Every time I return to Europe it’s a little less exotic. The mystique of past centuries is a shade less evident, the glories of classic architecture unchanged but less dominant, their impact (spiritual and otherwise) diluted and encroached upon by banal corporatism and international franchises. English is spoken or at least partly understood by just about everyone in Prague now, and that’s very welcome. But in dozens of little ways this town has begun to feel like a faux-environment in Orlando, Florida — Pragueworld. Not to any overwhelming degree, but it’s certainly noticable.
Would I have the old world back? No. It’s glorious to hang in this great apartment (apart from the drunks singing outside my bedroom window at 5 am) with perfect wifi and seven or eight English-language channels on the 21-inch 1995 Sony TV. I can kick back and churn out material without the slightest hiccup or impediment. But I miss that feeling of slight uncertainty and having to adapt to the ways of a strange culture, and having my consciousness slightly re-molded by that.
When my ex-wife and I first came here in late ’87 it was truly a world apart. So different from the States it felt almost spooky at times. The Communists were running the show with impugnity, pollution was rampant and the air was filled with the odor of soft coal. (You could literally scoop the sediment off the window sills.) And the dollar was all-powerful. My ex-wife and I made the mistake of buying too many Czech korunas and realized halfway into our brief stay that we weren’t spending it fast enough. (You couldn’t buy your dollars back — what you had in korunas you had to spend or lose.) Prague used to be a bargain — now everything costs pretty much what it costs in LA or New York unless you venture into the outlying areas where tourists fear to tread.
“Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain,” says Henry Drummond (i.e., Clarence Darrow by way of Spencer Tracy) in Stanley Kramer‘s Inherit The Wind. “You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”
Welcome to Prague, Mr. Wells, where you can revel and relax with every commercial and technological comfort of home except for watching new Blurays on your 55″ plasma — the one missing element. All this will make you feel very settled and secure, but you can’t re-experience what this town used to be. Yeah, I know — grim up, let it go, move on, be here now. But still…
It’s noon now and church bells are ringing from locations all over town. They can’t take this away, at least.