The buildings look tired, worn out from the hundreds of years of history. The graffiti covers the pale paint job that has withered from the weather. The columns, grand gothic structures, peer down, letting me know that my time in this central European city is coming to an end. The ground floor is inhabited by bright lights, loud advertisements, and self absorbed humans, buying plans and products they probably do not need. I can see into the intimate lives of others as the bright bulbs burning in their living rooms illuminate their world. The tram passes by with a loud grunt and all of a sudden the people around me begin to run, exercising their legs, saving them from the cold December weather.
I am on my way to dinner, eager to enter the brightly lit Vietnamese fast food restaurant that I have made my home throughout my month in the Czech Republic’s capital city. For me, this small eatery is the place where consistency lives. In a bowl of simple, steaming food, I found comfort during a month of loneliness. The owners, a small-framed husband and wife, who have been living in Prague for 19 years, quickly learned my face as I appeared almost daily with a predictable order — tofu pho. They always greeted me with a warm smile. I drizzled Sriracha and soy sauce into my soup and with a squeeze of lime and dash of some other dark-colored condiment, my new dinner ritual was complete. It became my obsessive habit to come into this restaurant, take a deep breath and eat in silence.
This was my month of invisibility. The days when no one asked me where I was going or where I was coming from. The moments when thoughts swarmed my mind, begging to leave my lips. I never thought that being alone with an empty schedule could be so difficult. A few social engagements and cultural events speckled my calendar, but each were followed by quiet hours where I had no obligation other than to think about the story that my grandmother’s survival has inspired me to follow.
Prague is a beautiful city and most tour books would rightfully use the word magical to describe the uneven cobblestone streets that lead to the river, the castle, the impressive theaters and prestigious Charles University. But, behind this busy mask of tourism lies my family history. I caught myself far too often envisioning what would be if the war had never come. Would Hana, my grandmother, be one of the elderly people on the trams being offered a seat by a young person whose generation had perhaps been molded by a peaceful and pleasant history? Parallel to what is now the fanciest and most expensive street in Prague is the apartment where she grew up. Would she still be living there today, walking up and down the winding staircase, the paint chipping between her fingernails from years of use?
I wish I could see Prague through the eyes of the other tourists. But, for me, this city serves as a museum and a reminder of a history long gone. When I walk into the Jewish buildings, I find my great grandparents names on the lists of those deceased and when I pass through the Old Town Square, I don't look to the well-known Astronomical Clock, I notice the store where my great grandfather once made his living. It is a strange feeling, to know that I am the only one in a dense herd of urban explorers who sees the streets for what was and not what is.
When I arrived in the first week of November, the sky was sunny and the weather was warm. The buildings were adorned with streaks of golden afternoon light and local Czechs filled the parks into the late evening. By the second week of December, when it was time for me to say goodbye, a cold, gray blanket had covered the historical landscape. Perhaps it was as simple as the oncoming winter weather that my feelings changed over the month. Or, maybe it was the fact that with every new day, I become closer to Hana's narrative and the weight of her reality.
When Hana left Prague in 1939, she didn’t know when she would return. As history unfolded and the war came to an end, she found an opportunity to see what was left of her life that went missing. In 1947, she boarded an airplane for the first time and flew from Denmark to Czechoslovakia. She found a few distant family members (some who I had the chance to spend time with over the past month), and documents and photographs left by her parents; these belongings are now in my possession. She chose to study Scandinavian languages and culture at The Charles University before deciding that Czechoslovakia, with its rising communist regime, was no longer the place she could call home.
I left Prague feeling satisfied as well as worn out from my experience, ready to move forward to the next phase of my journey.