Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Travel Notes from Czech Republic

·       Nice Place: The Czech Republic is a clean, upbeat interesting country whose best days are probably ahead.

·       The Best Kind of Tour Guide:  If you visit a former Eastern bloc country, I recommend spending more than just a few minutes with a resident who is at least middle age. We visited a plant an hour north of Brno, which itself is a three-hour drive from the Prague airport. Our host was kind enough to pick us up and drive the entire way, giving us plenty of time to hear the Czech Republic’s history from his point of view. Within three generations, the Czech Republic went from being a happy and prosperous part of the Austro-Hungarian empire to being at the geographic center of World War I, then being sold out to Hitler by Chamberlain et al. in the Munich Agreement, invaded by the Nazis a short time later, consigned to totalitarianism with 1948’s Communist Party coup d’├ętat, occupied by the Soviets in 1968, released from Soviet rule when the wall came down, finally achieving independence as the Czech Republic in 1993. It’s a fascinating history, and almost anyone with a reasonably-sized family will have incredible stories to tell.

·       Capitalism = Colorful; Communism = Grey:  We travelled for several hours through the countryside where tiny towns with a steeple in the center dotted emerald green rolling hills. On occasion, we’d spy a Soviet-era monolith, but for the most part the stone and brick houses were small, quaint and colorful. Our host admitted that if we’d made the same drive thirty years ago, everything would have been grey. People did not have enough money back then to take care of their homes. Now, people are repointing their mortar, painting exteriors and taking care of their property.

·       Politics is Dirty: When speaking about politics in the Czech Republic (and perhaps any other former member of the Soviet Union) invariably the conversation turns to corruption. The good news is that corruption is on the wane in Czeckia (that’s the government’s new popular name for itself). But people are sorrowful about crooked pols.

·       Sold!: During the Soviet era, everything (everything!) of substance was owned by the state. Farms, power and water companies, consumer products companies, everything. When the Soviets relinquished control and liberal democracy took hold, there was a great push to privatize everything. In the first years of its new power, the government undertook a clever but complicated scheme to sell all of these things to the public. Each resident received, for free, an equal amount of virtual currency which could only be used to purchase shares in the farms, companies and other enterprises up for auction. People could choose which shares to buy, including the farms upon which they toiled, or the companies for which they worked. Of course certain companies had greater prospects than others, so some shares shot up dramatically, and some shares floundered and eventually went to zero. If you picked well, you could end up a millionaire. If you chose badly, you could end up destitute. In fact, this is what happened. The plan, which sounded so fair, turned out to be not so equitable in the end. Further compounding the problem, the auction itself was compromised in various ways by those crooked pols. The people seem to be happy that the privatizations took place, but less sanguine about the way it was done.

·       Empty Pews: There are beautiful old churches everywhere in the Czech Republic. But apparently they’re empty. Czeckia has the highest percentage of atheists in the world. Two generations of Soviet rule made it so. Most people during the Soviet era held jobs, in factories, farms, or as nurses or school teachers. The government would pay a modest stipend to these workers so they could eat. The government never declared churches off-limits or confiscated the chapels. But apparently, if the government ever caught wind that a family was taking its children to church on Sundays, they would simply stop paying the stipend. Church attendance plummeted. After thirty years, the pews were empty.

·       Eye Candy: Here are some pictures from Prague.