New Bohemians

The reality of three weeks of traveling, lectures, and site-seeing is taking its toll so this blog isn't comprehensive but covers the highlights.
We had Saturday free to roam the city, find the many landmarks and sample the fare. Since the fall of Communism in 1989 Prague has been on an upward trajectory and now it's an all out tourist destination with as many tourist traps as your typical beach town. The masses of people are staggering and I can only imagine what it would be like if we didn't have the near freezing temps and rain to thin the crowd.

I spent most of the day with my traveling Fellows Christine Staberg and Charlie Hicks. After viewing St. Vitus Cathedral and the Palace we went on a walking tour around the Old Town Square, past the Astronomical Clock and Powder Tower. One of the highlights was St. Giles Cathedral. Since the church was transformed to a Baroque design it's easy to overlook from the outside. But the interior is worth the stop. The ornamentation and craftsmanship is overwhelming and the church is still used by the Polish community for Sunday mass. St. Giles is one of many gorgeous churches here that have mostly become concert halls. The last census showed that nearly 50% of the population has declared themselves atheists reducing the churches to mere memorials. We closed out the evening by starting at one of the few remaining local pubs and finally arriving at the self-proclaimed "largest dance club in Central Europe".

Sunday we took a mini-bus to Pinkse to see the oldest bridge in Central Europe — not self-proclaimed. It's shockingly easy to become immune to the antiquity so I try to imagine living with these monuments when they were new. One interesting view from the bridge is the clear architectural divide between pre (left) and post (right) Communist rule. Clearly "ugly" was a communist mandate.

Afterwards we drove on to Ceske Budejovice for an exclusive tour of City Hall and a lunch discussion with professors Salim Murad and Alena Hospesova. The complications of immigration and racism, Lisbon Treaty, the remaining Communist party, generational amnesia and World War 2 drove the conversation. In the U.S. we've tabled WW2 at the VFWs. Here it's still a complicating reality affecting policy and cultural psyche and its worsened by 40 years of Communism and a new republic.

After a pig knuckle and some original Czech Budweiser Budwar we went to Hluboka Castle, a premium example of a Baroque-style castle from the 19th century. The interior is even more impressive with opulent tapestries, metals, woods, and leathers. Photos weren't allowed so I bought a book to share at home. Next we met with the mayor of Hluboka, Tomas Jirsa, who is also the Senator of South Bohemia. Over the course of another meaty dinner he tied the full day together by using the legal wranglings of the castle to illustrate all of the topics we touched on during lunch.

The Schwarzenberg family owned the castle for 300 years until the last owner fled to Canada when the Nazis invaded. In his absence the State confiscated the property by a specific Parliamentary order in 1947. Since that time there have been numerous law suits from certain family members to regain portions of the estate. However not much has changed because the Czech Republic has only allowed restitution for properties back to 1948 when the Communists took over. He went on to explain a soap opera worthy series of events that started to make the concerns over Lisbon and property rights more clear.

The Germans were exiled to Poland, Austria and Bavaria after the war. There is a fear that former residents of the country will demand return of properties once the Treaty is finally agreed to by Czech President Klaus. Poland was able to get an exemption to this because they have more clout at the EU. So Klaus is holding out trying to negotiate the same for CR. Borders and occupation have been so dynamic in the history of this part of the world that there is a concern that if any part of the Pandora's Box is opened then the floodgates will go back much further than the mid-century and lead to a barrage of lawsuits. That said, it is certain and resigned that Klaus will sign the Treaty in the next 4 months. The Parliament has approved it and it's his constitutional duty to execute their order. Needless to say there is a lot of frustration with Klaus here and a number of measures underway to force his hand.

On Monday we started with an agenda of politics, art and racism so I knew it would be a good one. Two major highlights plus one. First I met with Jana Zielinski designer and organizer of of Designblok, Prague's annual design festival. She's the first design professional I've met on the trip and she was a breath of fresh air after all the politicians and academics. It seems like the language of design is universal. We are optimistic for that the world can be better and that design and help us get there. The world of design is also small as it turns out we both know Susan Szenasy from Metropolis magazine. After the visit Jana sent me to DOX to view a Czech design exhibit, My Europe, and the hilarious and controversial Entropa sculpture by David Cerny. Much has been written about his piece and I hope you take some time to read about it. It's one of the funniest and outrageous public art installations I've ever encountered.

That afternoon we met with Ambassador Vaclav Bartuska , one of the 1989 revolutionaries and the wittiest person we've met on this trip. I fear Joe Biden's visit with him this week. It is an understatement that the Poles and Czech's are outraged with the White House's handling of communication about the European missile defense strategy. Everyone knew it was coming but not via a 12:30am phone call on the anniversary the Soviet Union occupation of Poland. It just showed insensitivity all around. Now we're sending Biden here to patch things up. Frustrating to say the least.

Today we started at the United Nations Information Center with a discussion about the UN's future and the need for reform. Like NATO they are are struggling with consensus building because of the large number of constituents. The rest of the day we connected with academics on the current Czech political crisis and then closed out the day with Czech alum of the MMF program.

Of course there's beautiful Prague to talk about too and its another sad goodbye to such a resilient city. These splendid buildings as symbols of the people, surviving centuries of occupation and war and still standing proudly in the midst of uncertainty.

Tomorrow Leipzig.