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`Prague Is Over'
Now that the capital of the Czech Republic has a Planet Hollywood and TGI Friday's, what's a hip American expatriate to do?

By David Sturm
The Washington Post
Sunday, November 9, 1997; Page E01
   


Walking down the posh boulevard Na Prikope a few weeks ago on our way to lunch, some friends and I, American expatriates all, passed the newly opened Planet Hollywood. Directly across the street, even more recently opened, was TGI Friday's.

"Prague is over," we agreed.

It's an old expat gag. It's what to say when you hear that a French restaurant has a wine on its menu costing more than $1,000, that personal trainer ads are running in local business magazines, that Tesco is selling Stovetop Stuffing, that Kiss is back for yet another concert.

With another bleak winter approaching in the capital of the Czech Republic, the expats are sniffing the air for more signs that Prague may be over or, more precisely, coming to a close in some conceptual sense. Among some, it's a crucial question.

No doubt some expats here welcome the rising comfort level as Prague becomes democratized, capitalized, Westernized, suburbanized. Few are complaining that household taps almost always give hot water, phone calls go through nearly all the time and you can often zip through a supermarket line.

And, Prague still embodies the holy trinity of expat havens -- it's hip, cheap and safe. So what's the beef?

Ross Larsen, a writer and rock musician from California who has lived in Prague more than four years, coined the term "deprivation buzz" to describe what many Westerners are seeking here. It's a nostalgia for that period of prelapsarian innocence after the fall of communism in 1989 but before Dunkin Donuts and "Dallas."

A satire Larsen wrote for the Prague Post featured a fictional American returning to Prague from some eastern Slobbovia and regaling his friends. "There was only one telephone in the country and it was powered by a goat on a treadmill. They were still using stones as currency, and the evening news was shouted from a tower on the central square," he boasts. "Cool!" reply his envious friends, blushing over how cushy their lives in Prague have become.

Prague's good old days of deprivation buzz were roughly 1990-93, when Vaclav Havel was hanging out with the Rolling Stones, you could get a job teaching English just by being overheard speaking English in a bar, American men were singularly fascinating to Czech women, and the beer was cheap. This era is documented in Douglas Lytle's breezy memoir "Pink Tanks and Velvet Hangovers: An American in Prague." I bought that book in the States and read it avidly before I departed for Prague in July 1996.

Since the heyday, Havel has traded in his Rolling Stones tongue T-shirt for a suit. Prague's language schools, after checking to see your TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate is in order, will probably want to place you at a school in the Ostrava coal regions. The way to turn a Czech woman's head these days is to be a Czech marketing executive with an MBA who has an account at Marks and Spencer. The beer, at least, is still cheap.

As for business opportunities, the carpetbagger era is over, and any American entrepreneur who thinks he can come to Prague and awe the cave dwellers with the secret of fire is in for a surprise -- and possibly a fleecing. The Czechs, who lived in one of Europe's most successful industrial democracies from 1918 to 1939, are skilled at capitalism, and at the chicanery that often goes with it.

Prague's expat eminence grise, writer Alan Levy, gave the city the two nicknames that captured a moment in 1991. He called Prague "The Left Bank of the '90s" and "Second Chance City."

And wasn't that a time? Nostalgia is creeping into the gossip over weekend brunches of huevos rancheros at the Radost vegetarian restaurant, an expat hangout that looks as if it was transplanted from Greenwich Village or North Beach. Remember when Lisa Frankenberg, fresh out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, started up the Prague Post in 1991 with little more than a handshake deal with a Texas financier who was touring Prague? Remember when Coloradan Whitney Brown started picking up expats' dry-cleaning in a taxi, launching the personal services firm Affordable Luxuries? Frankenberg, still publisher of the Prague Post, is now completing her MBA at Harvard University, and Brown, after selling Affordable Luxuries, was recently hired as human resources director at the Prague office of Coca-Cola.

What about start-up opportunities for English language publications? After all, doesn't Prague have about 30,000 English-speaking expats who are well-educated and well-heeled? Forget about it.

Market saturation in the English-language print media hit about two years ago, and casualties have been numerous. The graveyard now includes the would-be Vanity Fair called Velvet, the hipster-oriented Pozor (slogan: "News From Around the Bloc") and the Prague Post's erstwhile arch rival Prognosis, a sassy tabloid. Survivors include the Prague Post, a general interest weekly broadsheet that just celebrated its sixth birthday, and its arch rival, the Prague Business Journal, a slick weekly. These publications constantly need writers and editors, but before you buy the trench coat and plane ticket be forewarned: They pay "Czech wages," i.e., about one-fourth of a typical American wage.

A friend, a Pennsylvanian who landed a job in a Dutch-owned public relations company, says that after three years in Prague he's making plans to leave, probably to return to the United States. Maybe Cape Cod or New Mexico, he says. He and his wife have "done Europe," using Prague as a base, and they've come up against the question that most expats face after a while: Should they assimilate? He laughs and answers with a Czech catch phrase, "Neni mozny" ("It's not possible").

Prague's destiny is now in the hands of the Czechs who live here, and they have no time for nostalgia. You could ask one standing in line to see "The Fifth Element" at the suburban Galaxie Multiplex theater or one buying a bottle of Johnnie Walker at the Austrian-owned Julius Meinl supermarket or one snapping out his Visa to pay for a meal at La Perle de Prag restaurant atop the Frank Gehry-designed Rasin building whether "Prague is over."

I wouldn't, however, advise it.

David Sturm last wrote for Travel about the restoration of Prague's Obecni Dum.

Prague Is Prologue: Expats' Next Options

What city will play host to the next wave of expats? Here's a rundown on where to head next:

BEST BETS

* Moscow: J.P. Morgan's New York City, Hogarth's Lon-don, Al Capone's Chicago, Lorenzo Medici's Florence, Jack London's Fair-banks. . . Take your pick. The city is all of these.

* Warsaw: "Destroyed by the Nazis and rebuilt by the communists," as the wry saying goes, this city has become central Europe's economic powerhouse. Poles are also some of the friendliest people in Europe.

* Budapest: More cosmopolitan yet less tourist-infested than Prague, Hungary's capital has an expat scene as comfy and affordable as any in Europe. The cuisine is central Europe's best.

COULD BE

* Ljubljana: The buzz is building about the capital of Slovenia, a nation carved from the former Yugoslavia. Peaceful and relatively unspoiled, it's 150 miles east of Venice.

* Bratislava: Compared with Prague, the capital of Slovakia is smaller and politically and economically less mature. But since the "Velvet Divorce" the expat community there is growing.

* Kiev: With Motorola leading the way, Western businesses are building a seawall against a tide of corruption. Once the Ukrainian economy is tamed, markets are potentially huge.

NO WAY

* Minsk, Belarus: Be mistaken for a journalist and you could be beaten, jailed or shot at by police.

* Kabul, Afghanistan: Ruined by war and in the grip of Muslim fundamentalism, it's now a place where police will arrest you for flying a kite, i.e., displaying frivolity toward Heaven.

* Tirana, Albania: They're still doing their laundry on rocks in streams.

-- David Sturm

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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