

As an American, the shockingly low $67 bill for a check-up last week was nearly enough to cause a heart attack. OK, the clinic did look as if it could easily moonlight as a ‘70s’ porn set, and my doctor was perhaps not entirely professional—remonstrating “that’s not drinking,” after I admitted to 5–8 beers per week—but it’s nonetheless miles better than the paralyzing fear Americans experience at even the prospect of illness.

It’s also moments like these that remind me why I’ve always preferred life in the former Eastern Bloc: authenticity and humanity. While Western Europe paints the town white, cities like Prague, Budapest, Zagreb, and Tallinn still betray the black soot and brutal reality of the region’s history, keeping them freer from affectation and facades.

This is no longer true of Wenceslas Square, however, which is far more under control today than in 2001, when a boot added a permanent dimple to a friend’s face, a fist took another’s wallet, and both threatened on me by mafia enforcers if payment was not forthcoming.

Prague Golden Lane, 2001.
Prague Golden Lane, 2001.

Today, my money goes to the Ministry of the Interior in pursuit of a visa, as tightened rules make it impossible to simply re-cross the border every 90 days as I once had. In 2001, moving to Prague was as simple as booking a flight; today, it means applications, affidavits, certificates, insurance guarantees, notary stamps, and bank transfers.

But two months into the experience, I’m overjoyed to find most of the changes purely cosmetic and the artistic core intact. This is immensely reassuring among the raging dumpster fires of global politics and means I get to wake every day up with hope outside the window. 

Prague may never appear as magical as when I was 26, but it feels more of a home than it ever did. Let’s hope the ministry agrees.


Send your personal stories about life in Prague and the Czech Republic to editor@expats.cz.

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