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Guest Post: Zuzu in Prahaland

This piece originally appeared at The Displaced Nation, June 2011.

When I first moved to Prague I had no idea I’d be entering a living snow globe rather than going down the proverbial rabbit hole. Not just any old snow globe, but one incessantly shaken by a petulant child, refusing to let but a glimmer of sunlight through the gray haze. I also had no idea that Prague was not so much a city, but rather some kind of unpronounceable Lovecraftian entity with a mind of its own.

The old mother with claws

Kafka called Prague “the old mother with claws,” and he struggled his whole life to escape from her clutches. He never managed.

After four years in her grasp, I myself feared I would never get out from her cruel and cold embrace. My suspicion is that if you die in Prague, your soul is trapped here forever, unable to move on or away, locked in a limbo that the entity within feeds upon, like a relentless vampire queen.

Since the Velvet Revolution that ended the reign of Communism in 1989, Prague has welcomed fresh blood in the form of expats with open arms. There is an entire community of American, Australian, British, Canadian and other expats who have lived here since the 1990s, and they make up their own insulated subculture within greater Prague. The mother claws have them, and good.

These long-term expats joke that Prague is a city that draws you in, makes you comfortable — and then, in the snap of a bony hand, chews you up and spits you out.

In my brief tenure I have witnessed this phenomenon several times: expats, happy as pie, loving the beer and the high life Prague affords — only to find themselves unceremoniously booted out of the country with no friends, no money and only a drinking problem to show for their life here.

Many of those who remain in the clutches for too long have, in the process, become a mutant strain of Czech: wary of outsiders, unwelcoming and generally cold people unless surrounded by their own.

The mother claws are a fickle bunch, taking what they need and discarding of you when there is nothing left.

Prague isn’t just a city, but an entity of some kind. My creativity in Its abode has come with often hefty prices. Two years into my stint here, I developed tendinitis in both wrists simultaneously from a combination of overwork and the extreme cold. I spent three months with both wrists in braces, unable to wash or clothe myself; it took steroid shots and brutal physiotherapy to finally get my hands back in working order.

Now I have the uncanny knack of predicting rain and cold snaps.

Looking back at this strange, sometimes nightmarish interlude, I offer up 20 stream-of-consciousness memories:

1. The place where my husband and I went from being just a couple to being a team.

2. A fairytale land on this side of the rainbow where my dreams started to come true — published in print for the first time, wrote my first screenplay, published my first novel and began work on its three sequels, started building my own platform as a writer. I can call myself what I wanted to be ever since I can remember.

3. Neo-Nazis and being screamed at by a racist Czech granny on the 18 tram.

4. Getting caught in the blizzard of 2010 and finally understanding that it’s not only people that can threaten you — the very elements themselves are forces of their own will and we live at their whim.

5. The phenomenal view of the University Botanical Garden from our living room window, as well as the original 6th century settlement of Prague, right smack in the middle of the city.

6. Chapeau Rouge, the friendliest bar in Prague — but only if you are there with me. I’ll make sure you pay homage to what I call Our Lady of the Music: an art installation featuring a Mary with a disco ball above her head and a record between her praying hands.

7. Discovering Afghan cuisine and vegetarian restaurants; also remembering South Indian cuisine and ordering Indian delivery online — useful especially when the streets were knee-deep in snow.

8. Bara, the world’s most talented tattoo artist: she gave me wings, stars, Falcor and Edward Scissorhands.

9. Cold that sinks right into your bones, feet aching and joints swelling from trudging through it across treacherous cobblestones and hidden patches of ice.

10. Bonsai and carnivorous plant exhibits at the Botanical Garden.

11. Sitting in our apartment, feeling my ears pop like I’m on an airplane from the rising and falling air pressure.

12. Lady Gaga’s monster brawl at the O2 arena: the Czechs marked the 21-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution by punching people who wanted to dance; MGMT at Divadlo Archa; free passes to the Irish-American funk band Flogging Molly at Retro Music Hall — and hanging out with them afterwards.

13. Dancing in what was then Klub Kostel (literally, Church Club) on Hallowe’en, dressed as a witch.

14. Yearly fireworks and light shows over Vyšehrad (castle on a hill over the Vitava River), with a stage front view right from our window.

15. Mourning the deaths of, from a distance, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Patrick Swayze, Corey Haim, Ryan Dunn … and close up, Curtis Jones, an American expat performance artist who’d been living in Prague since 1989 — a dear friend to many dear friends of mine in this city.

16. Cleaning up my first ever poop-drenched child, at an international pre-school where I worked. (I don’t and never will have kids.)

17. The vista of Prague from the tram on the way up to the castle, skyline scraped with spires and a cloud of fog overhead, feeling like I had somehow escaped the evil snow globeness if only for a moment.

18. Working for a newspaper, a mentally unbalanced artist, a shady off-shore investment banking firm, an international relocation company, a British school, and the largest university in central and eastern Europe.

19. The stench of Prague’s walking dead — homeless people with rotting parts of their bodies or insides, including one fellow with a black foot, the gangrene working its way up his leg. The worst thing I have ever smelled in my life, and I’ve lived in India and Africa; impossible to describe how awful and sad it is.

20. Seeing open graves for the first time ever, in Olšanské hřbitovy (Prague’s largest cemetery) — and imagining an imminent zombie invasion.

Na shledanou, Prahaland

I have made a tenuous peace with Prague.

This has been a place of great pain and great inspiration. The Entity is letting me go without a struggle: It knows that I will be telling stories about It for years to come.

It doesn’t even care if I paint Its portrait with darkness and horror — It wants to be seen, It wants to scare, It wants to fascinate so it can feed.

It knows the things I write, good and bad, will help bring many more people into Its icy embrace.

Prague is always hungry for fresh blood. Will yours be next?