Larry King's Letter from Europe

Feb. 7, 2000

Paul: I went to Prague for Thanksgiving, and before you ask, no, Czechs don't normally celebrate the safe arrival in the New World of a small, hardy band of religious bigots from England almost four hundred years ago. A friend of mine, who's American and married to a Czech, lives there, and he's introducing the holiday year by year.

So far, resistance has been minimal. A holiday featuring a vast amount of carbohydrates fits right in in the Czech Republic, where the basic food unit is the dumpling. You can do a lot with a dumpling -- fill it with cheese, garlic, and various meats and smother it with gravy, for example -- and whatever you do, anyone who eats a few will spend the rest of the day in a caloric torpor, occasionally belching but otherwise inert. Throw in football, and you've got the kind of afternoon any American who's endured a traditional Thanksgiving dinner would recognize.

Jim and Lucie, my hosts, omitted the dumplings and produced an American Thanksgiving spread that could have come from a Norman Rockwell painting. The Czech aspects of the event emerged later. Foremost among them was the tendency of any convivial group of Czechs to stay up all night and drink everything in the house, especially the high-octane liqueurs Central Europeans are so fond of. I don't know what goes into that stuff or how they distill it, but a few shots will keep you singing bawdy Czech folk songs till dawn, even if you're an American visitor who doesn't speak a word of Czech.

Prague itself has changed some since I was last there, a few years ago. The Czech economy supposedly is slumping, but the city center in particular has been cleaned up, renovated, and studded with cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. It's full of prosperous-looking Czechs wearing the same black denim, wool, and leather as the crowd in Soho and the East Village. The roads get clogged during the morning and evening rush hour, and the cars are Volkswagens and Audis and Volvos and Mercedes, not the pre-revolution Skodas and East German Trabants that used to roam the streets looking for a place to fall apart.

You do see one of the old Soviet dinosaurs occasionally, and the Trabant especially makes you wonder why we ever feared the communist bloc. The engine sounds like a lawn mower and the exhaust spews more noxious fumes than Vesuvius. None of the body parts fit flush against the adjoining parts; the hood and trunk won't stay latched and the bumpers rattle against the frame. The simplest mechanical parts -- window cranks, windshield wipers, rear-view mirror swivels -- break and fall off after they're used the first few times. After a couple of Central European winters, you haven't got a car body so much as a delicate sculpture of free-standing rust.

And this was a car made by Germans, for God's sake. They had cousins in Stuttgart putting together Mercedes and family friends down in Munich building BMWs. But communism did to the cherished tradition of German engineering what Bill Clinton did to the concept of Presidential dignity. Think what it did to Russian engineering, which reached its apogee with the vodka distillery. If a Soviet general had ever fired an ICBM at the U.S., he would have needed to warn the folks in the Ukraine they better duck. The entire city of Prague offers a kind of architectural rebuke to Marx and Lenin, for that matter. The city hasn't suffered a great fire in centuries and it's never endured a serious bombardment. If a building got knocked down in Prague during the five hundred years or so before 1948, it was probably because somebody had in mind to replace it with something better. Consequently, the city offers a living history of urban architecture since the Dark Ages.

The center of the city is divided into what are called the Old Town and the New Town, the New Town being the upstart neighborhood that didn't get built until the 1300s. Medieval buildings still exist, and not just the occasional carefully preserved cathedral or palace. I ate dinner in a restaurant housed in a building that dated back to the 15th century or so.

Surrounding Old and New Town are rings of newer buildings, newer in this instance meaning you start before the Thirty Years War, and work up through World War I and immediately thereafter. Although Prague was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire most of that time, the Czechs managed to put up buildings in the Hapsburg style without making them grandiose and pompous, unlike much of Vienna. The Austrians were trying hard to impress on everyone that their city was the seat of a vast empire. The Czechs had no one in particular they wanted to impress, and they ended up with a much more graceful, appealing city.

It helps that they hide the drab and ugly parts. The slums are outside the city instead of in the center, the sensible arrangement most European cities have adopted. The outer edge of Prague is a belt of houses and small businesses, mostly from the Thirties, that aren't so much unattractive as run down and suffering from being converted into ``worker'' housing. Go a little further out, and you come to the true worker housing, built some time between 1948 and the 1980s -- what Jim, my American friend, calls commie condos. And until you've seen what unmotivated workers who drink heavily can do with poured concrete, you don't know how ugly a building can be. A commie condo is an unadorned cube of rough concrete, ranging from two to six stories. Sometimes the concrete was left its natural color, sometimes it got a thin coat of whitewash. Depending on which was chosen, the polluted air that comes from burning soft coal and untreated gasoline for forty years soon turned it dung brown or faded-bruise yellow.

Calling them cubes is optimistic. The word implies plumb lines and straight edges, which they haven't got. Jim says they were built by laying wooden frames on the ground, filling the forms with concrete, then winching them upright to form the walls. A roof would also be built on the ground, then lifted atop the rickety structure. If you think about that a minute, you realize none of the building's constituent parts is integral to the other parts. They just lean against or rest upon one another, not unlike the workers after they've done their drinking for the day.

In short, if you take a tram from the outer rings of Prague into the center, you can watch as the history of architecture and building craft reverses itself outside the tram windows. It's a little like one of those dioramas in the natural history museum that shows the evolution of man from hairy, stooped brute to upright, thinking human. But in this case, things get better as you go back in time. Once you reach Old Town Square, you've seen incontrovertible evidence that when it came to the basic matter of putting a roof over his head, a Prague resident made out rather better in the Middle Ages than he did ten or fifteen years ago. Or to put it another way, with roughly eight hundred years of human history to guide him, a demented German intellectual came up with a social, economic, and political system that actually worked worse than feudalism. And he thought he was doing everyone a favor. The enduring mystery of the twentieth century, or at least the latter half of it, may be why so many people continued to think Marx was right, no matter what the evidence showed. It's as if people responsible for the education of children ignored the very existence of the fossil record that establishes how evolution occurs and . . . never mind.

Actually, I retain a sneaking affection for old Karl. He was such a complete scoundrel. Did you know the champion of the working class never actually worked for a living? He sponged off his bourgeois family while he bummed around Europe preaching revolution until he was thirty-one. Then the Belgians, usually an even-tempered bunch, threw him out of their country. He'd already exhausted the patience of the authorities in his native Germany and in France, so he moved to London. From then until his death thirty-four years later, he sponged off Frederick Engels. Engels, incidentally, had arranged his life rather neatly -- he earned his living oppressing millworkers at his family's textile factory in Manchester, and between times wrote books expressing his shock and horror at the oppression of millworkers. On his income from the mills, he supported not only himself and Marx, but also Marx's wife, multitudinous children, and mistress, near whom the latter is buried in London's Highgate Cemetery. The credulous regularly make pilgrimages there to this day.

I thought about dropping by myself when I got back from Prague, just to thumb my nose, but I didn't have time. I almost immediately left to go to Paris for work and then to the U.S. for Christmas. I was only in the states five days, and I spent much of my holiday fascinated by the obsessive television and newspaper coverage of the Y2K bug. I gathered the U.S. was teetering on the edge of an abyss, and the republic would avoid tipping over into darkness and chaos only by dint of a heroic, horribly expensive effort on the part of battle-hardened programmers with nerves of steel. Is everyone feeling suitably abashed now? Have high-priced consultants been dragged out of their paneled offices and soundly thrashed? Is anyone standing on the Idaho border laughing at the survivalists crouched around their campfires?

The questions are rhetorical. But I do honestly want to know one thing. In the many months the U.S. was whipping itself into an apocalyptic frenzy, did anyone isolate a non-vital computer system, flip its clock forward to 23.59 on 31 December 1999, and wait a minute to see what would happen? Lots of people performed that test after they'd spent a few million bucks updating and debugging software. But so far as I can tell, no one checked to see if the millennium bug actually existed in the first place.

By contrast, you could go weeks in the U.K. without catching a reference to the millennium bug. If anybody was stockpiling canned food and ammunition in the Yorkshire Dales, I never heard about it. I don't recall seeing a single story in a London newspaper about the bug after I got back, a couple days before New Year's Eve.

Just in case my countrymen were right, though, I immediately left for Paris again. If civilization was going to end on New Year's Eve, I wanted to be in the most civilized city I know of.

Paris was paying as little attention to the millennium bug as London. I saw one story in a French newspaper about it. Read through the murk of my extremely uncertain French, the story seemed to regard with some amusement people who were worried about ``le boug.''

What the French were taking seriously was their New Year's party. They cleared much of central Paris of its murderous traffic, for which someone should get at least an honorable mention the next time the Nobel Peace Prize is handed out. The Champs Elysees became a vast pedestrian mall. The best place to be at midnight was down on the Right Bank of the Seine, where I made my way with a group of five friends and a couple of million acquaintances. That was where you got the best view of the fireworks. Maybe you caught some of it on television -- they blew up the Eiffel Tower. It was a rousing spectacle and it went on just long enough, then quit before things got boring, unlike virtually every other fireworks display I've ever seen.

Unfortunately, the French are not as hyper-rational in some matters as they are in others. The Paris Metro, for example, usually quits running between one and half-past one in the morning. You would expect the hours to be lengthened somewhat on New Year's, since a decent party is just picking up steam about one in the morning. You would be wrong.

As a result, I found myself standing outside a Metro stop in the sixteenth arrondissement at half past one in the morning, wondering how I was going to get back to my borrowed flat in the third arrondissement. If you're familiar with the geography of Paris, you will understand this was no idle question. If you're not, well, the distance between the one and the other works out to about ten miles.

Not much can be said about the dreary business of putting one foot in front of another often enough to cover ten miles. Most of the walk was along the Seine, which was as pretty as ever in the night-time lights. The weather was mild and the crowd -- several hundred thousand people evidently believed the same reports I had about the Metro staying open all night -- was relatively good-humoured. In a mere three hours, I was home. Out of curiosity, over the next few days I asked around among Parisians just why the Metro would close at such an unreasonable hour, particularly after the authorities had gone to quite a bit of trouble to get everything right for the big celebration. No one knew for a fact, but the consensus was that it probably had something to do with the work rules for Metro employees. As I understand it, the transport union makes it impossible to force any Frenchman who drives any vehicle to do anything he doesn't want to. When anyone tries, the union brings the entire city and if need be the entire country to a screeching halt.

The union in question, or the umbrella labor group to which it belongs, has a long, proud communist heritage. I'm tempted to say the inconvenience I and a few hundred thousand others suffered on New Year's provides a coda for the grand theme sounded in Prague. Marxism is antithetical to a reasonably well-conducted society, one where things work and people can enjoy a certain amount of prosperity and comfort. But in fact the Paris Metro is a model for how public transport ought to run, the odd bit of stubbornness on working hours aside. The trains are clean and comfortable, they come along every few minutes, and breakdowns and unexplained delays are rare. Anyone who puts up with the London Underground on a daily basis would cheerfully vote for Josef Stalin if he got anything like the same performance out of the Circle Line.

For that matter, Prague has a small but efficient subway system and an extensive tram network, both of them cheap, comfortable, reliable, and yet left over from the bad old days. So maybe left-wingers are uniquely suited to building and running public transport systems. The best subway systems in the U.S., at least in my experience, are those in San Francisco and Washington D.C., two notorious nests of pinkos, commies, anarchists, fellow-travelers and Lord knows what else. In right-wing cities like Houston, they think if you can't afford a car or don't want to spend three hours a day clogged up in traffic, you ought to damn well stay home. I admit the entire theory breaks down when you consider Los Angeles. That's so often the case.

Whenever you find yourself trying to explain Southern California, it's time to sit back, put your feet up, and have a nice stiff drink. I will try to write less but at a shorter interval next time. Cheers, Larry King

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