Podium: The charming allure of Prague

Alan Levy

From a lecture by the founding editor of the `Prague Post', delivered at the Czech Centre in London

MY WIFE and I were 35 - and our daughters two and three - when we came to live in Prague for the first time. That was in 1967. And I came back to live late in 1990 in that haunting, haunted golden city of castles and churches, the golem and Kafka: the place from which my family and I had been expelled and deported in the middle of one cold winter night almost 20 years earlier for my sins of truth-telling about 1968's Soviet-led invasion.

Having lived away from Prague for so many years, I was often asked when I came back: "Has it changed much here?" At first, my answer was a polite, "Not much, but people are happier."

But asked the same question a year or two later, I would reply: "Not much from 1971 to 1990, but many times more between 1990 and 1992" - and the changes seemed to be multiplying exponentially each year thereafter.

By then, the city was teeming with tens of thousands of young foreigners - Americans, in particular - finding needs to fill and putting down roots. With their Czech-language and licensing problems resolved by mating with natives, the synergy was fantastic: The Czech geniuses of ingenuity and improvisation were energised by can-do American spontaneity and ambition.

They opened pizzerias and piano bars, McDonald's and Mexican restaurants; they revitalised the kitchens of the splendid Art Nouveau municipal house, Obecni dum; and introduced the bagel and the cuisines of California to Prague; combined bookstores with coffee-houses, started amateur and professional theatres, fused 21st-century computerised quality control with the 16th- century craft of lute-making while learning from the masters they taught.

And they published.

So it came to pass that on a summer afternoon in 1991, six months before my 60th birthday, two young Americans - one of whom I vaguely knew and both born in 1968, which I took as an omen - approached me in Old Town Square for advice about starting up a weekly newspaper in English.

I had no experience as an editor or as boss of anything, but I knew I had something to contribute to Prague. This was now, after 31 years of working for myself as a writer. I crossed the desk to become founding editor-in-chief of The Prague Post. The first words in our first issue that fall were deeply, sincerely, exuberantly mine.

In my first "Prague Profile" column - which minted the labels of "Left Bank of the Nineties" and "Second Chance City," both of which have stuck -- there was a third concept that I've since recanted: "I think I have found, or rediscovered, the kinder, gentler place that George Bush exhorted America to become in 1988."

I based this pronouncement on such research tools as the sounds of dogs barking and children playing in playgrounds (both of which are far less shrill or racial than I've heard in Germany, France or America), and the way that people treated each other during the demeaning years of what the neo-Stalinists called "normalisation". If you were a dissident, your son or daughter couldn't go to university.

However, the man who went in one week of 1970 from conductor of a chamber orchestra to conductor of a streetcar and later to porter and pensioner was still addressed as "Maestro" by his neighbours to the end of his life.

Let me tell you about the day in October 1992 when I decided Prague was no longer "the kinder, gentler place." I had invited a visiting American academic to share a lunch with me in our old office building, but the communal kitchen was out of everything, so we headed down the Street of Political Prisoners to a salad bar.

My guest was making a lot of noise and we were taking up a lot of space on the narrow sidewalk, so a balding, middle-aged pedestrian trying to get past us jumped out into the street, but then jumped back swiftly as a car roared toward him. In doing so, he brushed my guest's sleeve and - to my merely mild astonishment - didn't apologise.

"You know, Alan," my guest said, "If I knew a word of Czech, I'd teach that guy a lesson in manners."

The man understood English and, to my amazement, he whirled about to face us in a boxer's crouch.

I knew I didn't want to die, so I did my Good Soldier Svek number and raised both hands in abject surrender. The stressed Czech strode off satisfied with himself. And I never again called Prague "the kinder, gentler place."

On the very day I had experienced my revelation, Bill Clinton had said: "America is not "the kinder, gentler place" President Bush promised in 1988. That place is Prague, Czechoslovakia..."

Well, I'll leave it to you to judge.