It’s been raining a lot here in Prague recently, to the point where I have been making my usual dumb joke about how if I had wanted weather like this I would have stayed in Scotland. The rain has gone on for well over a week now, sometimes a light drizzle, often a monsoonal downpour, pretty much always there. You can hear the quiet roar of it in the courtyard of our building at night. It’s like being caught beneath a very small waterfall. Whenever you go out for a walk there is always a faint hissing noise in the background. Against every window, the rain pitter-patters.
Of course, the river has been rising and rising, and, for those of us who remember 2002, that’s not a good sign. There’s a lovely pathway, wide as a street, that runs along the riverside near our flat. Cars can drive along it two abreast. At the weekends there is a farmer’s market there. At night in summer band’s sometimes play. There’s a cycle path and a large barge with a theatre and a cafe on it. When the weather is nice I take the baby for walks along the promenade, to where it joins up with another quiet path where people walk their dogs.
It’s not possible to do that at the moment. The whole area has disappeared beneath a flood of brown muddy water. The only thing visible are the tops of some metal signs. Ducks and swans now swim over the spots where they once waddled ashore to be fed.
A bit further down the river, near the The Dancing House is a bridge with a fine view of the gigantic white water rapids caused by the river in spate. An angry river is not like an angry ocean. The waves are stranger. There are areas where the water jets forward in a gigantic, unbroken curve, where the force of all those hundreds of tons of moving liquid makes it leap upward in a constant arc. Nearby are areas where the water is churned to white foam and right alongside those are muddy areas that look calm until you noticed the sinister power of the current. The flow is less visible to the naked eye but it is still there. Those things that look like floating branches turn out to be tree trunks carried from who knows where.
The Vlatva is normally a friendly presence in the city. Wide and calm, it runs through the town’s very heart. The castle looms over it. The Charles Bridge springs across it. Its banks are a place where you push the pram, walk hand in hand with your wife, sit and have a beer or a coffee.
Its recent transformation has something of the ominous quality of a horror movie. You look at it and you worry. You see news stories about people being killed and houses vanishing. Helicopters circle overhead constantly. Sirens call out all the time. You find yourself thinking about getting in extra baby food just in case, the kind that comes in glass jars, not powdered milk because if the power goes that will be difficult to make. You remember when the streets were filled with water and inflatable boats and Prague suddenly looked like Venice. The refrain from London Calling loops through your head— and meeee, I live by the river.
Radka and I took the baby out for a walk yesterday, over that bridge near the rapids. As the rain soaked through my coat, I found myself thinking about cosy catastrophes, of John Wyndham and John Christopher, of Ballardian Drowned Worlds. It was an obvious thought to a man of my generation and reading habits. I thought this must be what one of those things feel like in the early stage. What is ominous is that there is nothing you can really do. Everything is so normal, but its normalcy intensified. It’s only raining, its just raining more. The river is not its old friendly self. What was familiar is now a little threatening, like a twisted reflection of your hometown seen in a bad dream.
And yet the same TV that brings in all these shots of a country slowly vanishing under water shows you something else. You see pensioners on sticks and zimmer frames being calmly evacuated from those places by the river. You see flood barriers being built or moved into place. The helicopters are overhead, the troops are on standby. The whole vast slow organism of civil society moves in its sluggish way to deal with the problem. The metro may be closed but extra trams have been laid on to carry folks into work. People may have died but people are being saved. Things go on.
(Radka put up some pics here.)