July 2000  

July 29, 2000
He has two titles, one official and one unofficial. His official title is Minister for Local Development, something like the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development in the US. His unofficial title is Moron of the Week. It was revealed that Petr Lachnit has maintained his private business contacts in clear violation of the conflict of interest law. He claims it isn't a conflict because he hasn't really been doing business since becoming minister. So where did the money come from to buy the building that now houses his firm? He will only say that the money was given before he joined the firm, so he doesn't care. He also doesn't care that his advisor stands accused of embezzling nearly a million dollars from a former business partner. The advisor stays, says Lachnit, because he isn't there to give advice on embezzling. Prime Minister Zeman firmly stands behind his minister. He mentioned last week that he has contempt for people of low intelligence and Lachnit didn't make the list. Apparently, he was referring to the people who voted for his party.

July 22, 2000
The forest simply disappeared. The trees were there one day, gone the next. This isn't a case for the X-Files, however, because this is the Czech Republic, where theft is so natural that it was once considered a family value. It still is in some circles. The trees were cut down and hauled away by one of the shadowy companies always on the look out for tempting targets in this country. Trees are not exactly the easiest things to steal, but then neither, presumably, were the several tons of steel that went missing from a mill last week. Ironically, all this stealing of the most unlikely objects may yet prove beneficial for one of the most pressing problems facing the Czech government. The Temelin nuclear power plant is about to go on line despite the fact that no feasible plan exists for the disposal of its radioactive waste. One major daily suggests that the government should just leave the waste behind a fence somewhere and turn its back. It's bound to disappear in no time.

July 15, 2000
What's the difference between a bank robber in America and one in the Czech Republic? In America, he wears a mask, carries a gun, and winds up in the slammer. In the Czech Republic, he wears a tie, carries a briefcase, and winds up in the Bahamas. Maybe not in every case, but it's the kind of joke going around now that the banking sector in this country has been pretty much looted by its top management. Partly in reaction to this, the Parliament passed a new bill affecting the operations of the Czech National Bank. One of the changes calls for the bank governors to receive cabinet-level salaries, resulting in a significant drop over what they now get. That has led to warnings that the quality of oversight at the CNB will significantly decrease. The country can risk the run on quality in view of the CNB sitting by while bank managers, in good communist tradition, shifted their books around with ease. Like at the Investment and Postal Bank, where the board of directors met one morning to discuss how big the bank's losses would be for the year. Millions, billions, perhaps? Suddenly the vice-chairman announced there would be a profit for the year. And like, there was. Today the vice-chairman, who was forced out at gunpoint last month, is one of the richest men in the country and not about to go to the Bahamas if he doesn't have to.

June 24-July 8, 2000
It was a long haul to the States and back. I left on the overnight train from Ostrava to Prague, as seedy a trip as they come, then took the metro and bus to get to the airport. The flight to Vienna took about 40 minutes. I could tell when we crossed from the Czech Republic into Austria because the farms below went from looking dilapidated to these neat and manicured boxes. Which doesn't explain why the airport in Vienna was an absolute mess. I was one of hundreds of people backed up into the lobby waiting to get to our gates. After I finally got there, this humungous Texan, wearing sandals and no socks, flopped down next to me, pulled his shirt out of his drawers, and started fanning the white blubber underneath. I don't know why he didn't use his newspaper instead. The only part of it he actually looked at was the financial section. He started calling out numbers to his wife, who was sitting across from us and looking eery with all this funeral makeup on her face. Such-and-such is at 125, up from 123, congratulations, darling, you're even for the week. So it really was true then: the masses had entered the stock market. A lot of changes had certainly taken place since my last trip to the States in 1993. Back then, there wasn't even a real Internet (nor, by that extension, a real Al Gore). But here they were, Mr. and Mrs. Hayseed, on there way back from Vienna and rolling the ticket tape all the way.

From Virginia, where I landed, I headed to North and South Carolina to visit family and friends. Thank God none of them were any of the people I heard speaking over the radio about their conversions to Jesus. One station after another, one narrow brush with death after another. That's one nice thing about Europeans. They keep their religion to themselves. But as usual, there's a tradeoff. Americans may gush with Jesus, but they're generally very pleasant people when it comes to service. Go to a restaurant and a warm, lovely smile invites you to sit down and allow her to see to your comforts. You'll be lucky if some waitresses in Europe even acknowledge your existence. But that could have something to do with Europeans being incredible cheapskates. I've actually seen tips paid in pennies over here. For Americans who visit Europe--Mr. and Mrs. Hayseed, for instance--it might appear that Europeans also skimp on the food in restaurants. That's certainly true for ice cream, as they will scrape and scrape the scoop to make sure you don't get one creamy morsel extra in your mouth. But other kinds of food come in normal portions. The problem for Americans is that they don't eat normal portions anymore. Everything is large, super-large, and family-sized. I couldn't finish one meal in a restaurant because there was simply too much food on the plate. I have the feeling, however, that if I kept going out to eat, I would gradually become used to it to where I might start looking like my fellow passenger in Vienna.

I hit the road again, back to Virginia for a flight from Norfolk to Seattle. I had heard a lot about delays this summer in America, but I didn't run into any problems. The only delays were with Austrian Air. Coming over we had to wait one hour in the plane because somebody checked in his bag but not himself. Going back we had another one hour delay, but the captain didn't see any reason to inform us why. In fact, when he did speak to us, his tone was like, "Let's get this over with." He could've used some lessons in human relations from the captains of my American flights, who couldn't have been more cordial. The lady sitting next to me on the way to Seattle was also quite cordial, but we had a problem. To keep from throwing up during the flight, she needed to have her air conditioning vent blow on her. Problem was, she was a huge, round lady, so the air kept automatically bouncing off her onto me. I was already cold as it was, and the flight attendant, who could easily work for Austrian Air, curtly told me there were no more blankets available. End of story.

I spent the week at my mother's place on the edge of the Cascade mountains. She lives near Rosyln, where the TV show Northern Exposure was filmed. I watched this show a lot on Polish and Czech TV, so I had to run out to the Brick bar to have a look. I get to the door and there's a man sitting there who wants to see my ID. Wait a minute. I just attended my 20th high school reunion and this guy wants to card me? He said the law says he has to do it to everyone, even Grandpa. That is, if Grandpa is fool enough to walk into this joint. The place was pure cowboy kitsch, with one redneck after another making a big show of squeezing his heifer's ass. Big ass, too.

Then it was time to leave. After seven years away, seven years of hearing about Monica and OJ and Jon Benet, about mass murders and the stock market, it was great to find that America still has the stuff of Jack Kerouac novels and Hank Williams music. My flight back to Europe left from Dulles Airport and God help anyone who gets laid over there. Every other minute there was this announcement, "Dulles International Airport is a smoke-free airport. Smoking is prohibited in all public areas." It was enough to drive you outside to wait with the smokers. On the flight I sat next to a college student from Miami who was going over to visit his family in Serbia. We got to talking about the situation in the Balkans and we came to the one conclusion that's perfectly clear: Clinton, Blair, and Albright have their heads up their asses. After 36 hours underway, I make it to Prague, where after waiting for 45 minutes at the baggage claim, I learn that mine had been forgotten by the airport crew in Vienna. No surprise there. Nor was it a surprise when the lady in Prague, the one who filed my claim, didn't smile or even pretend that she cared. Face it, pal. You ain't in America anymore.