Prague - City of Contrasts

Trip Start May 20, 2005
Trip End Jun 07, 2007

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Prague - City of Contrasts

The ancient City of Prague is a fascinating collection of contrasting impulses. Emerging from the long Communist rule, which followed the somewhat shorter, but equally as devastating, Nazi rule, the Czech people have struggled to find some kind of equilibrium as they seek their place in the modern world.

It is a place of high culture and low sleaze (see the pics), of elaborate museums, trendy bars, ubiquitous cellphones, "lumpen" capitalism, hundreds of art galleries, street artists, tightly packed trams, and tourists (particularly this time of year) by the thousands.

As a new visitor, I am having a great time finding my way around. Fortunately, because of the University of Richmond's excellent international programs, I have made some excellent contacts. Lada Kicmerova spent the fall of 2004 in Richmond and she guided me around yesterday afternoon...(I need to get her picture). Nikki Norris, from the Charles University, is helping with scholars to interview for the program. Nikki is an ex-pat from Athens, Georgia who could not imagine ever living in the States again. She just loves this place.

Today I rode what I call the "Magic Tram," Number 22. It goes all around the city and out into the suburbs as well. It is much cheaper than a guided tour and covers all the high points. With a guide book in hand, you can strike out on your own and will be sure to come back to where you started.

After the heady years just after the so-called Velvet Revolution, Prague is settling in to become just another European city, safe, money-driven, and welcoming to people who might wish to enjoy a different experience.

The politics of the place are even beginning to take on a decidedly Western flavor, with parties being thrown out of power, coalitions forming that require politicos to compromise their deeply held principles in order to govern. The unrepentent Communists are even enjoying a recent, if probably temporary, revival in popularity. Why?

Well, the free market is a severe form of allocating scarce economic resources. People under a market system can actually LOSE. Under socialism, the assets of society are pooled and though there are very few opportunities for innovation and wealth, people are taken care of. The basics (health care, housing, food, etc.) are provided. People look back fondly on that existence. The siren call of a long lost world in which people were "nannied" can be very appealing.

I think however our Czech friends will not swallow that chimera again. To paraphrase one guide, 'the west has done nothing for the Czechs, except give them a stable democratic government, freedom of expression, a huge selection of goods and services, a modern (well its getting there) infrastructure, and a much better standard of living.' Go back to the bad old communist years????....I doubt it.

More tomorrow.

Dan Roberts

PS: The main train station in Prague, Hlavni Nadrazl, looks from a distance like an art nouveau fantasy. It really is a bad dream. When you get there you have to deal with the lower halls where the business is actually conducted. It is a Communist era monstrocity which, along with the park just outside at night, becomes a home for the homeless, druggies and hustlers and the German tourists who love them. It has not received the updating it so richly deserves.

My colleague John Treadway was mugged at that station a couple of years ago. So guess who emerges from the train at 8:43 the other evening. Duh! Like I was clueless at Disney World. Fortunately, I put on my best, "don't even think about it, you ^%$#@&**," look on my face and was not so welcomed. Treadway must just look like a chump in waiting. My turn is next.
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