Thursday, September 25, 2003

East Meets West & the West is Winning

I spent this weekend in the magnificent city of Prague, Czechoslovakia. Today it calls itself the Center of Europe, but for centuries Prague was one of the crown jewels of the Hapsburg Empire. And let us not forget that until only recently (November of 1989), Prague remained stifled for 40 years behind the Iron Curtain of the former Communist Eastern Block. What a change from today, as Czechoslovakia bides its time for a vote next year, when it will be up for admittance into the European Union.

Prague has shaken off its Communist hangover and has quickly embraced Capitalism and free enterprise markets. The Germans could even learn a thing or two from the Czechs, since the labor unions have yet to stifle productivity or hamstring the recovering local economy. Unlike the Germans, Czechs actually keep their shops open on Sundays. They know if they want to provide for their families and achieve a better lifestyle, then they need to stay open to service their customers and earn the almighty Czech Crown (local currency), rather than wait for government handouts at the expense of ridiculous tax rates.

Prague does not escape its own little idiosyncrasies however. Like most Medieval European cities, Prague’s streets are a hornet’s nest of ever-expanding concentric circles. This leaves Americans, like yours truly, schooled in the navigation tactics of the common grid, painfully behind the bell curve when it comes to finding one’s obscure hotel in the middle of the night. Upon arriving to Prague Friday evening, tired from the week and after over a three-hour drive from Munich, I was in no mood to endlessly search for my hotel.

All I had was an address and a phone number. This place was referred to me by a co-worker back in Munich who had stayed there once before. “Oh, its right by the train station”, I recalled her saying. Let me tell you…it was not by the train station! I asked a friendly cabdriver who was parked on the side of the street taking a break if he knew where this place was…. No luck. Unfortunately my MapPoint software ran out of usefulness as soon as I crossed the Czech border, so having an address for the place did me no good. This was compounded by the fact that the person on the other end of the phone number I had spoke little to no English. “Prague Seven” was all I could get out of him. Prague is broken up into numerical districts, so this appeared to make sense, but only if you knew where Prague six and eight were. And even then, numerical order was not a strong suit in Prague as I soon found out.

After driving around for over an hour on Prague’s twisting streets and almost running out of gas, I spotted a Hilton Hotel. I was so exhausted and pissed off from failing to find the hotel, that I decided right on the spot that I would stay at the Hilton if it killed me. I walked into the reception area and fumbled for my Hilton Honors Card. I showed the desk clerk my card and pleaded for a room. Unfortunately, the Hilton was booked solid due to a physician’s conference that weekend, but the friendly agent offered to call this enigmatic hotel for me and get precise directions. He marked up a clear and easy to understand map and showed me turn-by-turn how to get there. He said, “They are expecting you”, which made sense because I had called them three times to get directions in the last hour.

I found the hotel and parked the car in front on the street. The hotel was located on the 5th floor of an existing apartment building. I rang the front bell and my telephone friend grumbled in a way that let me know that he was coming downstairs to let me in. He opened the front door and motioned that it was time to climb to the 5th floor, since there was no elevator. Five floors I thought…no problem. Unfortunately, Czechs must begin counting floors after first reaching what the rest of the world would call the 4th floor, because we surely hiked up nine flights of stairs before arriving at the “5th floor”. Before settling for the evening, I asked if my car was safe parked outside. He asked what kind of car it was. When I replied that it was a BMW, he said, “You should move it”. There was a guarded parking lot one block away, so I moved the car and retreated back up the five, err…nine flights of stairs to the room. Out of wind, out of patience, and exhausted I collapsed onto my bed for the night.

The next morning, breakfast was included in my stay. As I was chomping away at some bread and preserves, the lady who apparently ran the hotel informed me that I would be leaving today, as she had already promised my room to other travelers. OK, I said, but could she help me to find another place? She whipped out the Yellow Pages and started dialing around for me. She soon located a place and showed me exactly how to take the subway to get there. If the Communists did anything of worth in Prague it was to construct three distinct and inter-locking subway lines. This system works great and is very easy to understand and use all over the city.

My new hotel turned out to be a leasing agency. The young man behind the desk helped locate a local Prague resident who had a flat (apartment) with an extra room that they would be willing to rent out to me for the weekend. He had the perfect one in mind. It was the apartment of an adorable 80-year-old woman who had an extra room with its own private bathroom. He called her and confirmed that it would be OK. He then gave me directions to her place.

The woman greeted me in the most friendly manner. Even though she could not speak that much English, I could tell that she was very appreciative to have a traveler stay in her place. My rent money would surely come in handy, as a much needed addition to her fixed pension. Her home was on the 3rd floor, but since she had an elevator I never actually counted to see if it was actually on the 7th floor to prove my Czech Equation. The flat oozed hominess and had the scent of freshly prepared food. She ushered me into my room, which was adorned with photos of herself as a young woman and later in life. I couldn’t help but to notice the smiles she carried in her earlier photos and how these smiles were then replaced by stoic expressions from photos taken at later phases of her life. I wondered if the smiles of innocence and youth were painfully stolen by the oppression and influence of Communism, which this woman had seen come and go in her own time.

What captures one’s imagination about Prague is its rich history, simple beauty, and opportunity for the future. The river Vltava meanders through the city and has provided equal opportunity for Prague’s artisans and architects over the centuries to construct simple yet elegant bridges that cross its banks. The most famous of these bridges is the St. Charles Bridge, which was constructed in 1357. Adorned with 30 heroic and religious statues every 100 feet, the St. Charles Bridge is the most famous entry point into the medieval city. On the highest hill in the city lies the Prague Castle, the center point for political and religious power across the entire region. The Hapsburg’s created a self-contained society within the castle’s confines. Most notable of these castle structures is the St. Vitus Cathedral, which is fashioned in the Gothic style of the day, complete with spires and gargoyles. From within the cathedral’s walls you feel the enormity of its inner sanctum and admiration for its colorful stained glass.

For the best views in all of Prague, one does not even have to leave the cathedral, but rather ascend 287 steps within a spiral staircase that transports you to a lookout from the church’s highest spire. Red tiled rooftops as well as pointed and domed church towers adorn your line of sight down to the St. Charles Bridge.

Prague takes on a whole new look at night, as some of the cities most famous landmarks are bathed in luminescence. The Prague Castle casts a glow from its perch high above the city and the National Opera House stands majestic and bright along the banks of the Vltava. Down on the St. Charles Bridge darkness does not stop the bustle and goings on.

To frame Prague up, it is a city with rich history, grandeur, and beauty. It is also a working model of how enterprising young Czechs, who once given the freedom of democracy, now are bringing their country out from under the ashes of a failed ideology to experience rugged individualism that serves not only to bolster national pride but also to spur on economic development. It is yet to be seen if Prague can capitalize on its own vision to become the center of Europe once again, but to call Prague a relic of a by-gone and forgotten era is a grave underestimation of these industrious and freedom-loving people.


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