Prague is the new Paris

Prague: view from St. Charles Bridge

They say that spring is the time for romance and Paris is the city of love, but I have to differ on both accounts.

Astronomical Clock (installed in 1410)

Spring typically sends me flying in a hundred different directions.

Enthusiastically, I go running outside, pack up old winter clothes, and give the apartment its annual scrub-down. It’s invigorating to be sure, but I find that romance requires a more contemplative spirit.

You need an unfamiliar chill in the air to tuck you closer to your partner’s side, to urge you to share in a second glass of red wine after a brisk evening walk, and to lie in a little longer in the mornings. Instinctively, I think our bodies start to sense it: the long cold winter is best endured with the one you love, and autumn is the critical time to reconnect!

 

Perhaps intuiting this back in July, Chris surprised me on our anniversary with a reservation for an October weekend in Prague, a city neither of us had visited and which I now have to say counts as one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen.

Old Town Square: site of weekend markets since 1100

I’ve got nothing against Paris, per se, but visiting Paris is like going on a date with someone who makes sure you know you’re out of your league. You spend the whole time hoping you measure up. Prague, on the other hand, takes care to sweep you off your feet with one enchanting moment after the other. You start to take on its celestial glow and feel like a more charming version of yourself.

First of all, there is the architecture. A good little modernist like me should eschew ornamental style, but Prague coaxes me to wildly transgress. Its gothic spires overwhelm and impress. Harmonizing examples of art nouveau encourage a youthful sense of wonder. Gilded baroque and rococo facades emerge around unassuming corners that catch the breath and invite a smile.

        

In the last twenty-some years after the collapse of communism millions of people have visited Prague from all over the world, but nonetheless the city feels intimate and secluded at this time of year. The ‘hidden’ Wallenstein Garden, for instance, seems to spill out magically behind its enclosed wall. I got a kick out of the nearly empty Kafka museum, and the astounding collection of marionettes for sale and on performance throughout the city proved delightfully uncanny. When we got hungry we ate hearty goulash and decadent sweets. When we got cold, we drank hot wine.

         

At night we stumbled upon a performance of the Four Seasons in St. Nicholas Church in the Old Town Square. It felt as though the city’s rich history unfolded in front of us like a story-book with each building, street, and experience suggesting a surprising new chapter.

Vivaldi in St. Nicholas

As a result, we were able to leave behind the stresses of moving to a new continent and reclaim the spirit of adventure that made this year seem like a good idea in the first place. And for me — no matter the setting — romance is best described as a shared adventure.

die Anmeldungsbestätigung

We are in Berlin! This wonderful, exciting, surprising city. After a cocktail in Simon-Dach-Straße last night I gushed to Chris: Sometimes when I walk around here I think I’m in paradise! (You can see for yourself in these photos from our walk today.)

But it took me a while to cozy up to Germany again. In fact, from the uncomfortable moment when I thought we weren’t going to get Olive through customs, I began treading on the brink of panic and wondering how naive I’d been to move here.

It wasn’t just the gruff-manners of some Berlin residents, the famous “Berliner Schnauzer,” which on one occasion brought me close to tears when I was trying to buy ice cream. How tragic to be brought down so low while attempting a happy indulgence!

Obviously rude people shouldn’t be allowed to sell ice cream.

I had less acute but more persistent difficulty with the necessary task of plodding through multiple public offices in order to register myself and Chris, and, on occasion, Olive. Despite Kafka, I had forgotten what it was like to have to argue my way through German bureaucracy.

With most city and state officials, and many private ones, I’ve found repeatedly that it doesn’t matter how many times you double or triple check your collection of certified documents. Upon presentation of these materials something will be found missing, or incomplete, or incorrect. My impression, confirmed by others, is that ‘official’ requirements here are often not clearly laid out, and it’s common to get different advice/responses from different officials on different days. As Chris noted, “this makes the DMV look easy!”

The good news is that instead of giving a straight-forward refusal to your oh-so-humble request (“l’d like to declare my place of residence in your city please”) officials like to spend a few minutes to shake their heads and explain the severity of your misstep, before waiting with forehead twisted impatiently for your response. If you’re like me, the elaborate show of exasperation will bring about your quick apology and prompt you to sprint for the door. But you can’t run away! You have to stand your ground!

Methods I’ve employed:

“Yes, I understand the frustration, but I’m sure that this is not what I was told by X.” [enter name of probable city authority]

“You’re right I don’t have that document, but I do have this…” [pull out random paper, preferably with official-looking seal]

or — if you’re desperate, “what do you suggest I do to prove to you my eligibility? I’m sure I can return with a letter from X.”

Perhaps not wanting to deal with you again, they will eventually sign and stamp your paper with a customary: “Well, I’ll let you through this time…” Read: You better realize that I’m doing you a favor.

Since being here I have successfully concluded these exchanges with: customs, the Bürgeramt, an insurance provider, the university, two cell phone providers, the local bank, four libraries, and an all-important archive, which [thank God!] was graciously welcoming.

For a person who typically avoids confrontation, I have to say, it’s liberating to stay in the ring and throw a few punches. The heavy-weight bout, my dissertation research, has yet to feel like a win, but I let myself enjoy these small early victories. Walking up out of the subway into Karl-Marx-Allee, I feel I’ve earned my little niche in this vast, impressive city.