Monday, 28 September 2009

Return to Prague

Shiny new trams, freshly-cleaned buildings and, believe it or not, some smiling waitresses - Prague has come a long way since I lived there in 2002.

This past weekend I made a pilgrimage of sorts back to where my European adventure began. I had been to Europe before I moved to Prague to study and do an internship at Radio Free Europe in 2002 (just once on a trip to Austria and Germany with my high school band). But Prague was the first place in Europe I lived, and it was experience that changed my life. I had always been fascinated by European history, but it was in Prague that I was introduced to the possibility of living on this continent.

It was quite a setting in which to be introduced to Europe. Having survived both world wars largely undamaged, and containing a treasure-trove of OTT counter-reformation architectural delights, it’s truly a stunning city. To be sure, the oft-levelled criticism that the refab following the Velvet Revolution have turned the city into a fairy tale Disney World are fair. At times the city centre does seem a little too much like a contrived veneer set up for tourists. But as opposed to other such cities which get that description such as Venice or Florence, Prague is also a living, functioning capital city. And its fascinating history is not limited to the fairy tale buildings of Stare Mesto and Hradchany, it is also a living museum of sorts to the communist era.

That is really what I found so thrilling about living in Prague. The city has gone through so many distinct periods – from early success as an independent medieval kingdom, to various control by German Luxembourg and Habsburg dynasties, a hotbed of the reformation, the centre of production for the Austo-Hungarian empire, 40 dark years under Communist rule, and finally to a member state of the EU. All of this history is reflected in the city’s architecture and layout, not too mention in the unique personality of its inhabitants.

Of course, these impressions were all shaped back in 2002, when the country was not yet in the EU and still very much in transition. It’s still a society in transition to be sure, but the city felt quite different this time around. But perhaps it’s me that’s changed more than Prague. Living in the UK I’ve become well aware that Prague has turned into one of those cities where Brits go to get drunk for cheap, often in the form of stag and hen dos (Bachelor and Bachelorette parties). I was a bit concerned that seeing British tourists peeing and vomiting all over everything might take away some of the magic in my memory of Prague!

To be sure there were plenty of groups of drunk Brits stumbling about, but the most unavoidable tourists were Americans. They were literally everywhere, so much so that after awhile I started to feel like I could have been walking around in Boston. Unlike the British tourists, the Americans were perfectly well behaved and nice enough. Still, it’s not so nice to hear that nasal, loud accent everywhere. I began to wonder if it had been like that when I lived there and I just hadn’t noticed, because I hadn’t yet come to view hearing American accents as hearing something obtrusive or ‘foreign’.

Czesky Changes

Whether or not the hordes of Americans were there back in 2002, there were plenty of things that have changed since then. The most startling was seeing my old place of employment, Radio Free Europe, turned into a museum. Back in 2002 it was housed in the old Czechoslovak federal assembly building (which had closed in ’93 after there was no longer a Czech-Slovak federation to assemble) located next to the National Museum on Wenceslas Square (pictured left).

RFE is a radio broadcaster set up during the Cold War by the United States congress in order to broadcast programming into Eastern Europe. Listening to the broadcasts was often a criminal offense back then. After the cold war ended RFE began gradually closing its Eastern European stations and opening new ones in the Middle East and Central Asia. After 9/11, the US government decided that the building needed a huge cordon of security around it, because it was broadcasting into the middle east. So the traffic flow at the top of Wenceslas Square was severely disrupted as all the roads around it were closed off. To get into the building I had to go through an elaborate system of security checks at 4 different points!

Because of the chaos this was creating RFE had to move out, and today the area around the building is completely opened up and a museum about the federal assembley is now housed inside. What a strange feeling, being able to see the desk you used to work at being shown to you on a guided museum tour.

Down at Old Town Square I came across a thoroughly nauseating change that’s taken place below the NYU in Prague building, where I went to school. There right below it was a new Hard Rock Café, screaming out in all its tacky glory (pictured). I really hope NYU kids aren’t going there all the time. Really, how horrid!

Blocked by Floods and Popes

I first arrived in Prague in September of 2002, just after the worst floods in the country’s history swelled the Vltava across vast swathes of the city. I stepped off the plane into what was still a disaster area. The metro had been flooded, streets had been ripped apart, and cultural institutions like the Rudolfinium were in ruin. It all added to the learning experience really, it was incredibly interesting to watch as the city slowly recovered and rebuilt.

But unfortunately Prague’s very efficient and comprehensive metro system was shut down almost the entire time I lived there, and I never ended up taking it. So I was excited to finally use it this time around. It’s a really great system, and it made it so much easier to get around rather than having to use the tram to get everywhere. Still, I guess travelling by tram is nicer because you can get a better feel for the layout of the city, plus it’s much more old-timey!

However our transportation wasn’t completely unfettered, as this time around it was the pope rather than rising flood waters which blocked my path. The pontiff happened to be making an official visit to the Czech Republic while we were there, closing off sections of the city as he moved around. The castle was effectively closed the whole weekend because the pope was there addressing Czech politicians. This video of a spider crawling around his robes while he spoke to them has been circulating across the internets.

The stated purpose of his visit was to bring the largely atheist Czechs back to the fold of Catholicism. The Czech Republic is the most atheistic country in Europe, with 60% identifying as Atheist or Agnostic and few regular church attenders. In his speech to the politicians the pope blamed the communist government for this current state of affairs, recounting how they closed churches and arrested priests. But it’s quite a stretch to say that Czech atheism is entirely the result of just 40 years of Communist suppression, particularly when the Czech Republic’s fellow post-communist neighbour, Poland, is the most religious country in Europe. The reality is that it was the Catholic church itself which engendered this disgust with religion in the Czech people, coming down brutally and severely against the country’s attempts to switch to protestantism during the Hussite and 30 Years wars.

The counter-reformation came with a fierce and imposing blow, the leaders of the Hussite protestant religion were executed by the Catholic Habsburgs and grand building projects were instituted throughout Prague in order to show the Czechs who was boss and intimidate them into nominally returning to Catholicism. In fact, that is why Prague is such a beautiful city, because this massive building project was undertaken after the 30-years war to win back the Czech people. They nominally returned to Catholicism but it never really took, and their enthusiasm for the religion was sufficiently low that when the communists came in and suppressed the church, few people complained. Even now it was evidence how little impact religion has in this country, as there were no picture of the pope around the city or cheering crowds anywhere to be seen. Indeed, everyone seemed to be either indifferent to or unaware of his visit.

It was notable too that even St. Vitus Cathedral he celebrated mass in is still owned by the Czech governmentand is operated as a museum, not as a place of worship. The Catholic Church has been trying for years to get the most important Czech cathedral back but has so far been unable to do so.

The Rudeness Thing

One consistent observation from Western tourists about Czechs is the almost unbelievable rudeness of service staff. I’ve always thought this was rather unfair to the Czech Republic, as this is a trait common to all the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe. Prague just happens to be the most visited city in that region. But it is true, ideas about customer service vary differently between Western and Eastern Europe.

While there this weekend I noticed perhaps a slight improvement in customer service, but there were still plenty of almost comically unfriendly staff interactions. One thing that does seem to be unique to the Czechs is that their unfriendly interactions with strangers, be it in the context of customer service or not, seem to be tinged with an explosive and inexplicable rage.

For instance, as we were visiting the Loretto monastery in Hradchany, we entered about ten minutes before they were closing for a lunch break. We were still in the courtyard when they wanted to close it up, but there were still plenty of people milling about. A staff woman yelled at me from across the courtyard that we had to leave, but her directions on where to go were confusing and I was unclear on what she wanted me to do, come toward her or go along the ropes. My hesitation seemed to infuriate her, she became flustered and belted out with exasperated rage ‘You must leave!!”

The British person I was with was confused by the interaction, but I recalled from living in Prague that I encountered this kind of thing a lot. Once I was quietly humming to myself while riding the tram and listening to my discman, and a woman of about 35 came over and said something to me in Czech. I removed my headphones and told her I don’t speak Czech, and she glared at my icily. She then spat out, literally almost quaking with fury, “Stop…singing.”

I have no idea where this bizarre rage in customer service comes from, but I would be interested to hear any theories from Czechs! I did notice that it’s perhaps gotten a little better, in that we did encounter a few service people who were nice, and one waitress who even smiled!

For the most part all my old haunts were still there: Radost, Chapeau Rouge, Roxy. But I did notice that the gay scene in Prague has changed dramatically. When I was living there there were lots of gay bars and clubs but they were mostly underground, with doorbells to get in. The most popular bar, Friends, was down in a dank cellar. Now Friends has moved down the street in a very open bar with big windows. The biggest club, now renamed Valentino’s, has undergone such a transformation that it barely resembles its former self. That was really interesting to see.

It did take a bit of the edge out of the experience, I no longer felt like I was at some kind of dangerous periphery of Europe. But as the Czech Republic becomes more integrated into the EU and Western Europe, it was bound to happen. It’s still an amazing city and I’ll always look back at my time there with affection. But seeing the city this weekend with my new ‘Europeanised’ eyes, Prague became more of a real city rather than an ‘idea’ in my head. And that’s really what I wanted, to integrate my experience in Prague with my current life in Europe. It might not be as edgy or as adventurous, but Europe has become home now. And I’m glad that I now feel like Prague is part of that.


Funmatien said...

Really nice report on Prague. Thank you. As a student in the city of Bayreuth (Northern Bavaria, Germany) I took many trips to Prague back in the 90s and I loved it there (it's not too far away). The architecture and the history are amazing. As to the rudeness of people, well, yes, I remember that. And the fact that we were a bunch of German students didn't help it. But then we met some elderly people and I remember they offered giving us a tour around the city (for a small fee) which we took. The tour guides were really friendly and explained the history of their beloved city very well. And they even gave the tour in German. That I found was amazing for someone who had a living memory of the difficult history of both countries. Hats off!!

Can't wait to go back and explore Prague myself once again.

Travis said...

I used to live in Prague as well, it was nice to walk down memory lane while reading this! I need to go back soon.

Erik Wesselius said...

Thanks for this detailed reportage!

It is very much in line with my experiences this summer, when I went biking along the Vlatva river from Prague southwards to Rožmberk. I had visited Prague several times in the early 1990s but hadn't been in the Czech Republic since 1996, and I was really surprised by the changes since then. But also some of the nice things (like the Prague trams) remain.

In the countryside, which I didn't visit in the past, I noticed the huge development over the past decades, often with EU money, like the reconstruction of the Vlatva river bed close to České Budějovice.

In terms of wealth, the way villages and towns look, the country has really shed off the worn-down post-communist looks and in a sense it has become quite similar to its neigbours Germany and Austria.

But in the context of this very obvious integration into the European mainstream, I found it striking how few Czechs, also amongst the young, speak a foreign language.