The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

“Zuzu in Prahaland”: A departing expat takes inventory of strange, Lovecraftian Prague

For much of June, The Displaced Nation has been looking at what the story of Alice in Wonderland can tell us about displacement of the curious, unreal kind — as anchored by Kate Allison’s 5 Lessons Wonderland taught me about the expat life, by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Today we welcome guest blogger Sezin Koehler, who received one of our Alice Awards for writing about her current home, Prague, in this vein. Koehler and her husband plan to leave the Czech Republic on August 2. Here, she credits their four-year stay in its capital city for bringing out the Alice in Wonderland, or Zuzu*, in her character.

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?

*Sezin Koehler owes her nickname “Zuzu” to Rebi and Tereza, two Czech girls she took care of in an after-school program she organized. “Good afternoon, Miss Zuzu,” they would say. “Zuzu” is a common Czech nickname, short for “Zuzana.” This tickled Koehler’s fancy as one of her favorite films of all time — It’s a Wonderful Life — features a character named Zuzu Bailey. She has even named her blog Zuzu’s Petals — which, she says, “signify the most beautiful turning point in the film.”

Sezin Koehler is a half-American, half-Sri Lankan global nomad, horror novelist, writer and editor. Her first novel, American Monsters, was released last year. It has since been picked up by Ghostwoods Books, and an illustrated 2nd edition will be released by Fall 2011. Koehler’s Twitter moniker is @SezinKoehler.

img: “NO REST FOR THE WINGÉD — Zuzu Kahlo,” by Steven Koehler.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post consisting of quotes attesting to the curious, unreal nature of Wimbledon tennis — which, to the more discerning observer, can seem disturbingly akin to the Queen of Hearts’ game of croquet.

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17 responses to ““Zuzu in Prahaland”: A departing expat takes inventory of strange, Lovecraftian Prague

  1. Sezin Koehler June 27, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you, Displaced Nation, for publishing my first “eulogy” to my life here in Prague. Have any of you ever been here in your global travels?

  2. ML Awanohara June 27, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Hi, Sezin. What a wonderful, whimsical eulogy to your adopted home, quite befitting of Alice! No, Mother Prague hasn’t gotten her claws into me yet — does that mean I’ve escaped? The closest I’ve gotten was Budapest. We went there several summers ago for about a week, staying in a flat with a view of the Danube from its tiny balcony. I was swept up in the romanticism while also being aware of all the sufferings Hungarians have endured. They haven’t got the best geography — that’s putting it mildly!

    Here’s a question for you, something I was wondering about while in Budapest: what’s the difference among the Hungarians, the Poles, and the Czechs? Can they tell each other apart? Can you? Or are they all part of the same east European Wonder-Horror Land? Any enlightenment you can offer would be much appreciated!

    • Sezin Koehler June 28, 2011 at 4:17 am

      Hi ML, Thank you!

      I definitely think that the Czechs can tell the Hungarians from the Poles from the Ukrainians, Slovakians, etc. In many ways, the Czechs feel they are of a higher breed or class of people than those cultures, I’m not really sure why but there is a lot of animosity directed towards those groups, and especially the ones that live in the Czech Republic. I don’t know if it’s because of jobs or whether there is a deeper cultural issue at hand. I do know that Czechs can tell where they are from based on their accent in Czech, although I can’t say if they recognise each other by sight.

      Many people here say that the Czechs wariness and outright distaste of foreigners is because they have been colonized and occupied so many times. How did you find the Hungarians? Were they helpful and friendly to you?

      • ML Awanohara June 28, 2011 at 12:48 pm

        I’m sure that being colonized and occupied many times takes its toll on the national character (see my comments on SE Asia below, though ironically, Thailand is the one country in that part of the world that hasn’t been colonized).

        We found the Hungarians friendly enough, but then we were there for only a short time: my husband was attending a conference of central bank officials, during and after which we toured around the city, took a boat trip down the Danube, etc.

        We had only one incident that would qualify as unfriendly — when a ticket collector on the tram tried to fine us a ridiculous amount because I hadn’t gotten our tickets stamped properly or some such nonsense. We were on our way to the Turkish baths, and he followed us all the way there, demanding that we pay up or else… We weren’t quite certain of where we were going, and we could perceive the tension in his face of wanting to help us to our destination (a few times he told us where to turn) while also being determined to keep up his harassment campaign.

        Every time we recount this story to those who are familiar with Hungary, they say: “How classic, how Hungarian — wanting to befriend and get rid of the outsider at one and the same the same time.” The result of having to make so many bargains with the devil…

  3. awindram June 27, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Yes, I visited Prague when I interrailed one summer as a student.

    @ML I’m confused by your question.

    • ML Awanohara June 27, 2011 at 10:31 pm

      @awindram
      Sorry for the confusion. Rather like Westerners who think the Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese all look similar, I have trouble distinguishing among various East Europeans — not only by looks but also cultural traits. I’m curious: how do they see each other? And after four years in Prague, does Sezin have her own sense of Czechs vs Poles vs Hungarians? Question inside my question: am I wide of the mark in even asking this? Perhaps Eastern European countries have so much in common — all have been the victim of German and then Russian occupation — that any cultural differences seem minor by comparison?

      • Sezin Koehler June 28, 2011 at 4:25 am

        Funny you mention that, ML! For me personally, I’m able to distinguish between Asians far more easily than Caucasian people and I often joke with my husband that “all white people look the same”. Of course they don’t, but I personally can’t tell the difference between a Slovak, a Pole, a Ukrainian, a Hungarian or even a Czech unless they have some Romany heritage.

        I haven’t really heard about many Hungarians or Poles here. There are lots of Russians and Ukrainians, and since they are quite heavy into organized crime, I hear about them a lot in the news. I’ve heard from Czechs the stereotypes that Russians and Ukrainians are particularly smelly, which I find funny and ironic because most Czechs don’t use deodorant or even bathe regularly gauging from their body odor in the close quarters of trams and metros. :-)

      • ML Awanohara June 28, 2011 at 12:55 pm

        Sezin, I ended up living in Asia for so long that like you, I now find it easier to tell Asians apart than I do Caucasians. As you know, I’ve now repatriated back to the US, where I’ve ended up in NYC’s East Village, which has many Ukrainians as well as Poles. (People sometimes address me in Polish, which I find amusing as I have no Polish heritage.)

        One day a Ukrainian was driving me to JFK and I screwed up the courage to ask him: “What’s the difference between Ukrainians and Russians?” I told him that the food, customs, music, etc. seemed similar to me. He said, “You’re right, there are many similarities. But basically, we hate each other.”

        I have often had the feeling — including on my trip to Hungary — that all Eastern Europeans as well as Ukrainians can unite around one principle: ie, hatred of Russians.

  4. Janet Brown June 27, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    Powerful stuff here–Prague sounds like Bangkok in some ways. This essay will take some time to digest.

    • ML Awanohara June 28, 2011 at 12:07 am

      @Janet
      Interesting what you say about a possible parallel between Prague and Bangkok. Likewise, I can perceive something of a parallel between Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Both areas are sandwiched between Great Powers (for SE Asia, that would be China and India) –and hence are vulnerable to incursions, occupation, war… They’ve had to struggle to maintain their own cultural identities in the face of these much more dominant cultures. Perhaps that’s why the citizens of these geographically sandwiched places can strike one as being ambivalent about outsiders: welcoming them (outsiders are after all a constant) while at the same time being happy to see them go…

    • Sezin Koehler June 28, 2011 at 4:29 am

      Janet, thank you! I would love to hear your thoughts on Bangkok. I lived there as a child and remember the wonderful hospitality and friendliness of the Thai people. In my experience, that is the polar opposite from the Czechs, who do not even invite people who are not immediate family to their homes to share a meal or even have a party.

      I have heard that with the sex tourism industry there are many expats who end up getting sucked into a lifestyle that would be generally unacceptable or even illegal in the west. Is this something you’ve noticed there?

      I would really love to hear in which ways you find Bangkok like Prague! I’m intrigued by your comparison.

  5. Michael June 28, 2011 at 5:15 am

    I moved to Prague to stay for 6 months. Ended up staying over two years and might still be there if it wasn’t because my girlfriend was in London.

    I loved the place and always will but the thing that really got to me in the end was that I never managed to get out of the “expat bubble”. I never learned more than a handful Czech phrases, enough to say hello and order a pivo. Always felt like a tourist when I went to the supermarket and couldn’t communicate with the cashier when she would complain that I tried to pay 334Kč with a 1000 note and no change. Only my own laziness is to blame for not making a bigger effort in assimilating.

    Looking back two years after leaving I probably had the best time of my life in Prague and met some amazing people but I think my liver and sanity is happy that I escaped the claws of Prague.

    • Sezin Koehler June 29, 2011 at 2:29 pm

      Michael!

      How familiar your story sounds!

      The expat bubble is hard to escape when the Czech locals are so unwelcoming, and indeed it is one of the stranger biospheres I’ve ever witnessed. I felt like an outsider in Prague from the get-go because of how I look and so in many ways that was the reason why I never bothered learning Czech. Plus, I despise how the language sounds and never wanted to hear myself come across like that.

      An old colleague told me that the Czechs find it really funny when foreigners speak Czech and that they are always laughing at “pathetic attempts” to speak their language. Coming from a very thick Czech accent speaking in English I found that statement to be so very sad. As a Third Culture Kid and long-time global nomad, I find different accents in English charming and I could not be bothered to become the butt of Czech people’s joke (and thinly veiled xenophobia). Plus, I’m really stubborn. ;-)

      My sanity has always been a little bit questionable (what can I do? I’m a writer!), but my liver wishes we were leaving even sooner than August 2. Ah, I am looking forward to this change in so many ways.

      • Michael June 29, 2011 at 3:05 pm

        I think there is a distinction between Praguers and Czechs in general when it comes to being unwelcome. Prague for the most of the year is full of tourists and with my feeble attempts of Czech could be just another of those darn tourists. As soon as you get more than an hour away from Prague people seem to be more friendly even if you don’t speak Czech.

        It’s the same for Danish (I’m a Dane) when it comes to accepting other people learning the language. I think the reason is that Danes/Czechs never (or very rarely) hear anybody non-native speak their language so they are a lot less forgiving than people speaking world-languages like Spanish and English.

        Come to think of it I would give half my liver for having a good Pilsner in a beer garden on top of a hill today when the sun is out. Great article and enjoy the rest of the stay!

  6. Pingback: Zuzu's Petals | Lost in Transition

  7. Pingback: Guest Post: Zuzu in Prahaland | Zuzu's Petals

  8. Pingback: Guest Post: The Accidental Repatriate | Zuzu's Petals

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