Friday, July 1, 2011

Impressions of Taking Over Prague


                The stunning buildings and architecture of the Czech Republic stand splendidly intact, tenaciously shielded by its proud citizens from the ravages of centuries of European wars, namely via the cunning, yet dynamic defense strategy the Czech’s have employed since the Middle Ages, of rolling over on their backs like submissive dogs for all invaders. Welcome to Prague.
The Charles Bridge at night
The city is easily the most beautiful I have ever seen. No matter how many times I have stood witness to the bewitching view from the Charles Bridge at night, lights illuminating the medieval castle on one side, the National Theater sparkling in splendor on the other, and the Vltava River a seeming veil of shimmering gold bisecting the two, I cannot help but stand there mouth agape, spell bound. Walt Disney couldn’t have animated it any better. Kiss a girl on the bridge, surrounded by the luscious view, and you just might turn into a prince.
On the Charles Bridge
Walk down the cobblestone streets in the center of Prague, and it feels like you are in a different century. Pretty girls abound here, a mix of Eastern and Western European features. The city is inexpensive by Western standards. A typical Czech salary is $1,200 a month. While there is much more money in Prague than the surrounding countryside, prices are still more reflective of the median income level. 
Czech food is on the heavy side, with a lot of cheese, creams, potatoes and meat. Service outside of tourist spots is often lacking. While there are friendly people, the older generations remain cautious and distant, the hangover and shadow of Communism, though fading, can still be felt.
You don’t need a car here. Gas is over $8 a gallon, and you have to pay to park virtually anywhere you go in the city. Public transport, on the other hand,  is fantastic, with trams, buses, and a metro system that will get you anywhere in the city, more quickly than any automobile (unless you have one that flies), and at very reasonable prices.
Taxes are high. It’s still a largely socialist country, to the dismay of its young professionals. VAT (Value Added Tax- like sales tax in the US) run 20%, always pre-added into the price you see on the display, yet even so, most menus still have substantially lower prices than you'll see in any Western European or American restaurant. Waiters are happy with a ten percent tip. I hope I don’t get used to it, because I would swatted on the back of the head if I tried to leave so little in America.
Alcohol is what’s for dinner. This nation of ten million consumes 60 liters of pure alcohol per year per person. Beer for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a late night snack to boot. I rarely consume any alcohol in America, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid here. Beer is cheaper than water (no joke,) and a glass of wine at a club costs maybe $3.
Prague thrives on tourism, summer being the high season. The weather here, even in June, is fickle, with frequent, and generally short, showers and thunderstorms.
There is a language barrier. Though many people speak bits of English, it certainly isn't ubiquitous. I go out with girls I meet in cafes, and as I speak little Czech, I find them often frustrated that they are unable to communicate fluidly with me. One girl told me, “It’s very irritating because you think I am dumb, but in Czech I can discuss Kafka, psychology, and any other subject you name.”
The scenery is lush, with many rains. Los Angeles is never so “verde.” The countryside still has some forests. Many castles still stand, ready to fulfill your medieval fantasies.
Czech castle in the countryside
“Central Europe, not Eastern,” says my friend Linda, not wanting to be associated with the surly Eastern Bloc. In fact, she’ll takes offense if you call her Russian. The Czech people are understandably unhappy with the Ruskies, who occupied their country for forty years, the totalitarian regime executing thousands, destroying the spirits of many more. 

(This is the most powerful piece of art I have ever seen. the monument to Communism. It says so much with so little!)

Prague is truly a magical city. If I had one place to recommend in Europe to see, to experience, it would certainly be here. And if the Czechs greet you by rolling over on their backs, feel free to rub their tummies. 
The rose garden atop Petrin Hill
At a park in Prague

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