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On Prague Spring Rolls...

“Smazeny Syr”, “Hranolky”, “Cesnekova Polevka”. These words have stayed etched upon my brain now for the best part of twenty years. I first visited the Czech Republic in 1999, a callow nineteen-year-old on his first independent trip abroad. My friend and I spent a few days in Prague on the way to playing a chess tournament in the smaller city of Pardubice. “Fried cheese”, “chips” and “garlic soup” – back then this was the essential vocabulary for my survival as a vegetarian amongst the pork knuckles, stews and dumplings of a doubtless delicious, but heavily meat-based, Czech cuisine. 

How things have changed. This time I landed at a modern, international airport; my Uber arrived within minutes to take me to my AirBnB accommodation. Twenty years earlier we had arrived at night at a youth hostel, exhausted from a 16-hour coach journey from London, and were surprised to wake up the next morning in a room full of 20 other travelers, of both sexes. Changing money was possible but you risked being ripped off by unscrupulous merchants in the Wenceslas square. Now, the ubiquity of contactless payments means that you scarcely touch the local currency at all. 

Prague – or at least its centre – seems to have reclaimed its place as a multi-cultural, international city. Its buildings have been spruced-up to recapture their former glories, the shops are full of global chains. The Charles Bridge throngs with tourists and well-dressed locals. Many languages are heard on its repaved streets. Shop staff speak English and speak it well. The expectations have changed; long gone are the days where surly and unsmiling “service” was the dour national character and norm. 

Yet the transformation of the last two decades, the progress from early post-Communist “Eastern Europe” to an outward-looking & optimistic Central European nation, is looking quite fragile. The re-election of a populist President early this year has sent jitters around half the country. January 2018 saw a narrow victory for Zeman, an open supporter of both Putin and Trump. His challenger, who lost by fewer than 150,000 votes, ran on a pro-EU platform, envisaging the Czech Republic alongside Germany and France at the heart of the European Project. 

There are fears that the Czech Republic will move closer to the governments of Hungary and Poland, pandering to a rising nationalism, and becoming more hostile to immigrants and foreigners. As in many countries, the Czechs are divided almost exactly 50-50 between globalists and nationalists. But, unlike in other places, this is true throughout the country. It is not a case of urban, liberal Prague against a backward, conservative countryside. A geographical analysis of voting patterns revealed surprising pockets of support for both worldviews in city and hamlet alike. 

I was visiting Prague to attend the biennial conference of the European Union of Progressive Judaism, alongside more than 350 other delegates from across the continent. Keynote speakers addressed current concerns such as anti-Semitism and immigration. It was striking how comfortable delegates felt to walk the streets of Prague wearing their kippot, something that has become unadvisable in Brussels and Paris, and for different reasons in Budapest and Warsaw. Here in Prague, the Jewish Quarter has become a key part of the city’s tourism. And the Jewish community, almost wiped out by the Shoah and heavily repressed under forty years of Communism, has crept out of wherever it had been hiding. As some hundreds of Czechs discover their Jewish roots and feel safe enough to explore them, Progressive Judaism has been central to the reemergence of a renascent Jewish life.

Europe feels like it is on a knife-edge, its future at a pivotal turning-point, and Prague reflects this fragility. Can the country maintain its openness, and reclaim its place as the international city of Kafka and Planck? In those days, the fighting of the Jewish community used to occur between the Czech-speaking Jews and the German-speaking Jews, and the coffee houses were full of people coming and going, hobnobbing and doing business across Central Europe. Or will the borders again come down, with each country, the Czech Republic included, narrowing its vision to its own national interest. Here, Brexit has not helped, nor do the bellicose tweets trumpeting from the White House serve to increase confidence. 

It would be a shame for the Jews – ever prominent in liberal, internationalist circles – should the European vision be lost in the Czech Republic. Indeed it would be more than a shame, it would be nothing short of a travesty for the Jewish community should the progress of the last twenty years be lost. 

On a lighter note, it would also be a shame for the vegetarians. The restaurant scene in Prague has exploded and I was amazed both by the proliferation of vegetarian and vegan options, and by how almost every restaurant prominently advertised its meat-free fare. Many even asked their customers to approach them about their allergies. In foodie terms, 1999 feels like another world, and while I am reliably told that “smazak” is still a popular delicacy amongst Czech teens, on this visit to Prague I felt absolutely no need to check it out for myself. Some things are best left in the past, and deep-fried cheese may be one of them!

Thu, 27 June 2019 24 Sivan 5779