Prague is a city close to my heart. I spent a few memorable months in a town closer to the Slovak border as a teenager teaching English. It was a bitterly cold winter of 1993, only months after the fall of communism and it was just as Czechoslovakia had become a new Czech Republic. It was a unique and life changing moment in history, both for a young girl from Britain and for the Czech and Slovak Republics. The red tape and bureaucracy involved in entering the country to work in a school was immense. I had to sign a form which was also required to be signed by the headmaster, the state police and central government, then photocopied eight times.
The experience was life changing and the memories of a people, as yet untouched by western culture, was an eye opener. Lives were lived simply and with family gatherings a frequent occurrence. The emphasis on Czech culture and folk music, and stories handed down through generations, on lives determined by fierce winters and the need for thick boots, coats and hats (none of which I owned), created a seed in me; a seed that would later grow to become a story.
As I listened to the lives of people who had lived under daily threat of the communist state police, and with the risk of imprisonment, a world opened itself up to me. This was a world where post was intercepted, movement restricted, media heavily censored and ordinary lives monitored secretly, and scrutinized by a power that eventually collapsed in 1989 after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin wall. The chain of events across Eastern Europe was cataclysmic. I was amazed to hear different sides to a story that remains a powerful historical period. Girls my age missed the security of one hundred percent employment under a communist government and the comfort of rules and regulations, but as I listened I heard stories of those who were less fortunate and whose families were torn apart by deceit as people were forced to turn on their own friends and family, and parents were imprisoned for being deemed traitors, enemies of the state.
That a land so beautiful and so rich in culture and stunning in its elegance had endured such a savage and restrictive past, was a message to me that over the years grew into a story, and subsequently a book. Take Me to the Castle became my debut novel, published in 2012, and it went on to win The Peoples’ Book Awards in 2013. It was a story that had to be written, a story that developed out of listening to first hand experiences and of staying in Letovice during a unique turning point in history at a time when I heard not a single English voice and felt the chill of the snow as it reached Charles Bridge and the Vltava River, as it covered the musicians and artists, the castle and the cathedral. The silence betrayed a deeper history of Jewish graveyards and of former prisons and government offices filled with files on ordinary people.
I fell in love with Prague and I have been back since to a much changed city, but my memories of 1993 remain and will stay with me.
Photo credits clockwise from top left:
1. Word-visits.blogspot.co.at, Trips to Prague
2. Free-picture.net, Cities of the World
3. Wikimedia, Daniel Wabyick, Prague – sculpture (about the deteriorating effects of communism on man)
4. Prague-guide.co.uk, Velvet Revolution Memorial
5. Panic on the Streets of Prague, Prague-life.com
6. teflworldwidepraguereviews.wordpress.com, Prague Streets