Prague Stories: See you in court, I told the traffic cop

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The Independent Online

Traffic police in post-Communist countries are notoriously corrupt, but those in Prague can make the rest look like amateurs.

Traffic police in post-Communist countries are notoriously corrupt, but those in Prague can make the rest look like amateurs.

They supplement their meagre wages by stopping motorists for spurious reasons and pocketing on-the-spot fines. You can usually haggle the fine from, say, £25 to about a tenner. This has happened to me several dozen times in my four years in Prague. Some foreigners, like me, still have distinct number-plates and that makes us even more tempting targets for the cops.

But a few weeks ago, my patience snapped and I told the astonished cops I wanted the matter heard in court. They took a photograph of me and, with ominous looks, said I would be summoned to court. I expect I will be found guilty of whatever I am charged with but at least I will be able to publicly vent my anger. After that I will get new number-plates or perhaps another car.

The Prague spring has been pleasingly punctual this year. This means I can resume running in the countryside, rather than on a treadmill in a gym. But now, at least until the tourist season begins in earnest, I can hurtle along the cobblestone streets and over the medieval Charles Bridge spanning the Vltava River which divides my part of the city from the Old Town.

Thousands of people, including me, will be playing tennis again. Czechoslovakia was one of the few places in the Soviet empire where tennis was not scorned as a bourgeois sport. The Czech Republic still produces many top players. The capital's many courts, mostly clay, are immaculate and affordable. But the legacy of so much sporting success can be disconcerting. The sight, on a neighbouring court, of a couple of 70-somethings whizzing around in Wimbledonesque rallies which reduce the ball to a blur, can provoke, in 40-somethings, humbling, envious, even faintly ugly emotions.

More visitors are arriving year round on cheap flights to get trashed on strong Czech beer sold at a fraction of prices back home. The largest, most aggressive, exponents of these alcoholic excursions are the British, a few of whom inevitably find their way into police cells. Some bars banned groups of more than four people, but most rescinded the rule after calculating that the revenue from British drinkers outweighed the cost of breakages, unpaid bills, and alienation of customers.

A British Home Office immigration facility at Prague Airport weeds out potential asylum-seekers before they get on a plane. But consular staff there are also assisting British drunks. The irony is not lost on Praguers. One woman marketing manager said: "I'm sure that when people see these groups of drunken British many of them wonder why anyone would want to go to Britain at all." She said that lots of people in Prague would like similar immigration facilities at British airports to weed out the drunkards flying to the capital.