Caged animal

Prague is not what I thought it would be. Many had raved to me about the Czech Republic before arriving, and this had manifested itself in an expectation of a city a lot like Vienna. Magnificent old buildings underwritten by modern civic management and vibrant culture. There was no rationale behind this expectation - I had neither researched the city nor heard specifics about what made it great - but this was the mental image I entered with.

That, so far, is not Prague. It has some of the architecture, and wide streets, but there is a slightly seedy unkemptness to the city that I hadn't expected. Beggars and trinket sellers in the subway and in front of the zoo. The streets are unevenly cobbled and trash is strewn about. The hotel's receptionist had her phone stolen two days and was today fired for "not smiling enough" - some Russian customers when we were checking in gave her trouble and refused to pay their minibar bill - despite being perfectly lovely and helpful. As a result you can't help but be paranoid of everyone.

I have opposing feelings on the city and can't quite reconcile the downsides with the positives, such as the fantastic exchange rate. You divide the Czech koruna by twenty for an approximation of the Australian dollar amount. A menu of soup, main and dessert last night cost $20. Tonight I had a pint of beer, fancy ham-stuffed chicken main and apple crumble cheesecake for $14, including a ten percent tip. All the people we have met - the receptionist, the various waiters, cashiers etc. - have been friendly. On the bus before the two trains it took to get into the city from the airport (public transport is not their forte, though we have had our metro tickets checked, which is more than I can say for Switzerland), I had the opportunity for some people-watching. A small girl, maybe three years old at most, was using sign language to communicate with her deaf father. An amazing snapshot of universal humanity.

We visited the Prague zoo today, which was apparently one of the better ones in Europe (though I was holding out for Berlin). As we wandered around the exhibits, I started to feel uncomfortable about the way some of the animals were housed. So many of them were pacing round and round, pressing up against the glass walls. The seals bounced back and forth between the fence and the other end of their pool. A turtle nosed up and down against the window. The tigers, of which there were three in a miniscule artificial concrete cell of probably less than ten square metres, were basically sitting on top of each other and kept eying the metal bars. The cheetahs did laps of their hill and brushed against the barricade. A polar bear had half a pool's worth of dirty water and a concrete disabled access ramp to stand in for its kilometres of open Alaskan wilderness.

They were in the process of expanding for the elephants and hippos, which would hopefully allow for renovations of the existing space once the animals have been shifted, but for a lot of the time I felt saddened by the way so many of the habitats were such poor substitutes for their real homes. As we navigated the crowds - crowds that cleared, I should note, when the skies unleashed a torrent of rain halfway through the day - I felt increasingly embarrassed for us, gawking at these creatures that were just wrenched from their environments (or, worse, have grown up never knowing differently). I've never had such a reaction to a zoo before, but I hadn't visited since I was a kid and I'm not sure I would have noticed how shabby it all was. Or maybe I just hadn't been to a dodgy one before. Either way, the constant pacing of everything from birds to reptiles to mammals hurt. I empathised with them. I'm restless in this city.