The Atlas Erotica Club: it's what freedom's all about

'It's a strange blend: tales of suffering from totalitarian regimes mixed with old ballads'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Before my recent visit, I was last in Wenceslas Square, the inaccurately named oblong in the centre of Prague, a few days after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. Back then, one of the first things a tourist noticed was that the currency seemed almost worthless. A beer, as I remember, was one koruna, so I stared blankly and said, "It can't be; I've got about 20 million of the things here. At least make it 10 koruna, that's tuppence."

Before my recent visit, I was last in Wenceslas Square, the inaccurately named oblong in the centre of Prague, a few days after the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989. Back then, one of the first things a tourist noticed was that the currency seemed almost worthless. A beer, as I remember, was one koruna, so I stared blankly and said, "It can't be; I've got about 20 million of the things here. At least make it 10 koruna, that's tuppence."

As you weren't allowed to change this money back to pounds, I wondered how I could ever get rid of it. I thought, "I'll have to buy something like a helicopter, as maybe that's six koruna."

However, anything more valuable than beer or a potato cake was sold for hard currency. So, on every corner, ordinary-looking people operated a black market. "Hey, you got marks, pounds, dollars? I give you four times official rate, just for you five times."

Even in the potato-cake shop, the woman said quietly, "What you got, English? American? I give you good rate." It was as unexpected as the woman in your local grocers saying, "There's your mushrooms, dear. Now, do you fancy a bag of grass? I can do you home-grown or Colombian, what do you fancy? Half an ounce do you? There you are, that's a little bit over, darling."

I got a place to stay in much the same way. A woman approached me and said "room", and led me to a tiny one-room flat just off the square, where an old woman, presumably her mother, was watching a fizzing black-and-white TV. They exchanged some words in Czech, then the old woman collected some belongings in a plastic bag. I handed over some English pounds and they both left.

And for a few days I witnessed the carnival that celebrated the demise of the system that had led to such poverty. On New Year's Eve, around 250,000 people crammed into the square, cheering the students whose protests had sparked a general strike and the fall of the government.

Last week I returned to the square, where one of the most striking differences is that it is now littered with ordinary-looking people thrusting leaflets at you advertising various strip clubs. "Hey you, you like girls? We got lots of pussy, what sort you like?" I was asked by the good people of Atlas Erotica Club. A bit of the English in you feels you should answer out of politeness, and you find yourself mumbling, "Not tonight, thank you very much for asking."

In place of the brown Stalinist drabness of before, the square glitters with lights advertising McDonald's, mobile phones, jewellery shops and a gigantic advert for Nescafé. It's easy to see how impressionable commentators could stroll through the centre and conclude that where everything was gloomy, now it radiates with consumer choice.

But among the tourists, the people of Prague walk by looking much as they did before, like the old woman I saw leaning against a wall, puffing as she struggled with shopping in her Tesco plastic bags. Or the bedraggled prostitute who grabbed men by the arm at random to offer a deal. That's the joy of consumer choice: it's much easier to get a bedraggled prostitute than it was in the days of the Warsaw Pact.

Or you could speak to Thomas the singing cabbie. "I 69," he said. "My pension has stayed same for many years, but my rent has gone up and up and is now more than my pension, so I must drive taxi." Then, most unexpectedly, he said: "You like music?" and broke into a rendition of "Blue Skies, Nothing But Blue Skies", with all the vibrato of a Sunday-lunchtime London pub singer. "I have restaurant once, so I could sing, you understand, and play organ. But Communists close it down. All of meeee, why not take all of meee, ha ha."

I complimented him on his English, and he said, "I also sing in Italian - Amori o-o, amori o-o-o-o - when I go to school I learn French. From 1938 they teach us German, you understand why. My son, when he was at school he must learn Russian. Blue Skies todaaay."

It's a strange combination, tales of suffering from totalitarian regimes intertwined with old ballads. I wondered how far he would take this. He could end up with, "During the war we hide under floorboards for nine days and must eat insects, I left my heart in San Fraanciscooo."

As I left, he said: "Bah, politics. What you want is nice music and a nice girl." A point of view you can understand really from a man who's been through Fascism, Stalinism and the free market, and been dumped on by the lot.

But for a moment, when he felt his own power in 1989, he must have sensed hope. The 250,000 who celebrated on that New Year's Eve must have included many people like Thomas, the old woman with the Tesco bags and the prostitute.

Before leaving the square, I decided to take a look at the flat I'd stayed in back then. But it no longer exists, as the whole block has been converted into the Atlas Erotica Club. Still, maybe the old woman's still there doing something exotic every night with a snake.

Comments