City of Intrigues

And then I said:

“The fight against corruption is and remains one of the
priorities of the Czech government under my leadership”
Petr Nečas (left, with President M. Zeman), Feb. 14th 2012

Photo: ČTK

In an earlier post, I referred to Prague as a ‘city of ghosts‘, and indeed there are tales a-plenty of hauntings and apparitions in the Czech capital. Equally, however, it is a city of intrigue – not just at the Cold War level of spies and shady arms deals with Omnipol, or within the 9/11 investigation and ‘War on Terror’, but also at a more human and more personal level.

Take Clive and Katka (not their real names), for example, to all appearances a model couple. Tall, good looking and affable, Clive was an English executive with a minor multinational, on a long-term placement in Prague. Katka was a stunningly attractive market analyst rapidly rising through the ranks at a major Czech bank. They had met and married some time before I and my Czech wife moved in to an apartment in the same building as theirs; having various things in common we became friends quite quickly.

One unusual feature of Clive and Katka’s relationship was that their offices were on opposite sides of the same street in central Prague, with the result that they could literally wave to each other during their working days. Why, under those circumstances, anyone would decide that embarking on an affair with their secretary was a good idea is beyond me, but this is, alas, what Clive did – but the tale doesn’t end as one might expect. Clive and his secretary went to great lengths to keep their relationship secret not only from their partners, but also from their colleagues – no getting caught in the stationery cupboard or by an indiscretion seen through the window for them! 

No, Clive’s fall came one fateful day when, having overslept after a ‘late night project meeting’ and in a rush to return to the office, he picked up the wrong mobile phone from the kitchen table… and Katka picked up his identical phone a few minutes later, without realising. When an SMS arrived shortly afterwards, she looked at it automatically, but hadn’t been expecting it to say words to the effect of “hey big boy, last night was great, let’s do it again on Thursday!”. Katka didn’t get mad, she got even, calling the sender and suggesting that they have lunch to talk over what was going on. Apparently the two got on well together; the secretary declaring that it was just a fling and that she had no long-term interest in Clive, Katka decided that she didn’t either, and kicked him out, much to the amusement of his colleagues.

Fast forward to 2013, and a similar scandal engulfed the Czech political scene. In June that year, police raids uncovered millions of dollars in currency and gold bullion of ‘suspicious origin’ during raids on aides, political contacts and lobbyists linked to then Prime Minister Petr Nečas. One of those subsequently accused of misconduct was Jana Nagyová, his chief of staff and close confidante – very close indeed, apparently, as she was also outed as the PM’s mistress, and charged with using military intelligence to keep tabs on the PM’s wife to make sure they weren’t caught out. Petr Nečas, who had come to power promising to clamp down on corruption in public life (see picture), was compelled to resign; he later married Ms Nagyová. The latter was found guilty of this gross abuse of office earlier this year, but received only a suspended prison sentence. A ringing endorsement of the anti-corruption drive, or of the seriousness of the courts, this was not.

Neither, however, does it say much about the level of fidelity in Czech marriages; a Pew survey in 2013 found that 17% of Czechs found infidelity socially acceptable, 5% more than the traditionally liberal French, and this is perhaps reflected in the divorce rate, which has hovered at around 50% for many years – five of the Czech Republic’s ten former prime ministers are divorcees, which means that in this at least they are truly representative of their constituencies!

So as you wander through the streets of this beautiful city, remember that a great deal is going on behind all of those mysterious closed doors…

The Wandering German

You don’t often come across someone and know they’re destined to become a ghost. I’d certainly never expected to meet anyone like that, and even if I had, wouldn’t have expected such an encounter on that bright summer’s day in 1993.
Prague is, of course, a city of ghosts, for some of us more than for others. Its winding, ancient streets ooze an uninterrupted atmosphere of mystery, compounded by unfamiliar, Slavonic names. A fellow student – let’s call her ‘Mary’ – and I were there to disturb the dead in a different way, filling up vacation fieldwork requirements for our archaeology degrees in a country where our travel grants had a hope of covering our expenses. (Yes, back then, undergraduates could get travel grants). The early, heat-beating starts, natural to the locals, sharpened our appetites, and eleven o’clock found us sitting with bread-and-cheese and bottled beer lunches by the bridge railings on the backdoor road into the Castle. Savvy tourists who’d discovered the excellent tram system poured past us, having saved themselves the sweaty hike to the spur’s summit. We ignored them, until our bubble of quiet laughter and gentle conversation was broken with Teutonic abruptness.
“You are English, yes?”. Trench filthy, stained t-shirts over ragged jeans, we were evidently the stereotype, and nodded wary affirmatives at the broad-faced, broad-shouldered specimen in front of us.
“Ah good. I want to see the burg. Where it is, please?”
Mary, never the most assertive of people, smiled behind her bread roll and let me answer. I gestured diffidently at the two crisply-pressed guards in ceremonial uniforms, rigidly occupying the sentry boxes either side of a gate that was all of five metres from us.
“You’re in the right place, here it is.”
She looked at them, taking a good twenty seconds to scan the long facade and tower looming over the Stag Moat, all Theresean pastel shades, rock and masonry.
“No, no,” she said, sucking her teeth, “This I have seen. But this is a schloss, not a burg. How you would say? A palace, not a castle.”
“Well yes, it’s a schlossnow, but they still call it a burg. Sounds better, I guess”. I smiled.
“No! My guidebook says that there is in Prague a burg, and I must see it before I leave. Where it is, please?”
Briefly nonplussed, I looked up, shading my eyes, glad of earlier solo trips. Even then, I was already more familiar with the city than the camera-toting hordes, and I thought I knew what she was driving at.
“Oh… south of the city centre, on the Metro, is the Vyšehrad fortress, brick-built, 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps they mean that? It’s a park now, no tourists, a good place to spend a quiet afternoon without leaving town. Fantastic Secession style church. Well worth a look.” I must have sounded like a tour guide; it was probably the influence of the goggling groups that daily paused by the tape that marked off our bone-decorated pits.
“No, I have seen this too, yesterday. Very nice, yes, but not a burg. And on a different page in my book!”. The latter, well-thumbed, was now flourished for emphasis.
“Well, as I say… they call this a burgeven though it isn’t one really.”
From the corner of my eye I could see Mary, still not helping, looking away to stop herself from laughing. I tried not to look at her for the same reason. Straight-faced, I launched into an explanation of how the medieval castle had been converted by the Hapsburgs into a comfortable residence fit for the Emperor “and if you go through the arch and over to the Old Royal Palace, they have models of how it looked at different times in its history”.
It was too late. Our inquisitor stiffened suddenly, clearly not wanting to waste time on such ignorant dregs any more.
“My guide says burg, a burgthere must be.” This with religious conviction. “Well! I am sorry that you have not found it, I will find it myself! Good day!”. And with that, she was gone, disappearing into the gawping stream and leaving us slack-jawed and half-amused in her wake.
I found myself thinking of her again when I was up near the Castle recently. I’m sure that she’s still around, doomed to wander the streets of the medieval boroughs in an endless, hopeless quest dictated by a soul-deep certainty in herself and the correctness of What Is Written. 
Stumbling home in the alcohol-softened pre-dawn, or late at night when the streets are quieter, perhaps you too will catch her on the edge of hearing:
“I want to see the burg. Where it is, please? I must see it before I leave…”