Výstaviště

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.

Podzim: Czech Autumn

October. Fall is in the air. Dark, puffy clouds break the early morning’s golden light as the sun rises above the flat roofs of Prague’s suburban blocks. The light almost feels tangible as it hits the morning fog. Everything always becomes so visible in this season. Right in front of me, clouds of steam rise from the outlet of a small ice hockey arena. Behind it, an opening in the fog reveals how the green hill separating us from the busier parts of Prague 6 has turned into a colorful bouquet of individual trees. As always, I am the only person to be found on one of the countless small balconies I can see down the street. This is true for all the seasons, but on this fall morning I particularly enjoy my balcony privacy. I feel like an outside observer of time, while everyone else is just part of that flow, quietly subjected to it.

Nothing is less true, of course. Allowing myself to generalize, the Czech Republic is a country of traditions and many of them have something to do with the weather, nature, and seasonal changes. People seem to take the seasons quite seriously, experiencing them fully. Only a few weeks ago, the local park was still filled with senior couples sunbathing in tight swimwear on little towels or plastic folding chairs, casually enjoying their half liters of pilsner – occasionally something stronger – negligent of any social distancing recommendations. That season is now over. These local epicureans have swiftly been replaced by children wearing hats and mittens, collecting chestnuts and leaves. It’s like living in a modern Josef Lada depiction of seasons.

The beauty of autumn is well-reflected in Czech society. The language alone reveals some of the season’s most magical characteristics. The Czech word for October is říjen, which refers to rutting stags, while November, or listopad, refers to the falling of leaves. Prosinec, December, comes from the Proto-Slavic word prosinoti, or shining through, referring to the fact that the sun only occasionally finds its way through the clouds at this time of the year. And although Czechs may think about the etymology of these names as often as we think of October, November and December being the 8th, 9th and 10th months of the Roman year, I think there’s a certain beauty to the casual use of these poetic concepts.

Romantic as these names may be, their description of nature’s descent into cold and darkness leaves me somewhat melancholic. As if to compensate for the drama, Czechs welcome the arrival of winter with a series of colorful traditions. Paper lantern parades have been an autumn tradition for centuries. They have been organized for different reasons, following the various and divergent stages of the country’s political development. Originally celebrating wedding anniversaries of the imperial couple Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth, lanterns have later been lit to celebrate the birthday of the Czechoslovak Republic, and eventually even to commemorate the Great October Socialist Revolution. Even though this final usage nearly killed the country’s enthusiasm for these colorful parades, the tradition is gaining in popularity again nowadays, mostly just because it’s fun.

While Prague’s urban environment brings the seasons to life in its own beautiful way, I think the best place to enjoy fall is the countryside. The Czech Republic has a strong agricultural history and autumn is therefore considered as a celebration of the summer’s heavy work coming to an end. Flying kites is one of the most colorful expressions of this tradition. Although kites can be purchased in all sorts of shapes and colors from little stalls by provincial roads, many Czech families still make their own. Historically, children used to work on the fields all summer and play time only started in fall. This seasonal association with kites still exists, and thanks to the arrival of autumn’s cold winds, the skies above Czech fields turn multicolor year after year.

Saving the best for last, Czech autumn is the season of festivals and wine. And although this year it may be impossible to celebrate the new harvest en masse, wine-tasting is a perfect activity to indulge while social distancing. It all starts with the arrival of Saint Wenceslas, patron of winemakers and brewers, on September 28, and culminates when the first new wine is opened on Saint Martin’s Day, November 11. Back in the 18th century, vineyard owners visited their winemakers around this time to taste the result of the latest harvest, carefully deciding who’s contracts would be extended by another year. Nowadays, everyone enjoys the fresh and fruity young wine – often accompanied by roast goose with sauerkraut: a tradition that makes my vegetarian heart cringe. Legend has it that some unfortunate geese noisily interrupted St. Martin during prayer, a mistake for which their descendants still pay with their lives. Disproportionate, if you ask me. Nevertheless, the wines are great and especially well-enjoyed while looking over South Moravia’s rolling hills.

February 2020. Mikulov: a center of Czech wine-making due to its great geographic location and climate

I would love to welcome my friends from abroad during this joyful season, but due to the current circumstances, it’ll have to wait another year. I’d say that the best way to enjoy the beauty of Czech fall at home, wherever your home is, would be to try and get a nice Moravian wine, perhaps with some roasted chestnuts, niva and hermelin on the side.

September 2019. Wine tasting at Prague’s botanical gardens.

How I ended up in Prague – the full version

Have you ever visited a zoo and wondered whether the animals on the other side of the glass were looking back at you, observing you, possibly judging you? This morning a magpie was staring at me as I gazed through the window, waiting for the percolator to start gurgling and fill the room with the sweet smell of morning coffee. The magpie and I enjoyed this false mirror for a while, until she decided to collect the seeds she came for and spread her wings. I reminisced about our summer in Belgium, where we spent much time in the garden just to observe these clever, noisy birds. It was a beautiful reminder of how things change and yet stay the same. Why did I choose to abandon the magpies of the past just to meet new ones here in Prague? I came to this city last October after having lived in Belgium for about two years. Since my arrival, I have been running from one activity to another, not sure about my motivations for moving here and without concrete plans for the near future. Mrs. Magpie encouraged me to sit down and reflect a little: why am I here, what do I want to gain from my time living here, and most importantly, how can I live more mindfully, truly experiencing the great adventures of life, instead of just letting them happen to me?

magpie.jpeg

The simplest version of an answer to that first question would be that I followed my partner as he moved to Prague in pursuit of educative and professional opportunities. This answer is incomplete and too focused on external influences to derive personal growth from. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have taken this step if it weren’t for him, but we have made the decision to move here together – and I had my own reasons for it. Most of all, I felt the urge to change things, a little bit inspired by Henry Ford’s “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Now that I’ve arrived here, however, I still find myself doing all the things I’ve always done, and yet expecting the results to be somehow different. I’ve already spent days criticising my own inability to change, but eventually concluded that in order to truly change my own habits and expectation-mismanagement, I need to open up, express myself, and listen to the feedback of others. I’m reopening my blog, because writing is a tool for self-expression I feel comfortable with. By putting my thoughts into words, I hope I’ll find structure in the chaos of my own mind, while, with a bit of luck, activating others to do the same or creating little moments of recognition.

The story behind my decision to move to Prague involves grief, love and a painful wake-up call. I experienced my first panic attack about year ago, at home and in a safe environment, while watching comic television. The situation was free of any imminent threats, and yet my body was responding to one. To me, the experience can best be described as a sudden and profound sense of death, paired with breathing difficulties, numbness of body parts, heavy sweating, and chest pains. At that time, I had never heard of the concept and was doubting whether I had developed a sudden allergic response to the nuts I was eating, not at all knowing what that experience must actually feel like. I spent the night touching my fingertips, persuading myself I still had control over my body. What I did not know at that time, was that this attack would be followed by many more over the course of the year, and that it was, in fact, a huge wake-up call. I was pursuing an unsustainable lifestyle.

Before the first attack, I was living in a void. I observed the world around me, but lost all connection with it. I had observed myself from an outsider’s perspective too often, and had come to believe that my emotions were not truly mine, my behaviour staged, and eventually lost the ability to experience any emotions at all. It was numbing to perceive my own feelings as fraudulent. Forging emotional engagement with others to cover up my detachment seemed easy at first, but I soon grew tired of my own acting. Living on my own in a foreign city allowed me to save-up my energy for the very occasional meeting with friends or colleagues. If I wasn’t out in the world, pretending that I was getting back on track after my mother’s passing, I would follow a daily routine in which I would get home from work, deliberately induce a food coma from overeating, fall asleep, and the next day drag myself to the gym out of a sense of guilt. Eat, sleep, repeat. I was aware of the dullness, but didn’t see a way out.

The way out came in the form of a person, now my life partner. We met just before my lifestyle of emotional repression culminated in that first panic attack. The timing was terrible and perfect. I might have been longing for a reliable companion, but I was completely incapable of feeling, or showing, genuine romantic emotions. He stuck around, however, embarrassing me by having fancy food delivered to my office and, bit by bit, pushing me to talk about my past. He was only just getting on top of his own anxieties, in the face of which I felt incredibly useless. The first test, so to speak, was a strenuous one: one of us hitting rock bottom, the other only carefully containing his own mental foes. In a near-mythical way, the universe pushed us to live together in the same house and work for the same institution. These were life changes I could barely cope with in the state I was in, but they proved to be incredibly valuable. The new house provided a new beginning in which I learned to see my mental struggles as part of my path towards a happier future. At the new job, I got to share an office with an incredibly smart, supportive and communicative co-worker, now a good friend. In the darkness of the moment, I found new forms of stability, which helped me look forward. When I first told my partner I loved him, there had been no sign of butterflies, no rainbows, no pink clouds. For me, it was more of an expression of profound trust, gratitude, and a nearly telepathic connection. I still consider it magical that this love of mine, so deprived of romance and early happiness, was not only accepted, but also reciprocated.

It may not be recommendable to start a PhD project while being in a state of mental distress; for it is common knowledge that the former imposes the latter upon even the brightest of characters. As my panic attacks started following up on each other ever more frequently, however, this is precisely what I decided to dedicate my life to. Feeling encouraged by my new acquaintances, but mostly attracted to the easy self-validation I could derive from the prospect of a new degree, I embarked on this scientific journey. Although constantly doubting whether I’m up to the task, I still believe this was a good decision. The ongoing job of formulating a research proposal has helped me realise that there still are topics I passionately care about. I desperately want to learn more about Europe’s natural heritage, while helping to protect it, reinvigorate it, and provide input to the public debate about it. Even though I’m still unsure about my ability to continue the research here in Prague, my work for the university has given me a stronger sense of direction in terms of professional goals. The job also made me understand that doing things you’re good at can help you feel better, even if you’re stuck and confused. I love teaching, presenting and discussing in groups. Working with students made me feel more alive than I had felt in a very long time.

All this positivity put forward a new question: now that I have a loving companion, new contacts and a stable job, why am I still experiencing panic attacks? Sure, panic attacks trigger more panic attacks because they’re scary and generate anxiety complaints. But even after I had become aware of their symptoms and had developed coping mechanisms to end them faster, they kept coming back. They were a wake-up call, and I finally picked up: if I wanted to feel better, I would have to change my own patterns of thinking and behaviour in the first place. I’d need to dive into the memories of my formative years, and connect them to the reality of the present. As I came to this realisation, my partner invited me to join him in the City of a Hundred Towers, where the glories and troubles of the past are still tangible, and where society is constantly reinventing itself. What better place to come to terms with the past, I thought, than Prague?

I have been raised by a mother with a progressive degenerative brain disorder, in a family that increasingly fell apart, partially because of the disease. There was love in our home, but I always experienced it in connection to a fear of loss and a lack of safety. As the disease progressed, its implications became more intense. At the time of my mother’s passing in 2017, I had come to see the whole thing as a single traumatic shock, which I could target, process and forget. But I now understand that I spent most of my life, most of my childhood, developing and internalising behavioural tools adjusted to the specificities of the situation. An accumulation of survival mechanisms has codetermined the formation of my personality. I don’t believe that my history is just a part of me; it’s all of me. But it does not have to be an indication of what the future will be like. I have recently come to realise that talking about my memories is not a betrayal of my love for my mother and my family, but a key towards the formation of a new self, unchained from the experiences of a little boy in the past. It has been through interaction with others that I have developed patterns in the past, and it will be through interaction with others that I will learn to redevelop myself.

I still haven’t managed to actually change my thinking and behavioural patterns, but I am more confident than ever that it’s possible to do so. Together with a therapist, I am trying to unravel why I’ve developed certain behavioural and cognitive tendencies. By recognising them and contextualising them in the here and now, it will be possible to see they are no longer necessary, nor fitting.

I’ve spent the first 25 years of my life building a structure without an end-goal in mind. Short-term goals, such as getting good grades in school, had priority over long-term goals. At home, I spent more time being concerned for the well-being of our family than developing tools to be in touch with my own feelings and desires. Where does this leave me now that I no longer need to get good grades and live in a situation in which my coping mechanisms have turned against me? I’ll have to figure out what personal structures I’ve been building over time, and to what extent this status-quo fits with the person I want to be. In the words of my therapist: “Search, search, search!” I’m sure this quest will trigger feelings of recognition for most people my age. All around me, people are starting families, buying property, progressing in careers, but really very few of us have the self-confidence to fully stand behind the decisions we’re taking. This constant doubt undermines our ability to live mindfully. It’s so easy to get stuck in just-ok routines, every day lowering our expectations of life and still not living up to them. Our 100 billion brain cells are constantly mixing memories of the past with expectations for the future. An endless circle of learning, copying, adjusting and reproducing, most of the time without us being aware of these processes. My generation has been granted more freedom than ever to make its own choices, but we’re not always aware of the ways in which we have been trained to measure our self-worth against socially predetermined criteria. And as we bump into the walls of our uncertainty, it’s only natural that we start asking questions about our past, searching for alternative futures.

Right now, I’m going to continue searching in Prague, lucky enough to have a stable basis of loving friends and family back home in the Netherlands. The key figure in my coming-of-age story happens to be Czech, and I’m excited to discover his country and past, while looking at my own from a little distance. Being here, I have time to focus on personal growth. Throughout the course of my life, regardless of the situation, I have jumped from one study into the next and from one job into another. Each step has given me valuable experiences, friendships, and life lessons, but I would like to learn to be more mindful about future decisions. Opening a new, personal blog with this post to begin with is a first attempt at learning to better connect with myself through interactions with others. Being here on a journey without return-date has surely contributed to me taking that first step. Sometimes all it takes to realise that, is the steady gaze of a magpie.