LATELY — 27 January 2001

Prague

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.