The girl flicks her long black hair, licks her scarlet painted lips and shimmies onto the bar stool next to me. There is a rustle of silk and a waft of musky perfume.
“Good evening,” she purrs, “are you looking for a good time?”
I scratch my chin, put down the book I am reading and take a long swallow of my rather excellent Czech beer.
“Sorry, I thought I was already having one,” I smile and pointedly return to my book.
She does that thing with her lips that only Eastern European girls can do (at least successfully) and, rather bemusedly, returns to the other end of the bar.
The Czech Republic, Chamberlain’s “faraway country containing people of whom we know nothing” and I have a complex love-hate relationship, but it always seems to come down to women in this part of the world for me. It was in Prague, some seven hour’s train journey from here that my girlfriend and I shared a first kiss to the sounds of the Loretto’s bells. Ok, so she then broke my nose with a well aimed stiletto and, to top off an all together emotionally demanding day, proceeded to break my heart by running off with an overly hirsute Czech plumber she met on the wonderfully Baroque Charles Bridge â€“ but it was still vaguely romantic…
It was also here that I arranged to meet another girlfriend (whom I suspect I only dated because she preferred flat shoes to stilettos) for weekend of illicit romance only to get so plastered the night before that I ended up waking up, sans trousers, in a field in Denmark. Not only did I miss my flight but I also managed to miss the Velvet Revolution which took place that weekend. I lost the girl and a great chance to have been part of history.
These thoughts, and others (like where is the bloody bus station) are at the forefront of my mind as I click-clack my little rolling suitcase across the damp cobbles of a mist-shrouded Ostrava and wait, under a bruised sky, which already looks pregnant with snow, for the bus to Prague. Of course, I think rather bitterly, as the first tendrils of winter make me huddle deeper into my jacket, I could have flown to Prague, but where is the catharsis in that?
This trip, from the industrial and smoke stained town of Ostrava to Prague is meant to be cathartic for me. It’s a personally prescribed therapy; an attempt to return to days more innocent when I thought nothing about disappearing for weeks on end and dissolving slowly into the landscape. It’s also a time for me to quietly reassess my life, to take stock of things on a personal level and to try to re-establish some kind of equilibrium. It is ironic I think, as the bus finally coughs and farts its way out of this antagonistically dirty town, that I have come to the Czech Republic, of all places, to do this as of all the European countries I have visited this one has caused me the most emotional troubles. Hours later the bus finally limps, like a drunken dame, into Prague and gently massaging my numb backside (how on earth did I ever survive those mega bus trips across South America?) I set off to find my hotel and see how much the city has changed since I was last here.
Ten years ago Prague wasn’t the tourist soaked, beered-up-boys-on-the-lash party capital that the city has sadly become today. There was a beautiful charm to the city – an almost lightness of Baroque in the city centre, which hadn’t really changed for five hundred years. Prague had a gently understated eloquence which was tinged with the melancholic memories of the past yet tempered by waves of anticipation for the future which had finally arrived (it also, I noted in my diary circa 1988, smelt of dumplings and warm beer). It was the kind of place where you could stay in the best hotel in town for free just because the manager too had once been a romantic and felt for anyone with a broken heart (and a badly broken nose which dripped blood all over his ‘historically significant’ parquet floors…)
It was also the place where you could sit in coffee shops, listen to Miles Davis and debate the finer points of Karel Capek or Hodrava’s unique abilities. And, above all, Prague was a city to fall endlessly in love in. There seemed to be a magic seeping out from the very foundations of the city which turned the mundane into the exquisite and the bland into the downright beautiful. Every bar seemed to be designed to ignite even the most platonic of friendships into a steamy love affair whilst a night at the opera could really only end in a breathless night of passion – which, I am sure, is the only reason for having to sit through an opera anyway.
It was an intoxicating time to be in the country. I danced the night away with the impossibly beautiful in chic clubs, drank gallons of insanely-cheap iced vodka and eerily luminescent Absinthe with Velvet Revolutionists, and watched the country slowly find its feet. The shackles of communism had been gently laid aside and the possibilities, it seemed, were endless. In those days, Kafka was most definitely wrong when we described Prague as, ‘an old crone with claws.’ The economy was beginning to pick up, people were looking to the future and everyone had a plan or a hustle to get rich quick.
And then, with the advent of budget airlines, and the global realisation that Czech woman are beautiful and the beer is stupidly cheap (I wonder if there is a direct correlation between the two?), the tourists arrived en masse and the city, like some character from a Kafka novel, slowly began to reinvent itself. Prague suddenly became the ‘hot’ place to go.
As I stand, huddled down in my jacket, on the Charles Bridge I am surrounded by a Babel of voices. Tourists from the whole of Europe mingle, take pictures and try to be romantic. It is late at night and the temperature is plummeting but still the bridge heaves. These days it’s barely possible to walk across the bridge without bumping into tourists let alone launch a well aimed stiletto. Taking a picture of my beloved, as I once did, standing moodily alone on the bridge shrouded in mist would now be, tragically, impossible. Later, when I get home, I take the photo of her from the pages of my diary where it marks the day we split up and try to marry the two images together. It’s almost impossible to believe that only seven years have passed (and that I had such an achingly pretty girlfriend back then).
With a profound sense of longing for the past I wander deeper into the old town and try to find some of my old watering holes. The night, which now lies thickly over the town, is still and deep. The restaurants around Wenceslas Square are filled with tourists and evening suited waiters flit around carrying flagons of ale and small shot glasses of viscous fluid to excited tourists. Undoubtedly this is a beguiling and charming city, and the architecture still makes my soul swoon, yet I can’t help but feel that some of the innocence has been lost. It feels as if a tacky, cheap veneer has been laid over the city. I can no longer imagine conducting a passionate love affair in this city or steaming a kiss to the bells of the Loreto. The bells today only peel for progress and I no longer feel I belong here.
I sigh deeply, take a last wistful look around the city and jump into a taxi.