About three-quarters through the experience of The Classroom, those of us who were determined to stay in Prague had the collective realization that we would need a place to live after our student housing contracts expired. Up until that point, we had been coddled like babies, but now it was time to take matters into our own hands.
Perhaps the most well-known way for a foreigner to find an available apartment in Prague is to browse the real estate listings on the website expats.cz, a site whose layout has greatly improved since I last used it. If you happen to be reading this article with the intent to move to Prague in mind, I recommend becoming acquainted with it. The content on there is wide-ranging and is an invaluable tool for navigating the choppy waters of expatriate life there. Generally speaking, there are two basic options available for those seeking long-term accommodations. The first is the typical empty apartment available for rent, covering the range in both size and affordability. On one end of the spectrum is the opulent, centrally located 4 bedroom sprawl, recently renovated, fully decorated, with a price that causes the would-be renters to go into sticker shock. At the other end is the 15 square meter shithole in a rough part of town that has Communist era decor or is otherwise without furnishings, has leaky plumbing, zero closet space, and is barely large enough for a single Ikea bed, so forget about ever having company. For those arriving in town without friends, connections, trust funds, or leads, the best option is the flat-share.
A flat is the British word for apartment. I use this phrase since it seemed like everyone, even Americans such as myself, had adopted the term. Perhaps it had to do with the predominance of British English textbooks or something, I don’t know. In any case, the flat-share is exactly as the word suggests. Another person or group of people has a vacant room available. Would you be interested? Some advertisements come with caveats, like a brace of students seeking a third student for a semester or two. Others make it clear they would like a roommate who is quiet, or doesn’t smoke. Occasionally, an advertisement will specify gender preferences, although this seemed to skew towards female solidarity rather than anything untoward.
Naturally, there are places for sale as well, but I never had any experience with that. For prospective renters, one thing to take note of are sponsored listings from real estate firms. The price they specify on the website almost never includes their service fees, which can suck the equivalent or more of an entire month’s rent. Otherwise, the ads come from the renters themselves, independently operating real estate agents, or those highly motivated, enterprising sort of people you see on TV taking a dilapidated piece of property, fixing it up, and flipping it for a profit. Kinda like Vanilla Ice.
Those who were staying were either searching individually for a flat-share or had decided to team up with a small group of like-minded friends to do their apartment hunting. I did both. I made a few inquiries regarding an available room. A young Czech couple residing near Anděl responded favorably and invited me to their place for a viewing. At the same time, I had been recruited by my fellow classmates Brian and Steve to join their efforts in finding a place that was “bomb,” as Brian liked to say. For a while, they also attempted to draw our friend Sven into the inner circle, but his loner tendencies kept him from committing to the cause.
Unlike the majority of us who had come to Prague alone, Brian and Steve made the trans-Atlantic leap together from the great state of Arizona, having previously been high school teachers in search of adventure. They had arrived in Europe several weeks before the course had even begun, backpacking through multiple countries, and even getting swindled in Poland by way of a nefarious scam. To put it briefly, a couple of beautiful, party-going ladies led them to a bar and ran up their drink tab unawares, the bar itself complicit in the operation, wildly overcharging for the price of drinks. When they attempted to negotiate a fair shake on the bogus tab, burly bouncers insisted they pay the premium rate.
While I had been stuck out in the sticks, Brian and Steve had been put in accommodations much closer to the school. The drawback to that, of course, is their apartment had become infested with mold. They were very eager to find a suitable replacement to that dump.
Brian and I became acquainted early on in the seminar when we had been lumped together into group A, consisting of around fifteen people. Steve was in group B, which meant we almost never interacted during the course of the day except during breaks or lunches. Brian and I also were placed in the same teaching pod with four other trainees to commence teaching practice with Czech learners so we struck up a quick friendship based on absurdist humor. I later became equally fast friends with Steve when a group of us caught a tram to go to a pub next to the Metro stop at I.P. Pavlova and we spent almost the entire ride babbling nonstop about our mutual love of Pink Floyd.
It wasn’t long before the three of us would be huddled together in the basement computer lab scouring expats.cz for apartments. We struck gold one day when someone discovered an affordable pad on Revoliční, which was supremely located near the yellow line stop at Námêstí Republiky, a stone’s throw from the Vltava river in one direction and the Palladium shopping complex, an underground Albert grocery store, the beautiful Obecní Dum (Municipal House), and the Prašná Brána (Powder Gate) in the other.
The Powder Gate is a large, dark Gothic tower dating from the 11th century and is one of the original gates leading into Prague. Today, it serves as a gateway into Old Town. Like many monuments in Prague, by this point it has been photographed, catalogued, Instagrammed, and written about to death.
The proprietor of the flat invited us to come take a look. The three of us traveled there together. We emerged from the Metro in an optimistic frame of mind. Reaching the building, we took in its impressive slate gray brick facade. Indented archways and medallion-shaped recesses above the ground floor businesses gave the building a feeling of architectural punctuation.
Inside the foyer, we admired the marbled floors, gold plated fixtures, and the dual elevators. We went up several floors, perhaps getting off on the third or fourth. A Czech woman in perhaps her late 50s answered the door. She spoke heavily accented, but passable English, and the four of us engaged in small talk while taking the tour. Although the apartment was hers, and furnished with her things, she said she spent most of her time living in Germany – Dusseldorf, if I remember correctly. When it came to discussing business, she seemed a bit spaced out and elusive. Brian, our de facto negotiator, had to press her for concrete details about contractual terms, internet access, etc. The rooms were nice – one even had a baby grand piano nestled against a window looking out onto Revoliční. A lot of the preexisting decoration was fairly kitsch. The decorative detail I remember most were these hideous zigzag patterned rugs that were like something you’d find next to a poncho at a New Mexican flea market. The color scheme – red, orange, black, and likely burnt sienna too – was firmly at odds with the remaining vintage furniture that felt like remnants from a Victorian tea party. We loved the place, but acknowledged with nods and winks that we’d need to do some customizing. After coming to a handshake agreement with her, the three of us went to a Casino sports bar across the street to celebrate with a round of beers. I emailed the friendly Czech couple to apologize and inform them I’d found another place.
The day soon arrived when we had to go sign the lease. Our elation over having found such a cool, centrally located place left us unprepared for the coming bombshell. I should have realized that first day that we were doomed when I had foolishly left my newly acquired green Nokia on the ledge of the front of the building while we had been waiting to hear from the Czech proprietor. I had realized my phone was missing when we were in the sports bar, but by then it was too late. Petty crime, like burglary and pick-pocketing, is pretty rampant in Prague, and it was wishful thinking to expect a good Samaritan to return my phone. In all likelihood, it was scooped up by a random passerby and then pawned at the nearest phone store – who buy and sell used phones and SIM cards – for cold hard cash.
We arrived upstairs breathless with expectation, pens at the ready. The Czech woman, let’s call her Dagmar, looked somewhat nervous. Although we had already agreed to terms, she was now trying to change them! The apartment had three bedrooms – three people, three bedrooms, pretty clear – but someone else had contacted her about a potential vacancy in the interim; and in either her greed or stupidity or both, she had told him yes.
“He is a zinger,” she said. “You can all be friends.”
“We’re not looking for a friend,” Brian said, approaching anger. “We had an agreement for the apartment. Three people, three bedrooms. We are not sharing with this zinger!”
“But . . . this zinger . . . he is very nice . . . you like music, yes?”
“No! This is not what we agreed upon. You gave us your word!”
Dagmar fidgeted, and said, “If you do not take him, then we cannot have a deal.”
At this, Brian exploded.
“You are a very, very bad lady,” he said, shaking a finger at her. “You know what you are? You are a liar. We do not have a deal.”
This scolding continued at some length until we managed to extricate ourselves from such an awkward situation. We were disappointed to have lost the apartment, but after Brian had cooled down, we found a great amount of humor in reenacting his absurd harangue.
To be continued in Part 2…