The exhibition grounds are empty tonight. Two city doves keep each other warm, taking shelter in the old industrial palace’s crumbling façade. “1891,” the wall says. It feels unreal, this place. A world expo, a beacon of imperial pride. No longer glorious, but still beautiful. I think of the crowds participating in this circus of modernity, discussing arts and science, perhaps politics. People of a progressive era, soon to be dragged into one of history’s largest blood spills, marking the old empire’s final days. “I like the farmer’s market they have here,” he says, waking me up from my pondering. I nod in agreement, thinking of when we visited the Výstaviště fair. We had only just met, and it was cold too, back then. Cold. Has it really been a year? He couldn’t join, but the others did. The grounds were filled with people then, I remember, bringing the old carcass back to life. Not tonight. On this last free evening before the next lockdown, we’re the only ones here.
We enter the small on-site coffee house, not knowing what to do with our face masks. The space looks quiet and sterile. Exactly what we were looking for, but so different from how we’d truly like things to be. Looking through the window, I see the palace’s left wing, broken, burnt down, under construction. The wet streets reflect the floodlights. We both know he’s about to tell me he’ll be leaving the city soon. Perhaps he’ll say his Prague days never really started. That traveling during the lockdowns does not feel like traveling at all. That the uncertainty of the future undermines the realness of the present. I’d understand, I feel it too. They bring us our mulled wines. “If you need any sugar, it’s right there,” the waitress says, pointing at a shelve with tissues, bottles of disinfectant spray, and an open sugar bowl.
He confirms his intention to leave, but he doesn’t know when and how precisely. All he knows is that his rental contract will end in a few weeks. “There’s a plan, sort of, but it all depends on what’s going to happen.” We both know that the virus is gaining strength. Governments are panicking. Borders open and close. I keep staring at Výstaviště Palace. Did people anticipate the crises of the 20th century back then? A world expo of national pavilions, houses of joy and pride, built just a few decades before the Great War. And then? More conflicts, economic crises, the rise of totalitarian ideologies and another World War. Imagine being born at the turn of the century, I think, the glory days of the world expo, a critical juncture of death. What critical juncture are we facing now, clinching our fingers around our mulled wines, hoping to find grip in this city, in this life, soon to be shut down once more?
“I’ve been reading about viruses,” he says. “You know, they’ve been predicting this would happen. Scientists. They’ve been saying it for decades. As we chopped down the forests, killing plants and animals, we’ve been destroying the natural ecosystems meant to prevent these kinds of outbreaks. It was going to happen and we didn’t prepare.” I agree, but I don’t know what to say. We exchange learning experiences from the previous lockdown. Build healthy habits, keep a gratitude journal, be mindful about social interaction, value your loved ones. I appreciate this turn our conversation takes, the genuineness of it. I know I needed this, had hoped for this, but keep these feelings to myself. He will leave, I think, just like the others who have already left, and just as I will, eventually, go somewhere else again. The fear of establishing a connection that could be lost, that I will lose, seems bigger than the loneliness. Of course, I silently correct myself, the very presence of that fear means that a connection was already made. Layer upon layer, my self-analysis expands. I decide it’s time to go.
As we put on our coats, I listen to the sound of the radio echoing through the kitchen. They may need hospital beds in neighbouring countries. I recognise the voice of the Prime Minister. “I have a clear conscience in connection with the coronavirus epidemic,” I hear him say as I disinfect my hands once more, thanking the waitress through my mask. The echo continues: “I have a clear conscience and yes, we can say that we have 1000 dead at the moment, but every year in the Czech Republic, 110,000 people die. I do not want to underestimate this number, every life is valuable and we do our best …” The sound of the wind rushing around the construction site takes over as we open the door. I try to formulate an opinion, but I can’t. Every person in that coffee house, I think, will have a different response to this radio fragment, depending on the algorithmic circles they’re trapped in. All we can hope for, as a common denominator, is that we don’t grow indifferent. But when it comes to distinguishing good from evil, we may be just as lost as the visitors of the world fair, one and a half century ago.
Before we reach the tram stop, I conclude I’m tentatively hopeful about the future. I immediately doubt if that’s true, but I know I want it to be. Výstaviště lies behind us and so do the days we spent together in this town. We always knew that long-distance was eventually going to be part of this friendship, but we didn’t know that social distancing would be part of it too. I’m thankful we got to spend this mindful evening together. “Well, that’s me,” he says, as a tram filled with other masked travellers approaches. One elbow bump later he’s gone.