Our experiences as travelers are unique in that we get to inhabit a place without at all inhabiting a place. We stay in hotels, not knowing what the apartments look like. We hang out in city center, never seeing the areas where most people live. As much as I love to extrapolate and try to imagine what it would be like to live somewhere, you never really know until you do it.
I’ve been living in Prague for three years, and this is what everyday life is really like here.
You wake up to the light of the sun at 5 am. It’s almost summer so it’s still cool outside, but the sun is out for 16 hours a day. You either become a morning person or get used to sleeping in broad daylight. By the time you get out of bed, there’s just enough time to eat breakfast before the handyman shows up. He said he would come at 11 am, but he’s buzzing to get inside the building by 10:40 am. He doesn’t speak a word of English and you can barely string 3 phrases together in Czech. So you communicate by smiling and pointing. He puts reusable shoe covers on before walking into the apartment. Shoes inside the house in the Czech Republic are a big no no. He offers to vacuum after himself after he’s done.
You go downstairs where bar patrons and their dog are loitering and smoking. They’ll never bother you getting in and out of the building, even if you’re alone, even if it’s 4 am. You need to pick up some groceries, even though you went to the grocery store two days ago. It’s a nice day out, so you walk to Tesco, which is farther than Penny Market or Billa or the four Asian markets that are on your street, but it’s bigger and has more variety. It takes about three songs’ worth of walking to get there, but when you’re feeling lazy, you take the tram, which takes 4 minutes.
You stock up on whatever you need, occasionally using Google Translate to figure out what the hell you’re looking at. The bakery hasn’t stocked the bread section yet, so you’ll have to come back tomorrow. But corn is back in stock, and you haven’t seen corn in seven months, so this is the most exciting thing to happen to you all week. There are long lines to check out, even though it’s Tuesday morning. Doesn’t anybody work?
The checkout process is fast. Everyone bags their own groceries into their reusable bag before the cashier is done scanning them. To save yourself the potential awkwardness of being asked something you don’t understand, you can use the self-checkout lanes. But those inevitably error if you place an item on the scale incorrectly, so you have to ask for help anyway. “I need help please” is one of the first phrases you learn to say in Czech.
You take the tram home, and as luck would have it, you just missed it. But the next one is only 3 minutes away. Someone on the tram smells like they died of alcohol poisoning and they’re already well on their way to decomposition. Happy Tuesday to you too. At the following stop, the driver gets out of his cubby to help an old lady bring her rolling cart onboard. When she enters, three people get up to offer their seat. Aside from these small acts of kindness, people don’t acknowledge each other in public. Most people are either reading, looking at their phones, or speaking in hushed tones. Learning how to use an inside voice outside is key to fitting in as an expat in Prague.
Since it’s still sweater weather even at 1 pm, you decide to go for a run. You can run three miles in a circle and you’ll pass through four different parks. There are mothers pushing strollers and groups of schoolchildren wearing bright yellow safety vests writing in chalk on the sidewalk. Someone that you’re sure is homeless is reading on a bench next to the public bookcase in the park. People are running alongside their dogs, who don’t have a leash; they’re the most obedient dogs on earth. If it was the weekend, you might come across a festival that you didn’t know was going on. There would be tents, and people lying on blankets under the shade drinking prosecco. There might be live music and crowds, and then you’d quickly realize that you prefer a beer to a run. So you’d stop and join the revelers and relish the view – because there’s always a view. Over the tops of red roofs and green trees, you’d see the spires of dozens of churches and towers and forts, and that never gets old. Not after three months, and not after thirty.
You get a Facebook notification about three events you have today. You always have at least three events going on at any given time, but you’re always home watching Netflix. There’s a Prague philharmonic concert that you never got tickets to and is now sold out. There’s a burger and beer festival on Naplavka, but you’re not in the mood to go all the way to the river. And there’s a movie screening in Karlin that you were never interested in that someone invited you to.
You end up going to one of the same three restaurants you always frequent or one of the same two bars, neither of which is the bar downstairs because you’re not an alcoholic soccer fan. On the way into city center, you can already start to see the crowds thickening. Everyone on the tram has to stand to accommodate the 5,000 tourists heading to Prague Castle. You can see rowdy stag parties stumbling around the city – parties that the city is trying to curtail by banning pub crawls and beer bikes and other stupid drunk shit that you only do when your buddy is getting married and you’re on vacation.
When you sit down to eat, the waiter immediately brings you the English menu even though you gave him your best Czech greeting. You don’t need the menu anyway, because you already know what you want. You realize the only conversations you can pick up around you are Americans’. They’re here for the weekend before heading to Budapest, or they’re studying abroad, and they don’t know how to speak in an indoor voice even indoors. Someone also brought their two golden retrievers to the restaurant. They’re so well-behaved that they won’t even approach you to ask for food, but you wish they would.
At dinner, you talk about whatever adventures everyone has been up to since you last saw each other – travels, dating, sports injuries, salsa classes. No one ever really talks about work. You might go months without knowing what someone does for a living, because that just never comes up. When you finish eating, you get up to pay without bothering to ask for the check. Sitting around and waiting to pay is for fools. You tip, even though people here almost never do. Then you relocate somewhere else to get coffee and cake. You probably spent the exact same amount of money on dinner and drinks as you did for a week’s worth of groceries earlier in the day. On weeks when you’re more judicious about your day-to-day spending, you can afford to go to Italy for the weekend.
The sun might still be out by the time you get home, and you thank God (that neither you nor most Czechs believe in) that it’s not summer yet because you don’t have air conditioning. But summer will come. And when it does, life will still be about the same, just a lot sweatier.