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A city still changing

PRAGUE — As I mentioned in my first post here, I spent my 20th birthday walking around East Berlin. And while the visual paradox with West Berlin was overwhelming, I was nonetheless frustrated with not being able to talk to people there. It wasn't just that I didn't speak German but that the questions I wanted to ask — which revolved around: So what is life like under a communist government? — were, of course, verboten. But, also, I realized the answers from the locals would be limited by the fact that few would have a comparative point of reference to put their experiences into a Western context. And, to be fair, the questions I would have asked would have been comparatively simple, too, because I lacked intimate knowledge of the city I was visiting.

The question — of what life was like under communism — is never far from my mind because it frames the window through which I view the world here. Indeed, it is only a small exaggeration to say that in the 1990s it was impossible to write a story for a U.S. newspaper from eastern Europe in which the lead paragraph did not include a qualifying fragment along the lines of: "four years after the collapse of communism ... " or "... six years after the fall of The Berlin Wall ..." or "... eight years after the Velvet Revolution of 1989."

The 1990s were a decade of dramatic change here, both big and small. In 1992 there was no sign of Christmas until the second week in December. The next year "Christmas" began appearing in the later part of November. And for some time now signs of Christmas have begun popping up before Halloween.

Here's another illustration of how much things were changing back in what I like to call "the early days." When I arrived in Czechoslovakia in August 1992 I joined a week-long seminar on international reporting. Most of the participants returned to the U.S. afterward and I corresponded with one of them. Six months later "K" mailed me a request: could I go into Maj's (pronounced: MIZE) department store and buy her some notepads and mail them to her. (Something about the size and shape of those notepads was just right for her). She had some local currency leftover from her time in Prague and offered to reimburse me for the cost of the notepads and shipping.

But there were some insurmountable problems with her request. To begin, Maj no longer existed, having been taken over by K-Mart. Not only that but the country she visited no longer existed: At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1993 Czechoslovakia split into the Czech and Slovak republics. And so the currency she had brought home a few months earlier was no longer valid.

For the expats here there was definitely a Wild East feel about the place. Horror stories about landlords swirled about. The wackier tales resembled something along the lines of: Innocent expat returned home one day to find his possessions stacked up in the stairwell and the door to his flat bricked-over. So always lurking in the recesses of an expat's mind was the possibility of finding yourself suddenly homeless. Lease? Shmeash! As one legal expert explained it to me back then, "A handshake agreement, or an oral contract, is completely meaningless; and a written contract is worth little more."

Sadly, nearly 20 years after the Velvet Revolution the rule of law here continues to be a definitive weak point in the country's transition to democracy — membership in NATO and the European Union notwithstanding.

Still life here seems relatively "normalized" by western standards. But I was reminded of the '90s quirkiness this past week when I called the Afghanistan Embassy, looking for a comment on the Czech government's revamped — and reduced — plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. In addition, I wanted to ask about the upcoming visit of the Afghan foreign minister to Prague to meet with his European Union and Czech counterparts. After explaining this to the woman who answered the phone at the embassy, she asked who I wanted to speak to. Well, someone in the press department, I replied. "We don't have a press department." She responded. But when she asked if I would like to speak with the ambassador, I readily accepted.

But that kind of quirky occurrence — suddenly being connected to an ambassador — was the type of thing that happened more often in the 1990s.

A week earlier I was shocked by something that was unimaginable in the '90s: the open and chatty manner of a young taxi driver. Discovering that I was American, he seemed eager to practice his English as we drove. Jaroslav had made the mistake of studying economics in high school. His shoulder length hair was just one sign that he was not destined for, nor desiring of, a desk job in this life. His new ambition is to go back to college and study psychology, and eventually work with the elderly. To paraphrase a cliche, "this was not your father's taxi driver." The term "mafia" gets thrown around rather carelessly sometimes, but I'm hard-pressed to find a more suitable term for the taxi regime that existed here through the '90s and well into the new millennium. (And may still linger randomly around the city.)

They juiced passenger seats with electricity, wielded clubs, locked the doors — and rigged the meters! The price gauging could be as much as 10-fold! And if you didn't pay, consider yourself lucky if they merely called the police! (Not the kind of people one would ever chat with, even if you like to gab.) In 2002 I went undercover with a local TV journalist to expose the mayhem. I wrote about it for The (Baltimore) Sun, but the TV report sparked an uproar here. Eventually dramatic changes were implemented, but not before death threats were leveled against at least one city official trying to clean up the industry. Still, foreigners should remain wary of the taxis, and should confer with their host or hotel receptionist about the dos and don'ts of Prague's taxis.

Old habits die hard.