Ships passing on the Vltava

Photo: Pristav 18600

Spring is well behind us and the weather forecast suggests summer days to come. Longer days and sunny rays can only mean one thing… it’s grilling season!

There’s a hidden spot along the shores of Karlín’s gentrification zone that remains wonderfully punk. Aptly named “Přístav,” the Czech word for “harbour,” this open-air venue serves as a hub for people from all walks of life.

Hidden behind a rough treeline, next to a large concrete facility, it serves as a strong reminder of the unifying power of food and drink. Much like ships docking in foreign ports unloading their crews at local taverns, we too had all converged together from unlikely paths on that afternoon of grilling.

I arrived to find the designated cooking areas largely occupied. There were Czech families with kids going wild on the playground, students speaking lively Spanish, and a group of Korean couples fully loaded with their signature spices and sauces. One of their young sons ran past me towards the playground and I offered a friendly greeting in Korean, “Annyong”. To my pleasant surprise, he replied: “Dobry den”.

Photo: Pristav 18600

I had to call my friend who organized this grill to find our location. Usually it’s easy to spot the large group of internationals, but due to the popularity of Přístav, I couldn’t find them so easily this time.

“Oh yeah, look for my friend Kenny!” He looks South Asian”

This brief but direct description narrowed the crowd options for me. While European cities such as Prague have many diverse groups of people from across the continent, the proportion of other races with different colored hair and skin? Let’s just say that we always tend to stand out.

As Kenny and I got to know each other and lighted the coals in the grill, we went through the motions of the classic “foreigners living abroad” conversations.

“Where are you from? How long have you been here? What are you doing here? Do you speak Czech?

For those of us who have lived here for more than a few years, the conversation flows almost mechanically. Maybe it’s the transient nature of these friendships, or maybe it’s the nature of reaching your thirties and being less interested in meeting new people…but unless there’s a particularly dynamic connection, the exchange is like a prescribed scenario that no one particularly enjoys (in this case, fortunately, Kenny and I bonded through the great universal unifier – food).

Photo: Pristav 18600

It reminded me of another interaction not too long ago in an equally grungy place tucked away on the outskirts of Prague 7’s gentrification regions. ‘Altenburg 1964’ is a popular boating spot attracting locals and foreigners alike , and they were kicking off their 2021-22 season wrap party.

The place has served as a hangout for punk, techno and alt kids in recent years. However, as apartment buildings explode and investment money pours in, one wonders how long these places can survive…

It was a hot day, many were unprepared for the cool spring night air, so we gathered around the bonfire. Those around me were decked out in piercings, oversized leather coats, and a mix of thrift store finds, usually arranged to look casual and nonchalant.

While grilling is a symbol of universal openness and community, Prague’s underground clubbing and techno scene represents exclusivity and mystery. Literally shrouded in darkness, revelers come to these events not to meet new people, but to disappear into the crowds and lose themselves in the music.

As I chatted with my American counterpart, a lone figure approached us from the outer edges of the circle.

“Thank goodness! I think you are the only English speakers in this whole circle!”

He smiled a toothy smile and informed us that he had just arrived that day from the UK. He and his friends heard about the party and came to see it – a Frenchman, a Belgian and a Brazilian, all no doubt looking to find like-minded people to grow their following.

And this is how the scenario of small international folk conversations played out.

“Where are you from? How long have you been here? What are you doing here? Do you speak Czech?

Finishing my beer, I excused myself to the bar with little intention of returning to this conversation. Ten years ago, this kind of encounter would have delighted me. Meeting so many nationalities in the same place? Rare for someone who grew up in suburban Australia. After a decade of these little talks, sometimes that just isn’t the case.

On the banks of the Vltava, at these two distinct maritime places of ‘Přístav’ and Altenburg, I remember the idiom “like ships passing in the night”. The rest of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s original poem is a long story about love and courtship. This particular stanza reads as follows:

“Ships that spend the night and talk to each other as they pass,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the dark;
So on the ocean of life we ​​meet and we talk,
Only a look and a voice, then again darkness and silence.

This is what life as a stranger sometimes looks like. Sure, Prague doesn’t have an ocean, but the Vltava is a mighty river that flows into a myriad of other streams and rivers. I believe you can even take a boat to Amsterdam if you wish.

Undoubtedly, some ships sail to dock longer. However, most do stop for a drink, a meal, a chat, a meet and maybe even a song and dance. Then they leave for distant shores and quays. It is sometimes overwhelming to think of the ocean of encounters and chance encounters that surrounds us. Yet, of course, that’s what ships are designed for – to explore and travel as far and as far as we want.

Berta D. Wells