A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Diary of A Reluctant Immigrant: Me and Prague
By Muntu Chikondi
 For me, the strangest thing about being an immigrant is that it was never my intention to leave my country permanently. My trip to England was simply an opportunity to take a break from my life, to do something different for a few years. I had a great life in my home country. I had a decent career, was in the vicinity of my parents, and had a better quality of life than the one I knew I was coming to...The Reluctant Immigrant Series continues ... with a trip to Prague.
As the trip to Prague drew closer, I became more excited. This short trip was the first relaxing thing I had done in a while and I was happy to be on holiday. Even though I had been out of work, the past year had felt like hard labor. I spent much of my time in despair. I was still in Zambia, still living in the hostel and still unemployed. Prague would be a welcome distraction.

I spent the night at Mr. Doright’s as the flight was very early on a Monday. We packed light, an unbreakable habit, and carried only hand luggage. The weather was chilly, though the sun was shining, and I nabbed a light jacket from Mr. Doright’s closet. We got through airport security without a hitch and settled in our seats. We flew EasyJet, a budget airline, and the bright orange décor and uniforms, which consisted of jeans and a t-shirt the same nauseating orange, intrigued me. I was even more fascinated to discover that we had to purchase snacks and beverages during the flight. Luckily, Mr. Doright was prepared.

Budget airlines usually fly to airports located on the city's edge as a way to keep costs down; this time was no exception. And, since Prague does not have a great public transit system, we took a taxi to our hotel. Newly built and something of an architectural accomplishment, the hotel had been featured in several tourist publications. It was designed in a fairly modern style: all glass and steel and at a convenient distance from the city center. Despite leaving in the morning, the travel time and time difference meant it was afternoon by the time we finally checked-in. Exhausted, we decided to nap before exploring the famous Czech capital.

At the time we visited, Prague was a popular place for English men to have their stag parties, so much so that “stag tours” were featured in tourist literature in our hotel room. An old English tradition, stag parties are comparable to the American “bachelor party,” but often involve more extravagant trips to other countries. The tours in Prague were exceptionally organized and many came complete with a personal driver for the evening and itineraries that rivaled the historical excursions offered to tourists. As I certainly wasn't planning a stag, we laughed about them for a while, and then turned our attention to scanning the brochures for restaurants.

Despite our searching, we eventually decided that instead of brochure recommendations, we would let our taste-buds be our guides and explore the city until we found something of interest. With evening falling, and the temperature dropping, we finally decided to enter a nearby pub. Several men, who looked to us like Czech locals, were seated inside, noisily drinking and conversing in the harsh sounds of their native language.

We took this to be a good sign: the pub would give us an indication of what Czech food was really like. Once inside and seated, the English menu was uninspiring, but I remained hopeful, and merely blamed it on bad translation. A page of prose at the beginning that attempted to explain the name of the place must have been poetic in Czech. In English, however, it was simply gibberish, prattling on about a man who stalked the streets of Prague untouched, but if you were to ask him, you would find out some secret something; it just didn't make sense. So we ordered, we drank, we ate, but as with the menu and the story, something was lost in translation.

Disappointed by our meal, we went back to our hotel and had a drink in the lobby bar. Though slightly disheartened by our first day, neither of us was willing to give up on the historic Czech city just yet, and we decided a good night of sleep might improve our outlook.

We woke the next morning and took our time getting to town. It was drizzling slightly, but the wet streets close to the center of the city, Mala Strana, were still busy. We crossed the famous Charles Bridge, which was packed with vendors selling art, jewelery and touristy souvenirs of varying quality. There were the ubiquitous caricature artists and landscape painters on either side of the bridge, which looked more like an outdoor mall, who called to us as we walked by. With the throes of people clustered over the entire bridge, there was hardly space for a casual stroll.

We spent the rest of the day walking and taking in tourist attractions along the way. We stood by the famous Prague Astronomical Clock, or Prague Orloj, that towered above us in the Old Town Square. The various dials represent the Moon and Sun; and there's a calendar that displays the months of the year. An hourly procession of the 12 Apostles seemed to be what everyone was waiting for, but we got bored and ended up leaving before the Biblical men emerged.

By mid afternoon we were tired and began to make our way back to the hotel. As we meandered, we discovered a new street and turned down it to see what we found. Opposite a small restaurant was a small lady's clothes shop. The windows were packed with unusual items and when I peeked inside I was surprised to find a black woman amid the clothes and jewelry. As we had not seen many people of color in Prague, we were generally surprised to see each other.

The black lady, “Miss E,” in the shop was actually Czech. Well, she was originally Nigerian but had now become a naturalized Czech citizen. We became fast friends and through her generosity learned much more about the city. Before leaving, she invited us to dinner that evening. Suddenly, Prague was becoming more charming and attractive.

After leaving the shop with promises to return for dinner, we rested at the hotel for a while and then decided to purchase a bottle of wine as a gift for our hostess. Mr. Doright got so friendly with the guy behind the counter that he took us on a tour of the cramped wine store. Though the front was deceptively tiny, a good sized cellar was housed in the back. As he showed us around, I became aware of a deep chasm in the floor, which I presume housed more wine. I was much too frightened to stay and have a look, and retreated to the front of the building as soon as I could.

Having purchased the wine, we walked back up to Mala Strana and followed the instructions we had been given to find Miss E’s loft. We spent the evening talking, eating and consuming copious amounts of wine and as it got later she suggested that we spend the night. Though I'm still uncomfortable about spending the night at other people's homes, having not done much of it as a child, Mr. Doright convinced me that it might be better to stay. I was too tired to argue and the two of us passed an uneventful night in Miss E's spare room.

We awoke the next morning to sunshine and a delightfully pretty view. Though drowsy from the night before, the three of us made our way down to a café next to Miss E's store for breakfast. After sandwiches and mint tea we made plans to meet later that evening and Mr. Doright and I walked back to the hotel for a quick nap, shower and change of clothes.

Later on, we walked to Prague Castle, stopping for lunch at a nearby restaurant. The weather was relatively good so we sat on the terrace and had the good fortune of being serenaded by a busker playing the violin. He was brilliant and I joked that perhaps he was a virtuoso, a relic from the days of communism. He must have been good, as in an unprecedented move, after lunch Mr. Doright sought him out to offer him a few coins for his music.

From there we went towards the castle. Since we were visiting in the low tourist season, the city had covered the entire building in scaffolding and as such, we were unable to fully take in the beauty of the facade. From there, we traveled down the beautifully, though inaptly, named Golden Lane looking through the windows of the shops as we walked.

We did not manage to meet up with Miss E, which was just as well as I was tired after having stayed up late the night before. We planned to meet for lunch the next day, which was also our last in Prague. We woke up early enough to eat breakfast in the hotel and then took our now familiar route into town. On the way in, we found a queue for what appeared to be a small hill. Having the British attraction to queue’s we joined it only to discover we were queuing for a ski lift of some sort. We were soon hurtling up the hill surrounded by frolicking red squirrels (a novelty to anyone who lives in England, since they have recently become overrun by their less attractive cousins, the American gray squirrel).

It turned the “hill” was Petrin Hill and the Observation Tower, which is like a mini Eiffel Tower surrounded by well-manicured lawns and strategically planted trees. The gardens were pretty, though a little crowded. And though I have great suspicion about the structural integrity of anything taller than a bungalow, Mr. Doright somehow managed to convince me to climb the tower. I was highly doubtful that we would live to tell this tale, yet here I am. At the top, the tower swayed in the wind--I am told they are meant to do that--and I was all too happy to return to terra firma.

After that dizzying experience, we managed to find our way to Miss E’s shop and meet her for lunch. She left a note in the window of her shop informing possible clients that she was across the road having lunch and the three of us went into the restaurant Mr. Doright and I had noticed the day we met her. Entering the restaurant was like walking into a fairy tale. Non-matching tables and chairs filled the main dining room and a myriad of alcoves and various leafy plants were placed haphazardly around the edges. It even had a table, set and ready for one to dine on, hanging from the roof. The food was wonderful, though it was far from Czech, which from my recent experience was a good thing.

Later that afternoon, a friend of Miss E’s joined us and we sat outside having drinks and enjoying the last rays of summer sunlight before the onset of autumn. Miss E would periodically run off to serve customers who were peering through her store's window, yet always returned to us withing a short time. Though we had only been in Prague a short time, we had become quite relaxed among our new friends. We talked and laughed the hours away until it was time for Mr. Doright and I to go to the airport and catch our plane. Needless to say, I was not thrilled to return to real life. Prague had been a wonderful experience: I met someone new, I learned a few things about Prague and I spent time just relaxing.

Curiously, at the time we visited, a couple of years ago, Prague was by no means full of people of the darker hues, unless you count the tanned, leggy blonds, and we were not at all surprised that we were constantly being stared at prior to meeting Miss E. I think the fact that there were two of us created greater curiosity than if we had been traveling separately. It also seemed to make people more comfortable about approaching us and attempting to satisfy their curiosity. The ones that amused me most were the two old ladies who chatted happily in Czech as they touched my hair. Clearly they had seen nothing like it before and they seemed fascinated by the construction of my cornrows.

Aside from Miss E, we had only seen one other black person during our visit. She was definitely English and staying in our hotel. We would have approached her, but the woman always looked somewhat apprehensive when she saw us, as if willing us not to talk to her in case her white friends realized she was actually black. In some ways, it was comical and it took great restraint on my part to refrain from attempting to give her a heart attack by following her around the city.

Overall, the trip to Prague was nearly perfect, though now it was time for us to return to the our other world. Having survived this great relationship test, though--spending 24 hours together for several days-- we thought it safe to start planning to move in together. The execution of that plan, however, is an entirely other story in itself.