Americans Bring Bohemian Lifestyle to Czech Republic

An influx of foreigners bringing capitalist habits is a boon to Prague, but leaves the city's longtime residents struggling to cope with rising prices

NEARLY every day, Stepan Ryba and Radovan Sramek rise early and go down to Prague's Old Town Square. There, they put in long hours as outdoor vendors selling funky, brightly colored hats, mostly to tourists.

The work is often monotonous and involves a lot of standing around, they say. The financial rewards aren't so great, but are enough to get by.

Such daily drudgery could quickly wear a person down. But Messrs. Ryba and Sramek remain optimistic, viewing their current work as a first step toward lifestyles they couldn't even have dreamed of several years ago, when the Communists ruled the country.

``At least now we have freedom and the prospect for a better life,'' Ryba says.

``It's difficult,'' Sramek says of the daily routine. ``But with all the foreigners - the tourists - at least there is a good atmosphere. It makes it easy to forget the Communists.''

Sramek isn't the only one who's glad that foreigners have found their way to Prague.

The huge and rapid influx of tourists, outside entrepreneurs and corporate representatives, has helped Czech merchants radically transform central Prague in just a few years.

New paint jobs, a little neon-lit glitz, and an infusion of can-do attitude has spiced up the glum grayness that pervaded the Czech capital during the Communist era.

The cost of the changes, however, can be viewed in more than monetary terms. The foreign influence has altered Prague's flavor, longtime residents say.

Many, including Ryba and Sramek, fully embrace the hustle and hype that the foreigners have brought with them. But some wish the old, less-hectic atmosphere could be retained as the city and the country move toward a market economy. A few intellectuals even say the whole process has been a disappointment.

Prague's stunning Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture always meant the city had the potential to be a top attraction for foreigners. But before the Velvet Revolution swept away the totalitarian political system, visiting this city could prove a lesson in determination.

First, there was the matter of obtaining a visa, a process designed to discourage the casual visitor. On top of that there were currency regulations requiring a visitor at the border to exchange money (roughly $16 per day) at unfavorable and artificial government-set rates. The money to be exchanged depended on the length of stay; the longer the stay, the greater the amount.

Then when entering the country, Czechoslovakian border guards were stone-faced, and there was no tolerance for deviation. They searched all travel documents meticulously, and any irregularity meant a lengthy delay and an exhaustive baggage search.

Traveling to Prague from Munich by night train in October 1989, I witnessed border guards throwing a hapless British citizen, traveling without a visa, out of his compartment and onto the station platform to catch the next train back to Germany.

Today, most of the travel barriers have been removed. And for many foreign nationals, including American citizens, visas are no longer required. At Prague's airport, customs agents give cursory looks at arriving passengers' passports, stamp them, and they're in.

The changes in Prague itself, from a foreigner's standpoint, are just as startling.

Before the Velvet Revolution, traces of a market economy were hard to find in Prague. As in other Soviet-bloc cities, a frequent sight was that of long lines of people waiting to buy hard-to-find items, such as Italian-made washing machines. Black marketeers, meanwhile, hid out in the nooks and crannies of the Old Town, mumbling ``change money'' at passing foreigners. And virtually the only ``fast food'' available was currywurst and a roll, available at small kiosks around the city.

As for entertainment, Prague seemed to shut down early in the evening. The few restaurants that existed were crowded and difficult to get into. Neither did they offer particularly appetizing fare.

These days, economic change has reached even into the residential outskirts of the city. Though the drab monolithic apartment blocs built during the Communist era still saturate the landscape, television satellite dishes can be seen on many roofs and protruding from balconies.

Downtown Prague, meanwhile, has most of the conveniences Westerners are accustomed to. There's something for everyone across the retailing spectrum; upscale shops run by fashion moguls such as Christian Dior as well as a K mart department store. And many stores are open on Sunday, which isn't the case in neighboring Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse.

As for convenience, there are plenty of automated bank machines around downtown Prague to accommodate the population's purchasing impulses. And several McDonald's and Pizza Huts - along with a plethora of other restaurants - are busy trying to satiate hungry denizens. It is not unusual to see a pizza delivery boy bustling around downtown late at night carrying a take-out order.

The area around Wenceslas Square, site of the massive demonstrations in November of 1989 that brought down the Communists, has perhaps seen the greatest change.

Dimly lit and mostly deserted at night before the Velvet Revolution, the area now shines like a mini-Times Square without so much sleaze. At night it pounds from the dance music booming out of the several night clubs around the square.

A major factor in Prague's rapid transformation was the determination of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus's government to follow tight money policies, which have succeeded in stabilizing the Czech economy.

But another key to change was the city's energetic quality, which attracted foreigners, especially young Americans, who in many cases brought entrepreneurial zeal along with them.

``It was seen as the Left Bank of the 90s, a second-chance city,'' says Alan Levy, a longtime resident of Prague both before and after the Velvet Revolution. He was referring to Paris of the 1920s, home of the so-called Lost Generation of Americans, who sought intellectual stimulation in post-World War I Europe.

``There was an element of volunteerism - teaching English and things like that - that also drew people,'' adds Levy, who now is editor-in-chief of the Prague Post, an English language weekly. ``There are a lot of young Americans [in Prague] who didn't want to be in `the system.' ''

Mr. Levy estimates that the American community in Prague totals around 25,000, adding that the number is constantly fluctuating. Many Americans came here looking for a good time, but they ended up staying to take advantage of seemingly limitless opportunities.

David Porteous, an Indianapolis native, tells one version of the Prague expatriate story. After graduating from college, Mr. Porteous says he was backpacking around Europe about two years ago when he arrived in Prague. ``It was love at first sight. It's a perfect location,'' he says. First he worked in a real estate agency, making ``a few shekels'' during the boom era of the Prague property market. Using his real-estate earnings, he then opened his own business, called T-shirt City, located in the Prague K mart.

Business opportunities are by no means limited to foreigners. Tens of thousands of young Czechs - who only a short time ago had little hope of ever fulfilling their professional potential - now have a range of career choices, perhaps the most lucrative being in the banking and financial services sectors.

``We have a lot of building up to do,'' says Pavel Kavanek, the youngish chairman and CEO of Czechoslovak Obchodni Bank. The bank used to enjoy a monopoly in handling the Communist Czechoslovak government's foreign-exchange operations. In 1991, the bank entered commercial banking and has been expanding operations ever since.

A recent survey showed that about 20 percent of the Czech Republic's 10 million people believe they are better off now than under the Communists. About 33 percent, however, say their living standards have dropped. Hardest hit are the elderly. Hundreds of thousands of Prague's pensioners have seen their expectations of a stable old age collapse.

Many retirees complain that they can't live on their state pensions alone, and have had to return to work. Many are employed as guards and receptionists at downtown office buildings or drive taxis to augment their pensions.

Most Prague residents - people like Ryba and Sramek, the hat vendors - are able to keep pace with the changes, but just barely. At the same time, the reserve of optimism, connected with the belief that the transition to a market economy would be painless, has disappeared. People are readjusting, preparing for a long economic transition.

``Before, I was an optimist. Now I think it will take years - maybe two generations - before we live normally,'' says Jana, an employee at a tourist trinket shop near Prague's Castle, residence of Czech President Vaclav Havel.

``A lot of people are stressed here,'' says Levy, the newspaper editor. ``The insecurity of not having the state think for you, the absence of a safety net - it's taking a toll.''

While virtually no one here desires a return to the past, quite a few speak nostalgically about certain aspects of life before the Velvet Revolution. ``Before, people were more polite,'' Jana says. ``Now people think only about money and that makes them very aggressive.''

That perceived obsession with money is supported by statistics. For instance, economic crimes, including embezzlement and tax evasion, jumped 75 percent during the first nine months of 1993, compared with the same period in 1992.

Money worries aside, a few Prague residents are concerned that the cultural invasion that accompanied the influx of foreigners will spoil its old-world charm.

``The character of Prague has definitely changed. Before, we never had all these American-style restaurants with the American mannerisms, the food and the music,'' says Karel Sosna, chief librarian of the Czech parliament's library. ``I dislike this American style, especially McDonald's,'' he adds. ``It is spoiling the historical style of Prague.''

Speaking of the dissidents who led the revolution by struggling against the regime for decades, he says things have turned out differently from what they envisioned.

Some give the impression that after the Communists fell, they hoped they would finally get the chance to implement some form of ``socialism with a human face'' - the policies of the Prague Spring of 1968 that ended up being crushed by Soviet tanks.

Instead, many idealistic dissenters of the 1970s and 80s are now confronted by the harsh realities of capitalism, in which they have little or no place. The experience has been deeply disillusioning.

Every Wednesday night, a group of former dissidents - including the president's brother, Ivan Havel - gather at a downtown pub to commiserate about what they consider a revolution gone awry. When asked why things went wrong, they answered almost in unison; ``We'd like to know the answer why ourselves.''

``We imagined things would turn out much more ideally,'' says one of the regulars, Jiri Gruntorad, who spent more than four years in jail for his dissident activities under the Communists. ``Every day, I thank God about what has happened,'' Mr. Gruntorad says of the Communists' ouster. ``But there is a lot that could be better.''

Prominent dissidents are being pushed off the political stage, supposedly because their methods and ideas are out of sync with the times. Some, such as Gruntorad, sound bitter when talking about the diminished status that dissidents now have in Prague.

``People don't want to hear about dissidents now, because to hear about them is to remind others of what they didn't do to resist the Communist regime,'' Gruntorad says.

One veteran dissident, Vaclav Benda, was recently replaced as the head of the Czech Republic's Christian Democratic Party by the younger Ivan Pilip.

``I think the dissident generation prepared the ground for us to build on,'' one party leader, Tomas Svoboda, told the Prague Post.

Levy and others aren't surprised that events have unfolded they way they have. ``The dissidents mostly blew it; they weren't good politicians,'' he says.

``It's a certain law of all revolutions that the first wave of revolutionaries are in a short time left behind,'' says Sosna, the librarian.

Some dissidents have taken to verbally attacking each other. In the most highly publicized example, Peter Cibulka, a former member of the Charter 77 human rights group of Czech dissidents, called President Havel, also a Charter 77 member, a ``pig'' and a ``brute.'' The feud began after Mr. Cibulka permitted the publication of names of agents employed by the former Czech secret police in the newspaper he edited, Necenzurovane Noviny.

Cibulka argued that Czech citizens had a right to know the identities of their former tormentors. But President Havel objected to publication of the list, saying it was full of mistakes and of dubious origin, adding that it poisoned ``the atmosphere of a democratic state for years.''

Whether or not the political atmosphere is spoiled, some nomadic young Americans in Prague - those who haven't sunk economic roots in the city - are on the lookout for a new haven.

As the Czech Republic's market economy develops, foreigners living on a tight budget here are starting to feel squeezed. Some of the very people who arrived in recent years and helped spread Western ideas and methods now worry that the city will soon climb out of their price range, too.

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