Almost a Fairy Tale

Jonathan Kandell, author of “Americans in Prague,” talks about one of Europe’s most beautiful cities

Prague iStock / Kesu01

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?

When Americans or Western Europeans talk about Prague they'll talk about it as Eastern Europe. This makes [the people of Prague] bristle, because they'll point out that it wasn't their fault they were under Soviet domination all those years. If you look at Prague geographically, it's to the west of Vienna. Why isn't Vienna called Eastern Europe? And they have a very long history as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Prague was more industrialized than Vienna and Austria during the Austro-Hungarian empire. This was a very sophisticated place. Under the Habsburgs it was considered the second city of the Austro-Hungarian empire, with Budapest being a close third and Vienna being the center of power. They're a strongly Catholic country and those who aren't Catholic are Protestant, they're not Orthodox. It's true that the Czech language is a Slavic language, but there's a very strong identification with the West, and it shouldn't be surprising even after 40 years of Soviet domination. So I guess it is very much a Central European country.

Do you agree with banker Jack Stack's notion of Prague and other Central European cities becoming the "engines of growth" for Europe?

Yes. One of the things that really strikes me about Central and Eastern Europe is an incredible dichotomy. It is old Europe in terms of architecture—the buildings, the centers, the cores of these towns and cities are very much the way Europe looked between the wars in the '20s and '30s. It's changing, because new buildings are coming up—although, thank God, outside of the historical areas. So you've got that on one hand. On the other hand, I kept noticing that the people who I interviewed, for the most part, are under 45 years of age, whether they are in politics, in business or in culture. The reason this happened was that with the collapse of the old Communist regime, the people who were most prepared for the new capitalist era were very young. They adapted much more quickly than the older ones. You get very sad stories of parents who are not particularly old, in their 50s and 60s, who lost their jobs and lost their way under the new system and are now supported by their sons and daughters, who are thriving as professionals. There is this tremendous sense of energy and ambition and idealism that the world and the future is theirs. These under-45s are everyplace—in positions of power, at the very top of banks and of businesses. At the same time, when you visit Prague or Budapest you feel that you're in old Europe, physically. It's a lovely combination which you don't really get in Western European capitals. They also tend to be more conservative socially, whether it's Paris or Rome, Milan or Zurich, and I think that has to do with the fact that an older generation is in charge, as would be natural. That will happen again in places like Prague in another 20 years, but for now it's a younger generation, by and large, that's in charge.

You certainly seem quite enamored with the city. Is there anything about it that you don't like?

I do wish the food was better. To me it's inexplicable. It doesn't seem to matter how much you pay for it, it's not going to be great, and if it's inexpensive then it's going to be pretty dreadful. They just haven't done a serious job of improving their food. Budapest is much better food-wise. I'd be hard-pressed to remember a truly memorable meal, no matter how much I paid for it, in Prague. Now, the beer's great.

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