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Glimpses of Prague over 20 change-filled years

While walking along the popular and historical Charles Bridge on a misty and damp night, I found myself surprisingly all alone. I had arrived in Prague for the first time late in the summer of 1990 while on my way back home to Pennsylvania after studying abroad in England. Almost from the minute I arrived in Prague’s historic Old Town Square I found myself dodging tourists, mostly European and US backpackers lured by the cheap beer, extremely low cost of living and endless entrepreneurial opportunities. After traveling around Western Europe throughout much of the 1989-1990 academic year, I was more than ready to head home, but after a brief encounter with a German student at a Beer hall in Berlin I decided to make one last stop in my year long journey of self discovery. The exuberant and intoxicated fellow student urged me to explore Prague, speaking as if it was Camelot where anything was possible. She urged that the wonders of the city could not be adequately described but had to be experienced. After spending a year studying in Europe I had seen my share of castles and historical sites and to be honest was a little skeptical of my German friend. I had learned not to believe everything I hear in a beer hall, but the euphoria in Berlin was so great with the end of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall that at least on this occasion I thought that maybe there was some truth in her excited ramblings. I decided one more stop could not hurt as the worst that could happen is that I have more castles under my belt.

There was no doubt that Prague had an inexplicable beauty that the tourist books could never adequately describe. My first thoughts were that is was like Europe before Europe had become a tourist destination and altered their historic sites and cities to meet tourists’ demands. There was so much to see and explore. It was like opening a vault that had been closed for fifty years and not being entirely sure of what is inside but wanting to explore everything. Tourist information was not really reliable at this time and most of the real stories of Prague and its mysteries were likely to be revealed by the people I would meet and the side streets stumbled onto. Since I only had a few days in this unplanned trip I knew I it would not be possible to see all of the sites and explore them adequately, so I decided to just relax and try to soak in the incredible beauty and excitement of what was going on around me. On the fourth and last day of my brief visit to Prague in the late afternoon, I decided to escape the throngs of backpackers and while doing so meandered down a side street somewhat near to Old Town Square. After a brief walk I was drawn to a very noisy restaurant/pub called the Golden Tiger. I did not hear any English or German spoken only Czech, which by this time was fine by me. I was tired of all the pushy tourists and knew that none had learned any Czech, so I was safe inside. The pub was very crowded with one table being especially busy and noisy in what I presume was someone telling a story or debating a topic. I did not understand but that was ok as I enjoyed the atmosphere. I ordered my jeden pivo prosim (one beer please), which at this time was the only Czech I had learned and just enjoyed the atmosphere. The Czech people, although understandably a little guarded and apprehensive after the onslaught of foreigners, were very friendly and if you were open with them I found them to be very open with you. They were just as curious about me and my life in America as I was with their culture and life during this period of historic change. After having some of the best beers I had ever had for the equivalent of less than $1 I was about to leave when an older Czech gentleman who had been a part of the crowd at the table from which the debate was taking place, sat next to me, ordered and began speaking Czech to me. With only pivo and prosim in my Czech repertoire I decided to skip the pretense and just let him know that I did not speak Czech. He responded with a laugh and in very broken English indicated that he was not too good at it either. It was surprising to hear a Czech, likely in his late forties, who spoke any English at all. The former Czechoslovakia was one of the most repressed communist counties of the former communist bloc and English was not as commonly taught a language as Russian or German. When asked he told me that he had taught himself as he had always had a fascination with America and found ways through newspapers or radio to learn the language. This theme would repeat itself as I found that many of the people I would meet and eventually call friends in the region always found ways to circumvent the rules or dictates that existed under the communist regime. Out of curiosity, I asked him about the conversation at the crowded table and he indicated that it was a debate about the future of the country and the political transition. Interesting I thought but not unusual as I had run into this kind of citizen debate many times while visiting pubs in other European countries. What I would later find out, however, was that one of the people at the center of the debate at that table was Vaclav Havel, the then President of the country.

After enjoying the conversation and atmosphere for what seemed like minutes but turned out to be hours, I asked my new found Czech friend if he could tell me something unusual or special about his country. He hesitated and told me that it is a magical city and that each person has to find their “own” Prague. He then proceeded to tell me the story, as much as I could understand it, about a king, his wife and a priest. The basic premise of the story is that through a true heart and a wish to return to Prague one day, each of us could find our place in this magical city. After finishing his story he told me that on Charles Bridge there is a cross at the location to which the priest was thrown into the water and rose again to prove his pureness of heart. If you can find and then place your hand upon the metal cross and wish to return some day, you will. Once again I was faced with the decision as to whether to believe a story told to me in a pub or chalk it up as another alcohol induced musing. While walking back to the hostel that evening, I decided it could not hurt to take a look on the bridge and see if the older gentleman was just trying to make a fool out of his young American visitor or maybe there was something more to it.

The bridge was surprisingly empty for about 10:00 in the evening, which was the first time I had seen it like this the entire time I had been in the city. Maybe it was the mist which made for poor picture taking or the fear of impending rain, either way it provided a sight with the well lit and majestic castle on the hill, that I knew I would never forget. I walked along the bridge looking for the cross my Czech friend had described. I looked near each statue and for some kind of tourist symbol to let me know where it was. It had not been in any the limited tourist books that I had reviewed but that was not surprising as they did not seem very comprehensive. After walking from one end to the next I turned around to go back toward Old Town Square and catch my tram, I briefly stopped at the side of the bridge to take another look at the lit up castle. As I walked along the edge I saw what I thought was something on the bridge but as I got closer I realized it was a cross in the bridge itself. This was the spot that my Czech friend had described. I did as he said and made my wish to return someday.

My Second Home (1992-1996)

After I left Prague, I found myself reflecting back and although I was only there a few days, I remembered the places I had seen and the people I met more than anything else during my year studying abroad. There was a pull coming not only from the excitement of being in the “wild west” as one American in a pub in Prague described it, but the inescapable feeling that anything was possible and that just being there you were a part of history.

After working for a few years, I entered graduate school with the intent of going back to Prague and studying the political and economic transition with the hope of somehow being an active participant in the transition process. There was not much known about the region nor the transition process, after all this sort of large scale political and economic change had never happened so peacefully and so widespread. Everyone wanted to know more, academics, businesses, and of course the US federal government. All of which were more than happy to give a young graduate student funding to do research in the region. It was fortunate timing for me as my passion coincided with those wanting answers and willing to fund someone to find them. Throughout my doctoral studies I spent at least 2 ½ years in central Europe working for civic democracy institutions in the region, teaching English, doing research and even working for both the Czech and after 1993 when Czechoslovakia split, the Slovak government. After each visit right before I left I would go to the Charles Bridge, find the hidden cross (most people did not even know where or what it was) and hope that each time I left I would later return. The gentleman who I had met at the Golden Tiger during my brief first visit turned out to be a government official in the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. Despite it being a few years and not keeping it touch after we met at the pub, when we met we were like old friends again. He helped me tremendously in doing my graduate research and we wound up publishing an article together on the transition process. My research examined how higher education could better contribute to the political and economic transition process. In my own way I felt as though I was contributing and in many ways was becoming a part of the process. Of all the places, however, it was Prague where I felt most comfortable and where I would proceed to write my dissertation. I felt so comfortable with the people, the city and the changes, that my mother once commented that I spoke of it as if it were a “second home”. I think she was right. My Czech pub friend turned academic colleague would often invite me to his home for meals and discussion. During which he would tell me stories about how life use to be and the challenges he currently saw. The middle aged generation, of which he was one, was lost as they were between two worlds. On one side there was hope and opportunity but on the other hand they were without the needed democratic and economic skill set. Although they gained freedom, they lost the comfort and economic security their former life provided. They were unsure of what was to happen next and how they would adjust. The younger generation, he proclaimed, would reap the benefits of this change, the middle aged and old would be lost and wish for things the way they were. In time I would find out he was right.

Their “own” Prague (1996 -2000)

As I transitioned from student to academic I continued my research and study in the region and went on to teach numerous study abroad classes both for my home institution and then for a few Universities in Prague. Each class provided an opportunity to open the doors to what the city was and what it was becoming. It was indeed changing as was I. Each group of students was looking for their “own Prague”. Over the years I had found mine. It was a key part of my life during my young adult years and helped define who I was as a person. I felt a part of the change, in some ways contributing to it. I would bring each group to meet my now long time Czech friend and he would tell them stories and give them insight not found in a book. As each year passed, Prague was changing, becoming more western, more touristy and more crowded. By 1999, ten years after the transition, the city had gone through dramatic changes, but still somehow kept its charm and its mystery. It was also the year I lost my mother to a medical mistake. My focus and personal pursuits changed dramatically after the incident. After her passing I taught one more class in Prague in 2000. At the end I told my Czech friend farewell. We both knew there was something different about this farewell from our numerous other goodbyes. I did not stop at the bridge this time.

“Blueberry Pie” 2000 – 2010

I left academia and international travel after the 1999 -2000 academic year as my academic pursuits and the quest to discover my own perceptions about the larger world just did not seem that important anymore. I devoted much of the next 10 years to the study of law, health policy and ways in which I could correct what had caused my mother’s death. I found that I did not miss international travel during this period although the lessons learned of perseverance, openness to new ideas and the ability to find creative ways to solve problems came in handy. After working in healthcare for much of those 10 years, I was fortunate to have achieved my task and a law was passed that addressed what had happened to my mother. It was a tremendous feeling of relief, but also trepidation as I was not sure where life would lead me next.

I was slowly getting the urge to return to my academic work and travel again. My wife, who I had met while in law school, rejuvenated my interests as now I wanted to share my travel experiences with her. I returned to academia and shortly afterward was provided the opportunity to travel back to Prague for a brief research trip. I was extremely excited to bring my wife with me to show her my “second home”. We arrived and I showed her the sites, Charles Bridge, the Castle, the John Lennon Wall, etc. The city had changed quite a bit in the past ten years. Some of the old “western capitalist” stores were still there such as McDonalds but others such as Planet Hollywood were gone only to be replaced by TGI Fridays and others. Visually the city was still the same, new stores but the same landmarks and tourists. There were more tourists than I remembered, and more were from Asia, but it was still basically the same sites and same crowded summer season. However, it did not feel the same. My friend, who I kept in contact with sporadically over the years, was away on holiday which only made me feel more like a visitor and not someone coming home. It was a very different feeling, not one of comfort, but one of tremendous change in me and a change in the character of the city. It felt like any other city, no more special or no less. My wife cautioned me to be patient and give it time. Before we left we went to the bridge to relive an old pleasant memory and story. I cautioned her that it was going to be difficult to find the spot on the bridge where the cross was. I also told her of the legend beforehand. As we proceeded down the bridge toward the direction of the castle, we noticed a sizeable crowd standing in a large bunch listening to a tour guide. We had seen this numerous times in the city but I was surprised it was on the bridge slowing the crowd down. As I got closer I noticed they were pointing at a fixture that was bolted right on the top of the bridge railing. The fixture where the cross was had an image depicting the legend I was told twenty years ago. The hidden treasure, one of many special places in Prague was no longer hidden but a promoted tourist site fresh with tourists kissing the fixture and praying to it, revering it as a sacred site. The sight hit me like a slap in the face. I was jolted into a realization that neither Prague nor I were the same. My wife and I did go and make our wish as she made me promise to give it more of an opportunity and to come back some day.

I did return to Prague in the summer of 2010, only this time to teach a group of American students. I vowed that I would give Prague one more chance and this time with a month in the city, I would revisit old places, old friends, and keep an open mind to the “new Prague”. My trip started off with a touch of déjà vu as the place my students and I stayed was pretty much the same old communist style dormitories that I had stayed in when I first came to study in Prague in the 1990s. Although challenging (I was not a student anymore and the conditions were far from what I had become comfortable with) I acclimated, keeping the old travelers adage, be flexible and go with the flow. As the program continued on week after week and I revisited old haunts such as the Golden Tiger and ordered favorites foods such as fried cheese (which according to the cost had now become a delicacy) I realized that I was just trying to recapture old moments, not just of my time in Prague but of a more free and happy time in my life. I just could not let go and that was preventing me from enjoying what Prague had become. I wanted the old Prague and that time in my life back, when my mother was still alive and life just seemed simpler. My time in Prague in the 1990s when it was the wild west and everything was possible, was not just a moment of carefree freedom for the city and its people, it was also that time in life for me. As I struggled with this revelation I looked forward to meeting my old friend again. He was tremendously helpful to me 20 years ago in finding my own Prague and in essence finding myself. I looked forward to his counsel and advice in finding this new Prague. When I finally got in touch with him I discovered that he was very ill which is why he did not get back to me when I tried to get a meeting with him before I left the U.S. I asked and was able to see him in the hospital. He looked much older than when we last met and very frail. We spoke and he struggled along with his still broken English for what seemed like only minutes but was actually over an hour. We talked about old times, shared stories and laughed about what we had done. I did not bother him with my life’s dilemma as his health challenges were much more important. As the nurse told me it was time to leave, we shook each other’s hand, gave a traditional hug and paused for a moment. He asked me as I left if I had found my Prague. I told him I did and it was because of him. We smiled. We both knew that was the last time we would ever see each other.

As we neared the end of the summer program, I knew that this generation would need to find their own way, their Prague. The experiences here and in whatever travels they encounter will help them find their way and define who they will be as individuals. In the late evening on my last night in Prague I stood on the bridge near the spot where the cross and now fixture was. It was misty and damp and there were few people on the bridge. I looked up at the brightly lit castle and remembered all the stories, people and experiences of the past twenty years. My travels had taken me all over the world, but this city and place on the bridge is where I always felt comfortable, like a second home. It no longer felt the same and neither did I. With the passing of my dear friend, I knew it was also the end of my connection to the city that was rather than what the city has become. As I turned to leave, two of my students were coming across the bridge, obviously enjoying some of what the nightlife had to offer, and we got into a conversation about their experience and what they had learned. I asked them what Prague meant to them what was “their Prague”. They struggled to find an answer and were not sure how to respond so I asked them a question. The same one my Czech friend had asked me when I asked him how I could find “my Prague”. I asked which they like more, apple or blueberry pie. They both said they liked blueberry pie better. I then asked them, what if I told you blueberry pie would be much harder to get and would involve a lot of work to get it, would you still prefer it. They both hesitated and said yes. Then, I said, I recommend you go after the blueberry pie. By now the alcohol had started to wear off and they seemed to understand the advice I was passing on. The search for their Prague was not just an exploration of a city but an opportunity to determine who they were as people and how they wanted to live their lives. The city in those early days of transition gave each and every long term visitor an opportunity to do that. Through the students’ experience in this “new” Prague and in their travels they had to decide whether to go after what they really wanted, the path less chosen and often more bumpy or the easy road where others had already laid the trail.

As they left to discuss what a strange discussion they had on a late night in Prague, I was left to ponder my final few moments in this city that meant so much to me as a person. I remembered the people, my good friend, the places and the events of my time here and my life at home. As I prepared to leave I went over to the spot on the bridge where the cross and now statue was, I paused, looked up at the well lit castle and then at the cross. I knew it was finally time to let go and say farewell.

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