on cities

“Prague never lets you go … this dear little mother has sharp claws.” – Franz Kafka

On NPR’s TED Radio Hour on The Future of Cities, physicist Geoffrey West mentions that all cities are the same — put quite simply, they are physical manifestations of human interaction.  New York City or Mumbai, scaled down, can be a San Francisco or a Chicago; which in turn when scaled down could be a Detroit or Cleveland.  He says that despite each city having its own unique culture and “feel,” they are related quite consistently (he’s working on a scientific model of cities) — all cities, all human networks, are governed by the same laws.

A friend of mine who lives here once said that people are very likely to get “captured” in Prague.  I thought the use of that word — “captured” — was an ideal way of describing the feeling of arriving in this place and simply… never leaving.  It’s not that you get “sucked into” this place, or you get “stuck” here, or that you “fall in love” with it per se.  But you get captured.  As though you accidentally entered a fairytale, and while wandering its pages, forgot where you originally came from.  A feeling of your life being suspended from a string.  You float in and get tangled, lightly, in the webs of Prague’s beauty.  You are caught by surprise–caught, encircled, enraptured, captured.

What is it about this place (what is it about any city) that creates that certain “feel”, that unique emotional pull?  Is it the architecture, the people?  The twisting, cobblestone streets, the smell of fresh bread, the wine-drinking lovers on the hills, the old crumbling communist statues (grass sprouting between sidewalk cracks in the parks), that particular tram bell ringing as it carries on along the rails?  Is it the way that Czech people have absolutely no sense of fashion whatsoever, the way the men wear mandals and ponytails here, or the women unmatching outfits?  Or perhaps the simplistic comfort such imagery evokes?

Is it perhaps the way the clouds hang over the city, as though the sky were a purple-grey blanket (Prague’s sky has such a specific color!) draped over the spires of those old churches?  Or the nightly summer rainfalls, that particular smell of cigarettes and stale beer when you pass an old man’s bar?

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