My memories start at the leaves. They were gold spades that swirled at my feet, hopscotching over the cobblestones as gingerly as my limbs until I approached the red tram at the top of the hill. The doors would screech open, and I’d find a seat by the window for the steady descent into the city. For one brief moment, the view would clear and all of Prague poured out into the distance. It was like a postcard slipping into a slot, a bright brevity that filled me with excitement.
It was a different world in the fall of 2008. I was 21 years old, studying abroad in a Central European city that still seemed largely removed from Western influences, and therefore felt even further away from my family in Southern California. A Black man was running for U.S. president for the first time, and I watched his candidacy with the same word famously emblazoned in block letters below his face. It took hours to download movies to stream, which wasn’t what it was called, and they cost up to $20 a pop. I wasn’t texting much—it took patience to type out every letter on my flip phone—and I had a separate Canon camera I’d saved up to buy that was more important.
One of the first things the program’s leaders did for the 100 or so American students under their supervision was organize an orientation. They led us to our new school, told us where to take our ID pictures, and pointed out landmarks to look for if we got lost. I used a notebook to scribble down directions and street names as fast as I could. There was an almost immediate ease among the students, like teaching one another where to do laundry and which tram stopped in front of our dorm. The internet couldn’t readily follow us, so we couldn’t spend a majority of our time on it, as about a third of Americans currently do. I was homesick occasionally, but I never felt isolated. It wasn’t hard for us to live in the moment given the few months we had together. In many ways, we were all we had.
Every Friday, all of the program’s students were invited to go on a walking tour with one of our chaperones, Zdenek, who would guide at least a dozen pairs of sneakers to places like the Jewish Quarter and Kampa Island. We’d use these excursions to get our bearings among medieval streets that twisted with no discernible pattern, which became even more complicated after we drank or danced well into the night. When we were on our own, no one knew where we were. We barely did as well, until hard-won familiarity grew from routines and youthful fearlessness. It felt like the city was ours, a beautiful clubhouse whose details were discussed with wide eyes.
In 2019, I went back to Prague with two friends I’d made during that semester. We’d planned to go in 2018, a succinct decade after we’d first arrived, but the relationships and jobs of our cementing adulthoods kept us away (and made it impossible for the others we kept in touch with to go at all). The city was different, and like us, the reasons why were clearer up close. A Marks & Spencer grocery and department store sat just off Wenceslas Square, meaning it was suddenly a cinch to buy vegetables when they used to be largely off menus. Beer was still cheaper than water, but not by much, and the food stands where we bought sausages and fried cheese were disappearing. Our bank accounts were also larger than they used to be, which meant that we didn’t have to walk everywhere or share a bed to save money. We did so to watch Netflix, except this time the screen wasn’t propped up by Milan Kundera paperbacks.
We were older and perhaps crankier now, and the latter came as a surprise when we stepped into the old bars and restaurants we frequented, crowded with the smoke and noise we previously rushed to join. And we were wistful. When we woke up at dawn to view the sun rise over the Charles Bridge, I remembered crossing it the night Barack Obama won and feeling like a witness to history of the past and present. As we inscribed words onto the John Lennon Wall again, we pictured the perfect Sunday from our first visit when all of the graffiti glittered in the light. We couldn’t stay out as late as we did, and we didn’t dare drink as much, either. Those days were gone, but they were vibrant.
We wondered if our shared grip on Prague came as a result of not being as tied to our phones, back when our attention was more attuned to our surroundings and our experiences were mostly ours to hold. We also theorized that it could be because it’s common to romanticize young adulthood, when responsibilities are short and nights are long. And yet, over beers, my friend said, “You couldn’t pay me to relive my 20s. I’m much happier and healthier now. But I couldn’t have returned with anyone else.” We nodded and agreed that coming with so-called outsiders would be like explaining a joke with an obvious punchline. The love we have, I have, for Prague is conditional. Our understanding of the city, and perhaps who we were in it, are part of its appeal.
There’s a pathway between Wenceslas Square and Old Town Square that narrows just before it opens to the intricacies of a 15th-century astronomical clock, and to walk through it has the quality of a cork being popped from a bottle. We came to it at sunset, when baroque and Gothic buildings were immersed in a pink and gold sky and all eyes gazed upward at the view behind a shield of screens. Our phones could further saturate the shades, stick animated GIFs over our smiles, and take slow-motion videos of pigeons flying overhead. They could tell us exactly where we were, and repeat that information to everyone we knew and others we could only refer to as followers. It made the moment ours but also theirs, condensing our nostalgia into something that could be consumed.
A few days later, after I had used Facebook to reach out to Zdenek, we met him for a walk. He told us that students no longer took his tours, since they could rely on Google Maps, and any history he might impart could instead be taught in a quick online search. We were using those aids too, of course, but he smiled when we told him that we could mostly get around without digital help. We remembered because it used to be our primary option, and that made us feel like we could sustain our appreciation for this place. The world altered around us as we did with each other, and it wouldn’t stop. We could say that life was easier then, but we couldn’t be sure if that was due to technology growing or our naivete shrinking. We had changed, but the light dappling the curve of a cobblestone street was as beautiful as ever. We admired it just the same, intertwining our past with the history of Prague once more.
Zdenek was likely around 80 then, although we were too polite to ask, and we wanted to see him to honor the bonds we made as twentysomethings while acknowledging the realities we faced with more wisdom. He ended our walk at the astronomical clock after spending an hour regaling us with well-honed tidbits. When we prepared to say goodbye, the clock’s bells rang out. “The clock is saying that another hour of your life has finished,” he told us. “Enjoy your life. Enjoy every hour.”