PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — Czechia, more commonly called the Czech Republic in the United States, is a land of contrasts.
As with a surprising number of European countries, it is not truly a part of the First World as Canadians and Americans understand First World, but neither is it Third World.
The Communist Czechoslovakia that existed some 50 years within the Soviet sphere of influence left its mark on the postmodern Czechia I visited this winter, and this new Czechia lived up to the Second World designation afforded to former Soviet Union member nations and their allies. Wealth and poverty sat side by side, blissfully unaware of their glaring differences.
Though the Iron Curtain has been lifted, its cold shadow hung over the land long enough to have significant effects most evident in older Czechs who lived through those dark times. Older folks seemed weary, colder, more distant and clearly less open to Westerners.
Friendly in comparison to older Germans, Austrians and Slovakians, mind you, but still espousing muted warmth at best.
Then again, after having come from Austria and Bavarian Germany, where people would literally leer at you for minutes at a time for no apparent reason, even folks from the East Coast of the U.S. would seem friendly.
Younger Czechs, though, stood in almost rebellious contrast to their older countrymen and women.
Friendly is almost not enough to describe the bubbly, outgoing nature of younger folks we met in Prague and Pilsen, Czechia’s largest and fourth-largest cities by population, respectively. The enthusiastic and energetic folks my own age and younger seemed not at all averse to foreigners but even welcoming to them. In fact, many younger Czechs spoke English so perfectly unaccented that I asked them where in the United States or Canada they were from. I was repeatedly told how they just love American culture and “watch a lot of Netflix to practice English.”
I kid you not.
American culture is dominant, but you don’t visit Prague for the people. You visit for the Czech culture. You visit for the fashion, the architecture, the food, the beer (well not me, personally, but I did visit the factory where they invented the first Pilsner).
Culture is where Prague shone bright.
Centuries-old architecture, lit up at night with a booming blend of tourists and native shopkeepers was all over and especially resplendent during the Christmas season.
Though poorly maintained, aging buildings with insufficient history to spur upkeep had fallen into disrepair and were little more than slums, much of the city was, in fact, iconic. Prague carried the problems of many large cities, namely related to sanitation, but overall, the aged cityscape was somehow both pleasant and familiar.
Clothing and fashion were anything but familiar. Everyone was impeccably dressed. Women, of course, weren’t clothed much differently than stylish modern women in any temperate North American city, but the men were on another level.
Men were not limited to the bland and solemn colors and forgettable jeans, khakis and simple jackets you see Stateside. They wore vivid hues, scarves, hats, peacoats and a general edgy classiness that I felt much more at home with.
The fashion was truly all it’s cracked up to be, and I’m a tough sell.
Nothing else was on that level, though, including the food.
Sure, the food was good by European standards, but my second trip to Europe also made me realize just how spoiled we North Americans are. Our culinary scene — especially on the Best Coast — is truly unmatched. I can’t speak to the beer, but my brothers approved after Czeching that box.
In my ethnocentric glory, I also realized how much the behaviors of a city’s residents influence the general — and here’s a word I hate but find unavoidable here — “vibe” of the city.
Being from the Pacific Northwest, I’m used to vibrant and active populations of climbers, kayakers and fishermen at home, but I’m also used to finding relative dead zones of outdoor activity when I travel. Not so in Prague. The green spaces were filled with people embracing the bracing by walking, jogging, biking and generally thriving outside in the frigid cold. When I went on my obligatory fishing detour in the heart of Prague, it took me some time to find a place I could fish, but when I did, it quickly panned out.
I wasn’t the first one to find that area, either. Someone had built a wooden rod holder on the side of the river complete with a crudely cobbled-together gaff and an old lawn chair.
I threw out a handful of corn, “feeding” in the traditional European method, and watched my rod double over less than 15 minutes later when a massive European chub inhaled my bait.
These are a popular gamefish over there, and I can see why. The 20-inch fish was vigorous despite an air temperature well below freezing and fought like a champ on medium-light tackle. I landed the fish without need of the gaff, posed for a picture and let it go, almost regretting the instant, bone-chilling cold it coated my hands in.
Though the Iron Curtain has been ripped away, visiting Czechia felt like a backstage look at a country poised for rebirth, a country on the edge of something great and fueled by young people ready for that greatness.
Worth visiting? Czech.