The End of the Cold-War and Freedom

Prague Bar
Cool Prague bar!

September 21, 1991

      After Berlin, we moved on to Prague, Czechoslovakia, pronounced, "Praha." Prague is reputed to be the most beautiful baroque city of Europe and I found myself in complete and stunned agreement. Somehow, Prague managed to escape untouched by the devastation of this century's two fratricidal wars. It makes one wonder how much more beautiful Europe would have been had it not been for the blight of war.

      In poor, cash starved Czechoslovakia, we lived like conquering kings. And believe me, this was different from our experiences elsewhere. Essentially, when one crosses the German border past the former Iron Curtain into East Europe one has entered the Third World. This difference was highlighted by the accommodations system. In the rest of Europe, it is necessary to scramble to find a room to stay upon arrival in a specific city but in Prague we were accosted by babushkas trying to get us to stay in their homes for U.S. $10 a night. We picked an older lady who took us home with her on the spotlessly clean subway. Of course, she tried to raise the price when we arrived but we bargained her down to almost the original price. In retrospect, it seems absurd to be so frugal with an impoverished old lady when the sums involved are so small.

      Not being a strategic target in any wars, Prague has been spared the damage that has ravaged much of Europe's cultural masterpieces. Yet even now, two years after the fall of communism, Prague has that communist look and feel: relatively quiet and often deserted, long lines for supplies, and stores with very little in them. I did find some new stores with Western electronics, but I wonder if anyone can afford them?

      The main boulevard is the downward sloping Vaclavske namesti which was the site of large demonstrations in both 1968 and 1989. You walk down this busy street until you get to Stare Mesto (Old Town) which is the most magnificent and sublime square I have ever seen. It looks untouched since the 19th century, with multiple baroque churches and buildings centered by a statue of Jan Hus. We joined a discreet gathering of Czechs in a wine cellar to listen to a local band. The band was laughable by western standards but it was good to get a local feel which was decidedly un-touristy. The air was so thick with smoke that I was forced to beat a quick retreat outside. The girls stayed inside, determined to sample this local color and meet some of the locals. Matt and I grabbed a bottle of wine and joined a group of other young people on the steps of the Jan Hus monument listening to two guitarists play Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan, etc. A group of middle-aged well-dressed couples emerged from one of the nearby buildings and joined in the group, bridging a broad generational gap if only for a few minutes. It was a magical moment, made possible by the winds of change sweeping across freedom starved Czechoslovakia.


The End of the Cold War and the Victory of Freedom
and Democracy Unleashing the Force of Freedom

      I am so happy for the Czechs, and I hope that they can make it into the world economy and thrive. For much of my life, the image of Czechoslovakia symbolized to me bland socialist banter and expertise in supplying terrorists with weapons and explosives. Essentially, Czechoslovakia was another semi-peasant backward land pervaded by the cold grey hand of totalitarianism. But, primarily through the writing of Milan Kundera, I came to see Czechoslovakia as a highly evolved culture full of energy, color, and sexuality. There is a sort of youthful vibrancy and creativity in Prague that is symptomatic of free countries. Mozart felt that he was only truly able to write music when he was in Prague and this warm relationship between the two speaks volumes about the atmosphere and temper of Prague.

      Freedom is admittedly messy, chaotic, and often ugly but it is indispensable to the national spirit. Totalitarian government is orderly, neat, and controlled but it restrains the national energy of the people from moving a thousand different independent ways at the same time and providing for independent and creative thought. East Germany was a farce - a weak satellite government of the Soviet Union. When the sponsor left, the country fell not with a bang but a whimper. The West German government is fully rooted with a strength that extends deep with the free participation of the many. How strange that weak East Germany (and the East, in general) was almost more than a match for West Germany (and the West, in general) in force of arms. I thought it was put well by a German gentleman my Dad met on a train, "Our brothers in the East have been in prison for all these years." Ironically enough, the division of 40 years has been so severe that a young West German would have more in common with me than with his cousin from the East.

      Prague is full of young people in romantic couples, some almost having sex in public. For some reason, it reminds me more than a little of Dublin. We ate well for U.S. $3 and enjoyed an extravagant steak dinner for U.S. $5.

      Strangely enough, among the young, U.S. military uniforms are the fashion! And I mean authentic surplus uniforms, not generic anonymous ones. I cannot express how strange it is to be in Czechoslovakia waiting in line in a store next to a Czech who is wearing an U.S. Army shirt with an authentic 1st Air Cavalry or Ranger patch on the shoulder. Throughout Europe, U.S. fighter caps and jackets are in vogue but in Prague even shabby old army fatigues are popular. How different from my father's generation and Vietnam - with the success of the Gulf War and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is popular, or at least is respected. There are military hats, shirts, cigarette lighters, etc., with the U.S. Marine emblem seeming the most popular. I guess nothing smells better than success.

      We partied with an incredibly drunk group of young tourists at the U Flecku beer garden, which served watered down $.50 beer. The beer was so week that I cannot understand how they got drunk. It seems a fairly common phenomenon among Anglo-Saxon youthful tourists to remain perpetually drunk "on holiday." I have met many, mostly male, groups of Australians, English, Irish, New Zealander, Scottish, and American tourists who start drinking everyday around noon and go till the bitter end. The Australians and New Zealanders argue over their differences although only they can tell themselves apart. And I have not even gotten to Greece, where such behavior supposedly reaches its apogee.

      We saw a Mozart-Bach-Telemann-Pachabell concert right inside the Prague Castle the next night. It was an all-star program and I was not disappointed, all for about U.S. $5! The St. Charles Bridge is perhaps the most beautiful sight in Prague (not a small feat). This bridge is easily the most beautiful bridge I've ever seen, with baroque statues every couple of feet and sidewalk salesmen and musicians lined up next to each other. There was an excellent Dixieland jazz band, and the Czechs seemed pleased at the novelty of this scene, unthinkable in pre-Havel days.

St. Charles Bridge
The St. Charles Bridge with Prague Castle in the background.
      This whole experience of travel is more pleasurable in writing and thinking back on it than it was at the time. So much of traveling is spent worrying about timetables, accommodations, money, directions, etc., that digesting the experience is more fun than living them.

      Prague, unfortunately, has been modernized only in relation to tourism. The tourist restaurants and money exchange offices are all new and modern. But the task of pulling the whole society into the modern world will be enormously difficult. The task of creating wealth without any cash is a herculean one. I really hope the Czechs succeed and join the family of West European countries, for only by actually visiting this place does one understand how far behind they are of their neighbors to the west. I understand crime is a problem, and indeed, in the main areas one can hardly sneeze without knocking a policeman down. Moreover, only a small minority of the police seem to be civilian - the rest appear to military policemen! This cannot be a good sign. Supposedly, the ethnic rivalries between the Czechs and the Slovaks is also a threat to a more peaceful future.

      Although the culture is very high in Prague, in many places the conditions are almost Third World. It jars against pre-conceived notions; hearing a world-class concert where the audience smells bad and not a bathroom can be found in the building. The shabbiness of the restaurants and trains began to get old real quick but, Damn! it was cheap. And that is important to a traveler such as myself on a tight budget.

      Matt threw up again in Prague and the girls spent all night cleaning up. Our landlady even got involved there was so much cleaning up to be done! They were unbelievably pissed off and almost decided to ditch Matt on the spot. Kerren had alcoholic parents and is especially sensitive to this kind of stuff. She is, in contrast to her parents, supra-healthy in the "granola" model of "goodness." She does not drink, eat meat, eggs, fish (living things, in short) or "destroy." And my sister is strongly influenced by her. One can easily see how puking repeatedly in her presence can make for a hilarious scene!

      Matt is nice and young, very "mellow" (ie. Stanford) and middle America (ie. from Chicago). He is intelligent, polite, likes jazz and photography. We have little in common but it is still friendly male companionship which is invaluable. Kerren is a self-starter, ambitious, compassionate, but also politically correct, feminist, "healing" and emotionally self-aware type that for me is a personal pet peeve. Everything important to her is light and good: justice, goodness, healing, spiritual growth, light, etc. Although this is my own thing, this type of person brings out the worst in me and I fight the urge to soil all her "purity." She summons not the best part of me forward and so I respectfully keep my mouth shut the whole trip. Katie follows her around like a puppy dog, and the scene makes me want to travel by myself. Kerren is one of those types who claims, "My body is my temple and I put no bad things into it." Even her name is instructive - the strange spelling of Kerren due to her hippie parents who "were on drugs." Katie and her would wake up in the morning and write down their dreams! I tried to ignore them and mind my own business but this added an element of disingenuosness which was unpleasant. I kept wanting to tell them they were full of shit. Another example, during the Mozart concert she was doing some sort of strange meditation deep breathing! For her part, I am sure she thought me a smug, know-it-all. Still, it has spoiled the fun I was having just traveling with my sister.