Waiting for the blanket of grey to lift from over Prague


If you have been to Prague then you will be familiar with the magistrala, the motorway which cuts through the top of Wenceslas Square, just in front of the National Museum. I was shocked a couple of years ago to discover that the road - which carries heavy traffic right through the centre of the capital - had been built in the 1970s.

Only 30 years ago! While the Communists could be forgiven for not predicting their own demise, surely even they could have imagined a time when more people would have cars, when such heavy emissions-belching traffic in the middle of the city would clearly be a bad thing. To my mind, the location of the motorway is one more reason to curse the former regime.

Prague was obviously the kind of city which needed its environment - specifically its air quality - improved, not made worse through crass communist planning. Prague has the misfortune of lying in a saucer-shaped hollow, which leads to the phenomenon known as inversion. A temperature inversion occurs when cold air close to the ground is trapped by a layer of warmer air; as the inversion continues, the air gets stagnant and pollution is trapped close to the ground. Inversion may be interesting from the geographical point of view, but living in the city when it occurs is quite unpleasant indeed. Quite often in winter inversion warnings are issued, meaning children must stay indoors, as should people with respiratory problems.

I myself fall into the latter category, I am sorry to say, and sometimes wonder about the long-term health consequences of living in a city as polluted as Prague. Simply put, one of my lungs has been defective since my teens and has gotten worse this year. When I consulted a specialist a few months ago her advice to me was "live healthily", not a line you can argue with, but easier said than done in this town. I briefly considered leaving Prague and going to live by the sea somewhere, and a Maltese friend of mine, bless him, offered to set me up with a flat and a job in Malta. But giving up my work, my home and my friends just seemed too radical and too awful to contemplate.

I can't do anything about the fact that I work within earshot of the magistrala motorway, but now that the winter is here I can avoid smoky pubs (i.e. almost all pubs) and - like the parents of young children, like other people with breathing problems - I will have to start paying attention to inversion warnings. I can also look forward to when the blanket of grey lifts from over Prague, which should be sometime about next April...