I am sure that in a former life I was a bear. I say this because at the first sign of winter I get this barely controllable urge to hide somewhere warm and dark ’til spring … and today in Prague its minus 8 degrees C! It sort of raises the question I find myself asking with increasing regularity these days – “Why spend so much of my time in a place where I was clearly not designed to be?”
Maybe its something to do with the summers, which, by UK standards are glorious and predictable – you can actually plan a weekend with a reasonable expectation of the weather being good enough to actually leave the house. Or maybe its some of the quaint habits of the locals. For example, yesterday I ventured into my local potraviny – the closest thing Czechs had to a supermarket before the real thing, in the shape of Julius Meinl, arrived from Austria, about the time the last Commie disappeared to his luxury mansion in the hills.
Despite living much of the time in the beer capital of Europe I don’t drink much of the stuff, but I picked up a few bottles for the fridge and took them to the check-out where the lady growled (another Czech speciality) the price. “Thirteen Crowns each”. “But it says ten crowns on the shelf” I pointed out. Three Crowns each for the bottles” came the reply. I was tempted to make her day by suggesting that she “Forget the bottle. Just wrap it up and I’ll take it like that” but I am sure the joke, and I’m certain the irony, wouldn’t have translated. Czechs don’t “do” irony. They do however have many practices, like charging separately for the bottle when you buy beer, that we would find odd … no ridiculous, even.
Another Czech trait is their unequalled capacity for denial. It probably stems from fifty years of Communist rule when you just kept your head down and did what you could to live around the rules. Or maybe its goes way back. What we now call the Czech Republic is, after all, the most invaded and occupied real estate in Europe, so maybe folks here have developed an ambivalent gene that enables them to carry on regardless of who is sitting in the big chair.
The ambivalent gene would certainly explain the tough time I have getting people here fired up about anything (besides ice hockey). This was underlined a couple of weeks ago by three surveys that revealed that despite suddenly not being able to get mortgages, having their factories closed, thousands of lay-offs and apartment blocks being only 20% occupied twelve months after completion, that Czechs still don’t believe there’s an economic crisis!
I mean, even if you’ve never seen an economic crisis (as they haven’t of course!) you’d have an idea that something was up when your house is being repossessed. So it has to be denial, don’t you think? Its both quaint and sad. A bit like watching a small furry animal walking down the street from a perspective that allows you to see the out-of-control steamroller on a tangential course to the next intersection.
A friend of mine who runs a pretty big concern in the Czech Republic told me this week that he’s had calls from two separate banks involved in two of his deals, to say that they just don’t have the money they had promised him. He’s also divested himself of a number of companies. One, which was making only two million Crowns a year on a multi-billion Crown turnover, had been the subject of productivity concerns for some time (understandably), but despite receiving a number of addresses from my friend, the work-force were, to a man, gob-smacked when “time” was eventually called. It seems that either nobody quite belived the warnings or they were in denial. After all, the business was still making two million a year, which, to many (possibly most) Czech-owned companies would represent pay-dirt. I’ve said before, that many of the Czech businesses I come across are not really viable. No, sadly, Czechs are still struggling to understand the rules of capitalism and after fifteen years in an economic rose-bed (very much at the expense of other EC members) they are about to learn some hard lessons.
I still believe though, that there are some terrific products and ideas here, that, despite the economic uncertainly, with a bit of western know-how could support some exciting, international even, businesses. The question is, are locals able or even bothered enough to grab the opportunities, or will their general complacency mean that they just let them pass by? I think we are about to find out. With smart and resourceful Western organisations already assessing the soft underbelly of Central Europe’s developing markets as a target for off-setting their projected 2009 home market short-falls things are going to get tough here and if they are not movin’ and shakin’ it like they’ve never moved and shaked before, half the Czech commercial world is going to find itself eating dust!
Hey, is it chilly in here or what? Pull that boulder over the entrance as you leave!
December 30, 2008