When I was in college, Prague was the new frontier. Everyone I met that had journeyed to the capital of the new Czech Republic came back with wistful stories of this newly accessible jewel. Twenty years later, it was my turn. It did cross my mind that perhaps, after so many years, this place may be changed. I worried that it may not be all that it was when it was first revealing its veiled beauty after over forty years of communist rule.
The allure of Prague is timeless, especially in the historic center. As we drifted through Old Town Square across the Charles Bridge, up to the castle, time suspended. The frenetic tourism industries were distracting and we found ourselves trying to get lost on side streets to avoid the tour sales and Thai massage pamphlets stuffed into our palms at every turn. It was a reminder however, that this is a free economy, and we are here because of that freedom.
If we had stayed in Old Town my experience in Prague would be draped in a fairy-tale haze, but we didn’t. We stayed in Žižkov, walking distance to the castle but through a completely different portal. Our neighborhood was full of people living their lives and we were the only tourists we came across. We spent time in the parks and street markets and bakeries soaking up what it feels like to live in Prague. We passed buildings still outlined in razor wire, skeptical gazes peered from apartment windows, and many heads were down as we passed people on the street. Initially we were not sure what to make of this contrast between Old Town and this slice of life for which we awakened each day.
Prague made us want to understand these differences. We learned that almost half of Prague’s GDP is from industry. The amount of arable land for miles around the city remains untouched as the agricultural sector only contributes 5%, which is quite low compared to many of the other countries we have visited. The largest part of the economy comes from the service sector. We felt the importance of the service industry when we were in the tourism “areas” but as soon as we crossed into real working neighborhoods, we felt daily life and it gave more depth to our experience.
Praha (English translation is Prague) actually means “threshold.” One definition of threshold is “the point at which a stimulus is of sufficient intensity to begin to produce an effect.” Prague is enduring. The contrast and images we took away with us are of “sufficient intensity” to change the way we see the world.
We feel grateful to have crossed the threshold. Prague taught us the value of wanting to see the whole picture even when we came for the google images. The understanding makes those images shine with a more knowledgeable patina and a richness that we will now seek.