Cheap, lovely--what's not to like? Prague lures young Yanks In Czech capital, life's a little lazy, a little literary

June 17, 1993|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

PRAGUE -- Forget California. Forget Broadway. You can even forget Seattle. Thousands of young Americans have found a new promised land, and it's an unlikely spot -- the Czech capital.

A year and a half ago, John-Bruce Shoemaker arrived in Prague with $600 in his pocket and time on his hands. Today he works 16 hours a day at the three restaurants he runs in a historic building in the city's Old Town.

"Prague's beautiful, it's cheap, and there are lots of opportunities," said Mr. Shoemaker, 30. "There's a lot of cool stuff that can be done here."

"It wouldn't happen in the States today," Mr. Shoemaker said of his success. "It's the kind of thing that happened to our grandparents who emigrated from Europe."

Nobody knows how many Americans are here, but estimates range from 5,000 to more than 20,000. Most, like Mr. Shoemaker, arrive with few dollars and even fewer plans.

For the motivated, opportunities seem to ooze from the city's ancient cobblestones. New arrivals can quickly end up doing anything from managing restaurants to publishing newspapers or advising government ministers.

Expatriates on a budget

But for most, Prague has become a sort of way station where one can lay low, have a good time and not spend a lot of money.

The phenomenon has even coined its own acronym: YAP, or Young American in Prague.

"There are a lot of people coming here because they can live cheaply and they can find a job," said Sari Harris, a Chicagoan who has been here for nine months and is now waiting tables for a dollar an hour. "It's exotic to live in a foreign country, even if you only hang out with Americans."

After Czechoslovakia's 1989 "Velvet Revolution," young Westerners flocked to Prague: The city looks like a prototype for Disneyland; the president, Vaclav Havel, was a playwright, essayist and former political prisoner; the country had a long humanist tradition, exemplified by the peaceful ouster of the communists.

And best of all, rent was dirt-cheap.

Andy Sarno and two friends from Boston have an apartment in an outlying district, where they pay a total of $120 a month in rent -- important, since they're living off of savings while deciding what to do next.

"I don't think you'd be able to do this in the States, because your money wouldn't go very far," Mr. Sarno said. "And you'd still be close to your parents, and they'd be yelling at you to get a job."

Beer and bohemians

The city is served by four English-language newspapers, two owned by Americans; CNN International is broadcast more than 12 hours daily; and a laundromat, aerobics classes and at least one video store all serve a largely American clientele.

If it's pizza you want, try a slice at New York Pizza or Chicago's Famous. Want to take in a burger and a ballgame? One possibility would be the Brooklyn Dodger sports bar. Nachos or some Cajun cooking? There's always Jo's Bar or Red, Hot and Blues.

If the first group of young Americans to move to Prague was largely inspired by the idealism of the heady post-revolutionary days, the latest wave is a decidedly less politicized lot.

"We heard it was cheap, and we heard there were a lot of Americans here, so Prague seemed like the place to be," said Mr. Sarno, who left his job as a carpenter in Boston to come here four months ago. "And the beer here is so much better than at home."

Indeed, liquor is cheap, sex is easy, and you can get by without working very hard. Prague is, after all, the capital of Bohemia -- so a bohemian lifestyle seems to fit right in.

Goatees, berets and unfiltered cigarettes are de rigueur. The bars and discos stay open late. And everyone, it seems, is a novelist, poet or songwriter.

The Paris syndrome

A weekly reading and songfest called "Beefstew" has become a focal point for Prague's burgeoning community of American writers. Every Sunday evening, a dozen or more readers and scores of listeners gather in a Prague disco for what seems to be part ego trip, part group therapy and part undergraduate writing class.

"I wanted to see if there was anything going on here in terms of poetry and writing," said David Freeling, who started the readings last summer. "There had been a lot of hype about it, but when I first got here it wasn't really obvious."

Because of the large number of writers and itinerant hangers-on, Prague today has been hyped as something akin to Paris' Left Bank in the 1920s and '30s -- an era that produced such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry Miller.

While no one at Beefstew or anywhere else in Prague has actually claimed to be the next Hemingway, the rhetoric of the comparison seems to weigh heavily on today's crop of Prague writers. And most of them are eager to deny the similarities.

Overtaken by labels

"The main reason this can't be the Left Bank of the '90s is because it's already been labeled as such," said Paul Martia, 31, who came from Chicago six months ago to devote himself to writing. "If you're saying what it is before it happens, it can't be free to become what it really is."

Few think Prague can remain such a profligate playground forever. Although the city is still one of Europe's most hospitable for Americans, many people report rising resentment of foreigners.

Also, it would appear that many of the current crop of Americans will not last very long when Prague's prices catch up with those in the rest of Europe. Then it will be time to pack up and move on to the next scene -- maybe Kiev? or Volgograd? or Vladivostok?

"Communism is gone, but capitalism hasn't made things untouchable yet," Mr. Sarno lamented. "Eventually McDonald's will take over the entire city and this will be over."

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