Prague's Juvenescence


Prague. -- On the second floor of this very new and very Western hotel, there is a room named inauspiciously for this city's most famous citizen: Franz Kafka.

Coming upon this room by surprise one morning, I try to imagine Gregor Samsa, the author's man-turned-beetle, lurking behind the sleek doorway. But this Kafka Room holds only the requisite tables and chairs for the people who come here now to take meetings and do business.

It's been three years since "The Velvet Revolution" separated .. Czechoslovakia from the Soviet Empire, six months since "The Velvet Divorce" that split Czechs from Slovaks. Today, Prague is in the midst of a very different kind of "Metamorphosis." It is lurching, racing, tripping, zigzagging, lumbering through the transition from Eastern Bloc to Western Europe, from state control to private enterprise. And in the process, from dull certainty to exciting insecurity.

This is an old city confident in its history. Centuries of extraordinary buildings stand in close proximity along the winding streets, flattering each other in the early summer light. Each corner turned, every bridge and square crossed, offers another magical setting, more proof of Czech luck at having been spared both German bombs and Soviet architects.

But it is a city that seems less secure about the future. Talking and walking our way from the Kafka room to the Prague castle, I have the sense that we are witnessing the greening of Prague. Not green as in the environment movement. Not green as in greenback. Green as in greenhorn.

In some ways, Czechs seem like fresh immigrants in their own country. Greenhorns in the new world economy struggling to figure out the ways of the natives in order to survive in the unfamiliar land of free enterprise.

Everywhere there is evidence of how eager this city has been to westernize and privatize. Whoopi Goldberg's "Sister Act" is playing at the cinema. American music is playing on the radio. There's a Benetton selling sweaters, four McDonald's selling Big Macs, and a thousand Swatches in the shops.

This summer, a Cajun restaurant called Red, Hot and Blues opened. On a balmy night, anorexic models come out of the symphony hall wearing Revlon T-shirts. And this week for the first time, a wide range of investors are trading shares on the Prague Stock Exchange.

The Americans who come here in increasing numbers are students bearing backpacks and entrepreneurs carrying Powerbooks. At the Mozart cafe, a young Michigan student is waiting on tables and living on the low-rent economy. At the Prague Post, the founder and publisher of the successful English-language weekly is a 25-year-old from Illinois, Lisa Frankenberg, who came here three years ago.

While Generation X in America is complaining about a bias or barrier against youth, it's quite the opposite in this "immigrant" economy. It's the young people of the Czech Republic who are sought out in the belief that they can learn the language of the free economy faster, that they are less fixed in the old ways. More than a few employers have hiring policies that instruct "no one over 35 need apply."

Much of the change that we see here is uneven. It is easier to get a good cup of coffee than it was two years ago, but it's no easier to make a long-distance phone call. There is a passion for entrepreneurship, but also stories of a bureaucracy that go back to their Kafka-esque roots.

Much of the change also has its dark side. At the onset of this voyage to free enterprise, many of the new settlers believed that the streets were paved with gold. Now they are watching businesses fail as well as succeed. In the new world, there are losers as well as winners.

As if on cue, one night we go to see an early play by Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and president. But the promised translation in our headsets is a single voice racing to capture every actor's words in a frenzied and incomprehensible English. At times, the country is a bit like that, trying to change so much, so fast, with such limited resources. And sometimes breathless.

President Havel himself has said that the troubles in Eastern Europe come from the fact that "one system has collapsed and a new one does not yet exist." That is most true of the remains of Yugoslavia, but it is also true in this land where change has been made with velvet gloves. Gradually, "greenhorns" cannot just enter a new world, they have to make it their own.

But this remarkable and vibrant city built over many centuries and out of many cultures is as practiced in the art of survival as in civility. And green after all, is also the promising color of every growing season.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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