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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy