The principal meeting place in central Prague is the huge bronze statue of King Wenceslas that stands at the very top of Vasklavske Namesti or Wenceslas square. The king sits astride a horse in front of the impressive National Museum and looks down upon the square. Sometimes, I would joke that the highest window in the museum was actually King Wenceslas’s bedroom as in the song, “Good king Wenceslas looked out… of his bedroom window”.
Vaslavske Namesti is the largest square in Prague and was the scene of many protests during the communist regime, including the ultimate sacrifice made by philosophy student Jan Palach who burned himself to death as a demonstration against Soviet occupation. To the Czechs Jan Palach is a political martyr, although I often wonder if he was simply a manic-depressive.
Finally, the square became a place of celebration when, after the velvet revolution in 1989, communism came to an abrupt end. Since then the square (being the centre of the whole country) has raced and scrambled desperately trying to catch up with the west. In so doing it has reached the opposite extreme and is now the epitome of unbridled capitalism.
In appearance, the square is actually more like an elongated boulevard. It is lined with shops, hotels and restaurants, including the largest concentration of McDonalds that I have ever seen within a half-mile radius.
With many side streets, the square stretches down hill for about a kilomer and a half. Being the busiest square in Prague, there is plenty to see and the horse statue is the perfect vantage point for the great sport of voyeurism.
As a tour guide, I would often sit in front of the statue and wait for my groups. On a cold and frosty day, rather than risk piles, I would pace to and fro in an effort to keep warm, steam rising up from my mouth.
My groups were nearly always at least fifteen minutes late and I was nearly always fifteen minutes early so I had plenty of time to study the people bustling by. I would try to imagine who they were, what they were thinking and where they were going.
To the right of the horse, just outside McDonalds, a group of heroin addicts and shoplifters congregated. They were a mixed bunch of Gypsies, Czechs, Russians and Ukrainians. I marvelled at how blatant they were, as they compared things that they had stolen with one another and then set off in pairs to sell their wares and buy heroin.
I wondered how they had got to be the way they were and I tried to picture their lives growing up. Had they once had aspirations and dreams that were now faded away into the distance?
During the daytime, I would see dozens of other tourist guides with their umbrellas held aloft, waiting in front of the horse for their groups of tourists from around the world. When the groups arrived I would immediately start to listen to ascertain the language or accent. Mostly they would be German or Italian.
I would see lots of young Italians walking together, always in big groups. They can never be alone. I think for this reason, Italians are said to read less than any other European nation. It was easy to spot them with their tanned skin, black hair and long black hooded coats. Coming from a hot country, Italians always overdress for Prague in winter, with their hats scarves and jumpers.
As daytime turned into evening, the guided tours and regular people would slowly start to slip away, like a tide being carried back out to sea, leaving a deserted beach in its wake. The cold dark night would steadily wash over the square like an all encompassing cloak that brought with it the myriad creatures of the night. Prostitutes seemed to be summoned up from out of thin air, literally dozens of them, mostly Bulgarian Gypsies, would appear on every corner.
The prostitutes in Prague are a fascinating spectacle to behold. They are the most brazenly forward and charismatic I have ever seen. They would think nothing of calling out to people in the street to reel off their list of services. They would even go straight up to people passing by and grab a hold of them, trying to drag them in the direction of a toilet cubicle.Watching their interactions with the public made for great entertainment.
Obscenely loud British stag parties in fancy dress began to descend upon the square. It was surreal seeing people dressed as super heroes, or cartoon characters being accosted by prostitutes, drug dealers and people desperately thrusting flyers at them.
Gangs of highly skilled professional pickpockets, mostly young Czech Gypsy girls would follow the drunken Brits waiting for the right moment to pounce. Like Fabian, a shady looking, slightly corpulent middle-aged Gypsy man would stand back in the shadows watching the progress of his band of thieves, waiting to jump in the fray with a flash of blue steel if needs be, just in case any of his money makers were apprehended by a civilian.
The Gypsies are the most hated people in all of Prague and perhaps the entire world. Yet I found myself drawn to these incredibly enigmatic people. I wanted to know what made them tick, what moved and motivated them and what their moral code consisted of. Every man woman and child must justify themselves to themselves and I wondered how they did that and how it was to see the world through their eyes. How did they see themselves? No doubt, in a completely different light to how others saw them.
Strange looking men hung around outside money changing offices with calculators in their hands, waiting for gullible tourists and offering to change their dollars, pounds, or euros for a better rate. I could see the Ukrainian girls at the Mafia run fast food stalls blatantly short changing unsuspecting tourists on principle. These girls are paid less than a pound an hour and I guess their consciences told them that if a customer does not notice being short-changed then they did not need the money. If however they got caught out while doing it, they would immediately apologize humbly and reimburse the customer without question.
Large gangs of cheerful Africans congregated outside the strip bars and brothels that began to light up. Working along side each other were South Africans, Senegalese, Nigerians and Ghanians. Many of them had tribal markings below their cheeks. They all spoke a common pigeon African English, or in some cases French.
I tried to imagine the places that they had come from and the things that they had witnessed. Whatever unspeakable acts they had seen or committed they always seemed to be the happiest and friendliest people on the Wenceslas square scene. They were known as the “flyer guys” and it was their job to usher people into the clubs for commission. I did not envy them their work as every night of every year they hustled and jostled with each other over potential customers. It was clear that they were subsidizing their paltry wages by selling cocaine. This they did openly in the streets. Bizarrely, they also acted as a kind of police force, chasing after pickpockets and handing out advice to night-life tourists.
All this went on, directly under the eyes of the real police, who did nothing, except pace up and down the square, occasionally stopping to bribe somebody for pissing in the street.
It’s strange. In a way, Wenceslas square should feel like Dante’s seventh circle of hell, but after a while it doesn’t. Perhaps I became desensitized or perhaps I was too mesmerized by the diverse colour and life. For whatever reason, it felt entirely calm in the eye of this fascinatingly vibrant storm that I watched every day from the vantage point of the horse.