Monday, 29 June 2015

The Thing About Prague: Review

Author: Rachael Weiss
Genre: Travel, non-fiction
Pages: 377
Originally published in: 2014

Prague. A popular European party capital, a thing of beauty in the heart of Europe, a city based between the east and the west, boasting stunning architecture and rich history. Whatever you think of Prague, you probably wouldn’t mind reading a bit more into it, would you now?

As a person that loves reading about travelling, about people who change their lives forever by moving to a completely different country (hell, I did exactly that when I decided to leave it all and study abroad!), I thought The Thing About Prague would be the perfect pre-summer read for me. Yes, I did enjoy it and I read it quite quickly. No, it is not the best piece of travel writing and I did end up giving it only two stars on Goodreads (this still means “it was okay” so it’s not like it was that bad). Anyway, here is what I liked and what I didn’t about The Thing About Prague.

First of all, the book is written by Rachael Weiss (not to be mistaken with the actress) – an Australian mid-level administrator, who one day decided to leave her job and her home and move to Prague to write. However, the expectations that come with this initial plot summary are not entirely met. For instance, this is not the story of a woman who suddenly leaves it all to go somewhere completely anew: she actually has some Czech blood in her veins and when she makes the move to Prague, she conveniently has her father’s old flat to stay in, lounging around it for a few months. Prague is not exactly unknown to her either since Rachael has already spent some time there earlier and wrote a book on it, too – Me, Myself and Prague.

Without being too picky, in the long run this plot setup should not be such an issue – after all we cannot have it all, and there are plenty of other book that are about people who move into completely new places that are not connected to their family tree. So, let’s get to the good parts.

Rachael’s writing is funny and engaging. I always find it interesting to read those kind of books because they are telling genuine everyday stories – nothing too dramatic, yet immensely entertaining. Let’s blame our love for gossiping on this one – overhearing someone else's conversation if you will. And some of her stories are pretty good and easy to relay to, especially if you are coming from or have lived in Eastern Europe! That is to say, her book reminded me how alike we are over there: from the old socialist buildings, to the way people are so laid back about their work they would need a whole week to do something that should only take them a day. Personally, I caught myself smiling when Rachael was saying how the workers that had to fix the pipes in the bathroom said they will only take a day or two. Coming from Eastern Europe, I can assure you: it is never a day or two. Always add a few days on top. Always.

Also if you are someone who lives abroad, you might find this book pretty enjoyable (regardless of the country you reside in). Sentences such as “when you are an expat, you have no choice but to defend your country” certainly point at what we all have in common. By the way, you will notice how Rachael and her friends always refer to themselves as expats and never as immigrants. Fancy. (N.B expat, short for an expatriated person: = a person who is voluntarily absent from home or country; immigrant = a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence).

Although I enjoyed reading The Thing About Prague, it did leave me feel a bit disappointed. I picked it up mainly because I wanted to read about Prague – you know, the city that is in the title of the book. To my disappointment, there was not much about the actual Prague – in terms of its aforementioned beautiful architecture and rich history, in terms of descriptions of places the locals go to eat/drink/party/shop/hang-around/anything. Instead, the book is mainly about Rachael trying to find a flat to buy (yes, to buy – not to rent) and to find a job, which, surprise, surprise!, is pretty hard for a person who only speaks English – not even a bit of Czech. A little mundane especially since she spends most of the time laying around in her dad’s flat – nothing wrong with this story, but not much of a travel writing? Also, she is very surprised to find out how expensive the nice flats by the river are … just because it is Central Europe does not mean that apartments are cheap as chips, you know?

And finally, what really got on my nerves and I just have to talk about it: her ignorance when it comes to European regulations. Sounds like a weird thing to get annoyed about? Bare with me, I will explain! I do realise that she is Australian and very far away from European issues and politics, but she is being well too self-centred when it comes to things that exist for a reason. For instance, she keeps complaining about the European Union making her life very hard – the poor expat that has to do all this paperwork and get all those documents in order to live in the Czech Republic legally. How dare they change their visa regulations? How dare they have any regulations? Don’t they know she is just a woman who can’t be bothered to deal with passports? And then she even goes on to express her annoyance at the Czech joining Schengen because it means more regulations and paperwork for her – are you kidding me? No, seriously, has she not made her research? All this time she spend in Prague and she did not get to know any of the politics and the international relations going on in Europe? Yes, I am sure they wanted to be a part of the EU and Schengen just to f*ck up the poor expat and that is that. (It’s annoying because she never acknowledges that there just might be some reason for the Czech joining all those unions…)

I can say a lot more about my issues with this but I will stop here. Forgetting my rant for a moment, The Thing About Prague is not such a bad book and it does provide some good insight into an immigrant’s life in the Czech Republic. A chapter during the end that involves a scary fellow expat who sounds like a cannibal is especially good and helps make the book worth it. Take Rachael Weiss’ words with a pinch of salt – it is not a boring book but it does not say that much about actual Prague as one might wish. 

Would you be interested in reading The Thing About Prague? What good travel books have you read lately?

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