4- The Great Fire of Prague

Note-

Now that I have reached the end of my year abroad, these blogs shall be written in the form of ‘memoirs,’ giving an account of my experiences as well as reflections on such things as what I learned from the experiences, and how they went on to shape my year abroad as a whole.

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My first semester can be more or less divided into two acts, which were themselves primarily defined by the characters that I spent time with. There was, of course, a lot of crossover in the characters that appeared, and, as is often the case, the acts weren’t quite even in length or in character of content. Some of the key players in the second act were among the first characters introduced in the first, and some of the key players from the first had, by the climax of the second, more or less faded away, save the odd cameo. But then, this only makes sense, I being the archetypal dashing theatrical hero.

The climax of the first of these acts would have to have been my trip to Budapest. I went with five of my friends from the language course, and we all had an absolutely brilliant time. I adored the city, the atmosphere, the food (mostly the food), all rather tailored to be Instagram-friendly, but in a way that suited my company and I just fine. I distinctly remember a place that consisted of two separate little buildings across a cobbled street, one serving drinks and one serving food, all part of the same brunch café. The dishes had traditional, slightly esoteric girl’s names, and no requests for menu alterations would be permitted, as each plate had been ‘expertly formulated for a near-perfect combination of flavours’. It was, admittedly, absolutely delicious.

But wait! I must speak of Budapest no more, for what made my trip to Budapest perfect for my friends and I was that the vast majority of our time was spent wandering the city between places where we could sit, talk, and eat delicious food. While, in my view, an ideal way to spend a short trip abroad, it does not make for particularly thrilling subject matter for a blog. And so, to save this from becoming a half-remembered travel guide that is neither helpful nor interesting, I shall instead discuss the time that this group of friends and I fought the burgeoning Great Fire of Prague.

It was a couple of weeks after my arrival in Prague, and I was settling in well. The parts of the Czech language course that didn’t make me feel as though my brain was melting were very enjoyable, I’d only lost one mobile phone on the metro, and my friends from the language course and I were just starting to truly become friends, rather than just people that we hung out with because we were on the same course. The weather was gloriously sunny (if still a tad hot for my panic-running tendencies), and I was starting to appreciate quite how navigable Prague is when one has unlimited usage of the transport system, though for the time being my lack of a working phone rendered my capitalisation thereupon rather more of an adventure than it ought to have been. Still, by way of staying with my friends at all times, or, failing that, waving my laptop around in the middle of the street hunting for wifi to steal, I managed to get by.

My friends and I decided to go straight from the language course to a spot that Caro, our perpetual source of high-quality German recommendations, had recommended. This suited me perfectly, as it meant that there would be a great deal less ambling around trying to find people. We went to a shop on the way, picked up some drinks and snacks (I went for my very first bottle of Czech wine!) and then carried straight on to our mysterious destination. Mysterious to me, that is, as I hadn’t been paying attention when Caro told us where we were going.

We rode the metro to Prague 1, the very centre of town, and walked from there due west to the Vltava, the great river that flows around and through Prague. This entire area of Prague was and is, by all accounts, quite outstandingly beautiful. The architecture, the winding streets linked by peaceful side-alleys, the breath-taking view down the river… It seems that wherever one looks there is a scene worthy of a postcard, or a landscape.

Before too long, we were almost at our destination. Given how compact the centre of Prague is, this statement is usually true when heading to and from somewhere in Prague 1. On this occasion we started out across the first bridge to the south of the famous Charles Bridge, a move that rendered the view down the Vltava even more spectacular, before stopping halfway along the bridge and taking a short elevator downwards. This time we got lucky, as the descent from the centre of this particular bridge did not leave us nearly as wet as it would have from many. Instead, we found ourselves on an island.

Known as Střelecký Ostrov, meaning Archer’s Island, this quickly became one of my favourite places in Prague. With an area of 2.5 ha, it’s easily big enough to feel spacious and open even when otherwise occupied, and yet small enough to feel somehow private and exclusive. Trees provide gentle shade, swans and paddle-boats glide gracefully and trundle soothingly along the river on both sides, and birdsong floats above the steady lapping of the river against the shore, all framed by the near-distant humming and thrumming of busy city life. There are one or two pop-up drink stalls, including a little grounded caravan that specialises in coconut iced coffee (which I recommend!), and there is a children’s play area near the bridge. Further from the bridge, however, as the island narrows, it increasingly consists of just grass, trees and shoreline. It was here that my friends and I decided to sit.

First things first, we performed the necessary rituals. That is, of course, to say that we each took pictures of ourselves and/or each other. My lack of a working phone was here made up for by my Greek friend Paraskevi, another classical guitarist and a boundless source of refreshingly playful energy, asking me to take a picture of her, which I was gratified to see shortly thereafter as her Facebook profile picture!  This necessary procedure out of the way, we alighted upon a light incline along the riverbank and opened up our textbooks. It is necessary here to add that none of us, at this point, had noticed any smoke coming from anywhere on the island.

My successful photograph, all compliments to the model!
My successful photograph, all compliments to the model!

My particular attentions were focussed on the wine that I had procured, and, in particular, on solving two quite serious problems. The first was that the wine was corked, and we as a collective had neither a corkscrew nor a knife. Being something of a scientist, I performed a few investigative experiments in leverage with the items that I had to hand. Unfortunately, or, I suppose, fortunately, as far as the preservation of the wine goes, the cork was quite firmly wedged. Thus, I resorted to brute force and ignorance, and forced the cork inside the wine with a pen.

The second problem was that, it being a warm day with a cool breeze, the wine was warm-room-temperature, whereas our surroundings were breezy-island-temperature. It being a rosé, this simply would not do. Lacking a wine cooler, as I am tragically often, I had to think outside the box, or, rather, outside the island. Throwing my friends a look that was half rebellion, half ‘observe my innovative ways, oh unprepared companions,’ I stepped carefully down to the riverside and, lowering myself into a regionally appropriate squatting position (well, not really regionally appropriate, my heels were definitely off the ground), lowered the body of the wine bottle into the waters of the Vltava. Keeping the top of the neck well covered and far from the water’s surface, I started to gently swirl the wine, such that its warmness could dissipate into the river’s murky waters. Though none of my friends immediately leapt to their feet and began to scream in amazement and congratulation, I could tell that they all wanted to.

It was around this time, in my moment of triumph, that we spotted the thin column of smoke rising out of a hole in one of the trees near us. No-one other than us appeared to be reacting to it, so at first it seemed reasonable to sort of assume that this was just something that happened here, like a much more concentrated version of the blue mists thought to derive from the oil of the eucalyptus coming into contact with dust and water vapour, or the friendliness rising from a capybara. However, it was not long before we were disabused of this notion, as upon looking inside the tree we each observed the ruddy glow of fire.

The smoke and our reactions thereto drew the attention of a man who appeared to be local, or at least a Czech speaker. He set off to find a park ranger, but all parties agreed that something needed to be done in the meantime. Lacking any better options, we each emptied our bottles of water into the tree, filled them up from the Vltava, then emptied them into the tree again, and so on.

It looked to be quite an old tree, and gnarled, but with a great many deep green, September leaves. There were quite a few holes in its large, grizzled trunk, which served us well, as it meant that whichever direction the wind blew in there’d always be at least a couple of directions from which water could be poured in without us breathing in any smoke. However, the downside was that, in combination with the steady breeze, the fire had a near-constant supply of oxygen. There was a point just as we were starting to pour when the flames rose almost fully out of the holes in the trunk, threatening to escape the tree’s heart and reach the branches. All that we could do was hasten our pouring and wait for the ranger.

A number of minutes later, the Czech man returned with a park ranger in a fluorescent jacket. The ranger observed the tree for a moment, then walked with some amount of haste back the way he had come. I offered the Czech man my water bottle (I had by this point remembered that I had my plastic lunch box with me, which was far more effective) and he joined us in our efforts.

Quite a few more minutes later, the park ranger returned with a water jug. By this point the Czech man, my friends and I had managed to more or less control the rising flames, reducing them once more to a glow within the tree. However, this glow still burned strongly, and there was more smoke and steam pouring from the tree than ever. After a few minutes of seeming to be assessing the situation, the park ranger set off once more the way that he had come, the water jug still in his hand.

I’m not sure quite how much time passed after that of us going between the river and the tree, the river and the tree, pouring more and more water into the pores and holes in its trunk. In retrospect, we could perhaps have tried to plug those hole with sand to starve the first of oxygen, but there were a lot of them, and there was a lot of heat coming out of them. In the end, the park ranger returned with a couple of firemen. As there is no access to the island by anything other than stairs or lift from the bridge, they had only two pieces of equipment with them- some kind of pump, presumably of gas or foam, and a chainsaw. The area was cordoned off, and with a “You can go now” from the park ranger, we were directed out of the area.

We decided in retrospect that the fire was probably the result of a cigarette butt thrown into the tree an hour or a few hours before- it had looked too alive to spontaneously ignite. We took it as consolation that, in cases like that, the tree is normally doomed from the moment the fire starts, so there was nothing that we could have done to save it. Still, there is a certain sadness inherent in the death of an old tree.

Nonetheless, we had probably prevented the fire’s spread and definitely reduced the damage that it caused, so we couldn’t help feeling a certain pride! As we walked back along the bridge, we eagerly discussed the medals and Keys to the City of Prague that we would receive (still lost in the post to this day, we presume!) and then, as it was late evening by then, we went our separate ways.

Something that this incident definitely illustrates to me is the value of doing things. It would have been easy for us to notice the smoking tree and just walk away, or to simply let the Czech man try to deal with it. If we had, perhaps another tree would have burned down, or a charred scar would have been left in the landscape. As it is, the only sign there now that anything happened is that one of the trees is much younger than the rest.

Sometimes, there’s nothing that you can do in a situation. Sometimes the things that you can do aren’t actually helpful. However, while doing nothing is often by far the easier option, willingness to try to help from a place of good intentions is, to my mind, a very worthwhile thing indeed.