The New Bohemia: Part II – Prague, Czech Republic, Europe

I remembered back to the time when a foreign traveler like myself,
armed with just a little hard currency, could storm the lavish
turn-of-the-century Hotel Pariz in the Stare Mesto or the Art Nouveau
Europa on the Champs-Elysees-like Wenceslaus Square. At least I
revisited the Europa’s adjoining café and terrace, where the hoi polloi
can hobnob with Prague’s New Elite and nibble Austro-Hungarian-style
pastries washed down with pivo (beer) or slivovice (plum brandy), which some say was invented here.

Westerners from the Other Europe

Long used to hordes of organized East Bloc coach tours, the city has
not yet coped with the added influx of Westerners from the Other
Europe, who have seemingly replaced the Soviets as occupying force. The
post-Communist lines outside the new flash bistros rival that of
Brezhnevian bread lines. In the free-free market atmosphere a strange
new economic form flexes its muscle; denizens interpret Capitalism as
devising new and clever ways to overcharge foreigners. It’s wise to
even ask the price of a beer beforehand since the old system of
artificially-set exchange rates and prices for foreigners has gone
completely out the window.

“What’s this charge for?” I ask, checking my bill. Then checking it twice.

“Bread,” says the waiter with an ingratiating grin.

“And this?”

“Knedliky.”

“What is that? I didn’t order that!”

“Yes, but you ate it.” (Big smile.)

Familiarity with Kafka’s short story, A Hunger Artist,
may help prepare you for the ordeal: you too can think you’re starving
not because you can’t find food, but because you can’t find food you
can like. Despite the proliferation of new gourmet restaurants, such as
the 12th-century cellar Le Terroir, or the hip Parizka Street bistro
Pravda, serving wild game – the average Czech cuisine remains a little
monotonous: pork, dumplings, perhaps a few symbolic peas to show how
far the New Czech Republic has come.

Prague Before the Revolution

When I first visited Prague in 1989 shortly before the Velvet
Revolution, I felt I’d been there before. Others report a similar sense
of deja-vu succumbing to the spell of mysticism wrapped like a cloak
around the city that somehow escaped destruction during two world wars.
For an American then, it was fun to think one had drifted into the
pages of a Cold War suspense novel, or had inexplicably metamorphosed
into Joseph K in Kafka’s, The Castle,
wading through the labyrinth of Communist bureaucracy and red tape. One
had to get a visa months in advance, comply with a daily minimum
currency exchange, register each night with the police and keep track
of all the cryptic hieroglyphic papers, stamps and receipts that at any
time a curious officer might ask you to produce with a passport, during
frequent random spot checks.
It’s now common knowledge that foreigners’ hotel rooms were routinely
bugged, though only genuine spies and counterrevolutionaries had
anything to worry about. What are those strange wires, why doesn’t the
radio work?

I remember wondering, checking out with a not-just-being-paranoid
thrill the extra amenities that came gratis with my very first Prague
hotel room. In a police state, nothing could happen to you, especially
when capitalist foreigners had wallets (or for some, briefcases)
crammed with much-needed hard currency.
What little crime there was ran underground. For a city of over 2
million people, the streets seemed suspiciously safe. On every street
corner stood a policeman, and vacationing Soviet soldiers licking
chocolate ice cream cones could be spotted window-shopping throughout
the city. Now the main difference is that some of them have seemingly
transformed into prostitutes, style carefully copied from Western
films, hanging around the easily accessible luxury hotels, cafes and
heavily fortified “nightclubs” around Wenceslaus Square.

Back then it wasn’t surprising that many Czechs were hesitant to speak
to foreigners, when such contact often included free trips to police
headquarters to answer questions and fill out forms, or worse. Lost, I
asked two leather-jacketed toughs toting tourist maps for directions,
who replied, “Why are you asking?” before fleeing white-faced and
trembling down the street. A Czech friend later surmised that the two
tourists, whose reaction seemed extreme even in a police state, had
probably been East Germans, many of whom were at the time trying to
sneak West via the West German embassy.
Still, many Czechs I met whispered that they believed we were being
“watched”. Surely there seemed to be no shortage of impromptu police
escorts. In the southern town of Cesky Krumlov (the “Bruges” of
Bohemia), I suddenly acquired an escort when I ducked into a lively
Gypsy bar, attracted by the wild strains of frenzied violins.

One day in Communist Prague I came across an old man who asked me
if I was hungry, by shoveling air into his mouth with an imaginary
spoon. I followed him through a door leading literally into the
hillside, down a set of winding stone stairs, into the Hobbit-Hole-like
thousand-year-old Strahov Monastery, where a wedding party worthy of
the Mad Hatter was taking place.
Everyone down there was an “engineer".
Karl, an English-speaking decomissioner of power plants, translated,
“Is it true in America that you can buy anything you like?” (Luxury
goods then could only be bought with hard currency at the
government-run Tuzex shops.)

The concerns of these so-called Communists sounded familiar. They
complained that the only way to get anything done was to bribe party
officials with hard currency. The newlyweds, on a 14-year waiting list
for their own apartment, would live with their parents. They dreamed of
having a dacha in the country, and the Czech bride (Alice?) added, "with a swimming pool, and also a small Skoda car".
The talk turned to banned “expatriates” like Milan Kundera, The Joke
and Josef Skvorecky, The Cowards
whose books, most published outside
Czechoslovakia to Western literary acclaim, are even now unpopular in
the Czech lands. Czechs prefer those who stayed, such as Bohumil Hrabal
Closely Watched Trains, Ludvik Vaculik The Guinea Pigs, and, of
course, Vaclav Havel, Temptation, based upon a Faustian theme.

Said Karl, “Down here undergound we can say what we want, but up there is only silence.”

Added Alice, “Everybody is afraid.”

Then they passed around one of the wedding gifts, a small bronzed bust
of Lenin, and irreverently dunked his head in their beer mugs for the
benefit of their unexpected foreign guest, passing him hand to hand
like relay runners holding aloft the flaming Olympic torch.

Prague After the Revolution

All Lenins have been knocked down and dragged from
their pedestals; some of them have even been dynamited, to the dismay
of this tourist looking for photo ops of Prague’s Communist past.
Communist museums are now closed and undergoing restoration for other
purposes. Even the names of metro stops have changed (Gottwaldov,
namesake of first Communist president Klement Gottwald, is now called
Vysehrad). Most significant, all the atlases are being revised so that
Europe is no longer only “East", wheras before, in one atlas I was
shown by a Slovak engineer living in a typical Stalinesque
concrete-block suburb, Western Europe figured prominently as a sizeable
gray blotch. Seriously!

Westerners may have once felt lost without the comparative signs of
commercial advertising to follow, only the monotony of
Hammer-and-Sickle motifs and portraits of famous political cult
personalities, like last Communist president Gustav Husak. Today anyone
would be dazzled by the bewildering tourist blitzkrieg and commercial
frenzy that has hit Prague, with such offerings as the “Kafka and
Mozart Sound and Light Puppet Pantomime Extravaganza", or something
like that, which I glimpse while walking past a banner in the Josefov.
It was here that Rabbi Low (buried in the eerie Old Jewish Cemetery)
created The Golem, the Renaissance Man of Clay who ran amok at a time
when any alchemist worth his salt could be seen dipping in and out of
beer halls and wine cellars.

The Golem legend influenced both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Karel
Capek’s R.U.R., which introduced the Czech word “robot” to the rest of
the world. A more recent monster stalked the few remaining streets of
what was once Europe’s largest Jewish Ghetto: Here Hitler planned to
build his “Museum of an Extinct Race".
Only a few years ago you could idle in relative peace among the
remarkable statuary on the Charles Bridge, contemplate the
golden-star-haloed head of Jan Nepomuk, who was chucked off the bridge
and martyred in 1393, and the statue of Jesus above whose head hovers
golden Hebrew lettering.

Now the ancient walkway is a giant Venus’s-flytrap, hungry for business:
gone are all the long-haired guitar-strumming dissidents singing John
Lennon songs, replaced by manic vendors hawking such things as Russian
fur hats, Soviet watches, Babushka dolls and pieces of the Berlin Wall.
An economic Iron Curtain to collect dollars and eke out euros? Maybe
just an obscene shrine to the collapse of Communism.

Some things haven’t changed, some have

“Change money, change money?”
still floats in the air like anachronistic church bells, evoking the
time when the black market worked well for all. Apparently, no one has
told the black marketers that banks now offer nearly the same rates.
Don’t do it; you’ll be robbed. And don’t be deceived by the apparent
paradox that the Communist-built department stores are now stuffed with
Western goods, at Western prices. Compare the smart Czech shoppers of
yore who formerly picked and chose from row upon row of exactly
identical goods.
Many of the new businesses sprouting up overnight are joint-venture
operations catering to foreign tourists and former apparatchiks who’ve
managed to hold on to the means of production and all Das Kapital for
their personal profit.

Unlike the dreary commie cafeterias of yesteryear, the post-Cold War
cafes and restaurants rustle up customers around the clock. The Old
Town Square venues are almost always full, great for goulash and
guessing where the fashionably dressed visitors are from. Trading in
drab Soviet denims for stonewashed Levi’s is a phenomenon known as
“apparatchik chic". It’s sometimes difficult to tell if all the wildly
dressed bohemian hipsters at the bars and cafes are from Prague or
Peoria, Eastern Europe or the East Village.

Tyn Church

In fact, at an art gallery in the cramped alleyways behind the Tyn
Church, run by a lovely icon-eyed Russian expat selling surreal
paintings from the ex-Soviet Republics, I meet an American “artiste”
with a samizdat smile who has come to live here for a year. “Isn’t
Prague fabulous?” he says, with a cavalier wave of his jaunty chapeau.
“I feel like Hemmingway living here. Things are changing quickly. It’s
now almost like Western Europe, but darker and retro.”

“What kind of WORK do you do?” I ask, slightly miffed by how many
Yanks were living in Prague, apparently without employment. (One
estimate is that there are over 100,000 American temporary residents.)

“Oh, you know, a little of this and that,” the artiste says vaguely.
“A little import-export, writing, painting, photography, busking.”

Obviously a skilled flaneur evading a question and a stable means of
support.
At the nearby Ebel Coffee House, a popular expat hangout, I also meet a
Canadian backpacker here for the long haul. “It’s getting more
expensive,” she says with a look of laughter and forgetting, taking a
sip of her decaf cappuccino. “But it’s worth it. Everyone wants to live
in Prague.”

Unfortunately, foreigners hoping to finance their trips or buy a car
by selling Levi’s may now be disappointed. In a bar by a Stare Mesto
movie set, cameras and lights trained on a spic-and-span 18th-century
building looking brand-spanking-new in the artificial glow, I see two
vacationing American college students trying to peddle their jeans to a
group of youths who turned out to be New American Expats: “Everyone is
sick of tourists like that!” they say, leaving me with the sneaking
suspicion that the bar might have also been a movie set.

Time to climb Vysehrad Hill,
the legendary birthplace of the Czech Boii tribe of Prague, for a
panaromic fool’s view of green copper domes. In the Golden Age of
Prague, during the reign of the 14th-century Holy Roman Emporer Charles
IV, they had all once shone like gold! (Almost everything, including
Central Europe’s oldest university, seems to have been somewhat
prematurely named after this Midas.) Red-tiled roofs, black-thatched
towers, and hundreds of spires held out like a series of solitary
middle fingers. All the disillusioned ask why? And already know the
answer – one that can’t be explained away solely by economics.

Czechs and Slovaks were hardly united. A while back on Czech TV I
saw former playwright/president Havel egged by a Slovak audience, many
of them former Communists turned nationalists. Havel has consistently
condemned all “cheap and seductive appeals to nationalist feelings”
that reduced people to a “herd of aggressive soccer fans". Now
breakaway Slovakia has become just another piece in the jigsaw puzzle
of the splintering and reuniting of larger Europe. Whatever happens
though, Czechs and Slovaks are confident of what they’ve dubbed their
“Velvet Separation".

After the fall of the Great Moravian Empire in the 9th century and
the Magyar (Hungarian) invasion, Slovakia was separated from Czech
Bohemia and Moravia for a millennium. It wasn’t until the post-WWI
first-ever democratic republic of philosopher/president Tomas G.
Masaryk that the “artificial” Czechoslovak state was born. This model
democratic nation came to an abrupt end when the country was handed to
Hitler by England and France under the infamous Munich Diktat (1939),
because British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain thought it silly to
go to war over a “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom
we know nothing". Chamberlain’s Faustian piece of paper guaranteeing
“Peace in Our Time!” proved no magical charm; even Hitler supposedly
joked to his confidantes that he was simply giving an old man his
autograph.

If Prague is the keyhole to Europe, the key to the city may lie
hidden somewhere deep in its past. Stumbling upon Karlovo Namesti,
Prague’s largest, least interesting, but most historically important
square, I pass by the Faustuv Dum (Faust House) with its long
diabolical history of alchemy. When Prague was the “Paris of the East”
and one of the intellectual centers of Europe, the shadowy
turn-of-the-17th-century mad Holy Roman Emporer Rudolph II (buried in
an elaborate pewter coffin in St. Vitus Cathedral), moved the imperial
capital from Vienna to Prague and created the “international” Royal
Court of Alchemists.
It attracted astronomers like Johannes Kepler and alchemists like Irish
international con man Edward Kelly.

That alchemists then were more successful at filling their own pockets
with Rudolph’s existing gold than at creating a new supply doesn’t
spoil the myth. Rudolph became so obsessed with his arcane cabalistic
studies that he eventually relinquished the throne and died without
ever discovering either the secret of eternal life, or how to turn his
alloy coffin into gold, yet his reign was remarkable for its religious
tolerance; he even allowed the Czech language to be spoken at court.

On this same square occurred the first incidence of a unique
national pastime: defenestration, literally chucking people out
windows. Once upon a time, political change was caused not by ethereal
alchemical forces, nor secret deals, nor surprise party crashing (the
Prague Spring of 1968 was soon dashed by Soviet tanks). The so-called
First and Second Defenestrations of Prague sparked off two long
conflicts – the Hussite Wars (1419-1434) and the Thirty Years War
(1618-1648) – both abounding in colorful heretics and martyrs.

Over a long period of time, armies running to and fro, heretics
shouting at the top of their lungs, martyrs crackling in flames, the
Promethian fire of self-determination was stolen from Bohemians, from
whom all subsequent “bohemians” – Left Bank Parisian or otherwise -
derive their name. For centuries it was synonymous with “unorthodox".
Perhaps the most tragic Third Defenestration occurred after the 1948
Communist Coup when Jan Masaryk (son of Tomas G) suspiciously fell to
his death, out of a window.

That the Velvet Revolution was brought about by peaceful means, when
modern Prague has no shortage of windows (many of them forcefully
cleaned by dissidents under the Communists) is a credit to the New
Bohemians. Yet many still point with Nostradamus-like suspicion to the
fact that a 68 (Spring) is an upside-down 89 (Fall), the year of so
many changes not only in Czechoslovakia, but throughout the East.
Which came first? Gorbachev admitted that the main difference between
himself and Alexander Dubcek, the deposed 1968 president/hero of the
Prague Spring, was “about 20 years".

Good Czech-made puppets of political figures are available throughout
Prague.
There is no better place to explore time than in Prague. Seemingly
Czechs have cured themselves of their historical propensity to
defenestrate, and while things are not yet picture-perfect, for the
passing tourist, Prague still resembles a postcard. Yet reading one of
the new Czech-English newspapers in a café, I come across yet another
example of the criticism of gross commercialization magically
mushrooming in Prague – a hoax story about Disney Corporation planning
to turn the city into “Prahaland".

Praguers could stay only if they dressed in Mozart-era costumes, the
figures in the Astronomical Clock and along the Charles Bridge would be
replaced by Mickey, Donald, and Goofy. Maybe also, I wonder, Snow White
and the Seven Deadly Sins?
With the beginning of the new millennium, however, it might be
politically naïve to completely ignore the muffled cries of Prague’s
numerous ghosts.

On Wenceslaus Square, beneath the equestrian statue of a historic Czech
nationalist leader, the “Good King Wenceslaus” of Christmas-carol fame,
I study the shrine to modern-day martyr and national hero Jan Palach,
who set fire to himself there protesting the Soviet occupation of 1968.
So powerful a symbol is Palach to Czechs that Communist authorities had
to dig up and spirit away his immolated corpse to the provinces, lest
revolutionary forces congregate at his tombstone to mourn; and it was
in fact from his gravesite that the gathering Velvet Revolutionary
forces marched.

Spring forward. Fall backward. We’re in awe of this Milos Forman
movie set of a city. In the New Prague Springs to come – while
souveniric swarms live like royalty with the favorable exchange rate
and quaff Staropramen beer from lookinglass mugs – during the next
Easter repast Prague’s eerie past is worth keeping in mind. There are
many different forms of occupation.
All those who’ve seen Prague may be found revisiting the Golden City.

Read the author’s bio here.

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