It was the end of May when I first arrived in Prague, less than a month before my 26th birthday. I arrived on what I would later discover was a typical day in Bohemia- overcast, and unseasonably chilly. (“A very Communist kind of day,” as my friend Debbie would later call it.) I had two crammed-full suitcases and a heavy carry-on, and I was barely managing through the door of my apartment building, which thankfully, had an elevator. I can’t say for sure the kind people I expected to be spending my next month with, as we took our TEFL course and lived in a shared flat, but it certainly wasn’t the laughable combination of individuals who I met that weekend. It was Jeff who greeted me at the door that day, and we remained friends throughout my life there. He’s possibly the most vivacious middle-aged man that I know, and he proved to be the most sane person in the flat, along with myself (so I like to think.) The middle-aged Canadian guys I met later, Andre and John-Joseph (JJ,) proved to be something else entirely.
As I dragged my luggage across the threshold to my bedroom, a small square of paper on the window sill caught my eye in the otherwise barren room. I stared at it for several seconds before realizing that I was looking at a print of an oversized, chubby baby, clad in a red cloak with a crucifix and holding his fingers in The Shocker position. I later discovered that our flatmate, JJ, had placed several of those creepy infant Jesus picture cards around the flat. JJ was a born-again Christian who had come to Prague to witness the start of some new Christian movement which he was convinced was to begin in the heart of Europe- specifically, in the Czech Republic, which boasts a population that is around 90% Atheist. JJ (who insisted we call him by his first and middle name, John-Joseph) wore all-black on a daily basis, and he sported a sort of highlighted Albert Einstein hairstyle. He completed his look with yellow-lensed, wraparound shades so that you could see that he was a total maniac without having to actually talk to him. Each day, he snoozed through TEFL class after having been out clubbing until 6 a.m. He winced whenever he heard one of us take the Lord’s name in vain, and would frequently scold me for doing so. Needless to say, we ended up not getting along at all, but truth be told, the guy would have been pretty hilarious to have around… except that he was also a total creep who spent his afternoon walks through Prague taking pictures of girls from behind. In short, he was just another example of a hypocritical, sorry excuse for a human being who hides behind his church. Of course, I didn’t know any of these things on the day I came to The Golden City, and I was far too exhausted from my travels to give the creepy baby picture much thought.
I had begun unpacking my clothes and small stereo when Jeff appeared in the doorway to let me know that he and Andre were headed downtown to get their public transit passes before we started class on Monday. It was early in the afternoon and I didn’t want to perpetuate my jet-lag by going to sleep just yet, so I joined them. I left the flat with nothing but my keys and our current address written on a slip of paper- Narodni Obrany 31, Praha 6. We weren’t even ten feet from our building before I realized what an utter fucking tool Andre was. A self-proclaimed intellectual and desperate bachelor, he had become completely insufferable by the time we’d made the four-minute walk to the metro station. I told my new flatmates that I was too exhausted to go downtown, and assured them that of course, I knew how to get back to the flat. The sun had come out, and I shielded my tired eyes as I crossed the square and made my way past shops and cafes that I had seen from my bedroom window. This was certainly my street. When I saw the blue address placard “31,” I stopped and tried my key. For a few seconds, it was tricky, but finally the key turned and I pushed through the door.
As soon as I entered the foyer, I was stunned. Hadn’t the floor been tile, not concrete? Weren’t there mailboxes on the left wall? There was the elevator by the stairs, but weren’t there two or three steps leading up to the elevator? I moved toward the elevator, taking slow, hesitant steps and looking all around in disbelief. Could I possibly be tired to the point of hallucinating? I took the elevator to the fourth floor, and the doors opened to reveal a scene I didn’t recognize. Pursing my lips and blinking hard, I decided to take the stairs back to the ground floor, hoping to recognize something. I reached the bottom of the stairs, having seen the whole place for the first time. Bewildered, I went back outside and took a look around. I surveyed the scene three-hundred-sixty degrees: there was the Albert market, there was the herna bar, there was the Lebanese restaurant (which I made a mental note to visit later) and there was the textile shop. Exasperated, I went back to the door of #31 and tried my key again. The key wouldn’t turn. I was on the verge of panic, when a young man approached with his own keys in hand. I stepped back and he opened the door, offering me a polite half-smile which I was too stressed to try to return. I followed him in and was hit with the same feeling that I was in an altogether different place. I turned in a slow circle before throwing up my hands in defeat and going back outside. I didn’t understand how I could be losing my mind so suddenly… I went to a pay phone on the corner, and proceeded to tell my Alice-In-Wonderland tale to a very Slavic-sounding police dispatcher, who quickly lost his patience with me.
“And vot exactly is it you want me to do?” officer Honza hissed into my ear. (I never actually got the officer’s name, but since it seems like every third Czech male I meet is named Honza, I am willing to bet that he is also called as such.)
“Well, I don’t really know. I mean, contact my embassy? Or something? I know I sound like I’m playing a joke.”
I had no idea what I wanted him to do or what he even could do, and we were getting nowhere fucking fast, officer Honza and me, as I continued paraphrasing my story and insisting that I wasn’t insane. I felt utterly defeated, and entirely misunderstood. I hung up the phone, on the verge of tears. I was painfully exhausted, my limbs trembling. My muscles were aching and my head was buzzing. I looked around… and there was my front door. There I stood, still gripping the frame of the phone booth, on the corner of my own street, and the street that I had been pacing for the past fifteen minutes. The stores I had seen outside my window were around the corner from my front door, for the love of Christ. It was then that I decided, fuck the clock and fuck whatever time zone- that I needed some rest, immediately. I collapsed in relief, first inside the foyer, then again in the elevator, and finally when I entered my bedroom and sunk into the bed under the baby Jesus picture. It made for a perfect introduction to the fact that Prague is a wondrous place where many things aren’t what they seem- a place where a key can inexplicably open a lock it wasn’t cut to fit; where one ought to pay attention and be aware. Looking back on those three years which unfolded from that very first day, it was the most perfect and appropriate first few moments in Prague. The only way to begin.