Wednesday, 31 January 2018

"Prague Cafe"

So the Czech Republic has a new president who happens to be the same one as the old one. President Zeman won 51.4% of votes, seeing off his lacklustre opponent Jiri Drahos. The electorate is almost evenly split. But not geographically or socially.

"Not my president" wrote one of my friends in a Facebook post. I am not surprised by his preference. My friend is young, well-educated and well-travelled (I first met him when he was living in Oxford), which puts him in a constituency which voted solidly for Drahos - 90.3% of all Czechs living abroad voted for Drahos or perhaps should I say against Zeman. My friend is one of those people that President Zeman dismisses as "Prague cafe", even though my friend does not live in Prague.

I don't want, as a foreigner, to get drawn into making political comments on my host homeland and it is very easy to see this election through the eyes of Western European and a Brit at that. But I thought it might be useful to look at this phrase and what it means and why it chimes with just over half the electorate. In order to do so it helps to look at the two words separately.

Prague voted strongly for Drahos (68.8%) as did other similar cities. Like London and many of other capitals Prague is seen by inhabitants of other regions as getting too much of the cake (its wages are much higher than the national average) and as elitist and out of touch. Local and national politicians play on these grievances.

Cafe is an equally damning word. It contrasts with the pub, which is so much part of many people's lives here. The pub is for hard-working salt-of-the earth types who drink that symbol of Czech identity - beer. What is more there seems to be a historic memory bound up in this. One hundred years ago this year the Czechoslovak First State achieved its independence from Austria and what culture is Austria, especially Vienna, renowned for but cafe culture?

There is also an unspoken swipe at the Czech Republic's first president, Vaclav Havel, who in the early days of his presidency was to be seen in Cafe Slavia (shown above) holding meetings with his ministers and visiting foreign politicians. If Havel was a man of the Prague Cafe, Zeman portrays himself as the man in the pub.

"Prague Cafe" is a clever political phrase, playing on all sorts of conscious and subconscious associations. In English we might say the "chattering classes" but it is bigger and deeper than that.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Jan Palach Day

Today is the anniversary of the death of Jan Palach. I have written about the young student in the past in this post   In protest at the Soviet invasion in 1968 Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square and died three days later. 

I wasn't going to post about him this year. But as I was going through the boxes of photos hiding under our bed, I came across a set of photos of my first visit to Prague and the Czech Republic and among them was this photograph. It was the Easter following the Velvet Revolution and the grief that had been suppressed during the Communist Era was at last allowed expression. The site of Palach's tragic protest had become a makeshift shrine, the most prominent of many scattered across the city. I was incredibly moved by it and still am.

Monday, 15 January 2018


Yet another year goes by and I have again missed the re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz, which takes place in early December every year. I keep meaning to travel to the rolling hills south of Brno where the battle took place, but because of the timing (the 2nd December) I do not make it.

The battle, which took place in 1805, will be known to fans of the recent BBC War and Peace serialization as the battle in which Prince Andrei is wounded. To military historians it is often seen as Napoleon's greatest victory when a French force of only 72,000 was pitted against a combined Austrian/Russian force of 85,000. Napoleon's victory was based on psychology and tactics, taking advantage of the foggy weather to lure his enemies from their position of strength into attacking. To reenactment fans - it is one the biggest annual reenactments anywhere with over 900 participants from all over Europe.

This film of the 2017 reenactment shows why I really should risk the cold and make it to Slavkov (the Czech name for the battle is Bitva u Slavkov) some year soon.


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