A cost comparison of Communist and Capitalist Prague reveals a long dark history of alchemy and occupation, sorcery and intrigue, plus an uneasy redemption. Welcome to the New Bohemia.
Before the 1989 Velvet Revolution, Westerners in Prague may have felt as if they were following in the ghostly footsteps of long-dead alchemists, astronomers, heretics and martyrs – even if possibly their own footsteps were being trailed by the Czech secret police. Today with the onslaught of mass tourism, I find that footloose foreigners are more likely to tread on the corporeal toes of transplanted tourists, teachers and entrepreneurs, all flocking to Prague not so much to make money out of base metals, but to witness the transmutation of a new nation’s capital from Communism to Capitalism.
As a time traveler to this ancient architectural wonderland both before and after the “changes", I experience the unbearable lightness of being in Prague yet again, to do a kind of cost comparison: this time to explore the fantastic physical and psychological terrain of Prague’s peculiarly long dark history, perhaps exorcizing a few demons of my own along the way. Although an “Eastern” European Easter sounds great – Milan Kundera is quick to scold us that Prague is actually in “Central” Europe – I decide to go in the fall, eat bunnies rather than worship them (wild hare is a Bohemian specialty).
A nostalgia worthy of a Nostradamus sets in as I set off to re-explore “The Golden City".
No fixed focus on the map remains stationary in time and space, even if on the surface places might look the same. Still, the magnetic center of Europe, the New Bohemia, has an almost supernatural appeal. Eyes are drawn to the points of a compass by the macabre Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque statuary, towers, and turrets of the Golden City’s unique centuries-old architecture, never more omnipresent than when I was standing on the Charles Bridge, under the shadow of Prague Castle and above the majestic Vltava (Moldau River), the polluted brown waterway frozen in motion by Czech nationalist composer Smetana in his masterpiece Ma Vlast (My Country).
Against this fairytale backdrop, conjured up out of some Grimm nightmare, a novel political play was staged: the collapse of an oppressive hardline Communist regime in a bloodless coup led by a ragtag army of peacefully protesting students, artists and intellectuals.
Unlike most revolutions, the Czech Velvet Revolution can’t be traced back to an ideological man or manifesto, but to public outrage over repression of a rock group with the unlikely sobriquet of “The Plastic People of the Universe".
This 1970s movement to liberate rock music snowballed into a broader call for social and political reform. Charter 77 – a non-revolutionary milktoast “declaration of independence” urging only “respect of civil and human rights” – first served Big Brother as a Most Wanted List before ironically becoming a Playbill for the 1989 Civic Forum that ousted the Communist government. Czechmate!
To the popular strains of “Havel na Hrad” (“Havel to the Castle”), outlaw Velvet Czar, Vaclav Havel – prominent dissident playwright, political alchemist and Frank Zappa fan – was thus cast in the role of the New Wizard of Prague.
Prague really is a city for all seasons, yet the Velvet Revolutionary fall of 1989 is best illumined by the light of a past springtime – one that first reawakened the Czech Spirit.
The 1968 Prague Spring, promising “socialism with a human face", represented a virtual renaissance, featuring a flowering of freedoms nipped in the bud by the Soviets, only to re-emerge years later under Gorbachev in the revivified forms of glasnost and perestroika. Maybe the fall of Communism was first drafted in the former Czechoslovakia! Certainly Czech contributions to world culture are strange and surprising considering that the country has been ruled for most of its history by outside powers – all of whom have come and gone, leaving it smudged with spectral fingerprints.
In the Starometske Namesti (Old Town Square) the tourists and I ogle the Astronomical Clock and its mechanical procession of Christ and Apostles, Death, Greed, Vanity, even a Turk, before a puppet cockerel pops out and flaps its malevolent wings. The clockmaker responsible was blinded so that he couldn’t recreate his masterpiece for another city – a reward typical of Prague’s bizarre and violent past. Our heads then turn like weather vanes toward the twin towers of the Tyn Church, poised in the air like black thunderbolts, wherein rests the remains of Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, who arrived in Prague noseless from a duel and died of a burst bladder (some say syphilis) in the middle of one of the city’s then notorious orgies.
Continuing counterclockwise there lies the colossal flaming sea of bodies from which rises the statue of Jan Hus, who preached reform long before Luther, and was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415.
It feels so familiar as I’m wandering the winding cobblestone streets of a possessed witchcraft kind of city Kafka called “a mother with claws", trying to dig deeper into the Czech national character by revisiting the old stomping grounds of the Stare Mesto (Old Town), Josefov (Jewish Quarter) and 18th-century Mala Strana (Little Quarter) – haunts of alchemists and artists like Mozart, even now the center of serious beer drinking.
Czechoslovakia was, after all, the birthplace of light beer. “Pilsener” was invented in Plzn and the original “Budweiser” (Budvar) was first brewed in Ceske Budejovice.
While sitting in U Fleku, one of the city’s old beer halls renovated to accommodate German tour groups looking for The Good Soldier Schweik, I can’t help but think that though Kafka’s “mother” has had her past liaisons – with the Hapsburgs, Hitler and the Soviets – she has traded in her fangs for dentures. A shroud of film-noir pollution, dark legacy of black-sheep Communist sons, has wrinkled her facades without marring her beauty. There is scaffolding up everywhere to give her a facelift.
Prague is like an aging senile sorceress who no longer recognizes her children. Now with democratic euphoria dying down to be replaced by good old-fashioned Capitalist greed, problems are rising like smoke from the ashes of Communist rule and affecting the atmosphere. It seems Prague is going through some kind of alchemical transformation, even as Czecho/Slovakia recovers from an identity crisis resembling multiple personality disorder. The question is, as Czechs enjoy their entrance into the EU and NATO, will the New Alchemists of Prague, unlike their historic predecessors, succeed this time in turning the once-worthless Czech koruna (crown) into gold, or will they inevitably pawn off Prague’s Technicolor soul to foreign investors and tourists attracted by the city’s uncanny resemblance to the Magic Kingdom.
All that Europeans and Americans need now to visit is a passport. There’s even a bunch of bars off the Old Town Square where timid travelers, unsure that the red devil has been completely exorcized, can reassure themselves with Chicago-style pizza, taped screening of college and pro football games, MTV, and T-shirts wittily sporting the slogan “Czech It Out". Arrriving by train at Hlavni Nadrazi (Main Station), I was warmly welcomed by a swarm of hustlers and touts offering private rooms, which I checked out, since finding hotel space without a reservation is nothing else but the overused adjective “Kafkaesque". If Prague is the next “Paris of the Twenties", an art mecca for the new millennium, it’s sometimes hard to see it.
Read the author’s bio here.