the velveeta revolution, or pearljam comes to prague

by RW Deutsch
November 1996

As the plane descended to Prague's airport, I read that when Wacko Jacko (as Michael Jackson is belovedly known in Europe's tabloids) recently came to Prague, he was witness to the unveiling of a statue of his Michael-ness where a statue of Josef Stalin once stood. There couldn't be a better parable for the new Czech Republic. 

In Kafka's "The Castle," written in 1926, a man says to K., "You're probably surprised at our lack of hospitality, but hospitality is not our custom here; we have no use for visitors." Things haven't changed much in the last 70 years. But since that time, the Czechs have played host to many visitors. First the Germans, then the Russians and now the West. In six short years, Prague citizens have become virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the Western world. Diesel, Hugo Boss and corner stores selling Metallica t-shirts and Air Jordans are doing boomtown business. But I sense that even as the young people take on the walk and talk of the Slacker Nation, as they accept, learn from and put up with us, they really don't care one way or another that we're there. 

The two great figures of the modern Czech Republic are President Vaclav Havel and Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. Havel, the persecuted playwright-turned-political leader is an icon for the American thinkers and artists living in Prague. Teaching English, selling crafts and opening bars and restaurants which cater to their fellow ex-pats, these young Americans could just as easily be found in San Francisco or Seattle. These Yankees have all read Milan Kundera, and are interested in the Czech culture and people. They are the peaceful missionaries. 

Prime Minister Klaus came to power announcing the country should "walk the tightrope to Thatcherism." And with this call came the next generation of American yuppies: an army of consultants and M.B.A.s looking to establish themselves with companies like Coopers & Lybrand and Arthur Anderson. Companies which offer opportunities and bonuses for those willing to work abroad. This is Manifest Destiny, baby. They are anxious to get the Czechs up to speed. They make no pretense to understand their hosts and are lost when they encounter the much-entrenched Communist work ethic of "we pretend to work and you pretend to pay us." Yet they persevere. Depending on whom you ask, there are between ten and 30,000 Americans living and working in Prague. 

  Of the many ex-pat Americans I met during my stay, all seemed to have learned one lesson -- "there's no place like home." Though many will stay for years, they have developed hankerings for anything that even looks like a hamburger, they mail home for Mountain Dew and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and they would die to see an episode of the worst sitcom on TV. As one girl who'd not even been there a year told me, "you crave the things you thought were crap back home." And from that simple statement I started to reevaluate my disgust of the McDonald's restaurants you see everywhere. Back home, I have made profound statements of pity over the barrage of bad music, bad movies and bad food we inflict on the rest of the world. But maybe, as even after two weeks abroad I found myself yearning for something familiar, there is more to our junk culture that meets the eye. I took comfort in ads for thigh-masters on CNN International. Maybe it's something more than just a novelty which makes the world's natives lust after those "royales with cheese." Maybe there's something good about it, after all. It scares me to think any more about it but the thoughts won't go away. 

On Saturday night, 20,000 flocked to the Sports Hall at the outskirts of town to see Pearl Jam. I went alone, but soon made friends with a couple from Connecticut who are teaching English in Brno. They had hoped to spend the year and save enough money to then travel for six months. But prices have risen sharply. They will probably have to go straight home after their stint. On another night, my friend Linda had grabbed and dragged me out of a restaurant we'd just entered because they'd doubled the price of their beers, even though it was still a bargain. "They've been discovered by the tourists," she cried, "and they know they can get away with it." Back at the concert, we hooked up with another American from Detroit who works for Deloitte & Touche in Moscow. He flew in just to see the show -- a company perk. He's just having fun and making money. A fourth American, a girl who is with the Peace Corps in Southern Moravia, gloms on to us with a mad passion. 

"You don't understand. Oh my god. Americans. Oh my god. Is that a REAL American cigarette? May I? Thank you! Thank you!" It was like she hadn't spoken to another soul in the year and a half she's been here. Maybe I don't understand. She said where she lives it's nothing like Prague. She can't walk down the street with a cigarette or even eating a slice of bread because she'd be accused of being a prostitute. Although she stated with purpose that we Americans are wrongly obsessed with our body odor and that the locals where she is are "free" because they aren't, she must spread a layer of Vicks VapoRub under her nose while she works amongst her fetid co-workers. 

The concert began two hours late because the trucks had been snowed in at the border, but no one complained. The crowd of mostly young Czechs -- who six years ago would never have even imagined such a thing -- sang along with every song. It was only days before the anniversary of the fall of Communist rule, and politics couldn't have been farther from these rocked-out minds. But it was on mine. The lights came on during the encore and I looked over the delirious, sweaty faces and I thought how much I have to be thankful for. For the freedom to be there. For the freedom to not be there. To eat fast food, buy useless gadgets, watch Oprah or not. And I saluted the Czech people for being free to have whatever use they have or don't have for us visitors. 

As I boarded my plane home, I still hadn't found the statue of Michael Jackson. I've heard that after he left it was removed. Put in storage somewhere. Thanks for coming Michael. Say goodbye now, Michael. And maybe that's a better parable for the new Czech Republic. 

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