Gothic winter tale

Photo: CTK

Winter came early this year, with piles of snow yet again taking Bohemia and Moravia by surprise. The guidebook Lonely Planet has even placed Prague’s Christmas market in Old Town Square among the top five in Europe, calling it a Gothic midwinter fairy tale. But the reality in the Czech capital over the last couple of weeks has been rather different.

On Friday morning, snow began to fall again after days of barren skies, setting the mood for the coming holidays. For those who want to plunge head-long into the Christmas spirit, Lonely Planet suggests having a taste of Becherovka and enjoying the drink in Old Town Square. That place can certainly be ethereal and evocative, and if you don’t get hit by a falling Christmas tree, you may well be charmed by the atmosphere.

But you first need to get there, and walking around Prague and other big cities in the Czech Republic is a hard task in itself. On his blog, commentator Jiří Pehe wrote about overhearing a group of German tourists in the Old Town talking about the Schweinerei, or mess, that they had to literally wade through. A colleague of mine here at Czech Radio described the ordeal of crossing Nusle bridge after the metro was halted and having to plod through the melting snow.

Photo: CTK
It has been noted that what the Czech media keep referring to as snow calamity does not necessarily have to be so precarious. The reason it has been so over the last couple of winters has to do with the fact that one eccentric politician put the whole society to a test.

In 2009, Civic Democrat Senator Jaroslav Kubera almost single-handedly pushed through new legislation that took away the duty to keep pavements snow- and ice-free from house owners and transferred them to municipalities that own the actual pavements. Mr Kubera, in his sacred campaign for a more just world, argued it was absurd for people to bear responsibility for something that’s not theirs.

While the principle looks nice on paper, its consequences have been dreadful. Local municipalities in Prague and elsewhere do not have the funds to maintain dozens of kilometres of pavements and other areas. Some of them don’t even try – they figured out it’s cheaper to buy insurance and pay damages to anybody who gets injured on an slippery pavement, rather than to clear the snow and ice properly.

But as Jiří Pehe points out, the messy pavements highlight some more serious issues within the Czech society. In the two decades since the fall of communism, Czech society still lacks some of the qualities that are common in traditional democracies. One of them is the notion of communal property; that is property that does not belong to some anonymous institution but to the people in the community.

Walking around Prague these days, you can find that sections of the pavement in front of some buildings are kept clean because the people who live there feel responsible for it. It will be interesting, if difficult, to observe and experience when the feeling of community prevails over the selfish and fundamentalist approach that is so concisely expressed with the Czech proverb, Don’t put out the fire that’s not burning you.

So when you happen to be wading through the mess in the streets of Prague to enjoy the Gothic winter fairytale in Old Town Square, don’t forget you’re witnessing a social experiment imposed on the Czechs by precursors of fundamental liberalism.