It’s a party city—or so I’ve heard. And it’s part of the Visegrad group. I’ve been checking these special countries all off my list one by one, and Prague puts me at three out of four. It wasn’t even a deliberate decision on my part, I just got tired of the West, in all its shapes and forms.
The Czechs seem to be in a nice spot though. They got some prime real estate right smack in the sunny center of Europe. The grim dark grey gloom of Poland and Russia give way to blue skies and scattered groups of drunk Millennials sprawled out on green lawns by the historic landmarks during all hours of the day.
And, it doesn’t have a massive Roma problem like Budapest. You pick up on that very quickly.
Other than that, I’ve heard something about the city being famous for alchemy, its beautiful castle and while no one else seems to know it, I happen to have read that the first sighting of the Golem was here as well. “Nuh-uh,” they say, but a quick google search on my phone confirms the Golem story, and I show a picture to the two American girls. They say, “oh wow,” and nervously titter.
I’m kicking myself inside just as I finish forcing out a laugh as well.
I thought it would be funny and conversation-worthy, but I get the sense it creeped them out. We’re wandering in the historic Jewish Quarter, by the cemetery when I bring up the Golem. The sun is already setting.
All in all, a bad idea. And I’ve long ago noticed that normal people have this sort of voodoo-like approach towards Jewish history. Throwing a never-ending pity party makes people involuntarily shy away and reflexively shudder at stories about the Jews, regardless of context. See, these girls are as anti-anti-Semitic as they come, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think of black and white pajama-clad skeletons and twisted bearded men shuffling around in strange robes when they think about the Jewish people. That’s just a vibe killer, plain and simple.
I should have known that. I should have kept it light and funny. Irreverent and pointless. American-style.
Speaking of the West, at this point, I prefer to stick to the East because the commie blocks and terrible weather depress me far less than black faces.
East is good. West is bad. That’s the shorthand I’ve got in my head. But I still haven’t made up my mind about Prague.
I’ve got a set of golden scales in my head, and I load them up with weights, weights that I pick up all along the main road leading down into Prague’s Old Town Square as I take in the sights, smells and feels. And I let the scale dance back and forth, “East or West” about any city I visit now.
Up ahead, the pavement becomes cobblestone and the road shrinks. It is so clogged that you can’t march at your own pace anymore. All of a sudden, you putter to a stop and now you’re waiting to squeeze past fat British tourists and gaggles of Indians in saris buying traditional bread chimneys from the vendors dotting the medieval road.
Both groups glare at you as you shoulder past.
The atmosphere seems hostile, and you’re not sure why. Stopping to take a leak at an idyllic café tucked into a medieval courtyard, you look up into the mirror as you’re washing your hands and realize the problem.
You’ve got this Eastern European scowl deeply imprinted on your face that you’ve forgotten to take off.
A few splashes of water on your cheeks and then you begin to massage it away. It’s hard at first. You’ve got this gaunt look to you and it takes some effort to make any progress at all. First you try curling your lips at the edges so that it looks like you’re smirking. It feels like something’s cracking in your face, like the spring ice beginning to thaw. You keep massaging your cheeks as you let the smile spread wider and you flash your teeth at the mirror.
Better, but still not quite there.
Your eyes are staring too much, they look too intense, and there’s too much white showing between your skin and the blue iris. Worse, the skin around your eyeballs is too smooth and as a result, it doesn’t match the smile you’ve just managed to cobble together either. So you try squinting to break the stare, and get some loveable wrinkles going while pulling down on your forehead with the palms of your hands.
Only then does it start to come together.
“Smile with your teeth and relax your eyelids. Let them droop a bit so that you look sleepy and harmless.”
The old routine comes back.
And then after a few beers, and rearranging the weights on the scales in your mind a bit, you’re ready to go.
After a couple of days in Prague, just like anywhere in Europe, everything begins to fall into place. You’ve got the measure of the city. As usual, you’ve got the tourist center in the prettiest, most historic part. The best and most expensive places are there, which, naturally, means you won’t find a single local except maybe on a weekday, or working as a waiter, but that’s about it.
And at night the drug dealers and pimps come out. All African…which is strange, you must admit. You can forgive the masses of brown tourists clogging up the streets—they’re just visiting, after all. But are the Africans selling drugs to save up for their ticket back home to Africa…or Berlin? At night, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you’re in one of the vaunted Visegrad countries.
They are scattered all over the squares of Old Town. They mill around in the dark, clad in bright leather jackets and shining white shoes, wearing wool hats even though the weather is absolutely perfect.
“My fren, my fren. Discount, discount now. You give this and you get drink. Inside I show you. Cohm dis wae. Best girls.”
They try to wrap these paper and plastic wristbands around your arm as you try to wave them away. Or they just follow you around, heckling you till you start tensing up, and your disarming smile becomes more like a fear grimace or a baring of fangs. You stop at the cross light. The headlights of the cop car temporarily bleach your teeth and make the Africans’ yellow eyes sparkle.
They cops don’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary about dozens of Blacks selling hard drugs as they roll past. So you take their example, and you start moving along as well.
A glance over your shoulder from time to time just to be sure. You accidentally make eye-contact and—damn it—they take it as encouragement to keep up the chase. Like stray dogs with their tongues hanging out, they pant out promises of cocaine and hookers until they’re padding alongside you.
“My fren, you come this way!”
But past the cobblestone, the packs of Blacks clear up. And it’s a straight shot back to the loft I’m staying at in District 2, right on the outskirts of the downtown.
I get in late and realize the problem as I hit the bathroom for a shower.
I’ve forgotten to put my scowl back on.
The Eastern European scowl that keeps the packs at bay. See, it turns out that Eastern Slavs have developed a reputation in Europe for being hard. They baffle the Blacks because they’re the only Whites who never smile. They call them all “Russians” and they keep their distance.
And naturally, the Western Whites keep their distance as well.
That goofy, weak look smeared over your face like peanut butter is a necessary facet of life in the West. I know it well, and don’t begrudge the Westerners their traditions and coping mechanism.
But the next night, I’m out with my American friends and they’re already attracting attention.
At this point, it would be a bit too late in the story to introduce any new characters, but Bruce merits an exception, because I’ve been looking forward to partying with this guy for months now. See, Bruce’s whole life has been one big rave, listening to his stories that is. And believe me when I tell you that he revels in that image.
Looking at him, you think one thing: party boy.
Hanging out with Bruce and the two American girls he’s brought along means having a good time. Partying is serious business, and Bruce gives it the respect that it’s due. I think it’s the only thing in life he takes seriously, other than his workout routine—which is absolutely holy.
It makes sense that he has this attitude. Bruce was born into wealth, but then he and his family experienced a fall from grace. From what he tells me, cocaine and an easy lifestyle almost destroyed the second generation of scions from his family. He is now the third generation. It’s almost as if he’s experienced the peak and nosedive himself and now he’s done. Lived and felt it all. He possesses almost Zen-like blasé disregard towards money and status.
And the Africans can tell what a party boy looks like as well. I catch up to Bruce, and his wrist already has that gaudy pink plastic band wrapped around it. He’s already being led by the African to the side.
The two Blacks reach for another band.
“Very good, my fren. Very good, huh?”
Bruce grins back at them. He hates them just as much as I do.
They keep their distance from me though. No one reaches for my arm. See, Bruce is bigger and buffer, but he’s smiling and worse, the American girls have actually started talking with them.
This floors me.
I mean, these Americans are from Baltimore. How do they not know the score by now?
But then I remember how good Americans are at “preventative politeness.” The women especially think that by being excessively nice, they can talk their way out of any situation. This strategy only works with other Western Whites though—they start picking up on the excessive politeness and get…shamed? Or possibly reminded that there are social conventions at work here. Social faux pas that they might be committing. It’s like a subtle reminder that Western White use on each other.
“Don’t get too familiar with me, there are rules here.”—that’s what politeness administered in high dosages gets across.
It’s almost as if the excessive politeness of the defensive person reminds the more direct party of the existence of haut manners, and they perform a mental check on their own behavior and decided to “polite-n” it up to match the other party. At which point, the original polite party can use that politeness to excuse themselves from the situation, or guide the conversation into safer waters.
But it never works on Blacks.
They don’t pick up on that subtle stuff. They just take politeness as an invitation to keep on pushing. The fabled Black directness is at play tonight as well.
Three pink bands already on three white wrists. I snap out of my thoughts because one of the girls looks up at me, puzzled, unsure if something is wrong.
I guess, I’m not picking up my politeness levels. They’re already on a far higher frequency, and I’m not meeting them there. Their brains are no doubt confused and telling them that I’m in fact being rude to them. It probably doesn’t seem possible to them that a White guy could openly show disdain for Black behavior, in the street, right then and there in front of them. I’m being rude, even though they’re the ones about to con us.
I must have been glaring again, with my lips curled downwards and my jaw tensed so that the bones on the end of my jaw line showed.
The token Arab is already muttering something under his breath and there’s four of them now.
“Let’s just check it out,” the girl says. I give a little, force out a grin, and I take the proffered band myself.
At the very least, I’m not letting the African put any friendship bracelet around my wrist, that’s for damn sure.
They escort us to the entrance. It’s not far. It looks glitzy and sleazy, just as I expected. Inside, the place is packed with British tourists and older Boomer types from all over the world. There are also some Arabs that have rented out a room, the entrance is covered by hanging beads, but you can make out naked women’s bodies moving around inside. Some Africans with thick gold watches and chains around their necks have rented out the room next to that. Strangely enough, they’ve chosen a Black girl for the night.
To be fair, there’s some decent-looking women twirling around the poles in the soft pink and purple light in this place. And it definitely seems to be a place that Western tourists are visiting in droves.
Prague is a party city after all—which basically translates to a stripper/prostitute city. White people and their euphemisms and all that.
But the free drink they promised? Turns out it’s actually just a ten percent discount, “fren” and there’s a steep cover charge at the door.
Nothing that surprising about all of this. It was obviously a lie. The “cool place” promised was obviously a strip club or a brothel. Yes, it was obvious, but then, it would be harder to turn down those nice Africans in the street than to realize that before coming here.
This is the Western mentality, no other way to describe it.
We stand around for a bit before Bruce finally says what we’re all thinking: “we should probably go.”
I shrug and play it cool, “yeah sure, I don’t mind heading out in a bit” and I studiously stare at the hot pink bra of the stripper passing by to make my point.
As we’re leaving, I start telling Bruce about the whole attitude difference between East and West. But he doesn’t want to hear it.
“You’re looking for something out there,” he says. “But I’m not going anywhere. You’re talking about running away.”
I start to object, but he continues.
“I hate Blacks as much as you do, but you don’t need to show it.”
I shrug and demur, but I notice that this time Bruce is more firm with the Africans at the door. They’re unhappy that we’re leaving. They see their kickback leaving without emptying his wallet.
“No, thank you.” He says and there’s an edge in his voice.
I begin to hear the echoes of the Kipling poem in my mind about “long arrears to make good”—whatever that means, but also about how, “There was neither sign nor show” although I can definitely see that Bruce feels like he’s been taken for a ride and he’s starting to get testy.
I find myself wondering what it will take to see the Saxon begin to hate.
We shake off the last persistent African offering us drugs near the famous astronomical clock tower in the old town and we’re in the homestretch.
At this point, it’s so late that if we stay up a bit longer, it’ll just get light again. The girls have lagged behind, tired from all the bar-hopping and it’s just us. The tension has died down and we’re sobering up.
“I feel like you’ve got a lot of potential,” I tell Bruce.
The confident swagger in his voice is gone and he feels genuine all of a sudden, neither party boy, nor excessively polite. “I know, I’m just not…yeah, I know.”
I usually never talk directly to Americans like this. I’m a bit drunk and tired, I guess.
“You could do great things, you know.”
He doesn’t object or rib me for being too serious.
“Yeah, I think…yeah.” He says.
“Partying gets a bit old,” I say. “Sometimes you start thinking about something more.”
“Yeah,” he agrees again.
I know I’ll kick myself when I sober up again. This isn’t American-style. This isn’t light and fun.
But he seems into it.
“And you?” He asks. I shrug, but the scales in my mind have already finished dancing and have settled firmly, one arm of the scale deep in the dirt and the other pointed sky high. The verdict seems clear to me—Prague will be the furthest West I’ll ever go ever again if I can help it.
“Maybe I’ll visit soon,” I say.
He likes that.
Bruce is a good man all in all. Loyal to something that he can’t quite express. But it’s there, lurking underneath the party boy exterior. All the more remarkable is how rare it is to find that kind of quality in people of his caste. He’s a cosmopolitan, but he’s not rootless. In fact, he feels a profound attachment to his home, and he wants to do something to save it, even though he doesn’t know how. I used to think it was just fear of the new and the unknown, or just laziness in people like him…but now, I realize that we can’t all go East.
“Maybe you’ll visit me instead?” I counter-offer.
“I don’t know, maybe.” He deflects.
Truth be told, this is probably about as East as Bruce is willing to go.
And so it had to be here then. Perhaps Berlin would have been more symbolic, but Prague seems to be the new line. I’ve heard that they’ve got a fence along the border, but it seems that it’s a bit patchy in places if the downtown is anything to go by. It’s a shame that the Soviets never left them a proper wall. That would have kept things on ice for a couple of decades more. But as things stand now, I wonder if this place can really put up a proper stand. I would write some more about it, but really, it seems like just more of the same.
The sun is already peaking out as Bruce shakes my hand, we yawn and then say goodbye. I ask him what he thinks. He just shrugs and says, “hey, it’s better than Baltimore.”