Michael Elcock: Prague Re-Visited
The Czech aeroplane carrying me from Frankfurt to Prague is a decrepit Russian copy of a Boeing 727. But everyone on board is cheerful and friendly. A smiling stewardess serves us free bottles of pilsner beer. It is springtime in 1990, and great changes have taken place since I was last in Czechoslovakia, at Christmas a little more than three years ago. Far below us the line of demolished fortifications which once marked the border between west and east runs like a jagged wound across the countryside. Everything is coming down—old border posts and watchtowers, barbed wire and minefields. The Berlin Wall has fallen and Eastern Europe is opening up for the first time since the Second World War.
An election poster for Vaclav Havel is still plastered to the window of the Immigration Officer’s little cubicle at Prague Airport. It only takes me two minutes to arrange an entry visa, and the Immigration Officer hands it over with a smile and a receipt for the $10 it costs me. The lady at the money exchange desk chuckles at my bad German, and replies in English. A Havel election poster adorns her window as well. Her six-year-old son punches numbers expertly into a calculating machine and works out the correct rate of exchange.
Emanuel, who I first met when I came here before, is waiting outside the terminal with his son Voitja. Emanuel is a little older, but as irrepressible as ever, quick with a grin and a strong handshake.
Blackbirds are singing all around the car park. The day is warm and sunny; everything is clean, and green with vegetation. The taxi driver cracks jokes as he drives us into the city. A change like this was unimaginable three years ago. Emanuel sees the smile on my face and asks what is amusing me. He knows I can’t understand the taxi-driver’s jokes.
“All this,” I tell him, waving my arm out of the taxi window. “It’s wonderful. It just makes me feel good.”
Prague rises up in front of us, possibly the most beautiful city in Europe. It has plenty of bad Soviet-era architecture, but most of that lies in the suburbs. In the old city centre there has been little development for nearly fifty years; a benefit of the communist regime perhaps, which unintentionally preserved the ancient city by leaving it alone, in many places to crumble.
When I was here before, the people were depressed and drab and sullen, and hardly anyone would speak in public to foreigners. Moneychangers and black marketers stood on street corners, and green and white police cars drove up and down the streets, the people inside staring suspiciously at passers-by. But now Prague is flowering again, its people dressed in bright colours and fashionable clothes. Red-tiled roofs spill over the city’s hills like a Disney fantasy, and streets open out to squares of little shops and cafés full of people; people everywhere, walking, talking, savouring the warm spring air.
The city flows upwards from the banks of the Vltava River, which saunters languidly through the city, crossed by ornate bridges, and adorned with beautiful white swans. The castle and the great, gothic St. Vitus Cathedral sit up on the crest of the ridge, watching over it all.
I’ve come here for meetings with a Czech design company called Artexim, whose staff has been helpful to us on some technical and design matters. I telephone them from Emanuel’s apartment, and they invite me to have dinner with them at the Prague Arts Club, saying that we can discuss business tomorrow.
The Prague Arts Club inhabits a stone building on the riverbank by an old mill lade. It has only just been opened to non-Party members; in other words to real writers and artists with genuine ability. We have to cross a small bridge to reach the front door. Inside, the place is infused with a fine Bohemian vitality; people are chatting and table-hopping, and a fiddler plays by the window.
“Once in a while,” explains Jaromir, who runs the company, “we were able to find ways around the communist government’s bureaucratic regulations and get work on overseas contracts. We had to win these contracts on merit in competitive western markets. No one gave us any help. But when we did win, we were able to bring back foreign exchange, and the government liked that. So we slowly gained a few favours, and after a while, I think, a certain indispensability.
“Some of our people worked in Canada when the company was called Art Centrum,” he continues. “I worked there too. At the time of Expo ’86, I designed the interior of the Roundhouse in Vancouver.”
The Roundhouse stands now in the centre of Vancouver near False Creek. It’s the oldest building in the city, originally the old Canadian Pacific Railway turnaround and servicing depot. It’s a brilliant example of urban industrial reclamation—a social and artistic centre alive with creative workshops and classes, music and dance and theatre, markets and exhibitions, conferences and local fairs. I know it well, and I remember people telling me how astonished they were that these Czechs could fabricate computer hardware, and conjure up advanced software applications apparently from thin air, with only a fraction of the technological resources that we had in the west.
I ask Jaromir about the Swiss office address on his company’s letterhead.
Jordan, who works with him, scratches the side of his nose and smiles. “That’s one of the favours Jaromir was talking about,” he says. “It’s a very small office and we’re still not sure why the government authorities here allowed us to have it. And we got something else very important out of the arrangement. We bought a fax machine for the Swiss office—which was easy enough to do in Basel but impossible here. The authorities here didn’t know about the fax machine, but after we’d had it for a while we told them about it. They grudgingly gave us permission then to bring another one into our office in Prague so we would be able to communicate with our Swiss office. As far as I know this became the only privately owned fax machine in Czechoslovakia.
“When things started to move last year in Prague—what the west calls the Velvet Revolution—we told Vaclav Havel about our fax machine and offered him the use of it whenever he needed it. After that he came over to our office nearly every day to send messages to the media around the world.”
Jaromir leans back in his chair and gazes up at the ceiling. “Once the world knew what was going on inside Czechoslovakia the government realised it had to be careful about any crackdowns,” he says. “Then it started backing down on some important issues, like free speech and public gatherings. After that it began to lose control, and in the end events just moved forward towards the democratic system we’ve got now. They couldn’t stop it.”
The international media faxed messages back to Havel at the Artexim office and the revolution in Czechoslovakia received worldwide press coverage. The little grey fax machine was probably his most useful weapon, vital to his ultimate success. “It’s still sitting in the office,” adds Jaromir. “I’ll show it to you tomorrow.”
After our meeting the next morning, Jaromir takes me out to lunch at a small, sparsely furnished restaurant near his office. “This is the first privately owned restaurant in Prague,” he says. “It would have been impossible to have anything like this a year ago. The authorities would never have allowed it.” We select the dumplings and stew.
The people here are happy, although they know they have a long way to go. But it seems to me that they trust their leaders, and they’re finding their spirit. Every surface in the city needs a coat of paint, but there are no paint manufacturing plants in the country and no paint to be found. The grass in the parks is growing fast and untidy, and there are no lawn mowers. Skodas and Trabants belch out black smoke and the roads are full of potholes. The Czech airline is still flying cramped, inefficient Tupolevs and Yaks—obsolete, gas guzzling copies of old Boeing and Douglas aeroplanes. But things here are starting to change; it’s in people’s eyes, in the air itself.
Emanuel lives with his wife Blanka in a cramped ground floor apartment on Veverkova Street. Their flat has two tiny bedrooms, one of them little more than a storage closet. Sometimes there is water in the taps, sometimes not. Veverkova means ‘squirrel’ in Czech, and the park where the squirrels live lies just around the corner.
Across the street from Emanuel’s flat stands a pub which serves clear, golden pilsner beer in jugs. He brings me in here to watch the Czech football team play a World Cup match on television. The patrons are completely absorbed in the game, animated by the action and their national team, which is playing with great flair. No one pays any attention to me at all until Emanuel introduces me to one of his friends. After that everyone is overwhelmingly friendly, and all of them insist on speaking English. They refuse to let me buy anything—just as the Czechs I met did when I was here before—refuse to acknowledge that a month's salary for them is probably less than a day’s pay for me.
Emanuel took part in the student uprisings during the Prague Spring of 1968. He marched in the streets and carried banners. Some of the people I meet in the pub marched too. It all came to nothing in the end, says Emanuel, and afterwards he was often in trouble with the authorities. Now he has an administrative position at Charles University. He speaks fluent Czech, Polish, Russian and German, as well as some English and French, and earns about eighty dollars a month at his job. Perhaps he can find the motivation to rebuild his life, but I can see it is difficult for him. He has lost thirty years, and some of the energy and optimism of his youth.
When the World Cup soccer match finishes we jump on a tram and head into the centre of the city. The tram is rickety red and yellow, just as the trams were when I was here before, but the conductress who hands me my ticket speaks perfect English. All the people who come on board punch their tickets scrupulously in the manual ticket machine. The system operates on an honesty basis and no one tries to cheat it any more, Emanuel tells me.
The city centre is busy with people but there are no leather-jacketed, black market moneychangers now, no police cruising up and down the streets, staring suspiciously at strangers; no soldiers standing on corners with sub-machine guns. On this bright spring day it is almost impossible to remember how it was only a short time ago.
For forty-five years the state dealt—more or less—with the requirements of Czech society, from the cradle to the grave. As a result it will be difficult for people here to encompass the idea of private ownership; private enterprise has been banned for two generations. These generations have never known about incentives for achievement or excellence, opportunities for entrepreneurs. The state didn’t require imagination from its people. It never encouraged it; such a thing was considered threatening.
The Czechs need help with all the changes that are underway, but the shop windows are full of bright summer clothes, toys for children, books in bookstores. There’s a freshness and energy in the streets. Private enterprise is starting out with small steps, with handcrafted trinkets on sale at little stands on the Charles Bridge, and beautiful music played on street corners for passing tourists by wonderfully talented musicians. Politeness and kindness show up in people’s gestures and smiles; concepts of service and quality will no doubt follow in due course.
The people of Czechoslovakia recently elected Vaclav Havel President of the country, by an overwhelming majority. Despite the utter discredit of the Communist Party however, it was still supported by large groups of miners, who gave it fourteen per cent of the vote. The Party represented the only security they had ever known.
Emanuel and Blanka have moved out of their bedroom into the tiny closet-room. There’s nothing I can do about it; they insist that I must have their comfortable bed. In the morning they wait patiently in the other room for me to wake up. After breakfast they take me for a walk in the park at the end of Squirrel Street, and show me a great, bare plinth where a statue of Stalin stood until a few short months ago. Now it’s a place where children play shinny and football, and ride skateboards. We drink warm soft drinks at the park’s cafeteria and gaze down at the big brown river as it works its way through the city. When we’re finished, Emanuel picks up the garbage lying around the picnic table and drops it in a bin.
A short while later I’m standing at the entrance to the Street of the Alchemists—the street where Kafka used to write, in the heart of the Hradcany. I’m watching a bizarre little scene as Vaclav Havel’s chauffeur drives the Presidential limousine slowly across the same, small square I walked across when I was here three years ago. The chauffeur is using the big, black official car—a Russian Zil—to brush back a crowd of reverent tourists who are trying to touch Havel’s little Renault, a personal gift from President Mario Soares of Portugal. The chauffeur drives the Zil slowly but firmly into the knot of visitors until they disperse, then he backs the limo across the square to its parking place and sits there waiting until he has to do it all over again. The Presidential chauffeur has little else to do, for Havel doesn’t travel in the Zil at all. He loves his little Renault and drives it himself. Someone has stuck a big red heart on its windshield, love-notes are scrawled in lipstick across the rear window, and affectionate messages are pasted down the Renault’s sides.
Czechoslovakia’s new President is a man of his people, a security man’s nightmare, often dropping into the local pub on his way home at night to the same small apartment in the centre of Prague that he’s occupied for years. He refuses to live in the luxurious Presidential apartments in the Hradcany, which are maintained now only for visiting heads of state.
At the end of the day I leave Prague laden with gifts from Emanuel and Blanka to take home with me; gifts full of forethought—a multi-coloured Sparta Prague beach ball for my little daughter, three china mugs with the Sparta club crest, a bright red, yellow and blue Sparta towel.
It is very, very different here from what it was. The changes are enormous and profound, and they’ve happened in an incredibly short space of time. I hope that people in twenty years time will remember how it once was, and be grateful for what it has become.
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