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Prague is Over

by David Sturm

Walking down the posh boulevard Na Prikope a few weeks ago on our way to lunch, some friends and I, American expatriates all, passed the newly opened Planet Hollywood. Directly across the street, even more recently opened, was TGI Fridays.

"Prague is over," we agreed.

It's an old expat gag. It's what to say when you hear that a French restaurant has a wine on its menu costing over $1,000, that personal trainer ads are running in local business magazines, that Tesco is selling Stovetop Stuffing, that KISS is back for yet another concert.

With another bleak Prague winter approaching, the expats are sniffing the air for more signs that Prague may be over or, more precisely, coming to a close in some conceptual sense. Among some, it's a crucial question.

No doubt some expats here welcome the rising comfort level as Prague becomes democratized, capitalized, westernized, suburbanized. Few are complaining that household taps almost always give hot water, phone calls go through nearly all the time and you can often zip through a supermarket line.

And, Prague still embodies the holy trinity of expat values -- it's hip, cheap and safe. So what's the beef?

Seeking that 'deprivation buzz'

Ross Larsen, a California writer and rock musician who has lived in Prague over four years, coined the term "deprivation buzz" to describe what many westerners are seeking here. It's a nostalgia for that period of pre-lapsarian innocence after the fall of communism in 1989 but before Dunkin Donuts and Dallas.

A satire Larsen wrote for the Prague Post has a fictional American returning to Prague from some eastern Slobbovia and regaling his friends. "There was only one telephone in the country and it was powered by a goat on a treadmill. They were still using stones as currency, and the evening news was shouted from a tower on the central square," he boasts. "Cool!" reply his envious friends, blushing over how cushy their lives in Prague have become.

Prague's good old days of deprivation buzz were roughly 1990-93, when Vaclav Havel was hanging out with the Rolling Stones, you could get a job teaching English just by being overheard speaking English in a bar, American men were singularly fascinating to Czech women and the beer was cheap. This era is documented in Douglas Lytle's breezy memoir "Pink Tanks and Velvet Hangovers." I bought that book in the States and read it avidly before I departed for Prague in July 1996.

Since the 1990-93 heyday, Havel has traded in his Rolling Stones tongue T-shirt for a suit. Prague's language schools, after checking to see your TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate is in order, will probably want to place you at a school in the Ostrava coal regions. The way to turn a Czech woman's head these days is to be a Czech marketing executive with an MBA who has an account at Marks & Spencer. The beer, at least, is still cheap.

The secret of fire is out

As for business opportunities, the carpetbagger era is over and any American entrepreneur who thinks he can come to Prague and awe the cave dwellers with the secret of fire is in for a surprise -- and possibly a fleecing. The Czechs, who lived in one of Europe's most successful industrial democracies from 1918-1939, are skilled at capitalism, and the chicanery that sometimes goes with it.

Prague's expat eminence grise, writer Alan Levy, gave the city the two nicknames that captured a moment in 1991. He called Prague "The Left Bank of the '90s" and "Second Chance City."

And wasn't that a time? Nostalgia is creeping into the gossip over weekend brunches of huevos rancheros at the Radost vegetarian restaurant, an expat hangout that looks like it was transplanted from Greenwich Village or North Beach. Remember when Lisa Frankenberg, fresh out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, started up the Prague Post in 1991 with little more than a handshake deal with a Texas financier who was touring Prague? Remember when Coloradan Whitney Brown started picking up expats' dry cleaning in a taxi, launching the personal services firm Affordable Luxuries? Frankenberg, still publisher of the Prague Post, is now completing her MBA at Harvard University and Brown, after selling Affordable Luxuries, was recently hired as human resources director at the Prague office of Coca Cola.

What about start-up opportunities for English language publications? After all, doesn't Prague have about 30,000 English-speaking expats who are well educated and well heeled? Forget about it.

Market saturation in English language print media hit about two years ago and casualties have been numerous. The graveyard now includes the Vanity Fair wannabe called Velvet, the hipster-oriented Pozor (slogan: "News from around the Bloc") and the Prague Post's erstwhile archrival Prognosis, a sassy tabloid. Survivors include the Prague Post, a general interest weekly broadsheet that just celebrated its sixth birthday, and its current archrival the Prague Business Journal, a slick weekly. These publications constantly need writers and editors, but before you buy the trenchcoat and plane ticket be forewarned that they pay "Czech wages," i.e., about one-fourth of a typical American wage.

A friend, a Pennsylvanian who landed a job in a Dutch-owned public relations company, says that after three years in Prague he's making plans to leave, probably to return to the U.S. Maybe Cape Cod or New Mexico, he says. He and his wife have "done Europe," using Prague as a base, and they've come up against the question that most expats face after a while: Should they assimilate? He laughs and answers with a Czech catchphrase, "Neni mozny (It's not possible)."

Prague's destiny is now in the hands of the Czechs who live here and they have no time for nostalgia. You could ask one standing in line to see "The Fifth Element" at the suburban Galaxie Multiplex theater or one buying a bottle of Johnny Walker at the Austrian-owned Julius Meinl supermarket or one snapping out his Visa card to pay for a meal at La Perle de Prag restaurant atop the Frank Gehry-designed Rasin building whether "Prague is over." I wouldn't, however, advise it.

(Originally appeared in The Washington Post on November 9, 1997.)

(c) 1994-2001 David and Chris Sturm
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