I wanted to love Prague.
With all my heart, I wanted to.
I’d read about how it had the most green space of any European city. I’d heard it was wildly affordable. It’s so cute, everyone cooed. And the photos seemed to agree.
So when Chad said he wanted to be in big cities with tech scenes and networking opportunities and communities full of young professionals, Prague was the first place we decided to try.
Which is why it came as a pretty crushing disappointment when we both were ready to leave after only a few days of our two-month stay.
Were there things we liked about the city? Sure there were. My happiest days were at the farmers markets, and there’s a pretty sprawling park up north. The old town area near the castle is cute, and the food tour we took was fine. The writers I met up with were super nice, as was our landlord, our tour guide, and the folks at our favorite restaurant.
But overall, Prague wasn’t my place (or Chad’s) and by the time August started winding down, we were counting down the days out loud each morning.
Just four more days. We only have to make it four more days! Three more days! Two and a half!
There were plenty of reasons for this and these were some of the biggest:
1. It’s a classic big city.
So, here’s a thing I know about myself: I don’t like big cities.
I don’t like the crowds and the noise, the cars and pollution, the apartments all bunched up together, the streets hemmed in by six- and seven-story buildings like you’re walking through a maze. I don’t like the litter or the way summers are 10 degrees warmer or the feeling that I’m far far away from nature and space and real quiet.
And maybe it should have been obvious that Prague would be like any other big city. I probably should have known.
But for some reason, reading about how the city has the most green space of any in Europe made me think it would be different. Greener. Quieter. More manageable.
And the truth is that it wasn’t.
The parks were there, sure, but so was the litter in most of them, so was the ever-present car noise that I could still hear even as I wandered down the walking trails. So was the construction noise that seemed to follow me across town, work on a building here, work on a road there.
Does this make Prague a bad place? Not at all. But does it mean I was sorely mistaken in thinking it would be different than other big cities? Yes, yes I was.
2. I felt unwelcome.
Slip into the forums and Facebook groups for Prague expats and international residents or the Google reviews around town and you’ll find a disturbing trend: stories of nurses hanging up on patients when the patient asks if the nurse speaks English, stories of vets refusing care to an animal because the visitor bringing the pet in doesn’t speak Czech, stories of businesses charging double or triple for non-natives.
I think I encountered this twice, myself, in two months in the city. It was one of those things that was hard to judge. Was I charged double because I spoke English or for some other inscrutable reason? I wasn’t really given an answer, so I can’t say for sure. But I can say that it felt wrong and I felt unwelcome. And I can say that when I went online to see if there was any basis for these feelings, I found mountains of stories more blatant than mine. People being hung up on for asking about English. People being told straight up that they weren’t going to be served.
And, hey, I guess if that’s how Prague wants to do business, more power to them. But I certainly don’t want to participate in a system where the square of dirt I was born on or the language I speak makes a difference in the service I receive. I find it deplorable when the US does it, and I find it equally deplorable here.
And obviously it’s not every nurse or every vet or every hairdresser, but it’s common enough to raise some alarm bells. And I’ll be damned if I spend my time or money in a place where a doctor might refuse me service or a vet might let Luna die because I haven’t learned every world language.
3. There’s a heaviness to the city.
This is a tough one to put my finger on because it’s so intangible. But for me, places have a certain feel to them. New York feels frenetic. The US right now feels anxious, simmering. The Swiss Alps feel expansive. And Prague feels heavy.
Perhaps it’s the fact that Communism wasn’t that long ago and the city is still finding its footing? Perhaps it’s generational trauma from the war?
I’m not qualified to really speculate, but what I can say is that for me there’s a feeling I just can’t shake here. A depression. A heaviness. And as someone with her own depression to deal with, a city that feels soaked in it isn’t the healthiest place for me to be.
4. People in customer service were intensely irritable.
I was on my way to the laundromat and I needed change, so I stopped into a grocery store and bought a sports drink. I handed over my big bill and the woman behind the counter asked if I had something smaller.
She asked in Czech, but I knew what she was asking. I said no.
Thinking I didn’t understand, she asked in English. I said no again.
Then, with the kind of fury usually reserved for someone who insulted your mother, she whipped the bill around, slammed my change down just out of my reach, threw my receipt in my general direction, and started checking out the next person in line, putting their groceries on top of the change I was scrambling to collect.
This kind of rage-over-nothing just kept happening to me throughout my stay.
One day it was the cashier mad about a big bill (the ATMs here, by the way, only give big bills, so I’m not sure what other option the cashier thought I had). Another day it was a tea vendor who refused to even try to speak with me. Still another day (though this one was outside Prague) a waiter yelled the f word when he brought us the wrong order. Everywhere we looked there were outsized responses to small inconveniences, many of them (like the big bills) outside our control.
And look, I understand that sometimes tourists might be harder to serve. Speaking in a combination of German and English words and pantomime isn’t an ideal scenario. Dealing with a person who doesn’t know your culture’s norms might take a few seconds longer than someone who does. But throwing things and screaming are reactions I haven’t really seen before. They’re so aggressive. So outsized. So unnecessary. Especially when I’m doing everything in my power to be pleasant, to use the few Czech words I’ve learned, to say thank you over and over again.
Frankly, it was exhausting. And I just don’t want to be in a place where so many people employed in sales and customer service are so angry all the time. Especially when my mental illness gives me my own outsized, internal panic reaction to being shouted at.
And so by the time we boarded a tram then a series of trains bound for Budapest and then Romania, we were both more than ready to be out and hopefully never return. For some, Prague may feel like a fairy tale. And that’s great. But for me, it was really a lesson: I still don’t like cities, no matter how much people might rave about them. And though there are exceptions (I do love me some Paris), it’s always best to do a quick trip through first before committing to such a long, long stay.
Every time I write about a place I didn’t love, the hate mail comes rolling in. If you’re feeling outraged, please keep a few things in mind before you leave a comment:
1. We don’t all love the same places (and that’s okay). My experience doesn’t erase yours and yours doesn’t erase mine. Me disliking a place you love isn’t a personal attack on you or your taste.
2. There are lots of complicated reasons a place is the way it is. I don’t always get into those because all I’m doing here is telling you about my personal experience. History texts are a great place to dive in if you want to try and understand where mindsets, patterns, and context come into play.
3. A three-day vacation spent in Old Town is different than a two-month stay in a local neighborhood. This is probably why I’d heard so many rave reviews before I came here. If we’d passed through for a long-weekend, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with Prague the way others seem to, but I also would might have thought the irritable customer service was unusual and I may not have noticed the xenophobia. Don’t forget that when I’m traveling, I’m usually really living in a place for awhile and that’s a very different experience than a weekend away.
4. Disliking a place isn’t the same as hating its people. Do I kind of hate the lady who let her dog pee in our building’s hallway over and over again? Yeah. Do I definitely hate the creepy old guys who put their hands on me on the trams? Absolutely. Am I not a fan of customer service people who fling change at me? You betcha. Do I think they reflect all Czech people? Of course not. So don’t try to turn this into that.