In a city associated with people being thrown off of things, Nuselský Most earned the name “Suicide Bridge”. How appropriate for those lost souls to throw themselves down into Nusle, Prague’s saddest and most hopeless quarter.
For two years I’ve lived in Nusle and I find myself on a lonely wintry evening reflecting on its place in Prague. It begins below the steep slopes of old Vyšerad, descending from Vinohrady and Vršovice, and is a valley, literally Prague’s urban underbelly. The beginning of the sprawling and Panelak-infested Prague 4, it is an omen of the ward’s repugnance. Its decaying beauty a deep sigh from the regal city as it gives way to the ugly facades of consumption, propagation and pollution.
When I mention that I live in Nusle to Czechs, they reply with something about how dangerous it is. I usually wisecrack that they never strolled around the South Bronx after a Yankees game but they just look at me blankly. They say it’s dangerous because a large number of gypsies live in Nusle. Sure, a friend was nearly killed by a falling watermelon that some gypsy kids threw out a four-story window, but other than that I’ve never felt threatened at all in the quarter.
Nusle begins with Namesti Bratri Synku, where neo-Baroque buildings overlook the grimy square and become blacker with soot, exhaust and decay by the day. These buildings are echoes of Nusle’s prominence during the First Republic of Czechoslovakia and are a sad testimony to its neglect today.
Besides the great little pizza place, Baretta, the square is made up of awful restaurants, shops and banks. I’ll never forget going to the Komercni Banka and being told that I couldn’t start an account because they had no room for me. The club Casablanca is full of the most tasteless neuveau-riche assholes imaginable. The hospoda Hrabanka is a godforsaken place expelling a putrid odor and full of the destroyed and forgotten. I once saw a drunk violently kicked out of the place at two in the afternoon and then watched as a little babicka stepped right over the poor unconscious jalopy-head.
And babicka’s abound. Nusle has often reminded me of “Night of the Living Dead” with its zombie legions of octogenarians wandering its grimy streets. They stagger around with plastic bags in hand, dragging their filthy little curs, into and out of the potraviny buying knedliky, yogurt, onions and vodka (I’ve watched their purchases carefully). Their sheer number boggles the mind. When I remark on this to my Czech friends they ask me what we do with our old people in America. I tell them that we lock them away so that we don’t have to be tormented by them.
But there have been signs of progress in my two years; indications that the quarter is finally starting to awaken to the brave new post-communist world. I’ve followed the progress of a mini-potraviny war on Taborska with partisan interest. For a year and a half Tony Express was the only game around and Tony knew it. He closed at five every day and all weekend.
He never restocked his shelves with what he ran out of; most times if you found a product you liked you’d wait weeks for it to appear again. The potraviny reeked from spoiling produce. But I could forgive all of this if not for the women working the registers. For a long, long time I excused their surliness, their nearly open hostility towards me, and gently tried to win them over with pleasantries.
On average I’d say they returned about 20% of my Dobry Den’s, 40% of my Dekuju’s and (happy to see me leaving apparently) 60% of my Nashledenou’s. No matter how doggedly I vy-katted I couldn’t get anywhere with these women who would not place my change in my outstretched hand, return a smile or show even the most minute amount of patience while I dug through my pocket for that elusive ten heller piece.
About six months ago another potraviny opened up across the street. Opened by hard-working Belarussians grateful to be far away from Luchesku’s mind-numbing regime, they open at 6 and close at 9, seven days a week. In their first days they admirably, almost embarrassingly, struggled with the layout of the store to rationalize the flow of customers. The produce is fresh, and they restock the shelves with the same products consistently.
As if by some miracle this bright, little potraviny in Nusle is stocked with some of the best wines I’ve seen in Prague. French, Spanish and Italian are standards but it’s the Chilean, Californian and Moldavian wines that they occasionally display (and casually, with no fanfare) that make my visits to the potraviny always a slightly exciting exercise, never knowing what I’ll find. It might be the smiles of the pretty potraviny girl at the register and her sincere and diligent family that makes me go out of my way to avoid Tony Express and patronize their establishment (no name, just humbly potraviny-samoobsluha).
Tony scurries around the human and auto traffic on Taborska, a hateful human being himself, working longer hours struggling to keep up with the sudden competition and keep some of the business he so recently completely took for granted. I wonder if he’s behind the graffiti I found on the wall of his rivals store.
The Belarussians have thoughtfully provided a hook for customers to leave their dog tied to. Above it they wrote “Pro Psy” but when I came out today I saw that someone had crossed out “psy” and put “Rusa”. Shaking my head I realized that Nusle has yet to gentrify in any real way.
A quick stop into the pub U Lisaka, on my street, Na Jezerce, quickly confirms. Noxious clouds of blue smoke and body odor wash over you as you walk in. The cab drivers are the good-looking ones in this place and that should be enough said. Same thing for the prevalent choice of reading material: Blesk.
I’ve seen human beings in there so shocking that Medusa would turn to stone to look upon them. Ageless whores guzzling Gambrinus and being finger-f*cked by the undead. Hockey-loving donkey’s in soccer sweat-suits whose mental annihilation is so complete that the rot in their heads is festering through their skulls and taking hold of their faces. They drink without shame and with abandon. Usually I’m there for a few beers “sebo” coming home after the vecerka is closed.
The bartender, with an extraordinarily long mullet that he’s obviously proud of, doesn’t respond to my “Dobry vecer” in kind but rather drops “Kolik?” on me right away. “Osm piv sebo”, I tell him, drunkenly staring at the pictures of skinny naked girls they have tacked on the faux-wood-paneling walls among the imitation fox hides.
Ah, there’s a certain romance to that. Stumbling out, clutching eight beers at my side, dodging dog-doo and weeds peaking through the cobble-stones to drink with a Sarka, a Petra or a Jitka. Being bathed in the stifling evening air from the coal still burning in this, my Nusle. The small villa’s full of good, hard-working people who retreat into their homes all above the aptly named Pod Vilami.
Something human and real that I’ve always felt into that quarter. It’s with no regret that I leave for a more prominent address, but through the rosy-colored lens of nostalgia, to me Nusle will always be something more than it really is.
Photos: Levi Davis