Czech Culture & Adaptation

The house that crackles

March 2, 2012
Crack in wall covered over by coat of paint

Finding character in aging

Watching your house crack after having just newly constructed it a few years ago wasn’t a sight I’d expected to witness, or appreciate. To me, the site of crumbling stucco and peeling paint belonged to a category of decrepit, rundown buildings that intrigue me from a safe distance. While the perfectly redone pastel row houses bordering Old Town square have added to Prague’s reputation as a city of architectural beauty, it is the other half, the crumbling, past-their-prime, half-falling-down structures that usually catch my eye. These masterpieces have character. In various stages of disrepair, they represent history, loaded with personality and a charm of their own. An artist’s dream, I suppose. Apart from the need for renovation funds, there is something compellingly intimate about peeling and cracking, as if someone had forgotten to draw the shades before turning on the lights when dusk fell.

Prague neighborhoods have no shortage of this landscape, and when we first began looking for a larger apartment or house for our growing family, I was attracted to the projects I knew we’d have to renovate ourselves. My heart yearned to live in a place with history and charm, although Radek wisely reminded me that beyond the mystique of crumbling stucco, reality often presents a slew of costly and inconvenient problems. My first rented apartment in Prague fell into this category, a 2+kk on a quiet side street in Vinohrady, a short walk from Náměstí Míru.

When my roommate and I initially saw the two-story building with its crumbling exterior, ornate windows and wide wooden staircase, we were sold. Although we knew we could find something newer and more sanitary for the high expat price the landlord wanted to charge, we both opted for character over comfort. Even the wooden construction scaffolding above the massive front door and the duck-taped paper laid along the staircase didn’t deter us. A few months later, when the construction company that had been hired to redo the roof forgot to cover their work before leaving for the weekend, my roommate woke in the night to the sound of dripping water. The ceiling and the wall behind her bed were soaked from the night rain storm and chunks of the peeling paint dotted the carpet. Her down-filled bedding was wet through and a large water mark remained on the ceiling and wall even after the damage had dried. Still, we weren’t compelled to move out. For few days, she simply slept on the side of the bed where the ceiling didn’t drip. From my room on the dry side of the apartment I began to write poetic stanzas in my journal about the leak. Our esthetic appreciation for entropy, however, soon yielded to a desire for a higher standard of living.

Luckily, my then new-boyfriend Radek took over, arranging for our belongings and our rental contract to be transferred to a nearby property that was more spacious, with a full-kitchen and living room, and no leaks. It didn’t have the character of the first location, yet when I sat in the kitchen by the open window I could look down into the courtyard of a nearby elementary school. During the afternoon, we’d hear the children’s shouts and the random explicatory word, in some sense we got more Czech culture than we’d anticipated.

Although Radek wasn’t against buying a historic beauty and renovating, he was too smart to sink our money into a rundown place when we didn’t have extensive funds for renovations. His architectural sensibilities were more refined than mine and he had the business sense to realize how much renovations cost and what we could realistically accomplish. After over two years of looking in Prague and the surrounding suburbs, we finally came upon a half-finished construction with a solid foundation in a village near the airport. I didn’t need to be convinced that it was the one. We agreed to buy the finished house and were granted permission to make all the remaining construction decisions, provided we stay within a proposed building budget. Radek became the site’s unofficial contractor, stopping by the construction every night after work to make sure the plumbing, tiling and painting were completed according to plan. Unforeseen problems cropped up, but, finally, a year-and-a-half after we’d first seen the house, we moved in.

It was only a few weeks later that I noticed the first crack. It ran vertically half-way down the length of the green-painted wall in our bedroom, Alarmed, I called Radek to inspect. Although I’d known we’d have some cracking where the edges of the wall met the ceiling, usually those cracks went unnoticed, or they could be covered by a strip of decorative molding which we’d done in the rooms on the bottom floor of the house. Not long after, I spotted another crack mid-wall that ran horizontally across the length of the playroom. Another thin crack appeared in the kitchen ceiling. Another in Anna’s bedroom. Each time I pointed out a crack, Radek patiently came to inspect. Tapping the wall with one hand, he moved the other smoothly across the wall, back and forth. Impatient, I always asked if we shouldn’t worry that the house might fall down. Shooting me a characteristic look meant to keep my perceived hysteria in check, Radek always answered that everything was fine. The house is supposed to settle he reminded me. Whenever there was a slight natural shift in the foundation or a change in the weather, the walls would expand and contract, and cracks could appear. After some time, he would repaint the walls, and we’d see if the cracks didn’t stay away. I agreed to wait and soon the cracks shifted to the background of my thoughts. Periodically, I’d catch Radek doing his tap-check on the walls, and he’d always assure me that everything was alright.

This past fall Anna got a new desk and bookshelf to match her new school girl status. Radek decided the time was right for a fresh coat of paint, and one evening we moved everything out so he could paint it himself. The freshly painted, non-cracked walls gave the room a welcome face-lift. But a few weeks later we realized one of the cracks had returned. Shrugging his shoulders at the discovery, Radek simply said he guessed the house was still settling. Realizing that we didn’t have any control over the cracks, I decided to treat them as kindly as I’m trying to treat the wrinkles (marks of character) that have recently appeared on my face. This spring is our fourth year in the house and, while for the most part it still feels new, I’m also glad to see it take on a landscape of its own, cracks and all.

When I went downstairs to open the curtains the other morning, I discovered that toddler Samuel had taken creative liberty by decorating the wall nearest the children’s easel with his own interpretive coloring. I was furious. Then, I realized that cracks, fingerprints, children’s murals are all part of our story. Having a reason to touch up the paint every so often might not be such a bad thing after all.

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