September 03, 2011
Eastern Europe Attitudes Shift as Tourism Leads & Corrupts the Way
Life was different and people were present more often than not, so lacking even in a 1980 and 1990-something America.
The wild west didn't have cell phones and we weren't glued to social networks, yet we still weren't as present and as engaged as Europeans were, at least that was my first experience of the place -- on the continent and the UK.
I've been back to Europe dozens of times since I moved back to the states, but more often than not, the goal was less about being committed to a life there and more about networking or sadly, even shopping. Or, a conference. Yawn.
In recent years, at meet-ups and conferences, everyone had their laptops open and cell phones handy so the "chat" was more to it than it was with each other. Yes, even in Europe, largely because the events were within a particular ecosystem, the one I live in inside the bowels of Silicon Valley -- technology.
I went on a walkabout to London (one of the places I lived btw) a few years back and decided to disengage from technology and re-engage with people and my trusty Canon 7D. One result aside from quality time with old South African and English friends in the burbs was a photo book entitled: Faces of London. I probably "shot" 10,000 photos during my time there across at least a dozen neighborhoods and had nothing short of a blast.
Even though I had "alone" time on my European "city" trips (Paris, Munich, Dublin, Rome, etc) in recent years, I didn't have the same kind of deja vu moments I had in Prague and Budapest over the past couple of weeks.
It started in Budapest where I met with a few start-ups and by chance, was lucky to be there for their annual "Independence Day" equivalent. I stayed along the river at a boutique 4 star hotel, one with a fabulous view of Parliament.
While I have done business with western and northern Europe, I haven't directly worked with Eastern Europe. In London, you can do a walkabout and get completely lost in the fabric of the city and no one will quite notice.
In Eastern Europe, even though physically I could blend in with the city's fabric, there are less tourists and the kind of tourists are likely different than what you'd find on the streets near Knightsbridge and the UK's own Parliament. The same applies to Paris.
What I forgot about the east was how structured things were despite the fact that in many ways, their bohemian past makes them rule-breakers rather than conformers. Like the rest of Europe, they seem to be obsessed with privacy so conversations about social media tend to get interesting.
AND, like southern Europe, things move at a snail's pace. If I send an email at 10 pm on a Friday night at home in California, chances are that email is answered by Saturday morning if I'm pinging someone in the states, east OR west coast. If you want to continue a discussion from a Friday meeting that went from 10 to 2 on a Friday, chances are you won't pick up that dialogue until Monday afternoon or Tuesday at the earliest. (not abnormal of course but in the land of technology start-ups, no response for 3 days feels like an eternity, at least to this overly connected baby).
I was hooked up with an iPhone on Tmobile which didn't work more than it did. That said, there were a number of free Internet cafes in both Budapest and Prague so if I really wanted to give the cities amiss, miss out on the history and culture and merely be connected, it wouldn't be too difficult to do so. Hotels still charge a fortune a day for connectivity and it's not always that fast.
Being connected and "staying" connected makes it pretty hard to truly be present with a destination's history, antiquity and human stories, all of which capture 700 year old castles, its walls and ceilings not to mention the nearby cathedral's altars and stained glass windows.
What was interesting about this trip was the polarity of things. On one hand, I was not as inspired to "shoot" as much as I normally am; somehow I anticipated I'd shoot 30,000 photos or more of romantic Prague, pegged the Paris of the east.
Yet, because of the commercialism I couldn't seem to escape from, I found it hard to be connected to my surroundings because in the foreground, there were countless groups of tourists with cameras and brightly colored sneakers and segway tours with loud-mouthed guides shouting at the dozen of so people in its wake.
Even in Paris, one of the most visited city in the world, I can still barter in a market, but in Budapest and Prague, they were less willing to barter and their prices were steep, i.e., $40 for a barrette sold by a street vendor, $70 for a plate of salad, pasta (no meat) and one glass of wine, $200 for pottery, and so on.
While entrepreneurism wasn't at the core of their attitudes, something had shifted and it was much worse in Prague than Budapest which is much less commercial.
In Prague, tour buses zipped in, leaving droves of people in groups who followed those in front of them like sheep not really listening to their tour guide who spent far too long telling the history of a brick statue than anyone should.
"Dribble, dribble, 14th century, dribble dribble," her voice echoed as about a quarter of the audience tried to follow along while others snapped shots of the statue they'll never remember the name of later. Then there were others who were merely starring off into the distance, still trying to recover from jetleg.
I ducked under and above the dribble and the wall of people who stood so close that it was hard for me to find my way to a free space. Alas, freedom. Blue sky. Clouds. Soft wind. Breeze. And then, more of them pile out, clinging to each other for safety and belonging, only later to be found at some Americanized or Anglicized pub where everyone speaks English and all the menus have prices listed in Euros as their primary currency.
In Prague, I found myself in angst by day four, ready to declare Prague the Eastern European Disneyland, a city who sadly sold its soul to the yanks, with its McDonalds and KFC scattered through its old town. Local artists have grown so accustomed to the tour buses and wealthy tourists that small photos were $30 and above on the Charles Bridge and a small regular coffee was about $4 a pop.
Grant you, I began to realize quite awhile ago now that the U.S. was on its way to being a third world country and its currency was going along with that title: Thank You George Bush. It was no more prominent in a place like Prague where prices felt more like Paris than East Europe, some of which was the result of the dollar being in the toilet. 20-something year olds even remarked how they remembered the dollar being at 40 when they were younger (5-8 years ago) and today it stands at about 15-16 to the Czech currency making most purchases a serious consideration more than an impulse buy.
Other aspects of disenchantment and disillusion had to do with the fact that Prague had become so commercialized that it was hard to break free from its Disney-like facade. The only way to avoid it was to jump on a metro or tram, choose a funky neighborhood ten or so stops out, get off and start walking. (away from town).
And, so I did. There was no other choice really. Not wanting to declare Prague a commercial write-off (it's beauty is far too magnificent and its musicians too awe-inspiring), I discovered side-streets and neighborhoods that locals told me.
I requested grit and grunge. I requested working class communities. I requested graffiti. I requested former bomb shelters. I requested local pubs and bars. I requested cafes with local prices and local service. I requested parks and steps, stairs and alleyways. I requested stone walls, weathered and torn. I requested places that didn't have places to serve me at all, but merely buildings, houses and terraces where people lived and life was exactly the same every day.
The discovery process began of course, but like every European city, you really need a few months (a year is better) to really get acquainted with its smell, culture, nuances and quirks. The more I meandered outside the inner walls, the longer I wanted to stay. The more I got stuck in old town and the tourist areas, which seem to spread for miles in Prague, the more I wanted to leave. (even Paris felt less saturated I thought).
I met 26 year old Marek, who told me his life story. I found him on a side street and intrigued by the fact that he was in old-fashioned overalls, I learned about his trips to various countries, all of which were escapes from commitment and a "real job," the primary reason he left Prague in the first place.
He would work for a month or so at high wages, so he'd have enough in his pocket for a few months of travel and then the cycle would repeat itself. (not uncommon for adventure-types in their early twenties, but I got the sense that Marek -- a high school drop-out -- would be doing this two decades from now.
He lived on "weed" and not much else. Connections with interesting people and diversity seemed to be important to him and after awhile (a long while), he admitted to the main thing missing in his life: a woman in his life, just one. Aren't we so much more alike than we are different, despite our demographics, despite our income levels, despite our goals?
Then there was the placid nature of my late twenty year massage therapist in Prague. She didn't seem to know the protocols of more formerly trained therapists yet she listened to what you needed and responded like a robot. I found it hard to find a male masseuse and wondered how much that had to do with protocols and culture than it did interests, norms and trends.
Everyone seemed to be afraid to break the rules, whether that was giving you a cup of tea 15 minutes after the breakfast dining room closed or sampling a taste of ice cream because there were 25 flavors to choose from. (on that front, the ice cream in both Budapest and Prague were so well presented, you thought for sure you must be in Italy not Eastern Europe -- and might I add, ten times more tasty than the U.S.)
My experience of Prague was about as close to my memory of it from the mid-eighties as Disneyland is from central Africa. Because of its intense overly processed structure, I had to move beyond my notion that Prague sold out to the yanks -- from its coffee to its tour buses to its castle tours and postcards to its outlandish prices.
The talent of the local musicians made most of this melt away, not to mention the incredible textures in the bridge walls and other antiquated buildings in the city. Then there was the outstanding art, conversations with local vendors and shop owners and overdoing it daily with chocolate, wine, duck, venison, lamb, foie gras and other such delicacies without feeling guilty for taking it all in.
Certainly a different experience than twenty years ago or even ten. The East has caught up with the west even if its governments have not. Go but go with more research and be sure to get out of the city centers into the neighborhoods and have conversations with people -- young and old -- and hear their stories. After all, isn't that what makes every trip memorable?