Passing by in Prague
Alex Correa*

PRAGUE â€" Czech Republic was the first country I visited that wasn't either Latin or Germanic. Czech, as I found out the hard way, is a very tricky Slavic language, one of those that rarely lets you deduce the meaning of a word and in which entire sentences seem to have been written by somebody with severe cognitive issues.


If you don't believe me, here are a few examples:


â€" No, I've never heard of the deep web.

â€" Ne, já jsem nikdy neslyšel o hlubokého webu.


â€" What did you put in my drink?

â€" Co jste dal do pití?


â€" Please, do not take my liver, sir.

â€" Prosím, neberte mé játra však, pane.


I started in Berlin, Germany. The train journey to Prague's central station is enough to make anybody exhilarated or a little scared. The script changes little by little until you start realizing that either you dropped acid that somehow confused all the letters on the signs, or you've entered the Czech Republic.

When everything goes according to plan, it's actually rather easy to become enthralled with such a different language. There are an infinite number of possibilities, and it's a lot easier to meet new people in bars, for example with the always efficient, "How do you say cheers in your language?" But if things start going off the tracks, the interest in exoticism devolves into an abyss of despair, and with one magical step, you find yourself unable to find a living soul who speaks English.

That's what happened to me after I dedicated a reasonable amount time to figuring out the city's public transport system. (Trying to memorize the names of the surrounding metro stations when your phone's battery is giving up isn't the best idea.) I reached my Airbnb rental and discovered that the hosts had forgotten about my arrival and were unreachable. I waited for two hours, entering and exiting the building thanks to considerate neighbors, and I found a café with Wi-Fi to allow me to pursue a plan B.

Tossed out

I was thrown out of the café at 10 p.m., when it was already very dark outside and the employees wanted to go home. I ended up staying in a remote neighborhood with a guy who would later send me Whatsapp messages on a daily basis to ask if I'd "already picked up a Czech chick." After an exhausting day, I had what every traveler needs: somewhere to sleep and a stranger to ask me inappropriate questions. What more could I wish for?

Is that clear? â€" Photo â€" Infinite Ache

The next day, showered and ready to explore the city, I started meeting other tourists who were also desperately confused by the language. I reached deep inside to embrace my best altruism and swore that whenever I'd see somebody lost or looking for information, I'd offer to help.

The project started well: I met an errant explorer on the tram and directed him toward his hotel across the city. In a restaurant, I helped a couple decipher the menu using Google Translate. In just a few hours, I became Prague's Superman, without the six pack and super powers.

Living up to my new, Good Samaritan status, I became the hero of two helpless Japanese girls standing in the middle of the sidewalk with gigantic suitcases. Or at least I tried to. They were trying to make sense of their city map. But when people don't even know they're holding the map upside down, you know it's going to be a slog for them.

I came closer, but they completely ignored me. When I finally offered to help, I was sprayed with a series of piercing "no no no no no no no no no nos." They moved away from me, leaving their luggage where it was, as if I'd been holding a gun to their heads. They made all sorts of hand gestures to tell me to go away, saying stuff in Japanese. I tried to explain myself: "I'm just trying to help some strangers in the street because when I first arrived in Prague myself ... " but I failed miserably. They were only moving further away, each time a little faster, while I was trying to give my best rendition of "it's not what you're thinking." Thanks for nothing, pop culture.

About 40 minutes later, I returned to the spot, and there they were, sitting on the curbside. But they at least holding the map properly this time. I didn't stop. One moment I had been Superman, the next Godzilla. I left them behind in that alley.

And I'm fine with it. As Confucius famously said, "It's no use trying to help those who don't help themselves." Not even in Prague.


Copyright Alex Correa, a travel writer and journalist from São Paulo, Brazil.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, which includes pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any other language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to info@worldcrunch.com.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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