If you spend more than a few hours in most cities, you learn to differentiate their particular smells. New York City has a smell all its own, which is both related to but completely unlike the smell of Philadelphia, which has nothing at all to do with the scent of New Orleans.
After you spend a few hours in Prague, however, you realize that there is no single scent that defines the city. Walking along the road, the spicy aroma of Indian food wafts past me at top speed, and abandons me right before I stride into the invisible cloud recently abandoned by one of Prague’s many smokers. A walk along the gravel paths by the river brings me smells that tempt my complaining stomach with the mouth-watering smoke from a brick oven pizza, or carries the sizzling fragrance of sausages weakens my vegetarian resolve.
Prague is a city with air which, for whatever reason, seems to me far clearer than that anywhere in America. Its cosmopolitan nature, its clean air, and its considerate inhabitants give me a very unusual but often delicious cocktail of smells.
So many cities are defined by the attractiveness of their smell, but that is not the way to the heart of Prague. Prague is a city of changes, of sudden shifts on the breeze and night-cloaked invasions. A city held by empires from the Habsburgs to the Soviets, Prague’s own history is hidden in plain sight.
I live modestly in an apartment that stands where a building has stood for some thousand years (luckily, the plumbing is not that old). I walk down streets where dozens of languages have been spoken, by native Czechs, but traders, by ghettoized Jews and invading armies, whose berths are now filled with confused tourists and honking buses, joined by hijab-clad immigrants and, as always, the native Czechs.
The city is old, but it feels young. There are no signs on buildings that proudly parade their age, the old towers and bridges are kept in such good repair that I’m astonished every time someone tells me how old they are. White buildings so clean the sun glints off them into my eyes could be centuries old.
The streets, I immediately noticed as an American, are lined with far more pedestrians than cars. The most difficult part for me to absorb is that pedestrians are always courteously given right of way by Czech drivers. I have seen old ladies calmly limp in front of tiny European cars which clatter like a cavalry across the cobblestones, and walk away unscathed. The streets are constantly filled with these kind of arrogant pedestrians, and if a crosswalk lacks a signal the pedestrians can walk in front of a car anytime.
Much of driving here seems to be intuitive, and on my way to class each morning I witness a particularly illustrative intersection. Four roads, all of which link main city roads, meet in front of the class building. The street is occupied by enormous buses, delivery trucks, taxis, and ordinary cabs, all of which have to get to another part of this intersection, and there are no stop signs. The result is curiously sedate chaos, as pedestrians casually navigate between stopped cars, trucks lurch forward and try to turn without hitting a parked car, and everyone keeps their hands off the horn.
The chaos of traffic is deceptive, as I believe is the smell of Prague. There should be some great battle going on day by day, constant traffic accidents and warring spices creating a brutal mixture, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Everything and everyone here, from the conscious to the un, seems comfortable simply leaving one another alone. Smells and cars and pedestrians: everyone and everything deserves a space of its own, and is awarded one accordingly. And everything works.