Douglas and Richard treated us more like friends than customers, which meant they invited their friends along to our dinners so that we could get to meet some Praguers. It turns out that despite their guarded manner, Czechs do have a hidden passion: their dislike for other Czechs.
Occasionally, as you tour the city, you see a building with great bones that is in a state of grime-blackened neglect. Richard says that's what the whole city looked like when the Soviets left. Twenty years ago, a bloodless overthrow called the Velvet Revolution brought democracy to then-Czechoslovakia and made playwright Vaclav Havel president. (In 1993, the Velvet Divorce split the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.)
The Czechs sometimes joke that the most obvious difference between communism and capitalism is paint. It turns out that it's easier to spiff up inanimate relics than living ones. Francesco, Rachel, and I were struck by the contrast between the exuberantly painted and decorated buildings and the drabness—in both dress and demeanor—of the Praguers. On the tram and the metro no one was listening to music, or reading, or smiling. Almost everyone was staring, downcast, at a spot on the floor. Richard explained that this was a hangover from decades of Soviet rule. When tourists started flocking to the city in the '90s, they noticed that no one in Prague laughed. It was the result of decades of conditioning. "If you stood out, if you drew attention to yourself, you were suspect. And you never knew who was looking, so people just retreated."
In Prague: A Cultural and Literary History, Richard Burton quotes from a speech Vaclav Havel made early in his presidency in which he described the "decayed moral environment" of Czech life and said, "all of us are responsible, each to a different degree, for keeping the totalitarian machine running." But after the Communists left, Burton writes, there was a "conspiracy of oblivion" to not look too far into who had done what with or to whom, or what they had said about their co-workers, family, friends, and neighbors. Everybody was too implicated, and a recurring theme of post-1989 literature, he writes, is the "immense spider's web" of informing.
Still, ask Czechs to talk about Czechs, and it's like setting off a stink bomb. Our guide to the historic Old Town was the lovely Katerina Dederova, a 26-year-old graduate student. Over drinks, she waved her hand, dismissing the "post-Communist relics" who populate the country and said she looked forward to the time when that generation "slowly dies off."
Later, we met Natasa Sutta, a 48-year-old Czech artist, who took us on a tour of the National Gallery, and who saw her own family's story as a microcosm of the country's. After the crackdown of 1969, when the Soviets crushed the liberalization movement of the Prague Spring, Sutta fled with her mother and two older brothers to England. Her father stayed behind, and the family was permanently severed.
She said of her fellow citizens, "There's a horrible cowardly side to the Czech people. 'Let's keep our head down and be quiet.' No one talks about Communist crimes. It's been hushed up. I think my people are blind. It's like domestic abuse, you love the abuser, you're trapped in their power. I see it in my family and the whole nation."
After a few days in Prague, Francesco, Rachel, and I started to wonder whether the dissatisfied, downcast Czech character might also have something to do with their cuisine. The national dish is goulash and dumplings. This might sound spicy, homey, and satisfying. But the reality of Czech cooking is that the goulash is a few pieces of stringy meat covered with gluey brown gravy; on the side is a gigantic white dumpling, served in slices that have the taste and texture of soggy Wonder Bread. No wonder I didn't see a fat Czech the whole week—surely no one has ever asked for seconds. Besides goulash, there was pork knee, pork neck, potatoes half a dozen ways, pickled vegetables, and wan salads.
Every other block seems to have a cukrarna, or sweet shop, whose windows entice with puffs of cream and chocolate. During the Soviet era, many of these traditional shops were closed—the Communists didn't believe in private enterprise and apparently preferred everyone under their domination to have a bitter taste in their mouths. One day, we finally went into one to indulge ourselves, but the pastry was dry and tasteless. We decided there were untold opportunities in Prague for the contestants on Top Chef, for a Czech-speaking Oprah, and for a pharmaceutical company selling Zoloft-spiked dumplings.