A Prague native on the conquerors from overseas
After the "velvet revolution" in 1989 and the official fall of the "iron curtain" the borders of Czechoslovakia opened up and there has been an immense number of foreigners from "the west" coming to see the land of "forbidden beauty". The peak period, or the "golden rush", were the years 1992-94. Among many others, a lot of the extremely curious and anxious people entering our country at this time seemed to be the people of the new world. Were they tired of their democracy or overloaded with their abundance? Paradoxically, these people, who knew wide spaces, entered our small world which just a short time ago had been closed in by walls and knew nothing of all that which carries the prefix "multi".
There is a certain peculiarity and maybe a paradox in this but we must realize that although Czechoslovakia (the two countries split in 1993) was highly oppressed in its free development, it had at the same time always been exuberant with a special and unique cultural consciousness, with an atmosphere which might have been oppressed for long periods but which was never fully removed. The Czech Republic (unfortunately there is still no appropriate short version of this name, except the Czech word "Cesko") has somehow always been open yet closed. So, the land of contradictions? Not really, it is just that the Czech people have gone through contrasting periods of history, through the times of wealth and boom as well as of decline, oppression and ignorance. And it is all stored in their consciousness, it shapes their mentality which reflects itself in their culture and lifestyle.
The most common target of the early American enthusiasts who came to Prague was the capital, with its mysterious magic. What exactly is its atmosphere made of? It is something ungraspable and substanceless, which gives Prague its specific self. Most foreigners agree that the spirit of this city definitely carries the attribute "mysterious". Jeremy Irons, the British actor, once commented that whileNew York is like a woman freely selling herself out, Prague is a chaste woman whose mystery has to be gradually uncovered. And what about Americans? Proud, stubborn, successful, courageous, cynical but always self-searching, ambitious and curious. They just "want to see it all!" and "now!". And so they came to "explore and conquer". Of course, for most of them this was a chance to start a new business (because what else is the engine of this society other than business).
The new environment seemed to be quite ignorant of how to do proper business and therefore they (once again!) put themselves into the roles of "pioneers", or maybe even tutors (they have always loved to show their way of doing things!). The Czechs at first watched them with surprise and admiration (how quickly they get into action – something the Czech people never learnt), then maybe with a little envy and finally some of them expressed their dislike that these foreigners should succeed in their country (some foreigners have called this Czech xenophobia). American enterprise in Prague consists mainly of bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs., Bohemia Bagel, club Radost FX, The Globe bookstore & coffee house, , Ostroff-American Bar, Red Hot & Blues – these are just examples of places which have become famous and are visited by both foreigners and Czechs. Apart from creating the social places, Americans also took part incultural undertakings. The Prague Post is an example of a quality approach to Czech realityInterfacing with Americans meant a confrontation of cultural and social values, a confrontation of two mentalities.
For the Czechs: doubting themselves, temporizing, approaching things a priori as a problem. At the same time honoring traditions and everything old and once-tried-out (stick to the "old ways"). Also dependence (Austria – Hungary, Russia) yet a deep sense of patriotism. Americans, on the other hand, are used to keeping a constant primary distrust in things (especially in institutions), they seem to have plenty of self-confidence and a drift for mobility. Independence is a starting point for their existence. Also, the "keep smiling" attitude contrasts quite a lot with the typical Czech answer to the "how-are-you" question: "Nothing much, it could be better."
And what is then the interaction between us? It seems that it is a two-way influence (although some people might argue that the American influence on the Czechs is a stronger one). What we have been adapting to in these past years seems to be – especially among the young generation – the spontaneity in life and a need for mobility. Czechs are no longer "stuck" in their little garden which they used to plant strictly for themselves. For the young people, a lifestyle of stability and safety, which their parents would highly praise, is no longer a satisfying goal in their lives. They want to travel and speak up for themselves. And this can definitely be considered a positive and enriching influence.
On the other hand though, many young people are taking up the style of materializing some essential values, they are too hectic with their lives. Not knowing what they should want, they rashly taste everything around them, while the real purpose of their actions is to escape. And how about the "transformation" of Prague Americans? I deliberately put this word in quote marks as I think it is nearly impossible to speak of a complete transformation of one mentality into another, especially of such a dominant one. However, having watched the arrival of Americans since 1989 (when I was still an elementary school pupil) until today, I have the impression that there are two, or maybe three, groups which can be distinguished.
The first group could be called the "business class". These are usually so-called yuppies (young urban professionals) who came to work for an international company. Then there are young intellectuals and artists who came to receive new inspirations. They mostly work in the cultural or educational spheres. Prague Americans can also be divided according to a more determining feature. There are those who came to get to know the culture through its people (which in my opinion is the only way to do it); they came to enrich themselves and want to actively take part in shaping this society. They are anxious to learn about its heights as well as its abysses, anxious to try to adapt to the different lifestyle, which includes learning a difficult language and putting up with strange habits and stereotypes. These "explorers" are willing to put their comfort aside and try to live our way.
Then there are those who enjoy the country, and mainly its capital, as a new environment for their own culture. They just moved from one country to another, bringing their culture, habits and lifestyle with them, just to set them into new, uncommon surroundings. These people keep their lifestyles, go to American pubs and cafés, buy American (or "western") food and are friends with their fellow-Americans. They stay for two, three years and then long for a new environment to reset their American life into again. I guess there is nothing wrong with those people, they do not hurt the Czech culture with their "parallel world".
However, they do not enrich it, and, which is even more sad and futile, they do not enrich themselves. They think they have had a "cool" experience but in fact they have lived in a closed world of their own, pretending to be getting to know the Czech culture by eating fried cheese and drinking Gambrinus beer. Among these two groups then there is a certain "transient zone" of people who are interested in the new culture but somehow lack the real determination to overcome the difficulties which come with it. They take up invisible positions in the society, or work on their own, visit places but remain mere observers.
Some people fear that the Czech culture is becoming too Americanized. It is true, for example, that when reading some of the articles in "Think" magazine – made mostly by Prague Americans – one gets the impression that they own this city. But what in fact do we mean by the term "Americanization"? It is often connected with commercialization of human activity and productivity. What we usually perceive as positive and inspiring from the American culture is the cultural, ethnic and intellectual plurality, the typical American multiculturalism.
The tendency to materialization and democratization of cultural values by mass production and mass media which leads to their banalization, on the other hand, is referred to as something negative and deforming. However, it is not fair to blame America for our own weakness to succumb to her illusionary wealth. The way she will influence our culture will always depend (as it always has) only on our own will and ability to wisely saturate the impact of American culture so that we profit more than we lose. Our picture and story of American culture will be equally a picture and story of ourselves.