It was known as the “Paris of the Nineties,” which was true enough if you didn’t care much about talent. It was, however, a glorious and exotic playground for young and disaffected Americans who could scrape together enough money for a plane ticket.
I was in Prague during the early months of 1994. At 31, I wasn’t as young as most of my compatriots but I had disaffection to burn.
My original plan was to settle in Amsterdam and arrived in that city in November of the previous year. I was sick of the United States and my comfy little life there. I wanted change. I wanted adventure. I wanted to be surrounded by six-foot blonde hotties who talk funny.
Getting to Amsterdam was easy. Being able to stay there required landing a job. That wasn’t so easy. The Dutch economy, along with most of Europe’s, was in the toilet at the time. I quickly gave up all hope of securing employment and focused my attentions on getting snockered with vacationing Australians in Leidseplein bars.
In February, I relocated to Prague. It was a lot cheaper there and I had a place to stay. Jen, who had been my girlfriend back home, was living there and teaching English. She said I could probably get a job doing the same. The Czechs didn’t care if you had any credentials as long as you were a native speaker. Unfortunately, the pay sucked. Therefore, I opted to spend my days wandering the city and my nights drinking myself into oblivion.
Czech winters are very cold, especially to someone who grew up in Santa Barbara. Walking across the Charles Bridge, I could see Volkswagen-sized chunks of ice floating down the Vltava. The frigid air, polluted from coal-burning furnaces, had a sulfur smell and covered everything and everyone with a layer of soot. Gorgeous and menacing buildings surrounded me, poised for a new round of defenestrations that the city is famous for.
When the weather go to be unbearable, I’d warm myself in the Globe bookstore and coffee shop, which also served absinthe. My cold, sooty days in Prague were happy ones
At the end of the day after Jen got off work, we’d meet up with other expats. Most evenings involved dinner, drinks, and perhaps a smoke-filled basement nightclub playing punk rock.
One night, a friend of Jen’s invited us to a cozy little bohemian (by both definitions) spot to hear him perform a song he wrote. He was to go on stage right after a woman gave a public reading of her recent work. Finally, I thought, the “Paris of the Nineties” was about to be deserving of the name. We arrived early so we’d be sure to catch both acts.
The reading was a collection of feminist fairy tales. The plots varied slightly but always involved a princess, wise beyond her years, whose sage words saved the day from some problem that the King couldn’t figure out because he was stupid and male. In the end, he’d abdicate and let her rule as Queen happily ever after.
It takes a special sense of social justice to try to tear down the patriarchy with such vigor while having no problem leaving monarchies intact.
Next up was the song. Oh God, that song. Between feeble strums of the guitar, Jen’s friend whined insipid gibberish with little rhyme and less reason. The tune was called “Alpine Dove.” If such a species of bird ever existed, it’s extinct by now. The entire population would have died from embarrassment.
I’m being harsh and unfair of course. It’s not like I created anything of value while I was there, just self-absorbed ramblings in my journal that will never see the light of day. My time in Prague was time wasted, plain and simple. And you know what? I’ve never regretted it.