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.
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.