“You don’t want to move here.” He chuckles into a sigh with this slightly foreboding warning, but it doesn’t seem like it’s meant to be a joke.
“Jan come on, it’s not that bad–”
“Stay as far away as you can. Go move to…I don’t know, Norway or something if you want, but do not stay in Prague. You’ll see.”
Jan has lived his entire life, eighteen years, in the Czech Republic, so I should probably trust his opinion more than my fascination with a city still magical to my naive eyes.
I can’t tell if it’s the heated political discussion or from finishing a third Pilsner Urquell but his face starts to fluster.
“My vote is useless, a president we love to throw eggs and apples at was just reelected. A president who’s pro- Russia and the reason we’re probably going to leave the EU.” He only paused to take a much needed breath in between phrases.
“Wait, the Czech Republic would actually leave the EU?”
He pauses, thinking over his answer more carefully. “I wouldn’t be surprised. I just need to get out before we do. Look at England, if it messed up their economy that much imagine what it would do for us.”
“Well then where would you go? The whole world has gone to shit, it’s not just here.”
“Okay okay I know that I’m not that stupid, it’s not perfect everywhere else. But you don’t understand. You just don’t understand what it’s like to live somewhere that is so…so… nationalistic.”
“Haven’t you heard the song ‘Proud to Be an American’?”
We take a minute to order another round as the waitress in this cozy, dark, corner Andel bar comes to our table. Jan orders his pivo in Czech, so when the waitress looks at me I just point and nod, quietly murmuring “I’ll have the same.” You could just ever so slightly make out the older waitress roll her eyes as she turned away. I’m used to this reaction when I speak English at this point, but I could see it sparked something in my company.
“That’s exactly what I’m fucking talking about.” Hours earlier we were teaching each other swear words, laughing at each other’s pronunciations, but this time it isn’t so lighthearted. His smile fades. “If you are not from here they treat you like you will never belong.”
He envies the fact I’m from New York, a diverse metropolitan city in which you can walk down the street and casually hear several languages and see people from all over the world, without a judgmental eye. Well, only the occasional one.
“One of my friends in school gave herself a new nickname to make her sound more Asian, kids are obsessed with J or K-Pop whatever you call it, the Vietnamese raised here are treated as equal and fine. But anyone else who’s different, there’s a problem.”
“Wait wait,” I stop him from continuing further. “This is the first time I’ve heard anything like this, I’m confused. Why do you think Vietnamese are treated differently than other minorities?”
“Maybe it’s the money, some families. Well at school they’ll dress in Supreme t-shirts, just all these expensive designer things. Maybe we envy them, respect them more. But that doesn’t matter.”
“What is horrible is how I see the older generation of Czechs treat other people.”
“I need to leave, I don’t understand it.”
“Which people? Tourists in general?”
“I mean people of color. I don’t know any black people but I don’t have this hatred. Czechs never learned to not be…how do you call it, ignorant. They don’t even try to care. I can’t live in a country like this anymore, it’s just going to get worse.”
Prague has internalized the massive tourist boom in the early 2000s. Streets leading to Prague Castle or Old Town Square are overridden with gift shops, street vendors selling “Authentic Czech Gifts” with a “Made in China” label, Trdelnik stands selling a traditional Hungarian (not Czech) dessert, and examples of globalization at its finest, with McDonalds and Starbucks mere feet away from the centuries old Charles Bridge. It’s easy to forget how young democracy is here, not so long ago communism dominating the political sphere and defining daily life.
Has life changed in the 25 or so years since a revolution broke out, changing every aspect of society? The older Czech generations are those who lived through it, who’ve experienced this transition from communism to capitalism, to democracy. Maybe they have a reason to be angry.
In 1989 at age 29, Dr. Douglas Dix, current Humanities Department Chair and Professor at Anglo-American University in Prague, walked into a revolution. Inspired by Mel Gibson in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” Dix comically was disappointed at not being placed in Indonesia or a country where there was “more action” as part of his Fulbright Professorship. Little did he know the action that was in store.
Dix arrived in the Czech Republic in September 1989, a mere eight weeks before the events of November 17th, the student demonstration that sparked what is colloquially known as the Velvet Revolution.
“I was amazed how quickly it formed,” Professor Dix recollected, it being the widespread demonstrations and powerful reactions to November 17th. Marking the 50th anniversary of the murder of student Jan Opletal as well as International Students Day, over 15,000 students were involved in the demonstration in which students marched from Vysehrad Cemetery back to the center of Prague. However, students were unaware of the impending riot police waiting for them at Narodni Street. The students were trapped, escape routes blocked, and the police preceded to beat the unarmed students.
The police repeatedly responded with violence, beating the students despite their unarmed selves chanting “we have bare hands,” implying the students simply desire peace.
Alternating between Brno and Prague, Dix was not in Prague for the November 17th student protest and beatings, but its influence and effects could be felt everywhere. If people did not see the beatings themselves, they eventually saw footage or heard accounts: they were all in agreement and felt the same way. Things needed to change, and people needed to address this head on.
“Back in Brno, the courtyard was packed with students the Monday after the beatings. There was a total of 400,000 people living in the city of Brno at the time, and something like 350,000 were protesting and involved in the movement in the days after the demonstration. It was pretty much the same ratio for the population in Prague.” On November 26th, about half a million people reported showed up to a demonstration, forcing dissident leaders to move to a nearby park to accommodate the crowd.
Remnants of the scene in which student demonstrators were beaten by policemen are limited, besides a small memorial on Narodni Street by the National Theatre.
After the Velvet Revolution concluded, the appointing of leading dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel as president, and the establishment of democracy with the eradication of communism as leading political ideology, it is naive to believe every communist in Prague left. Rather, individuals disappeared into the shadows of democracy, blending into the top ranks of government.
“Everything became business as usual. It wasn’t like Germany, where the Berlin Wall fell and academics from West Germany came over and replaced [communists].” Communists presumably remained in positions of power, especially in the University system. This left students governed under this new democratic establishment frustrated and at a severe disadvantage.
* * *
“Did locals treat you differently once they knew you were American?”
“Everybody in the bus would look at me, yes.” The attitudes toward Dix were more out of curiosity rather than negativity and contempt however, irrelevant to which type of government and regime in power. There were staring more at his Levi jeans and black leather jacket than anything else. An anomaly, representing materialistic items that they either couldn’t have or couldn’t afford. The average monthly income at the time was around 5,000 crowns.
“Prague has always been an international city, but not until around 2000 to 2005 it became a tourist overkill.”
“Would dissidents from the Velvet Revolution be disappointed, ashamed at the state of current Czech politics? Or rather, do you think things will change anytime soon?
“Maybe Czechs are just waiting for some catalytic event to initiate change. Unless something happens, things are likely to stay the same.”
Something like what Jan is waiting for?
* * *
I feel their stares.
I look too American today, I could have worn something better to fit in.
But as I sit at a table, sipping my overpriced globalized coffee, I notice everyone walking by. I feel like I’m home, but in a literal sense. People running to catch their bus, families on their sunny Sunday day off lugging around grocery and shopping bags getting errands done. There are two men sitting on the ground with a couple of snare drums, some upside down buckets, and a cymbal, attracting crowds to observe their eclectic sounds. Every now and then you’ll hear the clash of a few coins dropped in a comparatively tiny jar. The difference, though, is that this city does sleep.
Levi jeans, Nike sneakers, Adidas shorts, leather jackets, red plaid shirts, designer handbags, slightly pissed off resting facial expression, from the outside it feels almost the same. There is a couple dressed in black tie, presumably attending a fancy occasion headed into Prague 1; a jogger running in athleisure attire; young twenty-somethings who fashionably look as if they should be gallivanting through Williamsburg, Brooklyn or the San Francisco Bay Area; two young male students, one with a man bun and the other dreadlocks, wearing I’m assuming some death metal band t shirt. People look roughly the same, yet you only can notice cultural differences, maybe hatred, if you try to say “hello.”