The City of Coincidences

I’ll always feel a foreigner in this country, but perhaps the Euroscepticism in Britain that fuelled demands for the referendum will help me feel less of a stranger in my adopted home. So I decided to apply for Czech citizenship.

Photo: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho/CreativeCommons

I call it the “Prague Coincidence Effect”: bizarre coincidences and synchronicities that seem to occur more frequently in the Czech capital than elsewhere. The latest example involves this article. When I was asked to write it, I had been thinking much about my time in Prague and how the city has changed.

Maybe Franz Kafka was right about Prague having claws because, unusually, my relationship with the city goes back to childhood. Then, the only Czechs coming to Britain were escaping communism, including a local Prague-born doctor, whose son was in my primary school class. Jan added an exotic touch to our education in a drab Scottish new town in the 1980s. Perhaps that’s why I developed a fascination with a neighbour’s Škoda “Estelle”, as it was amusingly styled in Britain. Jan later left, but we had learned something about “a faraway country” as British prime minister Neville Chamberlain once notoriously described Czechoslovakia.

Later, at high school, I learned more about the Eastern Bloc, including Czechoslovakia and Václav Havel. I sat the class exam in May 1989; months later, much of the syllabus would be obsolete. But the chain reaction of revolutions sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe was bringing me closer to Prague.

In 1992, in the final academic year of my undergraduate urban planning course, my classmates and I had to choose the location of our field trip, which would take place the following year. We had to pick the Ruhr coalfield in Germany, or Prague. The decision wasn’t exactly agonising.

It was a scorching, sunny week when I visited the Czech Republic for the first time, in early summer 1993. We were a group of demob-happy students, our finals behind us. Field trips should involve hard work. Not this one. The only work involved was an A4 page of drivel scribbled during the return journey on an excruciatingly uncomfortable coach.

That week was one of the best of my life and truly life-changing. Prague mesmerized me. The Czech Republic seemed so new; the spiky-looking Czech language seemed so unfamiliar. Mundane activities such as trips to the neighbourhood supermarket transmogrified into mini adventures. Riding the metro was a particular source of wonder and amusement, eliciting maniacal group chants of “Ukončete výstup a nástup,” (“Finish boarding and alighting”) – or more accurately our garbled approximation of the warning – on the slightest pretext.

Thoughts of living in Central Europe constantly went round in my head after returning, and following a series of holidays in the region, and a potential job offer in Brno in 1997, I came to Prague on spec in early 2000. I had been working in building conservation, and Prague was an obvious location for such work.

The conservation opportunities came to nothing, but I loved Prague and wanted to stay. I had settled in well and savoured living in a European capital, with everything it had to offer. But I also appreciated the large village atmosphere, which was probably why I always seemed to be forever bumping into friends and colleagues. Prague was wonderfully liveable, exemplified among other things by excellent public transport, safe streets, and laid-back cafés, where, unlike in the UK, lingering was quite acceptable.

A few months later, after considering my options, I followed a standard route and started editing English texts written by Czechs. Later, thanks to a connection with a Czech journalist who used to work for my hometown newspaper (yet another Prague Coincidence), I moved into journalism, and then translation. A rather appropriate path, as I enjoyed these subjects at school, although I chose a different career path. In true Prague Coincidence fashion, I’ve come full circle, and now I’m focusing mostly on writing, including travel pieces. I’ve had such an opportunity in Prague and am grateful for that. Such a career change would have probably been less likely were I to have stayed in Britain.

I’m also grateful that because I live in a capital, I’ve been able to meet people from an eclectic range of backgrounds and places. In particular, I’m fascinated by the stories of those who made Prague home just after the Velvet Revolution. I envy them. They were fortunate enough to live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities – during a time of enormous change.

But if I never experienced Prague at the inception of the post-communist era, visits to the Castle offer me a glimpse of that period. For I always associate the vast, elegant complex with the late President Václav Havel, who took office during those heady, more innocent days. Equally, Prague Castle reminds me of the first Czechoslovak President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, a progressive, even-handed predecessor to whom Havel is frequently compared.

I admire the dignity and moral authority of both leaders, and during the run-up to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, I often thought of them, their examples, and of what small, independent countries could achieve. I miss Václav Havel but am proud that my early days in the Czech Republic coincided with part of his presidency.

Sadly, I don’t quite feel the same way when I visit the Castle now because of the antithetical behaviour of Havel’s successors, especially the incumbent’s antics. I’m alarmed at the atmosphere he is encouraging, reflecting the ominous direction in which politics is heading, not just in the Czech Republic.

Another consequence of these divisive politics is unintended and, ironically, for me at least, more positive. At the time of writing, Britain is facing a referendum on staying in the EU. So I decided to apply for Czech citizenship, possible under a little-publicised new Czech law. I’ll always feel a foreigner in this country, but perhaps the Euroscepticism in Britain that fuelled demands for the referendum will help me feel less of a stranger in my adopted home.

David Creighton

David Creighton

studied urban planning and building conservation in the UK, at undergraduate and post-graduate levels respectively. He has lived in Prague since 2000 and works as a freelance journalist, copywriter and translator.