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Almost a Fairy Tale

Jonathan Kandell, author of "Americans in Prague," talks about one of Europe's most beautiful cities

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What drew you to this story?

I go to Prague quite often, and I noticed on these trips that I was meeting up with some very interesting Americans. That wasn't really the case in other places, like Warsaw, which is a much bigger city and part of a much bigger country, or Budapest, which would be comparable in population and cultural background. There was something about Prague that seemed to attract Americans who were doing very interesting things. Everybody remembers Prague right after the Velvet Revolution. There were just hordes of young Americans who moved over there, most of them fresh out of college, kind of [taking] a break before taking a serious career path. Prague was very cheap back then, and it was an exciting place. The Velvet Revolution had been led by intellectual types and people talked about it being like Paris in the 1920s after World War I—there were a lot of aspiring young writers.

Pretty soon, after a few years, these young Americans left. They were backpacker types and they either ran out of money because Prague got a little more expensive or they decided they were getting closer to 30 and had to do something serious in life. So I just wrote off the Americans there. But then I would come across some really serious types, like the ones mentioned in the story. There were plenty of others, by the way. In fact, I have to say that I had a tough time honing the list to just 5 or 6 people. There are people who are doing very interesting things there and in most cases they got there not thinking they were going to stay. In some cases they were already involved in careers back in the states, but for some reason they got over to Prague and ended up lingering longer and longer until they realized, "Hey, I'm here. This is my home." And then, of course, you have an incredible exception like William Lobkowicz, who had very deep roots in that country.

What do you think it is about Prague that appeals to so many Americans, as opposed to, as you mentioned, Warsaw or Budapest?

It is a very attractive city. It's just lovely. It's the one city that, if you say to a Parisian or someone from Rome, "You know, Prague is really the most beautiful city I've ever been to," they won't take exception. They'll probably say, "Well, that's a plausible opinion." And [because] there were so many Americans there, however briefly, after 1989, and so much was written about the place, it paved the way for these more serious people. When they got sent there, or their career took them there, it didn't seem like such an outlandish place to go. They would all react with, "Well, maybe I'll spend a few months there, or a year. It sounds like such a great place, why not?" I don't think that a lot of people would react the same way to Warsaw, and possibly not to Budapest, either. I think also that the Czechs, so far, have been very open to foreigners coming into Prague and getting involved in pretty serious careers or cultural areas.

What is the most surprising discovery you made while working on this story?

It was just this realization—and it was a slow one, it wasn't a sudden surprise—that there were so many Americans doing quite fascinating things, and Americans of very different ages and walks of life. [Also,] the story of William Lobkowicz is almost a fairy tale. That's something I can't imagine being repeated anywhere else. It has to be a huge surprise to anybody who comes across him for the first time.

How did you come across him?

It was early on, when he had just moved there. I was doing a story for another publication. He and his wife had just married, and she was pregnant. The three of us went traveling in the country and he was showing me these properties that his family had owned. Frankly, I didn't think he had a chance of recovering these properties. He was 29 at the time and I wished him the best of luck and it was kind of a fun story—the young Boston real estate broker who would be a prince. I certainly didn't expect to see him years later sitting on the terrace of one of the most beautiful palaces in Prague when I remember him in a horrendous hovel down closer to the center of town back in '90 or '91.

It seems like Prague experienced a unique melding of cultures throughout its history, with both Western and Eastern Europe exerting their influences upon it— how do you think this informs the city's identity today?

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