Much like our time in Croatia, spending a month in the Czech Republic taught our family a lot about a country and a culture we knew very little about. As American children of the eighties, Brian and I had picked up bits and pieces about the fall of communism while our parents watched Dan Rather on the Nightly News, but we’d never learned the details of how it happened in this country or the impact it had on its people. Seeing Prague’s beautiful Gothic architecture and getting some great photos were certainly fun aspects of our time in the city, but meeting people who had lived through this period of history and hearing their perspectives served as the most meaningful part of our stay. Here are a few of the interesting stories about Prague we will keep with us.
Mendelssohn and the Nazis
The German army invaded what was then known as Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, with Hitler seeing the city of Prague as a new jewel in his empire. The national concert hall in Prague, called Rudolfinum, displayed the statues of famous composers along its roof line. One of them was a talented Jewish musician named Felix Mendelssohn. Hitler ordered that this statue be removed from Rudofinum and destroyed. The officers ordered to carry out this task didn’t know what Mendelssohn looked like, but following their prejudiced beliefs simply destroyed the statue with the biggest nose. As it turned out, they had instead eliminated the statue of Hitler’s favorite German composer, Richard Wagner. Throughout the occupation and to this day Felix Mendelssohn remains on the roof of Rudolfinum as a symbol of defiance to that regime. The book Mendelssohn Is on the Roof by Jiří Weil highlights this story and the lives of people living in Nazi-occupied Prague.
Students, Keys and Flowers of the Velvet Revolution
As communism fell and the Berlin Wall came down in East Germany, the communist government in Prague worked hard to maintain its hold. On November 17, 1989 Prague students began a protest which initiated two solid weeks of nonviolent demonstrations. This period came to be known as the Velvet Revolution. Every night hundreds of thousands of citizens crowded into Wenceslas Square, passing out flowers to the onlooking military soldiers and shaking their keys as a symbol of the end of communism. On November 28 the Communist Party in Prague relinquished its power and the rebuilding of democracy in the Czech region began.
Rolling Stones Light Up the Castle
The first president of the new Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, saw the value of highlighting his country to the world by bringing major cultural figures to Prague. As a result, the Rolling Stones, a band condemned by the former communist government, played a concert in Prague in 1990 and became the first international rock band in the newly formed country. The band members developed a friendship with President Havel and returned to play again in 1995. During this visit, it is said that Mick Jagger said to Havel, “You have a beautiful castle up there but you can hardly see it at night.” The president told the band he had much bigger issues to contend with in the new democracy than worrying about lights on the castle. A short time later, the Rolling Stones paid for their own tour lighting engineer to set up a system which lit up the beautiful castle on the hill for the citizens and tourists of Prague.
Bureaucracy in the New Democracy
At the end of communism, the area formerly known as Czechoslovakia separated into the two independent nations of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Some people, including our new friend Rostislav, had been born in what became Slovakia, but lived most of their lives in what became the Czech Republic. This meant Rostislav and others had to go through a tedious, bureaucratic process of applying for citizenship in the Czech Republic even though they had lived there for most of their lives. To this day, Czech citizens are disillusioned with their politicians (something they probably have in common with most Americans) and we heard several stories like this one about frustrations in shifting from communism to a privatized free market. However, everyone we talked to was relieved when communism ended and prefer the new democratic system and the freedoms it’s brought them.
Peaches and Coconuts
Rostislov’s wife, Linda, introduced me to Fons Trompenaars’ interesting analogy on international cultures which focuses on peaches and coconuts. The United States and other western cultures are thought of as peaches. They are often friendly and forthcoming to everyone they meet, but take a long time to develop deep attachments to new people. Like a peach, we westerners tend to be soft on the outside, but tougher on the inside. Other cultures, like the Czech culture, are more like coconuts. They have a hard shell and may seem rude or distant to others initially, but once they let you in they are all milk – willing to help you in any way, as though you are part of their family. We found this to be very true. As the grocery store cashier avoided eye contact with me and chucked my items down the counter while I frantically bagged them, I could feel the shell of that coconut. But as we were laughing over dinner with new friends we’d known for only a week and talking about where we might meet up together in the future, we were drinking the milk.
We really enjoyed our time in Prague and I felt a little pang as we drove away from the city and on to the next stop in this adventure. The practical travel advice we would have for anyone planning a trip to Prague would be this:
- Rent an apartment a few stops out from the touristy center on the metro’s Green Line. The Vinohrady area was perfect for us – cheaper and yet an easy 10 minutes on the subway to the city center.
- Your first day there go up in the Astronomical Clock Tower with a map and get a feel for the layout of the streets. Having seen everything from above will serve you well as you navigate the city.
- If you have kids with you, go to the Prague Zoo. It’s cheap, yet one of the best zoos we’ve ever visited.
- Beware of pickpockets. We were lucky throughout our stay, but our good friend had his phone stolen out of his pocket. Ladies, keep your purses across your chest and in front of you at all times. Guys, don’t be embarrassed about wearing a “man purse.” It’s worth it.
- Get up at the crack of dawn and see the city before the rest of the tourists pack the streets. The Charles Bridge should be the first place you go on your early morning stroll.
- Make time to chill out in one of Prague’s many green spaces, such as the Letna Sady or Petrin Hill. The beer garden in Letna Sady overlooking the city is particularly nice if you have kids since there’s a playground right next to it.
- Don’t forget about Lennon Wall. It’s a great example of community artwork and inspirational thinking. Despite communist government disapproval, the wall began as a homage to John Lennon after his assassination in 1981. It’s been a constantly changing space of public art and free speech ever since.
- Hang out in the Old Town Square a little bit each day to see the various performers make their appearances. The girls’ favorite was the bubble man.
- Talk to the local people. Ask them about their experiences during “the revolution”, what they think about the country today, and the things you should see during your stay. Being a tourist is fun, but getting to know the locals makes for an unforgettable experience.