From the Weeklies

The Czech Republic does not have money to burn. Yet millions have been squandered due to the lack of a consistent national energy policy. How much would you be prepared to pay for a night in the royal suite of a five-star hotel? 140,000 crowns (3,500 USD) will get you free champagne and caviar, a jacuzzi and sauna and as much pampering as you can take. And finally, the long road to good health - Czechs are eating junk-food and buying miracle health products. Those are some of the interesting stories in this week's magazines.

The lack of a national energy policy is having a devastating effect on state coffers, the environment and many households in north Bohemia. Tyden has zeroed in on one of the biggest goofs of the past decade. In the mid-90s the authorities offered thousands of households in the worst polluted parts of the country financial support if they agreed to replace their coal-burning furnaces with electric heaters. With the construction of the Temelin nuclear power plant going ahead and several newly de-sulphurised electric power plants in operation the authorities had good reason to do so, and thousands of families accepted the deal.

Today most of those heaters are standing idle, while their owners have gone back to coal-burning furnaces because they are no longer able to foot soaring electricity bills. Those who no longer have their old furnaces to fall back on are complaining loudly about having been duped by the authorities. And so, paradoxically, more state money will now go to help those who have been left without any form of heating as a result of the authorities' misguided policy.

The Environment Ministry has stepped in to help, unveiling a plan to co-finance ecological forms of heating, but it is acting on its own accord. The money comes out of its own reserves and even now there is no consensus in government as to a future energy policy. According to Tyden magazine, Trade and Industry Minister Miroslav Gregr, who is a staunch advocate of nuclear power, has advised his cabinet colleague to help needy families pay their electricity and gas bills rather than discouraging them from this form of heating. As he sees it, with Temelin in operation, electric heaters will be affordable in the not so distant future.

Now to move from those who don't have money to burn to those who do. What kind of service is worth 140,000 crowns? According to Lidove Noviny magazine that little sum will get you the presidential suite of Prague's Intercontinental Hotel, and everything that goes with it, for the space of 24 hours. If President Havel wanted to give himself a treat--and pay for it out of his own pocket--his salary would allow him to spend just one night a month there. If he settled for less he could spend two nights at the Waldorf Astoria. Even Karlovy Vary' five-star Hotel Pupp has put a 40,000-crown-a-night price tag on its royal suite.

Now, Karlovy Vary, albeit a beautiful spa resort, is only a medium-size Czech town. So what merits that staggering fee? To begin with, history. For the space of 24 hours you'll be getting the suite used by the former Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef I and more superior spa treatment than he ever got for his money. The staff are not likely to mention it but for 40 years Karlovy Vary's grandest hotel was officially called Moscow.

Hotels which don't have history will offer you the suite used by US President Bill Clinton, Britain's Prince Charles or pop star Michael Jackson. And unlike in other Czech hotels, the staff will be on its toes to meet even the most ludicrous request day and night.

Of course, there are certain limits. Nobody so much as blinked an eye when Mick Jagger wanted his bedroom re-painted blue but the staff of Hotel Pupp put its foot down when Keith Richards wanted to build an open fire in the royal suite. Some requests are easier to meet than others. In 1996 a well-off Prague businessman climbed the huge Xmas tree in the hotel lounge and balancing precariously at the top yelled that he wanted to be placed in a psychiatric asylum without delay. The staff were only too happy to oblige, the weekly concludes.

Well, not all of us can afford that kind of life, so let's take a look at what the majority of Czechs are spending their money on. According to Profit magazine, food is the second biggest budgetary expenditure in most households. Czechs spend a fifth of their income on food, and more often than not it is unhealthy food.

Where there has been a move away from the typical dumpling-and-sauces cuisine it has more often than not been replaced by pizza, fried chicken and hamburgers, the weekly notes. Many Czechs will tell you that a meal without meat is no meal and desert in this country is traditionally sweet. Add a low intake of fruit and vegetables and a love of beer to that and you have a fairly accurate picture.

Not surprisingly Czechs have a high heart disease rate, high cancer rate, suffer from ulcers and 40% of the population is overweight. Doctors say it makes no difference whether their patient is a manual labourer or a business manager. Both consume unhealthy fast food during the day and while the labourer will have a meatloaf in front of the TV at home the executive will have an equally unhealthy steak at a fancy restaurant. In an effort to offset this unhealthy diet, Czechs have fallen into the trap of buying miracle health and fitness products.

The motto is "no effort on your part required - results guaranteed" and Czechs are spending millions on them, each according to his own pocket. There are relatively cheap bars of soap guaranteed to make your love handles disappear as well as expensive electro-stimulators designed to work your muscles while you lie on the couch and watch TV. Beauty pills, fitness pills and health pills abound and doctors complain that many people risk serious health damage by overdosing on them in the hope of bringing about the desired miracle transformation.

As for the fitness equipment designed to give you the Chuck Norris physique, the head of a Prague rehabilitation centre says that that those who buy it are lucky to lose only their money. "If you are a desk-bound bank clerk who happens to like Czech food, there is no way that five minutes of training a day on whatever it is will get you a great physique," he points out, "and if you push yourself over the limit you'll only end up at our rehab centre."

This is not the first article of its kind. Czechs are increasingly being warned about miracle products, but few pay attention. Because who knows... maybe somewhere out there is just the thing that will work a miracle for them, overnight and with no effort at all.