For some young Americans, Prague is the place to wait out recession. It's a 'Left Bank of the '90s,' a . . . : Land of Opportunity

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Overheard on the Charles Bridge:

"I couldn't believe it, man, I mean, she was beautiful! And she just got up and, like, walked out. . . ."

You can hear it just walking down the streets here, those passing flashes of youthful American English, as emphatic as the sound of a basketball dribbled on concrete, pronounced in bursts of enthusiasm, like . . . declaiming. The love affair. Exhilarating, heart-stopping, complicated, uncertain, but, like . . . love. Americans in love with Prague. Darkly beautiful Prague, as they are given to saying.

And Prague is in love with Americans too, although maybe a little less headlong, just to keep it interesting.

Ten thousand Americans in Czechoslovakia--many of them twentysomethings--is the hip-pocket estimate, although no one, not even the Czechoslovak immigration department, knows for sure. It seems to have happened overnight--and in fact may be just beginning. There was Paris in the '20s; will it be Prague in the '90s?

It appears certain that more Americans are coming. Everyone says that. Everyone here seems to know someone who called last week to ask, "How is it? Can I find a place to stay?"

Well, sure, probably. Travel light, one large backpack, a paid-up credit card. And bring me some Doritos. . . .

I'll call when I get there.

Great. . . . (Yeah, great, more pressure on the apartment situation. . . .)

There are two English-language newspapers in Prague, both started by young Americans perhaps more ambitious than the prototypical backpacker tumbling off the trains, but similar. Recent college graduates, the Americans had launched themselves on what was going to be a year of travel in Europe, a way of waiting out the recession and an anemic U.S. job market. They wound up in Prague, temporarily permanent.

The attractions are obvious, advertised by word of mouth along a grapevine of Western European train platforms, cafes, beer halls, pubs, cheap hotels, American Express currency exchange lines.

Prague is beautiful, Prague is cheap. Prague is Vaclav Havel, the playwright-philosopher-president. Prague is the youth-powered "velvet revolution." Prague is post-communist, postmodern history happening, and great beer for a quarter a mug.

"When I saw it," says Lisa Frankenberg, 23, "I fell in love with it. It was s-o-o-o beautiful. I thought, 'I could just stay here.' So I did. There is a fairy-tale magic about it."

Frankenberg, however, is no misty-eyed, latter-day flower child lost in the enchantments of Prague's Gothic towers and shadowy, coiling streets. She is the general manager and part owner of the Prague Post, a weekly English-language paper that is beginning to look as though it has the staying power to outlast passing fads.

But Frankenberg does embody at least one of the more serious attractions of Czechoslovakia for young Americans: It represents, for those with energy and ambition, an open field, a chance to try anything.

"I took advantage of an opportunity I would never gotten at my age in the States," she says.

Like many others, Frankenberg was lured to Prague by its famous aura and by friends--in her case friends from UC Santa Barbara, half a dozen of whom already had plans to launch another newspaper, cloyingly named Prognosis.

The pioneer in this small world, Prognosis drew its staff largely from recent veterans of UC Santa Barbara's Daily Nexus and raised money from parents, friends and friends of parents. It first came out March 1 and was to be published twice monthly and supported by advertising and newsstand sales.

"We raised $17,000 and spent most of it on rent and alcohol," says Frankenberg. "I know because I kept the books."

By July, she and the Prognosis business manager decided to split and start their own newspaper with what Frankenberg believed was a more professional approach. With help from a wealthy Texas investor, they did. The weekly Prague Post has a business section, full-page ads from airlines and aggressive marketing.

Its top editor is 59-year-old Alan Levy, one of the few on the staff who doesn't fit the general twentysomething trend of Americans in Prague. In a column in the first issue, Levy rhapsodized over the whole scene, articulating what was felt by at least some of the new arrivals and sometimes discussed late at night over a jug of Bohemian red.

"We are living in the Left Bank of the '90s," Levy wrote. "For some of us, Prague is Second Chance City; for others, a new frontier where anything goes, everything goes and, often enough, nothing works. Yesterday is long gone, today is nebulous, and who knows about tomorrow, but, somewhere within each of us, we all know that we are living in a historic place at a historic time. Future Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, Audens and Isherwoods, Boswells and Shirers will chronicle our course. . . ."

Perhaps most of the matter-of-fact young here found Levy's argument contained more histrionics than history. And yet, romantic or not, something is clearly happening. The 10,000 Americans, perhaps a third to a half of them settled into Prague, are no mirage--and the people of Czechoslovakia have largely embraced them.

"The place has a tremendous appeal," says Roberta Wilson, 24, a Michigan State graduate who came here 18 months ago with her boyfriend and decided to stay on when he went home. "My own feeling is that the whole atmosphere is created by Vaclav Havel, this feeling of openness, a feeling of possibilities. People like Americans here. They're all crazy to learn English. They want to do things, start businesses, make money, travel, learn. It's a different feeling than you have in the States now. I was home last fall, and you could feel the country sagging--no jobs, worry about the recession, no sense of direction."

As many Americans do here, Wilson teaches English and has enough work to earn the equivalent of $100 to $150 a month. She shares an apartment with two American women and a young Swedish drama student. Her share of the rent is $30 a month. "We're not getting rich," she says, "but we can live OK. We can eat."

Finding a place to live is usually harder than finding a job teaching--or most jobs, for that matter--since a major preoccupation here seems to be learning English. Government ministries, factories, businesses, schools and institutions of all kinds have started language training for their employees.

"The people have been really friendly," says Jennifer Swendor, 22, who graduated from Yale last spring. "They're lovely hosts. I've been here 3 1/2 months. I had a friend here who was teaching English, and I decided to come and do that too. So I teach English and take modern dance at the Charles University Dance Center. There's just a kind of atmosphere here--so much music, so much theater, so much dance."

Over the holidays, Swendor landed a part in a production of "The Christmas Carol." For her, Prague has been a lucky city indeed. She has a teaching job waiting for her next summer in the States, "but if things go well, I'll stay on here."

If the historical idea of Paris in the '20s was about art and artists--Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Picasso, Pound and Gertrude Stein--the idea of Prague in the '90s seems to be more often economic.

The young Americans talk about Prague as a sort of wait-station, a place to sit out the recession at home, learn a bit about the world, be open to opportunities, see what happens. There is not so much a deep disillusionment with America, but rather a sense that the United States needs, as one young American put it, to "get off its butt." Nor is there a widespread sense that Prague will become a place of permanent exile.

As a group, they've been identified as "posties," says Christopher Scheer, 24, one of the founders of Prognosis. Scheer took on the subject in a piece for the newspaper.

"Otherwise known as 'twentysomethings,' 'Generation X' or 'slacker,' " he wrote, " postie refers to this generation's lack of a formative group experience or a driving motivational engine, a vacuum which leaves them with nothing to be but post--post-'60s, post-sexual revolution, post-modern."

Scheer and others seem strangely envious of the '60s causes that occupied their parents, as though they had been left with no shining moral outrage to call their own. It seems fitting, somehow, that they are in Prague--beautiful Prague, mind you, not dreary Warsaw or dreadful Bucharest or still more dreadful Tirana, but here, the fashionable Magic Kingdom capital of Eastern Europe.

Prague itself exhibits a touching nostalgia for the '60s, evident even in the steady stream of American rock oldies played on the city's most popular radio station.

Czechoslovakia, which saw that era crushed under Warsaw Pact tanks in 1968, seems happy to pick up some of the artifacts it left behind, to live through a period it missed, to let its hair grow. The American youth, who are often vaguely political but without a clear ideological focus, seem to feed into the time warp and accept Prague's mood of mellow tolerance.

It all fits.

"You don't have to be some weird lefty to be upset about America these days," says Matt Welsh, a Prognosis editor. "Maybe Prague is a place to develop the talent, the experience, the knowledge to figure out what's wrong and try to do something about it."

"There is a lot of energy here," agrees Ben Sullivan, 23, the editor of Prognosis, "and it didn't come with the Americans. Young people had a lot to do with the changes here."

It is true that the major audience for Prognosis seems to be other Americans; the paper's "visitor's guide" for tourists is a major feature. But the growing number of Czechoslovak English-speakers, Sullivan hopes, also finds the city's newest newspapers rewarding.

There are two American theater groups in Prague as well, wrestling with the similar philosophical question of whether English-language theater has a relevant place in a Czech-language culture.

"I went through a bit of a crisis after we did 'The Fantastiks,' " says Jesse Webb, 35, an organizer of Artists for Prague International. He says the American off-Broadway standard left many Prague audiences puzzling in silence through the laugh lines. But Webb and his players are pressing on, exhilarated by the chance to produce, direct and perform--to accumulate credits and, they hope, to win over an audience.

"Prague," Webb says, "still has this magnetism. It still has this energy. The world is pouring money in."

But magnetism doesn't help with some aspects of daily life. Like many of his fellow sojourners from America, Ben Sullivan has found that learning the local language is a daunting prospect: "I've made very little progress with my Czech, I'm sorry to say."

It is a clue, perhaps, to the ultimate staying power of the Americans in Prague. For many, Prague at this stage is an interlude, not a lifelong commitment--a place to stay at least until the job prospects improve at home. Sullivan, for example, is not sure how long he will remain. One year, maybe two, he says. Then he will see.

Scheer agrees: "I helped start (Prognosis), and I want to see it through, but I'm no expatriate."

Might the place yet turn out to be the Paris of the '90s, a place of zest and ferment?

Ben Widiss, 23, fresh from Yale and a writer on the arts for the Prague Post, says he gave some thought to a column denouncing the whole idea, but "I thought it would be too mean-spirited. But, really, it seems like a very self-conscious idea."

Meanwhile, he notes, the living is cheap, the intellectual climate is of a high level and Czechoslovakia is a country that has produced brilliant minds and a deep literature. The atmosphere, perhaps, is right.

"Prague won't be Paris unless it produces great books, great art, great characters. Maybe it will, but it hasn't yet," Widiss says. On the other hand, he notes, he has met people "working on their novels."

It's the early days yet and, whatever movement this is, it looks like it's just beginning.

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