Ships passing on the Vltava


Some ships dock for a while, others just for a drink and a feed. Kevin reflects on two of his favourite spots in Prague and how their maritime nature parallels the experience of living in a foreign country. 

Photo: Přístav 18600

Spring is well behind us, and the weather is a tantalising hint of summer days to come. Longer days and sunny rays can only mean one thing…it's grill season!

There is a hidden spot along the banks of the gentrifying Karlín area that remains wonderfully punk. Aptly named ‘Přístav’, the Czech word for 'Harbour', this outdoor venue serves as a crossroads of peoples from all walks of life.

Hidden behind a rough treeline, next to a large concrete facility, it serves as a strong reminder of the unifying power of food and drink. Much like ships docking in foreign ports unloading their crew onto local taverns, we too had all converged together from unlikely paths on this fine grilling afternoon.

I arrived to find the designated cooking areas largely occupied. There were Czech families with children running amok on the playground, students speaking vivacious Spanish, and a group of Korean couples fully loaded with their trademark spices and sauces. One of their young sons ran past me to the playground and I offered a friendly greeting in Korean, “Annyong”. To my pleasant surprise, he replied to me, “Dobry den”.

Photo: Přístav 18600

I had to call my friend who organised this grill to find our location. Usually, it’s easy to spot the large group of internationals, but due to the Přístav’s popularity, I couldn’t find them so easily this time.

“Oh yeah, look for my friend Kenny! He’s like South Asian looking”

That description, brief but direct, narrowed down the crowd options for me. While European cities such as Prague have many varied people groups from across the continent, the proportion of other races with different coloured hair and skin? Let’s just say, we still tend to stick out.

As Kenny and I made acquaintances and started the coals in the grill, we went through the motions of the classic ‘foreigner living abroad’ conversations.

“Where are you from? How long have you been here? What do you do here? Do you speak any Czech?”

For those of us who have lived here for more than a few years, the conversation moves almost mechanically. Perhaps it’s the transient nature of these friendships, or perhaps it’s the nature of reaching your 30s and being less interested in meeting new people…but unless there is an especially vibrant connection, the exchange is like a prescribed script that no one particularly enjoys (in this case, fortunately, Kenny and I bonded over the great universal unifier - food).

Photo: Přístav 18600

It reminded me of another interaction not too long ago at a similarly grungy location nestled on the outskirts of the gentrifying regions of Prague 7. ‘Altenburg 1964’ is a popular boat venue attracting locals and foreigners alike, and they were throwing their 2021-22 season closing party.

The location has served as a meeting ground for punk, techno and alt kids for the past few years. However, as the apartment buildings shoot up and investment money flows in, one does question how much longer such venues can survive…

It was a warm day, so many were unprepared for the chilly spring nighttime air and so we gathered around the bonfire. Those around me were decked out in piercings, oversized leather coats and a mix of thrift store finds, customarily arranged to give the impression of haphazardness and nonchalance.

While grill parties are a symbol of universal openness and commonality, the underground clubbing and techno scene in Prague represents exclusivity and mystery. Literally shrouded in darkness, partygoers go to these events not to meet new people, but to disappear into the crowd and get lost in the music.

As I chatted with my American counterpart, a lone figure approached us from the outer edges of the circle.

“Thank goodness! I think you’re the only English speakers in this whole circle!”

He smiled a toothy grin and informed us that he had just arrived that day from the UK. He and his friends heard about this party and came along to check it out - a Frenchman, a Belgian and a Brazilian, all no doubt looking to find some like-minded individuals to grow their party crowd.

And thus the script of international folk small talk played out.

“Where are you from? How long have you been here? What do you do here? Do you speak any Czech?”

Finishing my beer, I excused myself to the bar with little intention of returning to this conversation. Ten years ago, this kind of encounter would have thrilled me. To meet so many nationalities in one place? Rare for someone who grew up in suburban Australia. After a decade of these small talks though, sometimes it just ain’t it.

On the riverbanks of the Vltava, at these two distinct maritime locations of ‘Přístav’ and Altenburg, I am reminded of the idiom “like ships passing in the night”. The rest of the original poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is a long story about love and courtship. This particular stanza reads:

“Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.

That’s what life as a foreigner feels like sometimes. Of course, Prague has no ocean, but the Vltava is a strong river, flowing out to a myriad of other streams and rivers. I believe you can even take a boat all the way to Amsterdam if you wish.

No doubt, some ships sail to dock for longer. However, most stop in for a drink, a feed, a conversation, a meet-up, and maybe even a song and a dance. Then off they go again to distant shores and docks. It’s overwhelming sometimes to think of the ocean of encounters and chance meetings surrounding us. Yet of course, that’s what ships are designed for - for exploring and travelling as far and wide as we wish to take them.