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

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before