The streets of Prague are where history and present day crash in on each other. At the same intersection where a lone student ignited the flame that brought about the fall of Communism, you can now order a 6-pack of McNuggets.
In the same location where I sat two hours in the rain waiting for a COVID-19 test in Autumn 2020, I now found myself surrounded by 10,000 citizens concerned about the direction of their nation's politics.
For even though I have lived here for the better part of a decade, it is still indeed 'their' nation. I may have adapted to most local customs, continued to actively learn the language, and even have a Czech wife, but the characteristic ‘tvrdohlavy’ (hard-headed) and ‘nemajici zajem’ (mind-your-own-business approach to life) nature of Czech thinking renders access for an outsider an essentially fruitless task.
I can only catch 40% of the words spoken from the podium, with the higher-level political language lost to the wind, but I still attended the rally organised by grassroots movement Milion Chvilek. A rallying cry to halt Russian influence on Czech internal affairs and hold President Miloš Zeman to account.
It’s in these moments that I am reminded of the extraordinary privilege it is to live in a city like Prague.
My home country of Australia is thousands of kilometres removed from the history we learn about in textbooks. Europe is but a distant idea, conceptualised around images we absorbed in our youth from watching ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and other globetrotting spy films.
To experience the pages of history under your feet, etched into the very cobblestones (sometimes literally) is something no school lesson can prepare you for. While my sense of being an outsider is a daily battle, when Czechs rally for a singular cause they believe in, there is a comfort in melding into the crowd.
City life is already isolating by default. To be alone amongst millions of others is a common urban ailment. When compounded by cultural, linguistic and racial differences...it’s a wonder why anyone would want to live abroad.
Yet it’s in that moment of coming together that I was reminded of the unity that can occur amongst any diverse group. In the crowd last week, I saw Gen Z kids dressed in their latest fashions. I saw football fans in their Adidas tracksuits emblazoned with team logos. I saw businessmen walk alongside bearded retirees who no doubt actually remember the Velvet Revolution on that very same square.
And there I was, as uniquely different as anyone else. A stray Asian Australian standing next to the waiting area of a COVID testing site, bending his ear to listen to his wife’s live translation of key points in the political speeches. An absurd yet uplifting experience all at once.
In that moment I stood alongside my adopted countrymen. We walked amidst history, outside the Starbucks and Bata where Soviet soldiers once patrolled. And all of a sudden, I found myself caring about the direction of this country’s future just a little bit more than I had before.