27 January 2001

26/1 (Australia Day)–Prague

I’ve been in Prague almost a week now and for most of that time I’ve been ill. Something’s at­tack­ing my eyes, nose and throat. The worst of it passed a few days ago, but there hasn’t been much im­prove­ment since. (Last night, after playing two games of chess with an Andrea, I was forced to retire to bed. (This was about 8 o’clock.) I was plan­ning to just nap but ended up sleep­ing for 12 hours.) So this is why I haven’t seen much of the city.

I have been reading. I read Henry James’s novella “The Aspern Papers” (a weak, ridicu­lous mystery with a one-sentence plot and lame conclusion, pop­u­lated with pa­thetic char­ac­ters who say and do almost nothing for weeks on end) and then I read Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (much more worthwhile, I must have liked it because I read the last 80 pages or so in bed, by torchlight) and then, most recently, all but two stories of Milan Kundera’s “Laughable Loves” (also excellent).

But, I have seen some of Prague. Prague is very pretty and is filled with many beau­ti­ful things. I have scrappy, uninteresting, notes on several things that I won’t type: the Charles Bridge de­serves its fame; Prague can be rel­a­tively cheap; there are a large number of not-very-good Italian restau­rants in Prague, and a sur­pris­ing number of Chinese ones (run by actual Chinese people).

One of the most note­wor­thy things about Prague is the size of the English-speaking population. I don’t know why there are so many expats here. Perhaps one of the reasons is that it’s very easy to feel wanted here. As an English-speaker in Paris, say, you don’t have shit Parisians want. But here in Prague, they want your money, they want your English-speaking skills (one guy I spoke to got a job teach­ing English by saying No, he didn’t have any teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence but Yes, he thought it was some­thing he’d enjoy), they want your Western sophistication. It’s nice to feel so wanted. And you also get to feel smug: as someone coming from a rich Western country, you can look down upon Prague’s fleet of un­scrupu­lous taxi drivers and cor­rupt­ible police force. You can think “nice try” when you hear their ex­per­i­ments with rock music. The Czech Re­pub­lic got capitalism, but she wants to learn English, to drink Coke and eat at McDonald’s, to join the EU, to become more Western–in other words, to become more like you. All this is both at­trac­tive and re­as­sur­ing to young, unattached, undecided, twenty-somethings. I’m over-stating my case in the name of provoca­tive­ness and hell, I’ve been here less than a week (and talked to less than 10 expats), but this is the thought that oc­curred to me this morning as I ate break­fast and I figured I should record it.