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All that said, Prague is a beautiful city -- the Castle, the Old Town Hall, the old Jewish Town Hall, countless churches and residential buildings, and, and, and --- and I do suspect that with more time one would actually find a lot going on. I hit one really cool music venue: the Palac Akropolis.
Built up from near-rubble in the interior of an old building in a working class neighborhood, the Palac Akropolis makes Seattle's OK Hotel Cafe [sadly lost in the '01 earthquake] look like a modest undertaking. Besides being a fine music venue, with a good stage, good sound, and good lighting, it is an artisan's dream: every light fixture a work of art, beautiful parquet floors, an obvious labor of love.
I hit it on a very weird night, sort of a 70s nostalgia thing (you'd think Czechs would be immune to 70s nostalgia, but, hey, Americans had 30s nostalgia). The band was M.T.O. Universal. M.T.O. apparently stands in Czech for "small band and orchestra," basically the group there would have been in each small communist-era Czech town to play at dances, parties, and the like. M.T.O. Universal are very good musicians, whose repertoire is at once very broad (from Ventures-like instrumentals to Abba-ish Europop to AC/DC-ish metal, with a bit of Elvis Presley thrown in for good measure) and very narrow (excpet for Elvis Presley songs, almost everything they play is specifically Czech pop, almost no songs from the West at all). The music ranges from really cheesy to really good, almost all of it played dead straight, although the costumes tell you they can't quite be serious.
The band and many -- perhaps most -- of the (obviously hip) crowd were dressed 70s retro, lots of wigs, and towards the end of the evening the bandleader had an amazing white foam Elvis suit. Perhaps half the crowd were there to dance, the rest just listen and hang out. Many good dancers. Czechs -- even the men -- seem to be an exception to the rule that white people can't dance.
I inevitably fell in with the expatriate crowd 'cause I don't speak Czech. At first they seemed like good company, and some of them (mostly women) remained so, but several (mostly men) drank heavily and badly. They were the only stupidly drunk people in the venue. Spilling beer on the parquet floor, dancing around with pants falling down to their knees, the basic drunk frat boy routine. One young American woman was obviously really embarrassed by her compatriots: a long-term expat, Prague is her home now, she knows the club owner, she's watched the club evolve, she's worked hard to become accepted by the Czechs, and she obviously feared that these guys would undercut that acceptance.
The expat phenomenon is amazing: reasonable estimates say there are 50,000 Americans living in and around Prague, and probably as many other foreigners, mostly under 30. Prague is, by world standards, a cheap place to live, and if the partying scene is your idea of a good time, there's plenty of it. There are bars -- and not just in the center -- which cater almost entirely to expats. One (which I never got to) was described to me as a little transplanted piece of North Beach in San Francisco and supposedly pretty interesting. The coffeehouses -- mostly tourist and expat -- owe more to Seattle than to Vienna or Budapest and (I gather) nothing at all to old Prague. But for all this expat presence, I got a strong sense that 99% of anything decent in the arts is still the Czechs themselves, and that (except perhaps in some specialized sectors of commerce) the expats are more parasites than contributors. I guess at least the English teachers are probably "worth their weight."
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First posted: August 1996
Last modified: April 4, 2002
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