I visited Prague again with my parents and girlfriend in the summer of 2015. We rolled into Praha hl.n. around mid-afternoon, after six hours aboard the brand-new LEO Express from Krakow, a ride plagued with internet loss, dad snores, Hannah sneakily stealing bites of my crappy train sandwich, and the inevitable onset of swamp nuts.
It was my second time in Prague, a city of unparalleled beauty, which I’ve since described as Disneyworld Eastern Europe due to the swarms of tourists clogging the pristine old city. It had only been a year since my last visit, but enough time had passed for me to recognize that Prague – which already had many of the problems I am about to describe – had changed for the worse.
The stones of a city rarely move, barring violent phenomena like bombs, revolution, hostile corporate takeovers, or incompetence with heavy machinery. But the character of a city can change overnight. Depending entirely on who is there, and how those people behave, a city can turn from a quincunx of open, inviting streets begging to pull you in and show you their wonders, to an artifice of crowded no-ways leading to nowhere because every local is dead behind the eyes, and every tourist carries a god-given entitlement to act like an asshole.
1. TOURISTS HAVE THE WRONG INTENTIONS
We all indelibly leave our mark on the places we visit, and that mark is inscribed by our intentions. The wrong intentions, whether they are posed consciously or subconsciously as one steps off the train, plane, car, or bus, look something like this: I want to be an asshole here, and disregard everyone, especially the locals, drink my weight in everything, leave my vomit on the streets, be rude to waiters, be rude to other tourists of nationalities I don’t like, wear socks and sandals, use a selfie stick, and ride a segway.
Let’s call this the Taker Mentality. Chances are, if you’re someone who reads articles about travel destinations changing due to asshole tourists, you’re probably not a Taker, but I will still include the following for posterity.
This is a good alternative series of questions to ask yourself when you feel the urge coming on to act like a two-scroop dickscream cone in someone else’s city, what I will call the Leaver Mentality: Do I want to leave it better than I found it? Do I want to blend in as much as possible, and not make a scene/a mess/a shitshow/a negative stereotype out of myself? Do I want to be a good, or bad ambassador for my country?
2. THERE ARE MORE TAKERS THAN LEAVERS
This rule probably applies as much to long-term residents of a city as it does to travelers, but since this is a ranticle about travel, I will state this: when the takers visiting a city outnumber the leavers, you can stick a fork in it, because it’s done.
The physical beauty of the buildings may remain, perhaps for centuries or in perpetuity, but the experience – that golden, untouched quality of authenticity, that once gave visitors from abroad irreplaceable feelings of joy, wonder, and novelty – has been irreparably blemished. It has been overrun with the wrong kind of tourists, who will do everything in their power to sap the authenticity from your – and everyone else’s – time there.
Some authenticity may remain, still lurking in the corners far off the beaten path. But it’s going to be hard to find, and old timers will tell you that those golden moments of unforgettable happiness that were once so abundant they could be plucked from the streets, now cost €15 and are shipped in bulk from Taiwan.
I have no idea how good Prague actually used to be, only how bad it got. I first visited the city in Spring of 2014, and even then it was chock-full of Eat Pray Lovers, English Stag Parties, Russian new money, and Kaiju-sized tour groups from East Asia.
Yes, those are stereotypes. But do not misunderstand what I’m saying, here. Prague belongs to everyone, as does every other city in Europe, and the world, at least as a place one should be able to visit, taste the food, and see the sights. The groups I am stereotyping, I am stereotyping specifically because they most consistently live up to their bad reputations for ruining the experience of other travelers.
Maybe things I do bother them, too, like not getting screaming drunk and throwing up everywhere, moving in a timely fashion and minding my space in a crowd of people, not blocking other people’s pretty pictures, and patiently waiting my turn in line rather than cutting others off or rubbing my crotch in someone’s ass. Maybe I just have bad information, and the old crotch-ass rub is actually how most of the world wants to wait for their turn to order at Starbucks. But I doubt it.
3. THE WORST KINDS OF TOURISTS FLOCK THERE
The pattern is always the same: an article gets posted on Buzzfeed with some pretty pictures, and the assholes come swarming. Omg, Prague looks a-maze-ing! 2016, betch! We made it! Or the weather gets nice and Ryan Air starts flying with regularity, and the stag parties swarm, hyped-up visions of slender Slavic women, cheap beer, and public urination dancing like sugarplums in their heads. Fookin right ya fookin pansies Riga 2016 mate Prague 2016 mate Krakof 2016 mate we’re from fookin ENGLAND not BRETIN! Or the travel agencies put a sweet package deal together with a nice, 30-hour flight/bus ride from Coldasfuckistan, and the irritable post-Perestroika New Money swarms. вы не можете остановить нас. Радуйся, Путин.
Again, these are stereotypes. But in my experience, stereotypes about how people travel should not be offensive, because they’re describing a behavior, not something a person didn’t choose, like ethnicity, sex, gender, or having curly hair. Behavior can change if people have a will to change it, and the lack of that will usually comes from a lack of self-awareness as much as it does from culture. Self-awareness is something we should all encourage. So relax your instinctive coil of butthurt and instead try to think critically about what I’m saying.
It’s just as true with the stereotype of the Ugly American: a poorly dressed, low-class yokel who travels abroad and acts entitled and obnoxious to everyone he/she/it meets. I was an Ugly American before I realized I was one, and made a conscious effort to change the way I acted. I’ve seen these people in the flesh, more than I wanted to, in every city in Europe, my own countrymen, acting like tubby, French fry-vacuuming buffoons, and it absolutely disgusts me. They come from all races and genders, and from all walks of life. 100% of the time, these people could be classified as Ugly Americans for one reason: they didn’t stop to ask themselves, Am I being an asshole?
To be honest, though, Ugly Americans are not as prevalent now as they probably were during the Bush years… at least, if my time in Europe is any indicator. Most of the Americans I’ve met in the roughly three years I’ve lived here (sum total) have been college students on starship voyages of magic and self-discovery. These days, college kids tend to be hyper-aware of not offending people, to the point of actually being embarrassed about the color of their passports, and are more concerned with getting some European strange than being chodes in public.
(but, do you.)
4. YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO LET IT GO, BUT YOU CAN’T
As I left Prague, I was thankful. Thankful for my beautiful girlfriend, and the joy she gives me. Thankful for my parents, and that I was there to see their faces as we explored one of my favorite cities on Earth. Thankful that I was fortunate enough to travel, and feel such happiness and fulfillment, when there are so many people on Earth who can’t. Thankful for the Czech people, who, after suffering through a brutal and bloodsoaked 20th century at the hands of the Nazis and then the Communists, still somehow manage to receive foreigners in their country with a mostly hospitable outlook, even if many in the Old Town have gone a bit dead behind the eyes from dealing with so many tourists.
But the thankfulness I felt was balanced equally by sadness, because a place I had fallen in love with only a year before had changed. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the place I loved was gone forever. Yes, to an extent, this was only my rose-colored glasses coming off. But I don’t think that was all of it. Experience changes places like it changes people. In the internet age, a city’s economic growth, touristic attractiveness, cultural philosophy, and treatment of visitors can shift in the blink of an eye. A place that can feel like the world’s best-kept secret one year can feel completely different the next, and yet it is that ethereal experience of feeling like you are part of something authentic that many people seek when they travel, myself included.
Prague has never been a secret to the West… it’s one of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful cities. I’m just waxing around a point, and the point is this. Maybe I’m wrong, and authenticity isn’t actually a tangible resource depreciated by overexposure to outsiders. Maybe it doesn’t actually exist, and is all a pretty lie swallowed by hipster travelers addicted to falling for the illusion, like a dream which quickly vanishes after waking up. Maybe in seeking authenticity, we destroy it. If that’s true, I’m as guilty as the next.
I don’t know. But I do know the feeling I had watching Prague roll away under gray summer skies as the 4:05 express departed for Krakow, the feeling that something irreplaceable – a part of me, or of the city itself – had been lost; something many other places had, too, but that they might not have for very long.