For some, Prague is the new ‘between the wars’ Paris, a place for would-be Steinbecks or Fitzgeralds or Hemingways to be literary poseurs. It is also an infamous location for stag parties: pissed-up Brits who attack defenceless telephone boxes and then turn up at the Embassy stark bollock naked unable to remember their name or where they put their passport. Then of course there are the tourists: Russians, Germans, Italians, Americans, Japanese, Chinese to name but a few.
There’s one section of the population you cannot help noticing if you pay just a little attention.
In Prague the elderly haven’t yet been erased from the centre of the city. You can still see them shuffling along with walking sticks and their shopping trolleys which they somehow manage to manoeuvre on and off busy trams despite the crowds. They don’t go around in jeans and branded tracksuits like the pensioners back home. Instead you see them in a shapeless acrylic jumper or garish floral print dresses made of hardwearing nylon. Perhaps the reason no senior citizen wears that kind of thing anymore in London is that all such items have been rounded up and put on sale in vintage stores dotted around the East End to be sold to bright young media types at vastly inflated prices. Nothing here in Czechland has actually gone out of fashion for long enough for it to be successfully rebranded as ‘vintage’. Every time I switch on the radio all I hear is the sounds of the Eighties and I don’t think anyone’s doing it to be ironic.
It’s not just the clothes they’re wearing that make the old people look older: their faces seem more heavily lined, more haggard. Is this a sign that they have led less pampered existences or just my overactive imagination? Some of them seem so frail I’m amazed by the sheer determination it must have taken them just to get out of the front door. Bent over almost double, you see them doggedly grab onto the handrail of the tram door and somehow haul themselves up the steps before collapsing into one of the seats designated for invalids. Yes, of course, there are old people in London too but they lack that kind of grit.
It is a commonly acknowledged fact that in the Western world to which post-revolution Czechland belongs, the population as a whole is getting older. However, while this generation of pensioners may have managed to hang onto their low-rent apartments, who is to say what will happen in the future? By the time my generation is ready to retire, the centre of Prague truly will have become a sinister, sanitised Disneyland where all the old folk have been forced out by aggressive property development to live in the suburbs or placed in care homes by their well-meaning cash-rich time-poor children. The only people with wrinkled faces you’ll see shuffling along Jecna or Stepanska will be track suited British tourists.