Maybe Something, Maybe Nothing: A Prague Travelogue

Helen Oyeyemi, the author of What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, reflects on her daily life in Prague.

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I arrived in Žižkov, a colourful, disheveled, and inexpensive part of Prague 3, the country's most populous district, on a hot summer's afternoon in 2010, unpacked a few things from my suitcases (the boxes full of books would arrive later), and walked into the centre of town as dusk was falling on the golden city. I was looking for the astronomical clock, the one that tells four different varieties of time, its face a visual comparison of the speed with which an hour passes in the heavens and on Earth. I got terribly, terribly lost that first time I tried to find the clock on my own. It's impossible to read a map at the same time as you're being assaulted by beauty. I walked through jigsaws of light and shadow and greenish-gold stone; I'd gawp shamelessly and then shield my eyes as if the sunset were getting into them — really, I was embarrassed at being unable to calmly and lucidly take my place in the scenery. Rococo architecture rubs shoulders with the gothic and avant-garde, aquiline stone figurines smile peaceably at steel-clad waves of glass.

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The city's aesthetic is so various that its physical effect is fickle; at times Prague's Old Town abruptly recedes into hollowness and becomes a doll's-house reproduction of itself, a pretty playground for puppets that have made the amusing error of believing themselves to be human. I crossed a bridge, slowly, so as to be able to watch the flow of the Vltava River — a river that's mischievous in character, but mostly good-natured, I think. Unlike the Thames, it seems unburdened by its age and the secrets it has had to keep. If the Vltava isn't flooding, then it's teeming into the horizon at the slightest opportunity, beckoning the eye away, away, away ...

I didn't find the astronomical clock that afternoon. According to the map, I was at the foot of Petrin Hill. I turned to my guidebook, which told me there was an astronomical observatory at the top of the hill. So I rode the funicular up the hill and looked at the planet Venus through a telescope. Venus felt close. Radiant swirls of fire, each swirl as smooth as silk.

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I lived in a little orange and white flat with a deep bathtub that was instrumental in getting me through the winter. I read gloriously thick short-story collections in the depths of that bathtub, and had tens of cups of tea while I was at it. Once I was warm enough, I'd jump into pajamas and write while snow poured in through the keyhole of my front door. When I ventured out, it was to attend dance lessons. That was the winter I learnt to waltz; I'd discovered I was no longer content with knowing how to do it only in my dreams. I learnt both kinds: slow waltz and Viennese. My landlady worked for a PR agency, spoke perfect English, and sometimes did emergency translations for me via email and text message. English speakers aren't as abundant in Prague as a lazy foreigner might wish for. The Czech-Vietnamese grocers down the street were friendly and patient but spoke more French than they did English, and the Czech language isn't the slightest bit like German. I'd hoped that it would be, since I'd got decent grades for German at school, but at the back of my mind I already knew that the amount of time that's elapsed between the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the present day meant that it was unlikely that many Czechs would have an ear for my schoolgirl German.

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When I began to learn Czech, I discovered that a possible meaning of this city's name is "threshold." Prague's founder, the eighth-century prophetess Libuse, foresaw what kind of place it would be. "I see a city whose glory touches the stars," she said. And so that city was built around her vision. There are things this city knows about time and space that enable all strange stories to come to life here.

At the edge of Strahov Monastery, up near Prague Castle, there's a tiled floor with a sign worked into it, a few feet long. The sign is a lemniscate — an elongated figure eight symbolizing the infinite. If you walk around Jofesov, the city's old Jewish Quarter, sooner or later you'll walk alongside the legend of the golem, and the hair-raising deeds it committed until it was unmade by its maker, Rabbi Loew. If time is as cyclical as Prague would have you believe, then this creature of clay still walks, is long dead, hasn't yet been made — either way, what a lonely creature the golem was or is or will be, shaking the paving stones with the weight of its tread, doggedly pursuing fulfillment of the task for which it had been created, going to its end with no more understanding than it came into the world with. I've looked for Kafka's grave three times and have been unable to find it. So there's one Prague legend, at least, who isn't lonesome for company.

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Like most South London women, or indeed most women from inner cities, I tend to move through public spaces fast and purposefully. Only the unusual will get me to slow down, to drop my guard, to stay. Through the stories I'd come to know about Prague and through observation of its signs and symbols, I'd found a place both old and new, a place where my imagination is at home. What's more: I'm rarely asked why I came here. I've been asked why I haven't got a boyfriend ("Don't you want a nice man?" asked with real concern, as if a nice man is a small and uplifting treat that's essential to the improvement of my day-to-day life) but never why I'm here. In other places I've often felt — and resisted — a pressure to explain, to place myself in some easy context. In Prague explanations are generally thin on the ground. Having found an English-language-friendly dry-cleaning-collection service, I gave the driver an armful of my favourite dresses and asked when I could expect them back. "Soon," he said, with a wonderfully disarming smile. "Good-bye." "Soon" turned out to mean two working days.

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A Prague friend used a similar economy of expression when I made the observation that people don't seem to smile much around here. "But what is there to smile about?" When he put it like that, I could see how puzzling my remark was. How odd to expect sane people to go around smiling at nothing.

I'd been considering signing up for a library card at the National Library (that big gesture of commitment a bookish person makes toward a place), but I mistrusted this affinity I felt for a city I'd chosen on a whim; it was becoming too difficult to tell whether the relationship was one-sided. I packed my things and moved to Berlin, reasoning that I'd put my thoughts in order there. Berlin's got a whole island of galleries and museums! Museum Island really is the right stuff. After nine months in Berlin I moved to Budapest, which surprised me with its bruised and brooding beauty and held me in place for a year — six months longer than I'd anticipated. But I was pining for Prague. It had become a habit of mine to compare every city I visited to Prague, the city of all manner of alchemies. Apart from being unfair to the other cities I visited, there must be meaning in such an extended period of pining ... and there was. At least I think there was. You can never be entirely sure of anything to do with Prague. Now that I'm back and many months into Czech lessons, I'm able to appreciate how a brief sentence sums up my situation. At the post office I was able to ask, in halting Czech, how much Customs would charge me to receive a package from America. The postal clerk shrugged. "Možná něco, možná nic," she said. Maybe something, maybe nothing.

Kafka wrote: "Prague never lets you go ... this dear little mother has sharp claws." He's right; you feel those claws a little, marking you with a certain low-key angst when you've been away too long, even when you're in cities as diverting as many-mosqued Cairo, or Grenoble, with its unsettling glimpses of mountain around virtually every street corner. Grenoble is appealing, but Prague calls me. This is how I know: last spring I'd been away from the city for almost three weeks when a Prague friend, Bohdan, the same one who wanted to know what I expected people to smile about, sent me an email. Do you know the reason why there is your first name scribbled on every spot in Prague? On walls, in trams ...

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I laughed it off. The wonderful short films Bohdan makes are tinged with wistful fancy, and here was another one of his imaginings. He retorted that if he were going to imagine something, he'd do a lot better than just seeing my name scribbled everywhere. When I got back from my trip, I went looking and discovered, with some giddiness, that B was being serious: So far I've seen Helen on five different walls, in sprawling blue, green, and black letters. To all my fellow Helens, I can only say come — this is a city for us.

Czech grammar is a great tribulation to me, but words without vowels delight me; you need a new voice to say them in, exhalations of air that rush up from the bottom of your lungs. Strč prst skrz krk ("Stick your finger through your neck!") is a nice example of a vowel-free sentence. When there are vowels, they tend to be long, with a rich, indulgent sound. And there's yet more delight in words as simple as calendar headings. The word for June is Červen — red. July is Červenec — redder. An Englishman who's lived in Prague for many years told me that he once met Václav Havel, the former president, in a beer garden (as you do ...) and that the former president advised him not to trouble himself to learn Czech, explaining that such tonal languages are only really intelligible when pronounced with extreme accuracy. Discouraging as that was to hear, I'm pressing on with my language studies, having resigned myself to the work of love. City, I'll woo you in your own language yet.

As for the Prague I first encountered five years ago, the one with the cold beauty that would not suffer itself to be marvelled at, I can no longer find that city. Perhaps it was just an image on an outer door, and now I'm inside with all the sweetness this city has to offer — honey cake and honey wine, superlative Sacher torte you eat with art-nouveau forks while your eyes feast on stained glass and dazzling chandeliers. The conversation advances slowly but steadily; I've found out where in the city to go for chia seeds and Golden Age Hollywood film screenings.

Even as Prague becomes more familiar to me, the city reserves its right to make me jump: as you stand in the crowd watching the astronomical clock strike, a street performer reaches out from his podium and gives your shoulder a sudden tap before reassuming his statue pose and his look of tranquil innocence. A kindly looking old man outside the opera house smiles at you, you smile back, and then his expression flickers into ferociousness and he shouts "BOO." I recently read Adelbert Von Chamisso's 19th-century novella Peter Schlemihl — there's a chapter in which the hero buys a sturdy pair of boots from a market stall, puts them on, and walks away, lost in thought until several drastic changes in landscape and climate make it clear to him that he's inadvertently purchased seven-league boots and has been leaping from coast to exotic coast, leaving his German home far behind. As I read this, I thought: I know this walk. After all, I've chosen a seven-league kind of city, where you take just a few steps, and find you've come a long way.

Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels, most recently Boy, Snow, Bird and Mr. Fox. Her story collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is forthcoming from Riverhead in March 2016.

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