Wednesday, November 19, 2003

So I've been commissioned to pen the "Prague Today" section of the next Time Out Prague Guide (with a sidebar on Praguebloggers, by the way).

For whatever it's worth, I think Time Out publishes the best tourist guide to Prague -- head and shoulders above the rest, and a good six feet above the god-awful Lonely Planet. This isn't just because it's written by my friend Will Tizard. It's because the Time Out standards are simply higher than those of almost all other guidebooks. For one thing, they actually demand an insiders' view as opposed to the travelers' view. (If I want a travelers' view, why buy a guidebook at all? Duh.) If I'm visiting a city, I almost always purchase the Time Out guide; and I own a few Time Out guides for cities that I've never even visited. (OK, I just checked -- only one, Amsterdam).

Anyway, the "Prague Today" essay is supposed to be a sort of snapshot of the life of a city at a particular moment in time. I'm still not sure which direction I'm going to go with this, but I have a vague idea, and any comments dropped into the comments bin would be greatly appreciated.

This might have more to do with my personal situation, but I feel like the summer of 2002 marked a high point of some sort in terms of the city's overall social pulse. I can't quite define what it was though. For one thing, the economy was doing well -- indeed, it was one of the few economies that was doing well. The Old Town cocktail bar scene was booming and you could still go to frou-frou parties thrown by weird and interesting people you'd never imagine hanging out with during down time. Life was good. (Compare: The other night I was actually turned away by a bouncer -- yes, a bouncer! --at the bar/club Celnice off Nam. Republiky. What's become of this world?)

Then the August 2002 floods came, and after that, the global economy actually started taking its toll on the local one. The mounting excitement over Czech EU entry stopped mounting. Havel left office and the ensuing circus to find a replacement was embarassing for everybody involved. It sort gradually started to dawn on people that pretty soon, Prague would no longer be the fabled "Prague" of lore -- neither the lore of '90s expats, nor the lore of philosopher-king Havel, nor the lore of a heady post-communist society in transition -- but just another small European capital of a small European nation. Like Amsterdam, actually.

It's true that visitors to Prague can still get away with a lot more than they can elsewhere, and there's still a bit of an anything-goes atmosphere, for better and for worse. You can still see stuff that's seems a bit anachronistic -- the classic grotty Czech pub, for instance, if you know where to look for it; booze that's still incredibly cheap by Western standards; a party-all-night atmosphere that drives the locals mad, except when they're the ones doing it; beer-soaked nights in the park during the summer, and beat-soaked nights at clubs during the cold winter; your local potraviny that's stayed in business way past its expected shelf life; the "Death Meinl" staffed by the undead at Olsanske Namesti. That sort of thing. And speaking of Amsterdam -- in the last few years Prague has become one of the pot capitals of Europe. Let's not even mention the brothels. In other words, the patina of grimy charm is still there, but with every new shopping mall that goes up, it becomes a little more burnished. (Do long-term residents mind? I, for one, will not cry for the obnoxious lady behind the country of the local potraviny. Carrefour? Bring it on!)

By the time this guidebook comes out, I expect the Czech Republic will be an actual member of the EU, at least in name. And although we've been expecting it for over a deacde, that still just seems a little weird to me.

Anyway, just thinking out loud. Thoughts welcome.


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