Prague Stories

Justin Huggler has a Kafkaesque experience with a taxi company in the Czech capital: a bohemian city with a dark past where race is still a touchy subject – and heroic boozing has not quite given way to the new gentility
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The spirit of Franz Kafka is alive and well in his old home city. The other night, I phoned for a minicab to take me home. I was in Franz Kafka Square, a minor junction just off the Old Town Square. "I'm sorry, where are you?" asked the operator at the taxi company. "Franz Kafka Square," I repeated.

"There is no Franz Kafka Square in Prague," she told me disconcertingly. "Please check the street sign." It was written in large clear letters: Franz Kafka Square. "Please wait, I will ask our drivers," the operator told me.

Then she came back. "The drivers say there is no Franz Kafka Square in Prague. So we cannot pick you up from a square which does not exist."

The reason, I later discovered, is that the square has only recently been named after Kafka (pictured below). Until now, Prague has not had a street or square named after its most famous writer – and Prague is a city of streets and buildings named after people.

But then Kafka was from one of Prague's lost peoples: he was a Jew who wrote in German, not Czech. The recent gaffe-strewn comments of the Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, in which he called for the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories in the Middle East, and called the Sudeten Germans "Hitler's fifth column", have brought Prague's own multicultural past back under the spotlight.

Before the Second World War, Prague was a cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic place, a mix of Czechs, ethnic Germans and German-speaking Jews, where the sounds of Czech and Prager Deutsch, the local dialect of German, mingled in the streets. Prague was a nursery of both Czech and German literature – Kafka was a contemporary in the city of the great Czech writers Karel Capek and Jaroslav Hasek.

But a few years later the city's Jewish population was annihilated in the Holocaust. After the defeat of the Nazis, many of Prague's ethnic Germans fled; others were stripped of their property and forcibly expelled, along with up to 3 million of Czechoslovakia's Germans – a couple of weeks ago Mr Zeman called them "traitors". Prague, once the cosmopolitan city of three peoples, became the narrowly Czech city it is today. Now, to Czech dismay, there is increasing talk among Germans and Austrians of demanding that the Benes decrees ordering the expulsions be reversed.

Kafka may only just have been honoured on the streets of Prague, but for several years they have been littered with homages to his contemporary, Hasek. The city is full of theme pubs devoted to Hasek's creation, the Good Soldier Svejk: a carefree, hard-drinking Czech soldier who casually undermines the Austro-Hungarian army's First World War effort with his antics.

Prague still floats on a sea of beer, as it did in Hasek's day – and in his book, at one point Svejk boasts he visited 28 pubs in one night, and drank "no more than" three beers in each. But a trip through the winding lanes of the Old Town to Hasek's old favourite, the Café Montmartre, shows the city is changing.

Hasek actually lived the down and out life he wrote about. In his hell-raising days he had no home to go to when the pubs closed, and used to end the evening in the Café Montmartre, where he bedded down for the night on one of the sofas. If they threw him out, he paced up and down outside the entrance until they let him back in.

The reopened Montmartre still has plush sofas. But the clientele these days is very much the new, yuppified Prague: well-dressed young professionals and a low murmur of polite talk. When closing time came, everyone was firmly asked to leave. No chance of staying the night any more.


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Some of Prague's eccentricity does linger on. There has been a lot of fuss recently about the dog turds that litter the streets: the Czechs are a nation of dog-lovers, and the idea of clearing up after your dog has not caught on here.

Walking out of my front door the other day, however, I saw a fresh dog dropping into which someone had inserted a little cardboard flag, rather like the ones some supermarkets label different cheeses with.

It stood there for all the street to see. On it was scrawled some message to the effect of "Don't let your dog foul our streets" – it was not the sort of thing you wanted to get close enough to to read carefully. Demanding cleaner streets may be part of the new genteel Prague – but this was the old Prague's way of getting the message across.