Living in Prague: Before and After the Velvet Revolution

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I recently discovered in an old folder an article I wrote about my experience with the city of Prague, both before the Velvet Revolution, when I lived and worked there, and after, in the early ‘90s, when I went back for a visit. Perhaps you will find this interesting?

I am going to break this article in two, to keep in manageable, and over the next few months will write more about individual adventures in Communist Czechoslovakia.

***

In April of 1992, I returned to what was then still Czechoslovakia for the first time in five years and the first time since the Velvet Revolution. For those of you not familiar with this term, the Velvet Revolution was the non-violent transition of power that took place from November 17 to December 29, 1989. Popular demonstrations were held against the one-party government of the Communist Party by students and older dissidents. The end result was the end of 41 years of Stalinist rule in Czechoslovakia, the subsequent dismantling of the Communist economy, and a conversion to a parliamentary republic. Vaclav Havel was the first President.

Before the Revolution

Before the Revolution

After the Revolution

After the Revolution

I have a very special place in my heart for this country and its people, since I lived and worked in Prague for over a year in the early ‘70s and had many colorful experiences during that time with the hardline Communist regime that dominated everything.  I also found the Czech people to be warm and open-hearted.

As my plane crossed into Czech airspace on that trip in 1992, I remember being anxious to see the changes brought about by democracy. One change was apparent immediately: instead of having to fly through narrow airspace corridors determined by the government, we flew over the city and I had my first view of it from the air. When I reached the car of the friends who met me at the airport, they told me, “Take a deep breath! Can you smell freedom?”

pragueTo explain how much these words meant, I need to tell you about the culture shock of 1972, when my husband and I first came to Prague from California on an exchange fellowship sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. The effects of the Soviet invasion of 1968 were just settling in (the borders of the country had actually remained open for a time thereafter but were then defined by barbed wire and guards with guns in sentry boxes). Prague was a gray, dirty and grim city, some of its building still pockmarked with bullet holes from the invasion.

View from the top of Wenceslas Square - behind is the National Museum, which was riddled with bullet holes

View from the top of Wenceslas Square – behind is the National Museum, which was riddled with bullet holes when we first arrived.

We lived with a well-educated, English-speaking Czech couple in their apartment in Holesovice, a quiet, tree-lined section of the city located in a bend of the Vltava river. Our hosts’ son had left the country before the border closed and was now living in Tasmania, and I think they just adopted us, introducing us to Czech customs and the language. We were paid in Czech currency and had decided from the outset to live as Czechs did, eating Czech food, buying in local stores instead of the commissary in the US consulate, and learning the language so we could travel on our own. Even so, we stood out as some of the only Americans in the country.

The culture shock gradually wore off as we accommodated to the lack of most things we had taken for granted at home in California. There were not many consumer goods available beyond the basic necessities, and these were sold in individual stores. There were stores for dairy products, others for vegetable (cabbage, potatoes, onions and peppers only), and still others for meat, fish, bottled drinks and canned goods.  In some canned goods stores, you would tell the clerk what you wanted and they would fetch it for you. More often, you stood in line to be waited on, which was the way of life for babičkas, or the grandmothers, who did the shopping for their working sons and daughters. We had to plan our days carefully to allow for enough time to buy food.  In the summer, fresh vegetables and fruit would be trucked in from Italy, Bulgaria and Romania, and sold at open stalls in various city squares.

Old wooden trams, open for hopping on

Old wooden trams, open for hopping on

Newer trams, enclosed, hot and smelly in the summer

Newer trams, enclosed, hot and smelly in the summer

It became Grangers’ rule that if we spotted something unusual (like oranges, squash or lettuce) on our tram rides back and forth to work, we got off the tram at the next stop and went back to buy some. There was no guarantee we’d find it elsewhere or even later in the same place. There were often Czech babičkas in line to buy something unusual, like patty pan squash, who had no idea how to cook it. When I’d learned enough Czech, I would spend time explaining how to do it. And of course, all transactions were in cash. Credit cards had already become a way of life for us, but not for the Czechs.

Tram rides were always an adventure. In the old wooden ones, which were being replaced, you could hop off and on like the trolleys in San Francisco. The newer ones had no A/C and the windows were hardly every opened, which in the summer resulted in a hermetically sealed sweat box filled with human body odors. There were usually two places on the tram reserved for the those with disabilities and they were coveted by   babičkas. It was a frequent occurrence to see two of them battling each other with canes to get the one unoccupied seat. Hubs and I often remarked that if the babičkas had confronted the Russians when they invaded in 1968, the Russian troops would have hightailed it back home.

Before the revolution bribery was a part of living. We gave money or bottles of good liquor to policemen, guards at the border, doctors, or clerks in stores to get what we were already entitled to: a stamp on a visa, permission to leave the country with our luggage, the pants that went with a jacket, good medical care.

The scientists at our Institute lived relatively comfortably with cars and summer houses, but the living arrangements of some of the friends we made who were not scientists (plumbers, electricians, or construction workers) were much less comfortable. Five or six people might live in a two room apartment, with shared bathrooms and kitchens, sometimes no hot water or even running water.

More in my next post

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26 thoughts on “Living in Prague: Before and After the Velvet Revolution

  1. This is fascinating! I was only a child at the time of the revolution, but I remember it being on TV and the grown-ups commenting on the momentous nature of it all. I shall look forward to the next post!

  2. Thank you very much for your very interesting experience in Prague. For me this city is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen! Despite the fact that I live in Switzerland I can say that we still nowadays have shops where you are served and I prefere them much to these big supermarkets. By the way , I sent for many years coffee to people in comunist countries, because, then it was very difficult to get some and I had to fill in many forms to get the parcels sent away. Have a good day.

    • Funny you should mention the coffee, Martina. The couple we lived with loved instant coffee – go figure – and we brought or sent this to them all the time. We also smuggled in copies of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books in the false bottom of a carryon bag I had. Narrowly missed having them found during one search. After we discovered we were allowed to buy food at the commissary at the Consulate/Embassy, we often bought stuff for our hosts – turns out they loved popcorn!

  3. k4k

    I remember 1968! My father had been corresponding with relatives in Czechoslovakia for many years. After the Russians rolled in, he waited anxiously, not wanting to send a letter with an American stamp to his family for fear it would target them in some way. About a month after the invasion, his cousin wrote a very normal letter with no mention of politics — just an update on their vegetable garden.

    • Interesting! I had a friend who was in Prague when the Russians rolled in with their tanks. The Czechs took down all the street signs, so they had a hard time finding their way around. My friend was smuggled out into the country to stay with some farmers until her Czech host figured out how to get her across the border. The borders were not shut down for a number of months, so they drove her across on an unguarded dirt road.

  4. Gorgeous photos and fascinating post. My son and his wife and their two little babies lived in Prague for a year about five years ago. They absolutely loved the city and the country and the people.

    • It definitely was unique. When we first went there, we were two of only three Americans in the city! My Czech used to be pretty good -it’s now a thing of the past, although when I try to think of words in French or Spanish, I think of the Czech word first.

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