Seated in a Prague cafe, next door to the erstwhile home of Radio Stalin, sat Nicho, the quintessential American in Prague. Nursing a coffee and ordering kaj (tea, pronounced chai) for me, he said, "So what are you writing about?" When I dissembled--"Americans in Prague," I said--he flashed a smug smile, and informed me that my clever idea was already a cliche. He then proceeded to ask how his dye job looked (unnoticeable red highlights in his dark hair), criticize American visiters, and boast of his prowess in Czech, not realizing that the cliche at the table was himself. ,
"Xers" (pronounced ex-ers, as in Generation X) is the current term for the 41 million Americans, such as Nicho, born between 1961 and 1971, best known for their perpetual envy of baby-boomers. Someone has finally come up with a name for my generation, and looking around Prague I realized how apt the name and characterization are. Of the three kinds of Americans among the staggering twenty thousand in Prague--tourists, business types, and aimless Xers--the third group has contributed most to Prague's dual reputation, as a haven for Americans and a Left Bank for the Nineties.
According to Newsday, "Xers are obsessed with the houses they can't afford, and instead of engaging with the world, they retreat: either mooching off mom and dad or marginalizing themselves in 'McJobs'--low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future positions in the service industry." Perhaps this obsession stems from having read too many articles in the New York Times warning of a dearth of jobs for university graduates. Conveniently enough, Prague is the perfect place to find a job that is not a career. Most Xers have their fingers in multiple pots, and frequently flit from one odd job to the next.
A favorite vocation is teaching English to anxious Czechs. The wages are excellent by Czech standards: 100 crowns ($3) an hour. By contrast, a job in a pizza joint pays only 20 crowns (60 cents). Teaching English is not necessarily as easy as you might think: when is the last time you tried to define a transitive verb or explain why "gh" is pronounced like "ph"? There are also a host of actors, writers, and artists. Most of them teach English for a living, too.
In addition to vocational hangups, Xers are known to be a disgruntled bunch generally, easily bored, and in search of diversion. Hence the migration to Prague, where they have pushed aside the old stereotype of the ugly American, in favor of a new, and no more flattering, stereotype. Previous generations of Americans were the butt of old European jokes, such as: "Why do Americans talk so loud? So you can hear them over their clothes." Today the Americans living in Prague could not be accused of such behavior, although some of the older tourists remain guilty. Xers, indeed, err too much in the other direction. Desperate to blend in, they wear drab-colored clothing, frequently black. So as not to look affluent, many don threadbare, ratty outfits. They forget that it is easy to distinguish a Czech from an American by looking at two things: his shoes and his teeth.
Even sartorially, the boho care look does not provide much camouflage. Young Czechs frequently wear louder, flashier clothes, frequently including T-shirts with American logos. The Czechs also favor comparatively outlandish hairstyles. American hair tends to be a bit long and messy, whereas Czechs are more likely to dye, buzz, or gel their hair.
In trying to avoid the label of ugly American, Xers resort to affected, pretentious, and even anti-American activities. Status symbols among this group are not material, but temporal: namely, evidence of how long you have been in Prague and how authentic your Czech experience has been. It is not uncommon to hear an American remark, with pride, that in his neighborhood you can get a beer for 6 crowns. Toward the center of town beer costs 30 crowns. A related point of pride has to do with apartment location. While New Yorkers who live in the Outer Boroughs don't advertise the fact, Prague Xers will say, with the haughtiness of a denizen of Sutton Place, "I live out in Prague 10" (Prague 1 being the center). Of course, natives wish they could live off Wenceslaus Square and afford the 30-crown beers at U Flecku (Prague's best beer), but this point is lost on those looking for a "genuine" Prague experience.
In Dodsworth, Sinclair Lewis observed that only two peoples engage in relentless self-denigration: Americans and Jews. While the Czechs, unlike the French, seem content with the presence of Americans in their midst, Americans love to condemn their countrymen. Tourists are the favorite target, but other Americans residing in Prague come under fire as well.
Also unpopular is the American political system--unpopular, that is, with Americans. A Czech woman who places Americans as English teachers and has spoken to hundreds of us recently asked me if President Bush is a dictator. When told that he is (for the moment) a duly elected official, she refused to believe it. Why? Every American she meets says President Bush is a despot, without support among the American people (the last part comes closer to the truth, of course).
Although, after forty years of Soviet agitprop, Czechs welcome American culture, Xers deride the heavy American influence, alleging that it is "ruining' Prague. The local McDonald's (a second will open soon) is tastefully decorated and hosts tourists and natives alike. The convenience and service there can prove too much at times, making for a delicious comeuppance. One frequent critic of the Golden Arches broke down and had a Big Mac on Jan Hus Day, a holiday during which every (repeat, every) native Czech business is closed.
Anxious to absorb as much as possible from American culture, the Czechs seem a little bewildered. The theaters are filled with second-, even third-run American films. Most music stations play American pop music, although with a strangly lacking sense of time and style. You might hear, for example, Nirvana followed by Elvis. Similarly, a party-goer in Prague might witness hippies, yippies, beatniks, skinheads, and punks at the same party, none of them, seemingly, aware that they clash.
The Czechs, however, have no monopoly on such obtuseness. The Americans hanging out in Prague frequently behave as if they were missionaries bringing the ideas of a free society to a young child while living on the cutting edge of the Nineties art world. But despite their illusion, Paris remains Paris; even Milan Kundera resides there, a point of irritation to some Czechs. And Prague has not produced any literature worth mentioning in the same sentence with Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or even Henry Miller, all of whom spent time in Paris during the 1920s. Nevertheless, the aimless Xpatriates remain, sitting in a way station--admittedly a fun one--biding time until they move on with their lives and the Czechs establish their own country.