Prague: the West's hostage

Article published on May 19, 2003
community published
Article published on May 19, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The lightning transformation, as rapid as it was brutal, undertaken by the 'Florence of the East' has come to symbolise the change from Communism to Capitalism: for better and for worse.

'Prague has turned into Disneyland', sighed a Czech intellectual in a television interview several years ago. After the Velvet Revolution, the city fell with lightning speed into another world, the Western world. Within a few months almost nothing of the previous atmosphere remained.

'Before', the town of Kafka, frozen in the mist, was like a mythical city. The unlit, paved streets used to seem as if they were sheltering ghosts from another century, who had slipped out from an inn hidden in the basement behind a trapdoor barely visible to passers-by. The statues on the Charles bridge, blackened from pollution, used to seem ready to awaken when people crossed the bridge in the middle of the night or in the middle of a misty day in winter when the place was deserted. Only the cry of birds flying over the river broke the silence. The town, spellbinding and irresistible, used to encourage hours of contemplation. People used to look for the noise of the horses' hooves pulling the barouches of earlier centuries. No souvenir shop, no trendy cafe to disturb this communion with the city, to attempt to uncover its secrets, to reach into its soul. Certainly, this nostalgic and romantic vision of the earlier Prague conceals a less benign reality: a people crushed by a system, submissive, terrorised and anaesthetised.

A '1984' atmosphere

It also conceals the contrast of the Orwellian suburbs of the Czech capital which still set themselves up as an imposing wall when people arrive by road: immense blocks of totally uniform and regular concrete where it is difficult to spot any signs of life. The weight of the atmosphere was barely disturbed by the few passers-by who used to return home, bent double, through windswept alleyways. '1984' by George Orwell was, moreover, a best seller, among the samizdat books (i.e. forbidden books distributed on the sly) before 1989. Today, the suburbs have not gained any charm but they have gained a little life. Here and there kiosks selling newspapers and snacks have expanded to the crossroads near to the underground and bus stations, and a few shops with colourful products have overrun what the Communists called 'centres of life' where before people used to find only a few services (post office, pharmacy etc). They are even starting to build shopping malls in the Western style whose architecture fits into the scene perfectly.

At the beginning of the 1990s, when people escaped from the suburbs to the heart of the city centre, the contrast was total. The centre seethed. Prague became a city of constant movement and a playing field for young generations. The perfume of the '1960s' drifted through the city. Everything seemed possible, the young people were optimistic, and they were all trying without fear of tomorrow. They opened bars, galleries, set up companies and shut up shop. They tried something else. Many such attempts became masterstrokes. These people, confined for so long, were thirsty to go out, to consume Western products, to travel, to learn foreign languages. Private language schools, travel agencies, clubs, restaurants and bars proliferated and prospered since the number one asset of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the 'Florence of the East', is tourism where there was still much to do. Without any control, the city opened itself up in all directions. Not only is it a magnificent city but it is also 'inexpensive', said strangers who belted along with their eyes closed on a quest for new distractions, often without knowing anything about the country and not interested in its recent dramatic history. Transport industries quickly read the way the wind was blowing: it suddenly became easy to get to Prague cheaply by bus. The aghast Czechs thus discovered young show-offs, barely out of school, intoxicated by feeling rich as kings and not at home surrounding the chic and expensive restaurants in shorts and trainers, spreading their standard of living without respect either for the poverty of the Czechs or local traditions: in Prague people rarely go out to these places, a small budget is obligatory and when people do go out, they dress up and they 'behave'.

A big gimmick

This city, that a few months earlier seemed at the far end of the earth for French people, suddenly became a lot closer and within range of anyone's budget. 'Before' a visa had to be requested, 15 euros per day had to be changed, non-refundable if you didn't spend it all - and you didn't spend it all because the standard of living was low and the shops empty - and a 21 hour train journey to reach the guilded city was required. And, you needed cash: hotels were expensive, as was the train ticket. This frenetic transformation, without consultation, made the city a beautiful, cut-price object. High rise and ugly buildings are expanding here and there destroying the beautiful painting that before was the view of the city from the castle of Prague which dominates it. At the heart of the Old Town, billboards block the facades of medieval streets invaded by fast food restaurants and downmarket souvenir shops where supermarket house music plays at full blast. Prague is becoming a big gimmick, a vast playing field, and a leisure base for tourists. It is difficult to control the machine. The Czechs, traumatised by Communist dictatorship, have become allergic to everything that resembles authoritarian resolve. Thus, when a Czech journalist asked Vaclav Havel, then the President, in 1990 if he liked the new noisy, downmarket and vulgar cafes that were invading the Old Town, destroying the area's charm, he replied "No, personally I do not like these places but how am I to forbid those who open them from doing what they want? By imposing my taste?" The Czech expression 'It is forbidden to forbid' is blossoming again then in the minds of the country at the end of the 20th century. Result: hardly the perfect Velvet Revolution. The city has transformed itself at 200 km an hour. "Not a day goes by without a new stall opening", recalls Martin, a 35-year-old Prague local who adds, "without leaving my city, I suddenly get the impression that I am living in a different world".

Crates of apples

The new Prague has developed a certain charm; an intense, creative and wild nightlife, much richer than Paris with original clubs, and artists who are at last able to let their creativity bloom openly. Pedestrian streets in the old town, condemned for years, have been cleared away opening up new paths through the winding city. Zizkov, the 'gypsy' neighbourhood, has become a place full of pubs and life. Nevertheless, the city, if you look closely, has not entirely lost its past. It remains a pastoral city where it is possible to fall asleep in a field of vines right in the centre. Or, you pass old ladies with apple carts on their knees in autumn and young people with skis in the winter in the underground, since the countryside is not far, about half an hour by train. Prague remains a city where everyone leaves for the weekend - or dreams of doing so one day - to cultivate their little plot of land, a few kilometres from the capital, that surrounds a little country house, often modest and made from wood - the 'chata', an almost sacred place. It is a city where the 'hosbody', the taverns with their faded green table cloths, their draught beer, their regulars and their sausages, are always well-established in the outskirts. The City has not lost its soul despite appearances. But finding it takes time and this is something that seems fairly incompatible with the 'made in the West' philosophy on life.