Finding Virtue in a City of Vice

I recently entered a travel scholarship contest with World Nomads, and I thought I’d share the essay I wrote for it here! I adapted it from my original travel journal on Prague, Beyond Popular Prague: A City of Contradictions. I have to say, it was challenging in the best way to write an essay under 700 words. I chose the theme ‘I didn’t expect to find,’ and recounted the beauty I was surprised to encounter in a city historically caught in the midst of war and communism and revolution. If you’re curious, take a look at the other entries here.

I crossed into Germany at 3AM, startled awake by border control agents on my tour bus. They questioned why I was going to Prague – our final destination – and in my nervous state I answered “tourism.” I cringed as I blurted the words out. The storied past of Prague had remained a murky spot in my understanding of the world thus far, and I was eager to remedy that in the way any honest traveler does: by finding out for myself.

The Czech Republic’s history is complicated and chaotic, but also widely unknown by many in the world. They were used like a pawn throughout World War II, then suffered under Communist Rule before nationwide revolt. This history gave me the impression of a resilient society, maybe a little cold to the outside world after all they’d had to suffer on their own. My own experiences with Czechs were black and white, either warmth or total contempt. It seemed while the country was traded back and forth by other nations, the people remained divided in their perception of outsiders.

From our hilarious tour guide, Givvy, to a thrift store owner who went so far out of her way to direct us to her newly-located shop, I knew the Czechs were kind people. But then came the ticket attendant at the castle who made my friend cry after refusing her student visa for a discounted rate, and the curt service in restaurants which led me to believe the locals had grown tired of yet another group of loud Americans. I often felt like I should apologize for my nationality, a feeling I would grow accustomed to in other cities across Europe in the time of Trump and increasing polarization.

In the end, the good far outweighed the bad. There was the waiter who gave us free shots of traditional Czech liquor. He also split the bill for us (an anomaly in Europe) and let us use card (again, anomaly). There was even the Starbucks worker who gave us the bathroom code before we purchased anything, telling us in a hushed tone as if he was sharing the secret to life itself.

The best moments of our short weekend in Prague were the ones spent exploring on our own. We wandered back streets, perused Shakespeare & Sons English Bookstore, and were amused by crazy street performers before meandering back across St. Charles’s Bridge just as the sun was setting over the Vltava River. Throughout it all, I absorbed the history of Prague as much my body absorbed chills while Givvy explained to us Hitler’s wish to turn the Jewish Quarter into a museum of an extinct race. The thought was profoundly disturbing, but the result is a beautifully preserved neighborhood. It is now a permanent bookmark of history after surviving a destructive war and an evil dictator’s ambitious plans.

We were further inspired by the words of many on the John Lennon Wall, taking photos not only so that we could share on Instagram, but so that we would remember the wisdom and hopes of those before us. Bold phrases on the famous wall, such as “do not lie to yourself,” forced me to confront my own past in the present context. Prague has emerged time and again from the bloody rubble of terrible misfortunes, and as a city they knowingly indulge in all of the world’s vices. Its bad reputation suits its dark architecture and shady past, but like a phoenix rising from ash it won’t be erased from history. Its resilience made me acknowledge that whatever my past may be, I can rise above it. Haunting beauty is visible on every corner, just as it exists in the pages of my personal history.

Upon reflection, maybe it was really this aspect of Prague that made it special to me. Not the castle or the cheap beer, but the diverse people who all came to the same place from different walks of life, willing to share their stories in this complicated setting. It may be a city of sin, but once I looked closer it was easy to see beauty seeping through the cracks.