Tuesday, October 03, 2006

I recently arrived back from an extended and thoroughly enjoyable, if rather punishing weekend in the big smoke. Prague is a place full of contradictions, and inevitably leaves me with contradictory feelings. Almost every time I go there I at some point think to myself “my god man, you fool, look what you’re missing out on by not living here”, and usually before the end of my stay at least once think “bloody hell I’m sick of this, I can’t wait to get home”.

For a start Prague is undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and last weekend it seemed particularly so with glorious weather, less tourists than in the high season and open beer gardens offering superb views. If this part of Prague is all you see, then it may indeed seem like paradise on earth. On the other hand, although there are nice residential areas of Prague, the majority of Praguers don’t live there. Most of them live in housing estates which are a great deal closer aesthetically to hell on earth – hideous concrete blocks that, confusingly and rather sinisterly, all look the same and extend for miles on the south of the city. This contrast is almost so striking as to appear positively impudent for those (usually not tourists) who don’t stay near the centre – waking up bleary-eyed in a flat in a tower block after a pleasantly drunken evening overlooking the Vltava, upon looking out of the window it is hard to believe you are in the same city. I don’t think it would be unfair to say that large parts of Prague could compete for the title of ugliest residential area in the world.

In many cases Prague suffers from the same syndrome as many capital cities – it has the advantages of a higher standard of living, better wages, being more cosmopolitan and with far, far better options for entertainment, particularly clubs and foreign restaurants. It also has similar disadvantages of being overcrowded in the centre, too many tourists, of losing large amounts of time every day travelling from one side of the city to the other, higher prices for accommodation and in general being much more expensive than the rest of the country – in this respect it’s no different from capital cities in any other country. In addition it’s the city that all Czechs outside Prague love to hate. The same things are said about Praguers as are said about Londoners or Parisians – that they’re arrogant, snobbish, pushy, superficial, materialistic, rude, and utterly ignorant of the country outside Prague – which is an outrageous stereotype, but as usual contains a certain grain of truth.

Unlike Western European capitals however, in Prague’s case this difference between the capital and the rest of the country does seem fairly extreme. Of the foreign tourists who come to the Czech Republic, less than 10% go anywhere outside of Prague. Foreigners in any case are still a relatively new concept here – before the revolution they were limited to a few exchange students and Vietnamese market traders, and outside of Prague little has changed in this respect. By contrast, the centre of Prague is now so cosmopolitan that it hardly seems Czech, passing through the areas around the Old Town Square or Charles Bridge it is rare to hear the native language. Prices have rocketed, though almost at random – most pubs and restaurants in the tourist hotspots of Prague serve meals and drinks for Western European prices, several times higher than elsewhere in the country (the quality rarely corresponds), whilst others within relatively close proximity remain startlingly reasonable.

The general effect, despite the fact that even the centre of Prague can be quite affordable to those on Czech wages provided they know where to go, is that the place has the feel of a westerner’s playground, with all the attendant tackiness you’d expect – overpriced trips in horse-drawn carriages, twee market stalls selling stupefyingly useless hippy items, and the latest toe-curlingly patronising craze of “exotic” token black people dressed up in Mozart costumes, advertising concerts. Cheapo flights, of which I regularly take advantage from the other end, have meant that Prague is now even more accessible, an easy weekend destination for most Europeans.

Which, as we all know, has meant that in the last few years Prague has fallen victim to the phenomenon of the British stag weekend. Years ago I used to haughtily dismiss any notion of being proud of my country as crass, puerile nationalism. Having lived outside the UK for a number of years now I feel that I can say that there are certain traits or traditions that can at times make me feel proud to be British, and there are certainly a number of things that I miss about the country. On the other hand, the stag weekend in Prague is one of the things that has made me feel ashamed, and when I walk around the centre of Prague I usually try my hardest to seem as Czech as possible. One of the things that makes the staggers so easy to despise is that they are so damned easy to spot – same gratuitously inelegant way of dressing (even if they aren’t wearing their customised scum weekend T-shirts), red, blotchy skin, beer guts, tattoos, and in addition it’s usually possible to hear them a long time before you see them, their arrival inevitably heralded by incomprehensible, loutish bellowing. Several pubs now have signs on the door saying, in effect, that stag parties are not welcome. Prague attracts tourists from all over the world, but this is clearly directed against the British. Feeling ashamed of one’s country is presumably as irrational and retarded as feeling proud of it, but when a Czech asks me why it is that my compatriots behave like that, how am I supposed to feel?

This might seem like just another easy target to go for – but, but, but, the people I know who live in Prague have all commented on this phenomenon, and as something that has genuinely affected their quality of life. There are not only pubs and clubs, but even entire areas of town which friends of mine, Czechs and ex-pats alike, prefer to avoid precisely because of British stag weekends. It’s bad enough having to travel on crowded tubes or trams for a good proportion of your day, though the thought has occurred to me that if I lived in a capital city for a while I might develop the necessary urban reserve to deal with it. I don’t however believe that I possess sufficient resources of stoicism and (misplaced) tolerance to accommodate these fat sacks of shit, and if I had to see them in the city centre each weekend would probably develop stomach ulcers within a very short time.

Having said all this I crave my trips to Prague for all the things I can’t get out here in Moravia – the aforementioned nightlife, foreign restaurants, foreign food shops, English language bookshops, if I’m lucky I might be able to get hold of some mature cheddar or even Stilton somewhere. Plus I get to catch up with a lot of mates. But there are reasons beyond the obvious financial ones that stop me from moving there. One is that when all’s said and done, I’d like to keep my trips there special and not become indifferent to or blasé about the city's many charms. Another is that I often become aware of the fact that I, albeit from the opposite end, am in many ways enjoying Prague for its very non-Czechness. And that in turn gives me the uncomfortable feeling that I’m part of the problem rather than part of the solution.


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