I’m out of breath, having just sprinted through the Denver airport. We landed one hour late, giving me just 14 minutes to make my connection. I stood behind the flight attendant at the open plane door as she held back the passengers, waiting for official approval to deplane our small turboprop. I made exaggerated movements to look at my wrist, silently wondering why I didn’t wear a watch. But the stewardess was unimpressed with my middle-aged tantrum.
People with badges wandered on the tarmac, not sure if we were allowed off yet. “Ridiculous” I proclaimed. I leaned over her shoulder, shouting down to some guy with a badge. I pleaded my case: “I have an international flight leaving in 14 minutes. Please just let us off.” And lo and behold, my charm offensive worked! He looked left, looked right, then shrugged his shoulders and said “okay”. I hit the ground running. If I walked, no way; if I ran, maybe. On my back I carried all eighteen pounds of my red carry-on bag – everything I would need for the next six weeks. Much easier than trying to pull an awkward roller bag behind me while dodging the crowd. I really should stop behaving this way, though you can’t blame me for wanting to make this flight – I wanted to make the most of my six days in Prague. I reached the Lufthansa gate just in the nick of time, sprinting most of the way – not one extra minute to spare.
Now I can sit back and enjoy the ten hour flight to Frankfurt. Business class on this Wednesday afternoon is nearly empty, so everyone is relaxed. Smiling flight attendants bring me wine and snacks and treat me as an honored guest, not realizing that just moments ago, I was a wild-eyed, crazed passenger, hair pointing in every direction, gasping for air in the mile-high city. When oxygen returns to my brain, I’ll browse the menu, choose the miso glazed Cod with soba noodles and ginger soy dressing. Then I’ll do what I normally do, which is stare at my laptop.
Dinner arrives. I start with the tuna carpaccio appetizer, then the cod. An Italian chardonnay accompanies the fish. Not as dry as I would prefer, though I am cognizant of my place in the pecking order: I’m in business class, not first class, where they have drier chardonnay. The stewardess rolls the dessert cart down the aisle. I choose the fresh fruit salad and green tea. Then, when she is not looking, I sneak to the galley and steal a slice of New York cheesecake. And a chocolate bar.
Dinner ends. I get five hours of almost-sleep before awakening to a hearty breakfast as we fly over Ireland. Two more hours until my next plane change. I am a traveler. Geographically unstable, outwardly curious, low boredom threshold. Airlines love me, though they would never admit it. They tease me with bonus miles, then make me jump through more hoops than a Chinese acrobat to collect any benefit.
From Frankfurt I take the short flight to Prague. I don’t need to show my passport upon arrival in the Czech Republic since they are part of the European Union – that big, somewhat dysfunctional family of nations on the European continent. The currency here is still the Czech Koruna; thus the Czech Republic has avoided the requirement to contribute to the bailout of PIGS and the newest little piglet, Cyprus. Unsurprisingly, the Czech people are having second thoughts about switching to that troubled currency.
From the Prague airport is a short cab ride into the city. I arrive at my hotel and within minutes meet my three fellow travelers. Our tour guide joins us and we take a cab to the historic section of town, right along the Vltava, to begin a week of history and unpronounceable rivers. Upon meeting our guide I feel a connection, as if she is familiar in some way. But she is from a different world and different time and our paths have never crossed. Her name is Jirina, born shortly after WWII and a native of these Bohemian lands, from a long line of Czech ancestry. Her parents both fled to France to participate in the resistance/underground movement during the Nazi occupation. This placed them among the ten percent of Czech Jews who survived the holocaust. Her family is descended from Sephardic Jews who fled Spain during the Spanish Inquisition.
Trained in biochemistry and steeped in Czech history, both ancient and recent, she is a wealth of information and perspective on the revolving door of kings and dictators that have left their mark on this land and its people.
Our tour begins in the Jewish quarter of the city. We view several synagogues including the oddly named ‘old/new synagogue’, the Spanish synagogue with its beautiful Moorish architecture and detail. We see the centuries old Jewish cemetery sandwiched between buildings, constricted to a few acres, crowded with tombstones, a small slice of the multi-layered Czech story. Jirina rattles off snippets of history as far back as the 11th century. Her list of kings, rascals and innovators exceeds my attention span, producing only a gestalt sense of that familiar sequence: invention-plunder-conquest-collapse, repeat.
Last stop in the Jewish quarter is the Pinkas synagogue, where shortly after WWII the surviving Jewish community carefully painted the name and town of each of the 77,297 Czech Jews who died in Nazi concentration camps. When the Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia they left this synagogue intact though painted over the names with white paint. After that regime collapsed, the Jews repainted the names, taking four years to complete the process in 1996. Similar in concept to the Viet Nam memorial in Washington D.C., the names cover almost every available centimeter of wall. The effect is powerful.
As we wander out of the Jewish quarter, which is just a handful of city blocks, Jirina points to the building where she was born and raised. We finish our tour for the day having covered ten centuries in five city blocks.
On Friday we wander through a small section of Prague called ‘old town’, crowded with tourists, mostly from western Europe or Russia, typically here for an inexpensive short holiday. We see the world’s only functioning astronomical clock, still operating under the pre-Copernican belief that the sun revolves around the earth. King Charles, whose role included CEO of the Roman Empire, commissioned the clock, then had the builder blinded upon its completion, thereby becoming an early adopter of the non-compete clause. Could have been worse, as some builders of various secret construction projects in those days were routinely killed, becoming unwilling counterparties to an irrevocable non-disclosure agreement. Such was the way of the world in those times, when the position of executioner was a viable career path.
As we wander through old town, we see many souvenir shops selling crystal, jewelry and assorted trinkets. Most of the crystal is locally made, including the pricey Moser crystal, though much of the jewelry and all of the amber is from Russia. Jirina ensures that we will not leave the Czech Republic without a compete awareness of this fact. She continually notes that absolutely none of the amber is from Czech as this country does not have that petrified material, that it is all from Russia, as are many of the merchants. This seems to bother her, and it becomes evident that Russians are widely under-appreciated in this country.
Finally, to escape the zero degree (Celsius) temperatures and to rest our feet, we stop in the Municipal House, where we enjoy a cup of coffee. Waiters push dessert carts around the cavernous and beautiful art deco room as we take short, lustful glances at the tempting tortes and pastries. Czech people love their cake and coffee, a trait they share with their Austro-Hungarian brethren. We forgo the cake, sip our coffee and listen to Jirina’s stories of life under King Charles in the 14th century, under the Hapsburg empire, under the humorless Soviets. We learn of the subtle differences between Bohemian cooking and Moravian cooking, the popularity of paprika. That evening we go to the Prague State Opera house where we are entertained by Russian opera stars singing in Italian as they perform Puccini’s dramatic and tragic ‘Madame Butterfly.’
After a week in the Czech Republic and Jirina’s non-stop stream of stories I gain a general sense of the swirl of history on the European continent. My primary curiosity however lies in the present – what’s going on in Czech today?
I get some clues by looking around. As a small country, with no ocean and many neighbors – drylanders as they call themselves – most citizens here speak at least several languages. Jirina spoke six. Shortly after the Soviet empire fell in 1990, the former Czechoslovakia was divided into two countries. Slovakia in the east, and Czech Republic in the west, surrounded mostly by Germany, Poland and Austria.
Like most of Europe the crime rate in the Czech Republic is very low, but also like most newer democracies the corruption rate is rather high. Democratic since the Soviets left in 1990, the Czech people have not fully adapted to free markets. Perhaps in another generation or two. Costs here are lower than western Europe or north America. We enjoy a delicious full course meal for four persons, total $84. I order apple strudel for dessert and appreciate the light flaky crust and barely sweetened filling, which suits my tastes. Knowing the importance of having a goal, I decide to become a connoisseur of central European apple strudel. I award the Prague strudel a 5.0.
I’m staying in a hotel, though my fellow travelers are renting an apartment nearby. I meet the caretaker: Petra is a single young mother raising her 6-year old. She lived one year in Canada so is familiar with free markets, and therefore committed to raising her daughter with the advantages of that system. She struggles to make ends meet so she can afford to send her child to a private British school, where the English instruction is superior and the teaching staff is biased toward capitalism. Most of Petra’s friends don’t share this priority. Having never been exposed to mature free market economies, they send their children to free public schools, not realizing or not caring that many of the instructors in the public system are still biased toward the old communist ways.
At the beginning of Czech democracy in 1990, many Czech citizens recouped their previously confiscated property, provided they had proper documentation to prove ownership. Jirina’s family, though once wealthy, could not produce sufficient documentation, so received none of their property after the Soviets left. She tries to convey this fact with tour-guide professionalism, though cannot disguise a trace of sadness or hurt at the inequity that befell her family. However she carries on, proud of the success her children have achieved, mostly in the United States.
Of those fortunate enough to recover lost assets, some chose to sell and leave the country rather than deal with pervasive corruption. Others chose to stay, viewing corruption as nothing more than an alternate form of transacting business. One of the larger examples of such recovery was the Bata shoe company, who rebuilt their businesses after a forced hiatus of forty years. The government is aware of the corruption problem and routinely consults with British and American legal experts in an attempt to find solutions. Meanwhile, the legacy of Lenin and Marx continues to cast a long shadow.
Finally, my Czech visit comes to an end. I opt to leave via train rather than air. We sit in commute traffic for an hour, enter the Prague train station, find our train, then spend the next five hours gazing at the Czech countryside. In the dining car I rank the strudel a 4.1. Next stop: Vienna.