The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Time Traveler in Prague
In a possessed city Kafka called “a mother with claws,” John M. Edwards discovers the unbearable lightness of being a tourist in overcrowded Prague. Here a cost comparison of Communist and Capitalist Prague reveals a long history of alchemy and occupation, sorcery and intrigue, apparatchik chic and 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 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 as to witness the transmutation of a novel nation’s capital from Communism to Capitalism.
As a time traveler to this ancient architectural wonderland both Before and After the “changes,” I experienced the unbearable lightness of being in Prague yet again, to do a kind of cost comparison: this time to explore the fantastical physical and subconscious terra of Prague’s peculiarly long dark history, perhaps exorcizing a few demons of my own along the way.
Milan Kundera is quick to scold us that Prague is actually in “Central” Europe, not “Eastern”–so I decided to go and 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 reexplore “The Golden City.”
No fixed foci 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 Karluv Most (Charles Bridge), under the shadow of Hradcany (Prague Castle) and above the majestic Vltava (Moldau River), the 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 anger over the repression of a rock group with the unlikely name of “The Plastic People of the Universe.”
This 1970s protest to liberate rock music turned 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 Paid Advertisement 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 reemerge years later under Gorbachev in the revivified forms of “glasnost” and “perestroika.”
Maybe the fall of Communism itself 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 but left it smudged with spectral fingerprints.
In the Starometske Namesti (Old Town Square) all 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.
Then our heads 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 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 witchcrafty 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)—the haunts of alchemists and artists like Mozart (Don Giovani premiered here) and 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.
But now with democratic euphoria dying down long after the fact, only 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 as if 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, whether the New Alchemists of Prague, unlike their historic predecessors, will succeed this time in turning the once-worthless Czech koruna (crown) into gold. Or whether they’ll perforce 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 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.”
Arriving 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.”
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.
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. And in the free-free market atmosphere a strange new economic form flexes its muscle as denizens interpret Capitalism as devising clever ways to slightly overcharge foreigners. It is wise to even ask the price of a beer beforehand—“Kolik stoji pivo?”—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.
“What is that? I didn’t order that!”
“Yes, but you ate it.” (Big smile.)
Familiarity with Kafka’s short story “The 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 (venison, wild boar, duck, goose, rabbit)—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.
When I first visited Prague in 1989 shortly before the Velvet Revolution, I felt I’d been there before, and not just because I saw a cool documentary in Westfield, New Jersey, about it. Others report a similar sense of deja-vu succumbing to the spell of mysticism wrapped like a cloak around this 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 that at any time a curious officer might ask you to produce, with a passport, during frequent random spot checks.
It is now common knowledge that damned foreigners’ hotel rooms were routinely bugged, though only genuine counterrevolutionaries and spies had anything real to worry about. (“Why doesn’t the radio work?” I remember vaguely 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 zmrzlina 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 was not surprising that many Czechs were hesitant to speak to foreigners, when such contact often included free trips to Police HQs, 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,” and surely there seemed to be no shortage of impromptu police escorts, as when in the southern town of Cesky Krumlov (the “Bruges” of Bohemia) I acquired one suddenly 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 nuclear 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, whose political play Temptation is 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. . . .
Much has changed. In “Praha” (Czech for Prague), 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,” whereas 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. But now 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 according to a German folk tale 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 pivnice (beer halls) and kavarna (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, now 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 a helter-skelter shrine to the collapse of Communism.
But some things haven’t changed. “Change money, change money?” still floats in the air like anachronistic church bells, evoking the time when the black market worked wonderfully 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, including rubber boots and flowered unnderwear.
Many of the new businesses sprouting up overnightly 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, but great for goulash and guessing where all the fashionably dressed visitors are from. Trading in drab Soviet denims for stonewashed Levi’s is a phenomenon known as “apparatchik chic.” And it’s sometimes difficult to tell if all the wildly dressed bohemian hipsters at the bars and cafes are from Prague or Peoria, Eastern Chod or the East Village.
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 did not this time meet an unemployed Walloon posing as an American artist with a samizdat smile. You know, “Import-Export,” an international euphemism for “chronic unemployment.”
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.
Angst. 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 really once shone like gold! (Almost everything, including Central Europe’s oldest university, seems to have been somewhat prematurely named after this Midas.) Red terracotta-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 either Vaclav Klaus, the new president, nor Keynesian supplyside economics.
Czechs and Slovaks themselves 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 had 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 Karlovy 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 one of the intellectual and architectural 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 real astronomers like Johannes Kepler and real 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, and 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 Alphabet City poseur—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) 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 like Gorby and Ronald and Mick and Keith are available throughout Prague:
There is no better place to explore Time Out 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 came across yet another example of the criticism of gross commercialization magically mushrooming in Prague—a hoax story about Disney Corporation plans 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 wondered, Snow White and the Seven Deadly Sins?
However, 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 (Amadeus, in fact, was filmed here, not in Vienna). 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 seasons’ repasts, Prague’s eerie past is worth keeping in mind. After all, there are many different forms of occupation.
All those who’ve seen Prague may be found revisiting the Golden City. . . .