Czeching in: From Dublin to a new life in Prague
Memoir - The Thing About Prague by Rachael Weiss, Allen & Unwin, pbk, 377 pages, €10.99Mary
Prague, the Czech capital, a jewel by the river Vltava, is beloved of Irish stag parties craving cheap beer and starry-eyed couples on romantic weekend getaways .
But what would it be like to actually live there? In her newly published travel memoir The Thing About Prague, the now Dublin-based Australian author Rachael Weiss recounts with wit and admirable honesty her attempt to build a new life amid the cobbled streets and old-world charm of the city that stole her heart.
After previously spending a year in Prague and writing a 2008 memoir Me, Myself and Prague, Weiss returns as planned to her native Sydney but finds herself unsettled. With middle-age on the horizon, no husband or children to consider and stuck in a mid-level administration job, she decides to take the plunge and return to Prague for good.
Bidding her beloved cat Thelma adieu, Weiss launches her new life. However, despite her cheery resolve and enthusiasm for her new home, it quickly becomes clear that her lack of fluent Czech and the seemingly endless, mind-boggling intricacies of the country's bureaucratic system are going to prove stumbling blocks.
After five months of stress, due in no small part to Czech estate agents' lackadaisical attitude to appointments and the poor standard of apartments in the city, she finds both a job and a place to live on the same afternoon. Now, it seems, her new life can truly begin.
Weiss is adept at imbuing even the potentially mundane details of her day-to-day life with insight and fun, especially when it comes to her colourful work experiences. Her first job involves writing websites for the Three Bells tourist apartments, run by maniacal man-toddler, Leonard.
Initially, Leonard takes Weiss into his confidence, moaning to her about other staff and going so far as to involve her in his side enterprise, writing horoscopes. There's even a frisson of possible romance between the two. Alas, through the expat community, Weiss quickly learns that nobody lasts more than a year at the Three Bells. Nevertheless, given how limited her employment options are (she does not want to get stuck in the teaching English rut) she vows to stick it out until her long-term visa is secured.
Readers will undoubtedly enjoy Weiss's accounts of the interesting characters she meets. As a writer, she has a wonderful ability to capture quirks and eccentricities, although she never stoops to cruelty in her depictions even when, as a reader, you suspect she might have every right to. One example of her commendably tempered approach is her retelling of a disastrous Saturday morning hike with Kyrgyzstani software engineer, Igor.
It turns out that Igor has cannibalistic tendencies, which he decides to reveal while the two are lost and alone in the Czech countryside. "Ai laik to kill things," he tells Weiss. "Ai would laik to kill a human being." Appalled, she cuts short their hike but even Igor, it turns out, is not all bad, telling Weiss after she rebuffs an invitation to listen to music with him that evening, "It's just that ai em so tired of being alone."
This is a sentiment Weiss herself readily identifies with. Throughout the memoir, she discusses her longing for a relationship, writing movingly and with gutsy openness about "…the extraordinary loneliness of freedom." She tries online dating, with mixed results. Flings with a married man and a younger man whose friendship she loses in the aftermath of their night together, leave her dejected. While Prague might be a romantic setting, this doesn't make the art of finding and keeping a lover any easier, as Weiss discovers.
Despite the trials of love, her precarious employment and the ever surly demeanour of Czech shopkeepers, Weiss gamely throws herself into Prague life and, when work and mood permits, making a stab at writing the next great Australian novel. She volunteers at the Spanish Synagogue, going so far as to lead services for the small congregation, interlinking her present-day experience with her Czech father's Jewish roots in the city, where Weiss's grandfather was interred in the nearby WWII concentration camp of Terezín.
Sadly, notwithstanding Weiss's best efforts over three years, establishing a new life in the city she adores proves much more difficult than she could ever have envisaged. "At the end of my time in Prague," she writes, "I felt like a woman in the last days of a failed marriage."
Although Weiss is forced to re-evaluate her dream, there is still the sense that Prague will always be in her heart. As the city's famous son, Kafka, observed, "Prague never lets you go...this dear little mother has sharp claws."
A warm and engaging memoir with a hugely likeable narrator, The Thing About Prague is the perfect slice of escapism for a dreary January.
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350