Vol 1, No 3, 12 July 1999

S L I C E   O F   L I F E:
A Year away from Prague

Catherine Miller

The golden city, the beer and dumplings, the all-night pubs, the river, that great lamp which just wouldn't fit in the suitcase, the friends, the trams, the life, the boyfriend (above all the boyfriend) - these would have to feature, if I were to list the items which I was reluctantly leaving behind when I boarded for Heathrow last summer. Significant as each of them is for me, all they amount to is the personal inventory for the junkyard of the itinerant student's life. They do not capture the country I was leaving behind, but then, perhaps "capturing" is inevitably an elusive aim.

I always leave a place with the comforting illusion that this particular corner of the world will be a little town where time stands still, waiting for my clockwork key to release it from suspended animation when I choose to return. The awareness that it remains supremely indifferent to either my presence or absence is thuddingly depressing.

The coincidence of the election of a new Czech government and my own personal departure aptly embodied this contradiction. It imposed a moment of stasis on the country, allowing me to print an indelible lithograph of my adopted land, while at the same time, it pointed to a future in which I would have no part, even as a passive observer or pub philosopher, and which would make my picture obsolete within days of my absence.

The summer of '98

The swearing-in ceremony of the new government at Prague castle created the blueprint for my image. They arrived as an inelegant busload, their average age inviting unkind comparisons with a SAGA holiday, and making their declared suicide appear the least likely cause of death. Afterwards, as they vacuum-sucked on their last cigarettes before re-boarding the bus, this wrinkled and wrangled government epitomised an atmosphere of pathetic in-betweenness which pervaded the summer of '98.

While these faded gents were looking myopically to the future of this young country, others looked back and commemorated their contemporaries in the thirtieth anniversary of the Prague Spring. Likewise, it was an awkward, foot-shuffling, cigarette-smoking occasion. The nostalgia was savoured by me, born after the event, and the German gentleman I met, who used the opportunity to slip his then lover, now wife, across the border - but hardly by the Czech 68-generation, unwilling to endorse a failed revolution, whose aims they now view with ambivalence.

One year on, I arrive back at a time of more anniversaries: the tenth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution approaches, the first of Milos Zeman's government passes. The dumplings, the lamp, the boyfriend, the life, are still here: what's different?

Welcome back

There was nothing new about the grunting incomprehension from the trafika tyrant as I creaked my rusty colloquial Czech back into action (a year of studying seventeenth-century Czech literature still doesn't get you a tram ticket), nor were the battering shopping bags of the babicky in the metro unexpected. But everything took place in an atmosphere of a more deep-seated malaise. The gloom which greeted me was not just the difference between rainy Ruzyne Airport and 30-degree London - I had the overwhelming impression that the Czechs were not happy.

Opening the newspaper, grudgingly extracted from the klobasa-knuckles of the formidable trafika, the reasons seem clear: negative economic growth, unemployment up, government popularity plummeted, scandals and mud-slinging widened in ever increasing circles. The weekly Respekt (21 June 1999) gives a damning polemic against the men I had left smoking by their bus, "a long list of hesitation, failure and scandals", "zero political ability", "a Prime Minister with Zeman's yearly account must resign immediately..." But then, a leader who condemns all journalists as idiots can hardly expect endorsement from them.

If the press cannot be called upon to lavish praise on the guardian of my surrogate homeland, perhaps my friends might take a less biased view of the events of the last year. So, Dalibor, what's changed since I've been away?

"Bugger all." His antipathy is not, however, aimed particularly against Zeman and his cohorts, "Over the past year, I've realised that politicians' incompetence is not a consequence of their parties but of the politicians themselves. It's all-embracing: there isn't a single party here that would govern in such a way that people would really benefit from it."

Despite his scorn for politicians, he sees the source of the country's stagnation less among those on high and more among his fellow citizens. Picking up on Havel's buzzword, Dalibor bemoans the lack of "civil society".

Eva, who like me has been studying abroad for a year, describes the past twelve months as "the happiest year of her life", and agrees with Dalibor that it is those around her who create the unpropitious atmosphere: "Whenever you try to do something here, people always look at you, like you are weird, criticise you for being ambitious, call you a careerist. It really drags you down. It was so good to spend a year surrounded by people who shared my motivation."

The most damning indictment of the past year I discovered, was from my artist friend, Mirka. The government receives the main force of her wrath, they are "the shame of the country", but, like the others I asked, she feels the change less in statistics and trends and more in the atmosphere she encounters daily.

The previously cohesive and supportive community of artists she worked with has disintegrated, and her sales have dropped worryingly. "People don't have time to be friendly anymore. They're too worried about finding enough money to make ends meet. And if people don't have enough money for food, who's going to buy a picture?" Were it not for family ties, she would up sticks and head elsewhere.

So, in her eyes, am I not crazy, to come from the glittering West to this miserable, decaying place?

"No, in your place, I would do the same. Here, you still have access to all levels of society, people take you for what you are. Society isn't as divided up yet as it is elsewhere. There's a certain kind of freedom."

Despite the prevailing doom and gloom there is still this optimistic (or perhaps desperate?) tendency to see the positive side of things. Dalibor despairs of those who lived through Communism ever adopting a more enlightened attitude, but he admires the younger generation and maintains that if we all just hang around and wait for them to grow up, things can only get better.

Eva might constitute one of this band. While the pleasures of foreign living may appeal, she feels an obligation to give something of the skills she learned abroad back to her home country. Although progress may not be as visible as it was immediately after 1989, it still, in her view, goes on, and it is only a question of sitting out the bad patches.

Hanging around, waiting it out, foot-shuffling, cigarette smoking. Maybe for once the little town has stood still - a permanent waiting room for "something" to happen.

And yet a year of treading water cannot fail to take its toll. The Czechs face each new instance of inept inefficiency with stalwart weariness, yet, each time, a scrap of indignant disgust remains. Whether this is enough to make people round on those responsible for their inertia - be it their political leaders or their everyday countrymen - is, ironically, a matter of wait-and-see.

Whatever the future holds, Dalibor will be waiting for it with the consolation of what he considers still to be the country's greatest attribute: beer. Ahhh, plus ca change...

Catherine Miller, 8 July 1999



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