Dispatch from Prague in the age of coronavirus

Lonely But Not Alone

A quiet March afternoon on Prague's Charles Bridge. Normally, in the weeks before Easter, the streets fill with Italian visitors (who for some reason love Prague at Easter). There were just scattered handfuls of people on this particular day. Photo credit: Mark Baker
This map shows my apartment in relation to some of the city's biggest and prettiest parks. My easy go-tos are Stromovka and Letná to the east, but I've discovered a new love for wandering the trails around the Šárka-Lysolaje watershed to the west. Google maps.
The Czech Republic was one of the first European countries to mandate the use of face masks in public. Overnight, the country went from a place where people were embarrassed to wear masks to one where it felt almost normal. Photo credit: Mark Baker

First the good news from my end. Aside from a few health scares -- like breaking out into a cold sweat for no reason or having a little cough or scratchy throat (spring allergies?) -- I feel basically good and healthy. I’ve limited contact with others to a bare minimum and try to keep my apartment as clean and virus-free as possible. I’ve taken steps to protect my mental health too and I try to stay positive. My situation is as good as it can be under the circumstances -- and much better than many people on the front lines of this -- and for that I’m grateful.

I can’t say, though, I haven’t had more than a few of those “blood-runs-cold” moments. One came a few days into self-isolation. I’d been joking with friends about how our lives had become bad remakes of the movie “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray gets caught in a time warp and every day becomes a repeat of the day before. One morning, I woke up and my first thought was that my own movie wasn’t Groundhog Day, but rather ‘The Boy in the Plastic Bubble,” a schlocky, made-for-TV movie from the 1970s in which John Travolta plays a guy with an immunological deficiency where he can’t leave his bubble without the risk of dying. I hadn't become Travolta, but my apartment had become my bubble.

It suddenly dawned on me it might be several weeks, or even months, before I can have a face-to-face conversation with another person (let alone a kiss or hug). I’ve been on long, solo research trips before, and I know I can tough this one out. The key is to take it day-by-day and keep moving forward. That bubble thing, though, freaked me out (and still does).

The other blood-runs-cold moments mostly have to do with family back in the U.S., where the virus is spreading quickly as I write this. My impression is that the Czech Republic has done a much better job than the U.S. in slowing the course of the virus, first closing down all non-essential shops and businesses on March 12 and then gradually introducing tighter restrictions (including, around 10 days ago, the mandatory wearing of face masks in public).

The numbers are scary here, around 3,800 confirmed cases as of early April and rising, but there’s a growing feeling of hope the containment measures will eventually work. I don’t always share that optimism when I look at the U.S. and read the terrifying accounts coming out of New York City and other places (though I try to stay encouraged by the fact there are so many knowledgeable people around the world working to stop the virus).

I won’t go into the contents of those darkest moments. I can’t let my mind go there, and I’m sure all of us are haunted by the same demons. I do think, though, that my fellow expats, who are separated from their loved ones by many miles as well as ever-tighter travel and border restrictions, have it rough these days.

The weather in Prague has been absolutely beautiful during this pandemic. This is a pretty Hansel & Gretel-style house in the Šárka-Lysolaje nature park. Photo credit: Mark Baker
One of my most ambitious walks (21,000 steps!) was to the wild rock formations of the Divoká Šárka park, not far from Prague airport. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Most of my daily walks are along the ponds and streams of Stromovka park, very close to my house, Photo credit: Mark Baker
Another view of pretty Stromovka park. Photo credit: Mark Baker

Self-care is particularly important, and one of the first steps I took during the lockdown was to limit my exposure to Facebook and Twitter. Social media can be a great way to stay connected and it’s an important part of my work as a writer, but at times like these, social media can also serve as panic triggers and dangerous sources of misinformation.

My main problem with social media, and it predates coronavirus, is that we users have only limited control over what we see in our newsfeeds. Sites like Facebook and Twitter function like our collective hive brains, and the various posts and tweets we see are like random thoughts. Some posts are benign or bring pleasure, but many play on our darkest fears. The point is that like our own thoughts, the posts and tweets often lack any context and are not necessarily true or accurate, yet our minds and bodies react as if they are.

Under normal circumstances, I can usually handle the randomness and occasional darkness, but as the pandemic began to take hold, I started to find my social media feeds to be far more triggering than entertaining (or helpful). I realized it was time to (temporarily) check out.

I still maintain a kind of backdoor access to both Facebook and Twitter, but I use them now mainly to share photos of my daily walks through Prague and to check on friends and family and let them know I’m okay. I still use FB Messenger and Twitter’s direct message function, and find those to be good for keeping in touch. WhatsApp, Skype, iMessage and, most recently, Zoom have been a godsend.

To be fair, not everything on social media is bad. The local information shared by Expats.cz and Radio Prague, in English, is useful, and my Prague friend, BBC journalist Rob Cameron, has set up an excellent moderated FB discussion group on how the epidemic is affecting life in his own part of the city and the country as a whole.

In place of social media, I’ve gone old school. I have a short list of traditional news sources, including the sources above, that I access directly to get the information I need. Everything else I try to shut out and focus only on those elements in my life I can actually control.

This view is along a path in Letná park, looking out toward Prague's Old Town in the distance. Photo credit: Mark Baker
An empty bench along a stream in the Šárka-Lysolaje nature park. Photo credit: Mark Baker
Prague Castle in the distance as seen from Letná park. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The crazy rock formations of the Divoká Šárka park. You can actually get very close to here by tram, though on this particular day I hiked out here. Photo credit: Mark Baker

In the absence of any externally imposed structure (like real travel-writing assignments to work on), I’ve tried to create a kind of imaginary daily routine to give life in the bubble a sense of normality.

In the first couple weeks of self-isolation, I actually did receive a few writing assignments from my main employer, Lonely Planet. As surreal as it might sound, throughout the month of March, I banged out features on topics like the “Best Nightlife in Prague” and “How to Explore Prague With Kids” --- all the while wondering if any of the places I recommended would still be standing once the tourists return (whenever that is).

Those features had already been in the pipeline and budgeted for, but my understanding from travel editors is that 2020 is likely to be a very lean year. The two guidebooks I pitched to research this summer -- one on Romania and the other on Hungary -- have been put on indefinite hold. I’m also scheduled to work as a destination expert on a Scenic-National Geographic Danube River cruise in June, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely. Anyone up for a cruise just now? Nah, I didn’t think so.

So that leaves mostly non-work stuff to build a routine around, and I’ve found a few activities that help me get by.

I’ve written in the past here about how I use meditation to deal with anxiety (and nothing triggers anxiety quite like skimming through a few news articles on coronavirus). I normally budget 30 minutes for daily meditation, but on some mornings, these days, it takes 30 minutes just to quiet the mind. I often go a full hour. I use a basic form of meditation that focuses on counting breaths and doesn’t require any training or special equipment. If you’re interested in trying it yourself, click on this story link to find a fuller description of my method and references to some source materials.

Meditation is not a cure-all, but it does help to restore a sense of perspective. Many people think meditation is about blocking or avoiding unpleasant thoughts. It’s actually more the opposite. In meditation, the idea is to open your mind to all your thoughts, including your worst fears and worries. You then let them wash over your brain and release them into the ether. Thoughts can be our worst enemies, and the only way to confront them is to allow them free rein to roam before letting them go.

A pandemic seems like a crazy time to go on a diet, but I’ve also decided to use these weeks of self-isolation as an opportunity to lose a few pounds. It’s important in times like these to have some kind of personal goal (even a relatively minor one), and I’ve been in denial for a while about the spare tire that’s been slowly expanding around my waist.

My Prague friend Derek recommended a simple phone app called MyNetDiary that helps set weight-loss targets, counts calories and plans meals. My own target is to lose 5kg (a little more than 10 pounds) by the end of May. To meet that goal, I have to limit calories to around 1800 a day.

The app has already helped me to drop a couple pounds, but it’s proven useful in ways I could not have foreseen when I first started. It’s helped me to impose a sense of order on my unruly kitchen, plan my once-a-week shopping trips to the grocery store, and ration the food once it’s back home in the fridge. In a more intangible way, it’s given me an added small feeling of control over at least some part of my daily life.

One feature of MyNetDiary is a step-counter on the app’s dashboard that uses my phone’s built in “health” capabilities. I didn’t notice it at first, but once I saw it there on the side, I decided to get back into walking. A few years ago, when step-counting and Fitbits were big, I became obsessive about logging my 10,000 steps a day. I let that lapse ages ago and hadn’t thought much about it since.

In the past few weeks, my daily walks around the neighborhood have become the most important parts of my day. During the walks, I binge on podcasts, take photos, breathe in the fresh air (through my mask, of course) and marvel at how beautiful Prague is in spring. I return home feeling less overcome and even a little bit restored.

We’re fortunate in the Czech Republic that in spite of the lockdown, we’re still allowed (as of early April) to leave our houses for nature walks. I know many readers -- in Italy, Spain, Serbia, Romania, parts of the United States, and other places -- are not so lucky. The situation here could change any day. I have a few ground rules for the walks that never vary: always walk alone, never speak, wear a face mask, and stay at least 2 meters (6 feet) from anyone I might encounter on the trails.

My apartment is in a part of Prague, the far northwestern corner of the center, that’s surrounded by parks and wooded areas (I’ve marked the map above so that you can see what I mean). The Vltava River passes just behind my house along its last zig before it straightens out and heads north toward Germany. The riverbank is relatively isolated in this part of the city and has a little-used gravel path that stretches on for miles.

In times of extreme social distancing, one of the most welcome sights of all is an empty path ahead as far as the eye can see. Photo credit: Mark Baker
On my walks, I occasionally venture further afield. This is the view from the hill at Petřín. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The Vltava River as it flows north of the city is lined with dirt and gravel paths that are still fairly empty during the day. Photo credit: Mark Baker
The dashboard of the MyNetDiary app is clearly laid out and even has a handy step counter on the left. Never thought I'd recommend a diet during a pandemic, but give it a try.

Several friends have reached out to me in recent days for my opinion on how the coronavirus might change travel and travel-writing going forward. The question is often tinged with a feeling of regret or even guilt that coronavirus might be some kind of karmic payback for all the excesses that travel has wrought in recent years. The frenzied madness of overtourism, Airbnbs, Instagram influencers, mega-cruises, 20-euro budget flights all over Europe. The path we were on was probably unsustainable.

Of course, that ignores all the people whose livelihoods are tied directly to the travel industry (including one in every 10 workers here in Prague).

Certainly, for the short term, at least through this year’s travel season, tourism as we know it is dead. The Czech authorities, for example, have already said that even if life returns to some semblance of normality toward the start of summer, the borders with neighboring countries like Germany and Austria are likely to remain closed in order to prevent the virus from re-entering the country. There’s no indication yet how soon those restrictions might be lifted.

For the medium and longer period, I suppose the answer hinges on how severe, in terms of lives lost and economic cost, the pandemic turns out to be. Even in a best-case scenario, I can’t see global tourism revenue in 2021 coming in anywhere close to the 2019 numbers.

In making assessments like this, it’s hard to find useful reference points (the last truly global pandemic was a century ago), but I think back on a strange trip to Croatia I made in August 1997. I’d just accepted an editing job at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague and had a few weeks off before I was scheduled to start work. I decided to spend part of the time on Hvar, an island on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.

It’s a popular island at the height of summer and I was expecting to find crowds, but when I got there, the place was totally deserted. One of the many casualties of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s had been the tourism industry, and though the fighting in Croatia had mostly ended by the middle of 1995, it still took several years for people to re-acquire the habit of travel. That’s an imperfect analogy, but it might indeed be a while before people -- in large numbers at least -- feel comfortable once again to travel far from their homes.

Whether we will be better travelers -- more responsible and more aware of sustainability issues -- in the future is also hard to say. I’m skeptical when it comes to human nature, so I’m inclined to think any kind of spiritual antibodies we derive from covid-19 are likely to be short-lived. That’s not to say, though, there haven’t been many positive signs, as people around the world reach out to help each other. We’ve all learned the value of the small freedoms -- to travel, shop, go out, meet up -- that we took for granted only a few weeks ago.

I’ve even noticed some hopeful signs on Instagram (of all places). Instagram, in my opinion, has gotten better (not worse) in the coronavirus pandemic, and it's one of the few social media platforms I still regularly use. That all-pervasive influencer-driven, #mybestlife vibe of 2019 suddenly feels so out of touch with the current zeitgeist. It’s actually a pleasure these days to swipe through my feed and see inspiring photos of people home-schooling their kids, baking their sourdough or whatever else they’re doing to make the best of these trying times.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist and travel writer who’s lived in Central Europe for more than two decades. I love the history, literature, culture, and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

That's my aim with this travel website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

You’ll find a mix of stories here. Some will be familiar “what to see and do” travel articles on particular destinations. Others will be tales of “adventure” (usually with a comic twist) from life on the road. I'll also share tips about living in my adopted hometown of Prague and stories from a more-distant (but seemingly ever-present) past, when Central Europe was the “Eastern bloc” and I was a full-time journalist trying my best to cover it. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker