In the summer of 2000, I packed up my trusty backpack and guitar and bought a one-way ticket to Europe with my travel buddy, Jesse. We spent our first leg of our European tour in Amsterdam and we were on our way to the architecturally laden city of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.
We had no intention at all in going to Prague, but I had a college friend who lived there and we had also heard that it was dirt-cheap and an extraordinary city. At that time, Prague to me was as foreign as any other city in Europe, much less the world, and my hunger to experience new things was immense.
From the hustle and bustle of the tourist walkways to the Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance buildings that blanketed the sixth-most visited European city, Praha enchanted us immediately. Prague is called the “City of a Thousand Spires,” with Art Nouveau, Baroque, Medieval Gothic, Roman Catholic Gothic and Cubist architecture spread throughout the sprawling city. It was one of the few Eastern European cities that did not get completely shelled by the Germans in World War II.
At the same time, this fair city still had an air of Communism about it, which fell with the Velvet Revolution on November 17, 1989, allowing Prague to adopt Western culture. One could still see remnants of the Iron Fist on some Czech faces as well as in the architecture (we later moved into a Communist housing complex called a panalack for $200 a month).
Coming from the quaint, soft-spoken country of Holland, we were taken back by the brasher, abstract Czech life. The language was especially uncanny – not that Dutch was any easier! For example, to say “yes” in Czech, you say “no.” Yes, that’s right, “no” means yes! And to say “really,” you say “fakt” (pronounced similarly to the profane word some people use in English). We heard Czechs saying, “No, fakt!” – yes, really!! Man, that was a trip!
The best thing about Czech Republic was that it touted the reign of being the country that drinks the most beer (pivo) per capita than any other country in the world! Pilsner beer was invented in Plzen, Czech Republic. Deep, caramel lagers and crisp pilsners cost 65 cents for 0.5 liters in a bar. That right there was an ingredient for true debauchery.
On top of that, the Czech Republic held the title of having the most supermodels per capita in the world as well. As you can imagine, we were enthralled; we had an undeniable urge to hang in Prague for a while.
The other intriguing thing in Prague was the infamous alcohol absinthe. This devilish beverage was given to French soldiers in WWI as an anesthesia, but was later banned in many countries due to its potency. In 2000, absinthe was illegal throughout the world except for a few countries because of a natural hallucinogenic ingredient, wormwood. We learned how to drink this paint stripper by taking a teaspoon full of sugar, dipping it into the absinthe shot, lighting it on fire until the sugar caramelized and then stirring the syrupy sugar into the shot and shooting it back. The reason behind all this is to sweeten the awful taste of the absinthe, but this cool blue-colored drink looked and tasted like antifreeze! As you can imagine, it got you undoubtedly inebriated.
In our first week in Prague, we managed to meet people from Czech Republic, Spain, Melba, Finland, Ethiopia, Portugal and England. I found it most interesting to introduce myself as Matt from the USA – I felt it really stripped me down to who I was a person, and I wanted to simply be me. I was starting to realize that life was too short to dwell on the materialistic things in the Western world that sometimes cloud our minds. My conscious thoughts of a new life and a new beginning expanded more than those with minds that weren’t open to other stimuli. I was completely immersed in what I could only call “The Feeling.”
I remembered dreams a lot more then. I was on my tiptoes at all times, hungry for what was around the corner. I would spring up from bed (depending on how many pivos I had the night before) quicker to see what the day would bring. Everything seemed to be right there in front of me, just by feeling a different culture. I was a new man, an honest man. I was sitting on the proverbial edge of my seat to see what would happen next in this scene of my life.
Prague was now our home base. We knew we could always go back to Prague while traveling throughout Europe. But we needed to do something while we were there, and after a month of arriving in Prague, Jesse started to tend bar and I started to teach English. I was teaching professionals who worked for banks and investment companies. They all wanted to just converse in English. It was the best way for me to learn about the Czech culture. My students and I traded stories about our respective cultural traditions and families, and I felt like I had my very own cultural liaisons for which I could ask any questions.
I later became a bartender myself at an expatriate bar named Jama. I was the only non-Czech-speaking person working there. I learned to speak “bar Czech” there pretty well, with the clientele being mostly Czech.
Jama also attracted many expatriate Americans, English and travelers alike. I loved to introduce Prague newbies to absinthe and watch their faces cringe like they just ate fifty lemons at once!
The Czech people are steadfast, stubborn, but becoming more flexible as time goes on. The younger generations were just toddlers when Communism held power in the C.R.; they’re embracing a freer Western society while some older generations want to bring back the socialist, classless society. This divide is apparent, but from what I hear about the Czech Republic these days, it’s an ever-growing Western country with great potential.
However, with this rapid change, the Czechs are still Czechs. They love their country devotedly, with great passion. From the free-flowing beer to the cobblestone niches of its capital city, the Czech Republic has made a 21st century name for itself.
Prague is the type of city where, if you visit without knowing anything about her, you’ll come away with a new best friend. I stayed in Prague for the next two years while Jesse married a beautiful Czech girl and they moved to Colorado to start a family. I haven’t been back since 2003, but I still think about the gorgeous city constantly. Will I ever go back? Fakt no!