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


PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — 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. . . ."

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