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The Face of EU, the Soul of Prague


By Kristin Barendsen

published in the Denver Post Travel section, Sunday, November 21, 2004

Just before midnight on April 30, 2004, residents of Prague lined the banks of the Vltava River, swigging from flasks of slivovice. The crowd was buzzing with the question: What do you think about EU accession? In a few moments, the formerly Eastern-bloc Czech Republic would officially join the Western bloc of European Union nations.
We fixed our eyes above the hill where a 14,000-ton concrete statue of Stalin once glowered over the city, looking for party traitors; in its place now is a giant sculptural metronome that points to the East, then to the West, then East again, much as the country itself does. At the stroke of midnight, the first fireworks exploded in a shower of white. It was one of the most spectacular fireworks displays I’ve ever seen, followed by Prague-style parties until noon the next day.
Yet interestingly, nearly all my Czech friends opted out of the EU celebration that night, choosing instead to burn straw witches at countryside bonfires for the annual “Witches’ Day,” also April 30.
Their take on the EU membership was mixed: Some saw it as a way for this small country with its troubled past to be recognized as a peer with its Western neighbors and to further strengthen economically. Others saw it as yet another takeover by a foreign power, in a tradition that has included the Hapsburgs, the Nazis, and the Soviets—and that the country had no real choice in the matter. A nation of 10 million standing apart from united Europe? Not a great idea.
It’s easy to understand this level of distrust, since the country has only been truly independent for the past 15 years. This November, the Czech Republic celebrates another political milestone: the 15th anniversary of the fall of communism. The “Velvet Revolution” started on November 17, 1989, with a student demonstration that was severely beaten back by the communist riot police. This sparked larger and larger protests, with crowds growing to 750,000 strong until, 11 days later, the communist government abdicated power. That December, playwright and reform leader Václav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia.
On Wednesday, a group called “We Don’t Talk to Communists” organized, together with university students, a march through the city along the same route that demonstrating students walked on November 17th, 1989.
Says organizer Josef Bouska, “the whole event should point out that even 15 years after the revolution, some things we fought against still haven’t changed, and some—which is much worse—are coming back.” For example, with a 15 percent approval rating, “our happy unreformed communist party is gaining more popularity and power.”
Tourism alters culture
I came to Prague about 14 years too late. Old-timer expats still wax philosophical about the “Wild Wild East” days post-communism, when the borders had just opened. Czechs left to travel for the first time in 20 years, and international artists and travelers poured in. Arts and culture began to thrive again uncensored. Soon the grocery stores stocking a few cans of peas were replaced by the megastores Tesco and Carrefour.
Prague has changed a lot in the intervening years, becoming more cosmopolitan, Westernized, and almost oddly “normal.” Many foreign businesses have satellite offices here, such as software companies and hypermarkets (favorites in this once materially starved nation). American and international films are often shot here, making Prague the “Hollywood of Europe.”
Prices have risen dramatically since the borders opened. Once, you could buy a bottle of beer for something like 8 cents; today you’ll pay 50 cents (still nothing to complain about).
After EU accession, taxes and prices of almost everything went up another notch; everyone is complaining about this except foreign real estate investors, who can have a field day under new buying rules.
            Spend an hour in Old Town, and you’ll see how much tourism has changed the face of this medieval neighborhood: Almost every store sells Bohemian crystal, puppets, or T-shirts. Italians flock in by the busloads, choking the narrow cobblestone streets. While many Czechs depend on tourism for their income, they also wistfully recall the days when those crystal shops were student cafes, the malls were open-air markets, and they could hear Czech spoken in the center. Also, many aren’t happy with the number of foreigners who rent the best flats in Prague and don’t bother to learn Czech (spent an hour studying the language and you’ll see why this is the case). Some Czechs say it still seems strange to them that now foreigners can come here and live, and that the Czechs themselves can travel, so easily.
Rude outside, warm inside
Some things haven’t changed. Prague’s centuries-old architecture, perhaps unparalleled in the world, is a reminder that Prague and its inhabitants can survive anything. Although World War II hit the country and its people hard, Prague was never bombed (save for a stray U.S. bomb) because Hitler ordered it preserved as a “museum of an extinct race.” Each building tells a story, some of several eras at once.
Words can’t prepare you for how stunning Prague is. My first days here, I walked around in a trance, grinning like I was drunk or in love. In fact I was both.
There’s one of the world’s largest castles presiding on a hill above the river, illuminated by hundreds of lights at night. There’s Old Town Square, a wide plaza surrounded by 10th-century buildings in sun-soaked pastels. And the Gothic quarter, with ornate houses and frescoed cathedrals. And the Charles Bridge, a 14th-century walking bridge where street musicians perform all day and into the night.
Of course Prague also has some of the ugliest buildings in the world, including row upon row of communist tower blocks in the suburbs. And a four-story communist-style monument to capitalism—Tesco—crowds its Renaissance neighbors in the city center. The contrast is often shocking.
Prague has a weird sense of humor, seeming to lay her streets down in a slightly different pattern each day so as to make you pleasantly, then frustratingly, lost. She is a bit cold, not only in temperature but in emotion, or maybe it’s just the public face of Czechs, who tend to seem grumpy or even comically rude if in a position of service, a holdover from when Big Brother gave out the paychecks. You might get a loud sigh in response to a question, an eyeball roll after a “thank you,” a man who steps squarely on your groceries and doesn’t look back, or a cashier who launches creamer packets at you if you ask for two. Fresh from two years in perma-grin Asia, I nearly burst into tears the first time this happened. Now I just laugh and add it to my collection.
            As the friend of a friend said, “it’s easy to fall in love with Prague, but it’s not so easy to love her.”
In the private sphere, though, the Czechs can be very warm and engaging, and it’s not difficult to make Czech friends. Those over 30 will tell you fascinating stories about resistance, exile, and return home, or about signing the right papers to protect their families.
Those under 30 remember what it was like to stand in long lines, but today are more interested in the latest mobile phone ringtones than in talking about the past.
$2 opera, $4 jazz
After the borders opened in 1989, the country was invaded again—by American expatriates looking for adventure in this cheap and beautiful city. Local journalist Alan Levy dubbed Prague “The Left Bank of the Nineties” for its thriving expat arts scene.
Though we’re now beyond the expat boom, a healthy number of us remain—estimates range from 10,000 to 20,000 Yanks. In fact, Prague is an expat cliché, probably more than anywhere in the world except Paris. And there are still plenty of slacker poets scribbling lines on napkins behind walls of smoke and empty beer mugs.
Though the expat scene is factioned between the business crowd and English teachers, and between lifers and passers-through, it’s a small and friendly world. It’s a joke but it’s also true that many of us come for a few months and soon find it impossible to leave.
There’s no lack of evening entertainment here; many bars never manage to close. Weeknights you might make it to bed by 3 a.m., and weekends you’ll be lucky to wake up in your own bed rather than at the end of some tram line at 10 a.m.—or worse.
            Cultural events are cheaper and more abundant than anywhere I’ve lived. By day you can visit around 75 art galleries or museums, and by night choose from at least 50 live performances or 100 films. Prices for opera and ballet in the stunning National Theater start at $2; classical, jazz, and rock concerts start at $4. If you like weirder stuff, there’s cutting-edge performance art, modern dance, gallery openings, writers’ festivals, and all kinds of puppet shows.
Just learn to say "beer"
You can read Czech out-of-the-box, and if you can mutter “strc prst skrz krk” (stick your finger through your neck) in a monotone, your pronunciation will be okay. Grammar, though, is another matter.
I learned “dobrý,” the word for “good,” on the first day. Or did I? It could be dobrý, dobrá, dobré, dobrého, dobrému, dobrou, dobrem, dobrým, dobri, dobrych, or dobrymi, depending on the number, gender, and case of that which is good.
The number “four,” unpronounceable even in its simple form “čtyři,” could also be čtyř, čtyřem, čtyřmi, o čtyřech, čtyřka, čtveřy, čtveřych, čtveřym, or čtveřymi.
Try doing this to every word, and you’ll understand why even Americans who have been here since the fall of communism can barely ask for coffee—and never order things in fours.
Every expat can at least pronounce the word “pivo” (beer). Say “ahoj” to a panoply of delicious, smooth brews at 75 cents a half-liter. At a restaurant, a pitcher of mineral water will cost far more than a pitcher of beer, but don’t try to order tap water or it may end up on your head.
With your pivo you’ll need some wild boar, “butt of pork,” or “game on a stick.” Czech food has a bad reputation, deservedly, but they can do some respectable things with cabbage, potato pancakes, and fried cheese. The city also has a huge selection of international restaurants, where you can eat well for between $5 and $15 per person. The old-style cafes rival those of Paris: clouds of smoke obscuring old couches, pianos, antique photographs. No Starbucks in this town, and no need for one.
If you suddenly find your clothes don’t fit, you’ll need to work it off at a pay-by-the-minute gym. Weights and pool cost 5 cents a minute, sauna 10 cents a minute, solarium 25 cents. Better to get your exercise by getting lost in the city, or by outrunning 250-pound tram inspectors who chase you if you forget to validate your ticket.
Cheap except for lodging
Prague’s romantic quotient also rivals that of Paris; couples neck with abandon on trams, crowded metro cars, escalators and, of course, wherever the castle is in view. Young Czech women are escaped Barbies—long-legged, rail-thin, miniskirt-clad.
Women complain that the Czech men aren’t as good-looking as their female counterparts, but I beg to differ—the city is crawling with gorgeous long-haired Czippies and shaved-head heartstoppers.
Accommodation is not cheap in Prague; hotel prices range from $50 to $200 per night, though you can find hostel beds for just $15. You’ll spend between $10 and $25 a day on food and drink, depending on your habits. Transportation in the city’s excellent metro/tram system is only 50 cents a ride, and train travel within the Czech Republic also is cheap. Internet and telephone costs are comparatively high.
And yes, the weather can be brutal. Through the long, dark, frigid winter, I often wished I were back in Asia, sweating with three fans blowing on me. However, winter sports ease the pain, and many Praguers escape to the mountains every weekend for ice skating, snowboarding or skiing. In spring, everyone comes out of hibernation and runs around like the rabbits. In summer, we head for Croatian beaches or to the countryside for hiking, cycling or canoeing.
            Prague is a fascinating city, one that keeps many eras alive at once. On any given day you’ll find remnants of medieval times, the Hapsburgs, World War II and communism interspersed between the capitalist tourist shops, with EU flags flying above it all.
It’s well worth a visit—and you may have the good fortune of finding it impossible to leave.
Freelance writer Kristin Barendsen originally is from the Denver area.
The Details
What to see: Don’t miss the Prague Castle, Old Town Square, the Charles Bridge, Malá Strana, Petřin Hill, the Jewish Quarter, Wenceslas Square, or Vyšehrad. If you have time, also stroll through Vinohrady and the Želivského cemetary.
Where to stay: For an elegant splurge, stay at the 5-star Renaissance at V Celnice 7. The B&B-style Hotel Anna (Budečska 17) offers excellent value in the low season. Ibis City Center (Kateřinská 36) is a practical choice for a mid-range hotel. Backpackers will like the popular and central Traveller’s Hostel (Dlouhá 33). At the Clown and Bard (Boriojová 102), you might not get much sleep, but you’ll have a good time.
Information: Czech Tourist Authority, 212-288-0830; www.czechtourism.com.