I feel safer walking through neighborhoods in Prague than I do in a similarly sized city in the US. Czechs are accustomed to walking as a means of transportation, and the city’s streets are generally dotted with people, even in the evening, doing their shopping heading to restaurants, or just walking their dogs. Apart from the center of Prague, which is inundated year-round with tourists and known as a prime pick-pocket spot, Prague’s neighborhoods seem to have a low incidence of crime against pedestrians, although auto theft is common.
When I first arrived in Prague, I was warned to keep my money, mobile phone and metro card in the inner pocket of my winter coat. Although the Czech state requires proof of identification at all times, fellow foreigners told me it was best just to carry a copy of my passport and leave all original documents at home. For two months I was diligent in my attempts not to attract pick-pocket attention. I didn’t speak English on trams and I tried to look “Czech,” namely by leaving my running shoes at home and wearing heeled boots, when I traveled through the city. I thought I was doing a good job of watching out for my safety, until one evening in March 2002, I had an encounter with pickpockets.
A few weeks beforehand, I’d moved with my American roommate from the Modřany suburbs where my TEFL training housing had been to the ex-pat popular Vinohrady neighborhood. We found a 2+kk flat on a quiet side street off Francouzská street, just a few minutes walking from Náměstí Míru (metro station and square). The flat was situated within walking distance of downtown and the language school where I taught many of my lessons.
The incident happened one Saturday evening in March. After watching my first-ever Czech hockey match, where incidentally I was introduced to my husband Radek, I decided to leave the post-game celebratory dinner early. It was around eight-thirty p.m. when I said goodbye to my friends in downtown. The night was clear and Václavské náměstí was filled with Czechs and tourists out for weekend revelry. I started out on foot to meet up with a fellow English teacher to play a game of pool at a pub close to my neighborhood.
I walked past the national museum and through the Vinohrady neighborhood. I thought about catching a tram down to my friend’s flat in Vršovice, but my energy was high, the stars were out and I kept walking. I remember checking the time on my mobile and then slipping it back into my outer coat pocket without thinking as I crossed through Naměstí Míru. I turned onto my own street and stood for a minute in front of my apartment building debating whether to go upstairs and use the toilet or keeping walking till I reached the pub.
In my moment of deliberation, I suddenly heard quick footsteps behind me on the street. I moved to the side to let the passersby go because I sensed they were in a hurry, but before I knew what was happening, the two young adults ran off the sidewalk and jumped straight for me. They knocked me down in the middle of the street, waving a knife and shouting at me. The male held me down while the female used the knife to slash my coat pocket and take my mobile. I screamed for help and I think I tried to twist away, although the entire incident lasted just a minute or two. Then they were gone.
Shaken but unhurt, I reached into my other pocket and felt my keys, which had gone unnoticed (or were deemed unsellable) by the attackers. I opened the front door and walked upstairs in a daze. When I reached the first floor, my downstairs neighbor stuck her head out her door and said something about “policie” in Czech. I was upset and didn’t know what I could tell the police since my Czech was nearly non-existent, so I just shook my head. I was annoyed by the thought that she’d probably watched the attack and hadn’t shouted out the window for them to stop, but I didn’t dwell on that. Maybe she would have reacted if they’d continued.
The attack wasn’t serious, but it scared me enough to still have trouble keeping my pulse down when I hear quick footsteps behind me on the street, even seven years later. Just last weekend, I had to force myself to keep my pace steady when I heard another runner coming up behind me on the wooded path by our house where I frequently run. It was broad daylight, and I knew I wasn’t in danger, but I couldn’t stop my instinctive take-flight reaction. The runner gave me a grin and jogged past me without knowing he’d nearly given me a fright.
After the attack when we still lived in the Žižkov neighborhood, I traditionally ran from my tram stop to the door of my apartment building whenever I came back after dusk by myself, even when I was wearing heels. Although I’m sure I looked ridiculous, I always remembered the advice my roommate gave me shortly after the attack. She declared, “No one’s going to go after someone who’s already running.” I also carried pepper spray with me for some time, but I was always afraid that the spray would accidentally go off in my bag.
When I shared the story of my attack with one of my Czech students, she prompted with her own story of how her husband, a doctor, had been attacked and beaten up on his first visit to Philadelphia. We sympathized together, and I promised her that I wouldn’t mark the attack as a strike as Prague.
Nowadays, I’m usually home by dark, although on the occasions when I’m out late on my own, meeting girlfriends for dinner or going to a movie, I often call a reliable taxi service or make sure I walk with friends. Prague is a beautiful city by night, and I’m grateful that my one-time attack never changed my feelings for the city, but only reminded me to be more cautious.