The first time I saw Prague I was 12 years old, watching Mission Impossible with a blanket at the ready to cover my eyes during especially scary scenes. My grandmother always indulged me with movies I may have been to young to see, starting with Jurassic Park. They became a sleepover staple between the two of us since I was about 6, along with ice cream sandwiches and the promise of a midnight swim, though my tired eyes never seemed to make it that late.
By 12 the bombs and gunfire were nothing I hadn’t seen before, and the blanket stayed wrapped around the two of us. I watched Tom Cruise navigate the streets of old Prague, sidestepping through Kampa Island and realizing he’d lost it all amidst the fog wrapped around the Charles Bridge. I was captivated.
To me, Prague has always been the mysterious, artistic, and bohemian diamond of eastern Europe. I imagined myself walking along the river nearly consumed by fog, drinking with artists in smoky bars and writing about the adventures I would surely have there.
I got the chance to visit Prague not once but twice this fall, before it got too cold but still in time to experience the darkness of her early winter nights. The city is by all means enchanting around Christmas time, the cobblestone streets filled with families, smells of mulled wine and high spirits despite the chill in the air. Perhaps the mulled wine has something to do with that…
Yes, the city itself is a charmer, but I wasn’t head over heels. I couldn’t figure out my feelings towards the city.
At first I thought maybe it was the cold, as the spoiled madrileña that I now fancy myself was missing the Spanish sun. Then again, I mused, maybe it’s the people…the Czechs aren’t nearly as vibrant as the peoples of my beloved Mediterranean cultures. The food perhaps? Sausages, goulash, potatoes and beer are great and all, but I’d almost always prefer fresh fish, produce and great local wine.
I didn’t arrive at the conclusion until I returned to Prague a month later, just after Christmas: maybe, the problem was me.
I had become so used to falling in love with a place (the sap that I am) without trying at all. In places like Spain, Italy, France or even Morocco, I don’t have to try hard to find what it is that makes them special.
Prague is clearly a stunner, maybe more beautiful than any place I’ve ever been, but I think I had lost my adventurous spirit after so much travel. My first weekend there was spent wandering the streets, bar crawling and segway-ing around the city instead of looking for the bohemian and mysterious side that had always called to me.
I had a wonderful time with fantastic company, but I was purely not in love.
Listening to an Irish musician playing his guitar in front of the Lennon wall, I had an epiphany: the secret to Prague is just that; love.
It has long been a city that promotes equality, progress and good vibes. It has long been a hub for artists and musicians looking for inspiration and good company.
Sure, it gets very cold in Prague and night falls at 4 pm in the winter months, but that’s why the pubs are packed with groups of friends and families drinking beer after beer and indulging in comfort food to warm themselves from the inside out. Sure, the people aren’t as immediately charming as the Spanish, but their kindness will make you feel welcome and reassured.
I had so many expectations about Prague that I forgot to go out and make them a reality. It wasn’t until I studied the demands for peace and love on the Lennon wall, watched a Czech girl scribble in her journal in the sun along the river and stifled my shame of not knowing a word of the language to chat with locals that I understood what I lacked was love.
As the Beatles said, it is all you need, and that is especially true in this city. Once I reminded myself to look beyond the physical beauty of the city and open my heart to the subtleties of the people and culture, the love came right back to me.
I suppose that’s how it usually works, isn’t it? Sometimes, once you get comfortable in a place, be it Spain or New York or rural Kansas, you’ve got to go somewhere uncomfortable to remind you of the importance of an open heart and adventurous soul.
Prague is now a very special place for me, and I can’t wait to go back for more inspiration. If that next trip happens to be in the toasty summer months, though, I would not mind. Not one bit.