Prague is just one big old folks home

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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.

The old.

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.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Prague is just one big old folks home

  1. Marek

    Haha.. the radio. That`s true, the stations stick with the music of those who still actually listen to them in these iPod times. And complement it with retarded dialogues and comments for the cool young listeners.
    Interesting observations about the old people (or the “elderly” as the British undestatement goes). Have you noticed the patterns in their behaviour? They seem to move in flocks. 🙂

  2. What I particularly like about this country when the elderly get on trams is how quickly younger people jump up to offer their seats. That kind of respect is very rare in England these days….

    Although a couple of years ago, on a VERY busy bus in Manchester, I did see a young mother get on the bus with her two kids, who were maybe 4-6 years old….

    Anyway, the kids ran to find a seat at the back of the bus, and their mother sat in a vacant seat right at the front….

    At the very next stop, a really old lady got on, and before she had a chance to show her bus pass, there was a cry from the back seat of the bus of….

    “Mum….Stand up and let the old lady sit down”….

    Class, pure, total, and utter class….

    Something that the UK lacks these days. Hence, of course, the reason we choose to live in Prague!

  3. heheh nice observation.
    i would like to say
    a) having the elderly here amongst the hip and young is a part of the czech culture, and i would not think i am afraid they would vanish or move to the suburbs
    b) well as for the radios, have you tried to listen to radio 1 at http://www.radio1.cz or 91.9 fm (the station i work for). we play indie/hip/new/weird obscure stuff all the time, and yes, i am quite proud to be able to play einstürzende neubauten, nick drake and patrick wolf at 6 am.

  4. im

    hi, hope you are doing well! your blog is very interesting, I only found out about it last night but read all posts now.
    I too was considering moving to Praha, but then I thought that it might end up in disaster, me being a single female without friends or relatives there.
    keep posting! 🙂

  5. Russ

    Yes, this is one of the first things I noticed when I came here, and I’ve often thought about and discussed it with Czechs. There are SO MANY old people here…why? Or more accurately, why do I feel that way, because certainly there are old people in the US, too. It’s a combination of lots of things, and I won’t write a big essay here, but you touched on one or two. The elderly here are much more frail in general, but they carry on with their lives, trundling to the grocery store every morning.

    Here’s a little exerpt of a piece I wrote about that very fact, eight years ago:

    –Back to the old people, though. There seems to be a lot more of them in Europe. Some of them struggle to get on and off the buses as if climbing onto their death beds. I’ve watched women shuffle along on edema-swollen legs so bowed that I was sure their hips would snap with the next step. It’s shocking and disturbing to be confronted with mortality so brazenly, right there in broad daylight. Elderly people aren’t supposed to walk around among us, don’t they know that? They belong in “homes”, tucked away from the rest of us so we aren’t reminded of what time has in store for each of us.

    But the old ladies of Prague don’t know anything about such rules. Their homes are where they’ve always been…real homes. The Nazis came when they were young, little girls some of them, others already young women. They persevered and survived in their homes. They came of age as their nation enjoyed a brief respite of independence before it was entombed behind the Iron Curtain. The children they raised in their homes ventured out and tried to lift that curtain in 1968, and they paid a heavy price. These women pressed on. Their determination and power passed to their grandchildren, who finally cast off the yoke of Communism in 1989. (Never mind that now—worried about their pensions and rent-control flats—many of them not-so-secretly lament the demise of communism!)

    After Nazis and war, revolution, rebellion, suppression, occupation, and revolution once more, small obstacles like age and infirmity can’t stop these matrons of Prague. They hobble and shuffle and mutter along with the aid of various forms of crutches and canes. They’re often encountered in small packs, like herds of meandering cattle, or post-menopausal street gangs. If you forget to give them your seat on a crowded bus or tram, they’ll remind you with a look, gesture, or gruff request. If you give it up voluntarily before they think to scold or prod, then you may be rewarded with a thank you or a smile. Or the weathered old veteran of life may simply take the offered seat without even seeming to notice. Don’t take it personally…she probably walked past Soviet tanks on her way to the store with similar matter-of-factness 35 years ago.–

    • girlinczechland

      Hi again Russ,
      I’m really glad you responded to this post as it didn’t seem to stir much interest back when I originally wrote it and I started to think I was imagining just how much more present the elderly are here. I enjoyed reading your excerpt too. They are indeed a disturbing reminder of our own mortality – and of the power of human endurance.
      GIC

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