A World Apart

By Meredith Jaeger
Friday December 21, 2007

My recollection of Prague in winter is the snow falling in big fat flakes outside of my double-paned window so densely that I could barely make out the neon colored lights of the alien tower ahead. The Zizkov TV tower, as it is known to locals, juts up into the sky like a robot arm. The sculptures of black, faceless babies crawling up its silver, tubular shape add to the weirdness of its energy. Whoever commissioned this art piece certainly had a strange sense of humor. Not surprisingly, the artist is also Czech.  

The psychedelic light show began unexpectedly on Thursday and then occurred in sporadic bursts. When the purple glow first cast onto the walls of my tiny closet room, I thought it was a figment of my imagination. Then the colors shifted, from green to red and back again and I stood captivated by the mysterious presence dominating the winter skyline. I tried to explain the lights over the phone to my mother, but she answered me with a tone of concern. “Are you sure that you’re feeling OK? You haven’t been drinking absinthe have you?” Admittedly I had tried it in the months that had passed since I left the United States, but I was as sober as the grey landscape outside and I knew the lights were real.  

Like many occurrences in the Czech Republic, the purpose of Prague’s TV tower and the significance of its night lights is something that I never understood. Despite its eerie intensity, the tower was my guide, helping me to navigate the dark streets of Jiriího z Podìbrad back to my unfriendly apartment. Though sheltered from the rain and snow, I never felt relieved to be home. Riding the rickety, doorless elevator up to the fourth floor, I shuddered as roosting pigeons cast menacing shadows through the windows. Why had I chosen to live illegally in a 9x6 foot room, meant to be used as a closet, on a deflated air mattress? On my meager salary, it was what I could afford and this was part of my ‘authentic’ Czech experience.  

Uninformed and uninhibited, I decided to move my life to the formerly communist Eastern Bloc as part of a TEFL certification program. In a mere 4 weeks, I would be teaching English to Czech adults. Intrigued by Prague’s medieval maze of cobblestoned alleyways with all-night herna bars on every corner, I watched lascivious ex-patriots imbibing Pilsner like it was water. The first weeks of my course were spent this way, our group of Americans, Brits and Australians forming fast friendships as we braved the metro system together. But the party ended after a month or two, and the Westerners returned home to their families and comfortable jobs. I never intended to stay for a year-and-a-half, but living there became my reality. 

The weather turned bitter cold and the city of a thousand spires looked as though Dracula could fly over it at any moment. A layer of black grime covers the winged figures that lurk above the streets. None of Prague’s historical buildings have ever been steam-cleaned. In the winter, darkness settles in at 3:30 in the afternoon and permeates everything down to its core. I couldn’t shake my feelings of depression. To me, the saints on Charles Bridge stood watch like frozen ghosts, their pained expressions conveying a sense of what Prague’s people have endured. The weathered faces of workers jammed in the dirty compartment of the B train with me each morning reflected nothing but apathy and disdain. Their mouths drew downwards at the corners and their pale blue eyes stared vacantly ahead. I had never felt so alone in a crowd.  

Even my friendships with the other Americans appeared superficial to me. Aside from shared drinking experiences, we had nothing in common. It was then when I began to appreciate the genuine nature of my ESL students. The Czech bluntness that I had taken to be so abrasive in the beginning was in actuality refreshingly honest. No one chose to hide their feelings behind fake smiles and sing-song hellos. Though answers to sensitive questions were never sugar coated, my students were always ready to listen to my thoughts.  

Riding the metro to the end of the line and taking the bus into the outskirts of Opatov on the way to Hanna’s house, I passed the high-rise projects, remnants of the Communist era. Sometimes the snow blew in blizzards so fiercely that only the eyes of other riders were visible through a slit of scarf. But at the end of this journey warmth enveloped me every Friday. Hanna welcomed me into her home with hot coffee and a plate of cookies, ready to discuss literature, with her baby boy Vaclav bouncing gleefully in his high chair. This animated and intelligent woman challenged me to back up my opinions on cultural differences and to create lesson plans that I looked forward to teaching.  

Friday nights I would always get a phone call from Petra, my young, party-obsessed Czech coworker. Enamored with a local DJ and very aware of her beauty, Petra caused me to roll my eyes at times, but proved to be the perfect clubbing companion. Dancing next to me she was all smiles and bubbly laughter, whispering secrets in German, our shared foreign language. On clear nights we would sip champagne, watching the lights of Prague Castle dance on the surface of the Vltava and discussing our past relationships.  

Though I feel a wave of relief knowing that my permanent home is here, in Berkeley, California where I indulge in fresh sushi dinners, pedicures and Gordo’s burritos, my nostalgia for Prague creeps in at times. I do not wish to live there again, but I picture Hanna reading to Vaclav in her cozy apartment and Petra putting on makeup and new heels, and I think about how their lives are moving forward.  

Neither woman believes that her country is a dark and depressing place. Any obstacles Hanna and Petra encounter are dealt with pragmatically. It makes me smile to know that Vaclav is walking now, but Petra’s unrequited love for DJ Loutka lives on. The next time I find myself in an emotional rut, I’ll remember that even in dark times there are flashes of color, appearing as unexpectedly as the lights of Zizkov tower.