I'm living in beautiful Prague and I think I might be going a bit mad…
My home for the time being is quite a large apartment on the third floor of a 19th century palace, and every time my feet go up and down the vast echoing stone staircase, past the huge wooden front doors standing on either side of each landing, I can hear the rhythmic accompaniment to my worried thoughts – like the terrifying soundtrack in a horror film.
The Americans tried to destroy this palace during the Second World War, when a hundred bombers flew along the Vltava River beside it and blew up several other buildings nearby, killing hundreds of people. They mistook it for Dresden! But this sturdy old palace stood firm.
The smiling elderly man downstairs who tells me this has lived here all his life. He's never dwelt in another building – only here: for seventy long, long years. Up and down the same staircase all his life, causing regular echoes in the stairwell with his feet. Up and down for seventy years: boy, man and old man. Up and down the same street beside the river, dodging holes in the cobbled pavement. Up and down, skirting around the dog shit which is everywhere in Prague. I'm sure the people train their dogs to shit outside their neighbours' doors. After all, they’ve been spying on each other for four hundred years. They did it for the Habsburgs. They did it for the Nazis. They did it for the Communists. An English friend of mine infuriated his wife recently by inviting into their flat the old woman who had been his wife’s next door neighbour all her life.
Now, the fact that I mention my own neighbour’s smiling makes the old man stand out from his fellow citizens. That's not a thing they do in Prague. Smile... There are people here who have never discovered the existence of smile muscles in their faces, and when they fail to smile at you on a regular basis – every day, for instance – it can seem like you're stuck inside your very own Groundhog Day, without hope of development or change. Which is bad for a claustrophobic like me, claustrophobia being the reason for my living beside the river with panoramic views of several bridges and the whole of the castle – the biggest occupied castle in the world, I'm told. Funny people, these Prague-dwellers…
City of Kafka, city of Faust. 'Our mother of claws,' as Kafka called it. And my apartment is only two streets from Faust’s house.
'I presume the seventy-year-old man’s family had denounced the previous Jewish owners to the Gestapo,' says Peter, a Prague exile who has lived in London for the past thirty years. He took his scepticism there with him. But, it must be noted, he had lost most of his family in concentration camps.
On the bright side, his mother had learned lots as a teenager from all the geniuses locked up with her in Theresienstadt. She called it the best time of her life and, when the Nazis moved her on to Auschwitz, she was liberated by the Allies after only two weeks.
Though she returned to a familyless Prague, she’s smiled a great deal since then. I’m still managing to a bit – my smile muscles haven’t packed up yet, as I struggle against my claustrophobia and contemplate my sanity in the city of Faust, two streets away from his house…