Category Archives: History

Tales of travel and adventure in Central Europe

Prague Literary History: The Expat Contribution

Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 1.19.30 PMWith the Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse turning 20 years old this week, it got my mind thinking about all the hype in the 1990s about Prague serving as some kind of literary crucible from which future classics of English literature would emerge. The text here is from an article I wrote a couple of years back on that subject. My angle was that the author community was much maligned at the time but that more than a fair number of good and very good expat writers lived and worked here at some point in their lives and that their Prague experiences affected their output.

I still feel that way now, and the titles that have come out in print since I originally wrote the article only strengthen my case: Matt Welch’s “Myth of a Maverick” (nonfiction), Leslie Chang’s “Factory Girls” (also nonfiction) and Brendan McNally’s “Germania,” among others. My apologies to anyone I have overlooked in this article. Please help me fill in the blanks by leaving a comment below. A big thanks to Ken Nash, the author of the cartoon in the upper left. He drew it in 1993, showing that Prague was “over” practically from the moment it began. Read More →

‘The Prague Post’ Calls It Quits In Print

notoveryet“Not Over Yet.” The headline of the last print edition of The Prague Post after 22 years reeks of unintended irony or maybe it’s a bit of an inside gag (it wouldn’t be the first time). At any rate, it’s a sad day for English readers in the Czech capital as well as for former staffers, including the author of this website. I was the paper’s first Business Editor, working from 1991 to 1993 at the Post’s tiny offices at Dlouha trida 2 in the center and then for a time at the paper’s second location on Politickych veznu 9, near Wenceslas Square.

At least on one level, the headline is completely accurate. According to a letter circulated this week by owner Monroe Luther, the paper will continue on as a digital-only publication, so in that sense at least the Post really is “not over yet.” It only feels that way. Read More →

Meeting Writer Olen Steinhauer In Budapest

SteinhauerThis interview with Budapest-based American author Olen Steinhauer originally appeared in the ‘Wall Street Journal Europe’ in 2008. At the time, Olen was a modestly successful author of a series of thrillers set at various intervals in the Eastern bloc during the communist period. I discovered a couple of his novels one day by accident while scrounging through a bookstore in Vienna and was instantly hooked. This interview covered those Eastern European thrillers. Since our conversation, he’s gone from strength to strength, and is now better known for his ‘Milo Weaver’ books, including ‘The Tourist,’ which became a New York Times bestseller.

The 1989 Revolutions brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe, yet among many a feeling of nostalgia persists for those seemingly simpler times. No one seriously wants to turn back the clock, and former Cold War haunts like Prague and Budapest have never looked better, but there is a lingering romance about those spooky pre-’89 days.

American author Olen Steinhauer’s recent series of spy thrillers—all set in a fictionalized East European country during the Cold War—is a thoroughly enjoyable trip down memory lane. As you turn the pages (in the comfort of your armchair), you can almost smell the acrid sharpness of an East European cigarette or hear the rapid retort of a two-stroke Trabant being kick-started in the distance. Read More →

Kotva: Of Carbuncles and Communist Memory

kotvascanThe following is from an article on Prague’s legacy of Communist architecture that I originally wrote for the publication ‘Hidden Europe’. The editors wanted me to focus on a couple of landmark buildings in the center of the city. The ‘carbuncle’ reference comes from Britain’s Prince Charles, who famously referred to that country’s stock of 1970s-era Brutalist architecture as, well, a bunch of carbuncles.

Prague’s Kotva department store (pictured left in a stock photo from the 1970s) just may be the ugliest building ever built in the Czech Republic.

It dates from the mid-1970s and was hailed at the time as a Czech example of “Brutalism” – then the reigning international architectural style – while meeting the special ideological demands of Communism.

In fact, by nearly any measure, it’s a classic Prince Charles’ carbuncle. Start with the exterior: It’s a hulking, dark-brown box, windowless on several sides. The façade, on close inspection, looks to be made of some type of corrugated sheet metal. Read More →

Built in Brno: When Empire Met Modern

TugendhateditThe following is an article I wrote on modern architecture in Brno for the Wall Street Journal in 2007. Much of it still holds up as a discussion of Functionalist architecture and Brno’s role as the most modern and forward-looking Czech city in the years between World War I and II. The Vila Tugendhat, mentioned below, has now been thoroughly renovated and is open to the public in all of its original splendor.

It’s not easy being Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-biggest city. Paired uncomfortably with a world-class beauty like Prague, it’s a dowdy Birmingham to Prague’s imperial London. Then there’s the matter of the difficult-to-pronounce name (it’s “BURR-no”).

But for a brief 20-year period following World War I, the capital of provincial Moravia took center stage when it came to modern architecture, outshining its more famous Bohemian rival and establishing itself — fleetingly — as one of the Continent’s most exciting places to build and design.

A surge in what would become known as Functionalism produced several important buildings in Brno — from private residences to office buildings and even a crematorium. Read More →