Prague is an old charming lady all dressed up in a glittering frock and still flirting with hopeless visitors.
It’s beautiful. One of the most beautiful cities I have visited.
Overcrowded with tourists elbowing their way through the thick wall of busy fellow visitors with reddened faces.
Endlessly laying on the shore of the Moldova river, dipping its rock-like nose in the mantle of the many swans resting beneath the bridges.
Prague calls you with an enchanting voice and you need to get there to figure out, eventually, you will never grab that promise. You will always be a tourist, a visitor, a blurred face not intended to stay.
Local people will not flatter you, if you question them about a direction, they might act like they did not hear you, or they will withhold their stroll inviting you to be quick (…”or be lost”), they will not return your smile, in restaurants the waiters will not care much about manners.
There is a saying in Italy, which goes like this: the guest is like fish, after three days it starts stinking. The sensation is that your stay in Prague begins on one of those third days.
Then I was told, by local people, it would be proper, as a tourist, to know some local word; that if you smile to a stranger they might feel like you are trying to be tricky or that you are simply dumb. So don’t smile, don’t talk to women trying to be nice, talk with other tourists if you really have to, don’t expect a nice treatment from local people. Your face is and will stay blurred, meant to fade away soon.
After visiting Romania and talking with Russian people from Moscow, all this sounded so odd. As a traveler though, I know there is always much more to it than the superficial impression you get on your first day. Or even on your third one.
But first, let me tell you a story.
The Golem was a manlike creature made out of clay by Rabbi Löw.
The Golem had no voice and he could only “live” if a clay tablet was inserted in his mouth. But he had a gift: he grew more and more powerful every day and Rabbi Löw was happy because his Golem would be helpful for the whole community.
One day though, as he was singing psalm number ninety-two, the Rabbi was stopped by some people asking for his help: the Golem was destroying Rabbi’s house and uprooting trees. So all the poor man could do was taking the tablet out of Golem’s mouth. Forever.
This is why Prague is the only place in the world where psalm ninety-two is sung twice.
Even tho the legend of the Golem belongs to Jewish tradition and can’t be considered representative of the whole city’s cultural identity, when I read it I thought it was quite… appropriate.
What was meant to protect and support ended up destroying and betraying. To some extent, this tells a lot about trust and how local people value it.
As visitors, foreigners, why would we expect to be trusted? The country has dealt with invasions, totalitarianisms, persecutions. No surprise Czech people don’t trust foreigners. Furthermore, their beloved city is still invaded by swarming tourists.
I have the feeling Czechs learned to wear thinner voices as the whole world passed by with its ranting fanfare.
I am no sociologist, I have no explanation for this. I also know nearby countries deal differently with foreigners.
I can’t tell in which wrinkle of history Czech culture took this turn, but, as curious as I can be about such sociologic matters, as a tourist I don’t think it should make a difference.
A smile, in Prague? I’m sure it can be large, shining and rewarding. But gotta deserve it!
Or gotta get a clay tablet.0