Prague is not what it used to be. There are still Tatra trams in their proper red livery for old time's sake, and houses outside the immediate center of town haven't been spiffed up like those around Old Town Square, but most of what the visitor sees is shiny and new. Hordes of foreigners descend on Prague, attracted by cheap beer, a medieval silhouette of fractal towers with turrets, spires and spikes repeating at every magnification, and wonderfully restored Art Nouveau decadence. There are cafés with five-meter ceilings and heavy crystal chandeliers where other cities have the exchangeability of coffee shop franchises. Hotel breakfast becomes impossible to justify.
Arriving at the airport, the first thing one notices is the striking clarity of the directions into town. Joining those traveling on a limited budget, I was faced with a bus and two successive underground rides that might have disheartened me elsewhere. In Prague last night, on the way from Lund via Copenhagen to a former Bohemian silver mining town, I quickly spotted signs detailing the travel options, two bus lines that promised to take me to the end of either of two underground lines. On one of those, it was only a few stops into the heart of the city. Machines stood by to convert paper with numbers on it or virtual accounts into tickets. The correct fare, irrespective of journey and comprising both bus and underground, was obtained by pressing the biggest button on the screen. It didn't take more than two minutes to understand and sort out.
Prague's underground is not particularly old but it didn't age well at the beginning. From one of my rare or indeed imagined trips to the town as a child I remember an alluring dilapidation, a decrepitude that held stories of the past and adventures to come. The dull trains bounced along their tracks with unnecessary elasticity, the escalators were rickety and stretched into the distance, and the stations were dim. It was enough to color a child's imagination. How things have changed! The escalators are still incomprehensibly long, but the stations are bright and follow a corporate scheme that makes them indistinguishable one from the other. The trains are spotlessly clean and quiet; the journey passes in a snap.
That night on the underground I fell into a philosophical mood. I started pondering how things change for the better and whether it's always worth it. Visiting the Czech Republic generates in me a feeling of coming home. I've never lived here and my family connection (geographic, not ethnic) is tenuous, but regular visits during my childhood have made the place a part of my own. As an adolescent, I got the first taste of freedom when three friends from high school and I cycled through the Czech part of what was then still Czechoslovakia on our way down to Hungary. The facilitators of these three weeks of freedom – bicycles and supportive parents – have shaped me for live, but so has the experience itself and the shapes and colors of the country.
But it goes back further than that. In Kutna Hora, where I am attending a conference, grass grows wild at the edges of town and in those parts where UNESCO money hasn't restored a picture book of medieval past. Tired houses covered in decades of grime crumble slowly to the ground, their blind windows surveying slow change and no progress. Paths wind through overgrown backyards and out into the woods, with no destination but for adventurous kids. There's little traffic in the streets. Pensioners in donated jackets run their errands morosely but light up with joy and stop to chat when they encounter their own.
The coming home that I experience is thus to a time as much as to a place. Less has changed in the Czech Republic than in Germany. Especially in small towns away from tourists' itineraries, things often look as I remember them from the past. They surely don't look as they used to, and if I were to travel back to my childhood, I'd probably be shocked, but memory is a devious friend. On the train into town, I saw a small lake with little wooden cabins around it and lots of wilderness instead of second homes with tall fences. Melancholy rose within me. This is how I want my daughter to grow up, I thought, until I realized that it weren't material limitations and the lack of development that made my childhood a good one, but my friends and what we did together. Luckily, these things are universal.