Galeire Kamzik: The Center of the Center
“So what brings you to the center of the center of such a most unstable region at such an opportune time?”
The professor of Socioeconomics at Charles University of Prague, whom I had just met, had leaned over my shoulder, as I sat at the bar, to pose the question directly to my ear. Then he squeezed in between the bar stools and waited for my response.
I had been contemplating my bottled beer, a Pilsner Urquell, considered one of the best beers in the world if not the best, when the question drew me out. In the crowded little bar of Galeire Kamzik (Chamois) it is not hard to find someone willing to engage in conversation. Questions can come rapid fire and it is necessary to all ways to be metaphorically on your toes because Kamzik does not draw the usual crowd.
Galeire Kamzik is about 50 meters from Prague’s historic center–Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square). It is a place that no one goes looking for. Tucked away at the end of the blind street Koza (Billy Goat) where the narrow, cobbled stoned street intersects with two gated corridors, which are locked by 9:00 p.m., Galeire Kamzik is all but unknown even to locals.
The only outsiders who find Kamzik are drunks, those looking to get drunk, or the occasional adventurous tourist, the one who sticks his nose into all the nooks and crannies, who upon seeing a place normally frequented only by locals isn’t afraid to step in and have a least one drink.
In the spring of 1996, I spent two months in Prague on a writing project. After a day of writing, I went into the center in search of Pivo (beer), which isn’t hard to find, considering Czechs drink more beer than any other people.
Wandering through a corridor, I heard the Rolling Stones’ song “Jumping Jack Flash.” I followed the music to Galeire Kamzik. Fifteen foot windows framed in dark wood enclose the bar. One set of windows look onto a white walled corridor, the other onto Koza. Inside are seven, small, dark wood round tables and more chairs than can ever fit around them. An L shaped bar seats eight.
The floor is of worn wood planks and in the center of the bar is a pillar that supports the neo-Gothic arches of the vaulted ceiling. On the plastered walls, yellowed from years of cigarette smoke, hang large original paintings by Czech artist. Above the entrance to the restrooms is a portrait of the Mona Lisa with horns and a joint in her hand.
It is a place lacking pretenses, where one time dissidents come to be among their peers. It is a place where the Rolling Stones’ songs, rebellious music for rebellious spirits, is played almost continuously. It is a place where early in the morning on a whim the bars owner, Joseph Mungo, will play communist work songs and all the patrons sing along, recalling every word to every song because for them it had been mandatory under the Communist regime to know these songs. So, effortlessly, they sing at the top of their voices, however, now no longer singing to remember but rather to never forget.
On many nights I am reminded that it is a place to take shelter from a storm.
Mungo–“The Rolling Stones are my life”– sang in a rock ‘n roll band during the Communist regime, gravitating toward the rebel music because it raised the ire of the government. A band that became too popular drew the attention of government officials and soon were prohibited to play. The length of suspension depended on the success of the band and ranged from six months to two years. Every musician, a Czech musician friend told me, tried to be very successful.
On any given night at Galerie Kamzik you might find the famous Czech painter Michael Rittstein or a half a dozen other well known painters and graphic artist, or Richard Nemcock, owner of the famous rock n’ roll club Bunkrs.
Here you might find magazine publishers discussing their latest issues, or the professor of Economics, whom after the Velvet Revolution was invited to Lecture at Harvard and whom eventually worked alongside Noam Chomsky.
Here the band Savle Mece (Swords and Sabers), one of the best Jazz and Blues fusion bands in Europe, whose trumpeter Miro is probably the best trumpeter in the Czech Republic, drops in after their shows to cool down. Mungo keeps a light on for them and like the great Jazz movie- they wonder in “Around Midnight” and stay sometimes until dawn, drinking slivovice, a Moravian moonshine.
Miro’s girlfriend, Barra, a well known Czech actress and host of her own political-talk-game show, “The Guillotine,” sometimes accompanies him to Kamzik. The ex-minister of finance drinks here too, as does the one time top anchorman of the communist period, the Peter Jennings of his time.
On the wall are snapshots, the kind pinned to bulletin boards of your own local bar, except when you look closely at these photos, the Kamzik patrons are shown with their arms around Mick Jagger, or are greeting the Dala Lama, or having a drink with Czech President Vaclav Havel.
It’s here to the center (Kamzik) of the center that they all come to unwind. Here they come to be themselves. As Robert, the lead singer of the bars band “Get Back to the Grave” (a snip young women say to older men whose passes are unwelcome), says “Here we are all family.”
My arrival at such an “opportune time” was serendipitous, arriving one week before the national elections. The “unstable time” mentioned by the professor was in reference to the results of that election. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the right-wing conservative, pro-privatization party that had run the country since 1992 and President Vaclav Havel’s choice of parties had fallen on hard times.
Prime Minister and ODS party leader Vaclav Klaus, a brilliant politician but like many brilliant politicians arrogant to a fault, had led the country into an unstable economic breach. Then while struggling to right the ship a scandal, the disclosure that members of Klaus’s cabinet had access to a secret Swiss account and, moreover, were unable to explain the source of several million crowns worth of political donations, all but cost Klaus and the ODS re-election.
The people’s disgust with the economy, lowering of living standards, and the ODS lapse in ethics brought the Social-Democratic Party (CSSD), once thought moribund, back to power.
A year ago, to broach the possibility of a left-wing socialist Czech government would have brought laughter and jeers of absurdity, yet this absurdity is now a reality. Furthermore, as the Czechs try to find that comfort zone with a left-wing government, they still must contend with a lack of strong leadership because, although the CSSD did win a majority of votes, they did not win enough parliamentary seats to form a majority government, leaving the people without a leader in a economic crisis that demands strong leadership.
In the ensuing weeks, the CSSD attempted a coalition with the minority parties, the Freedom Union (US) and the ultra-conservative right-wing Christian Democratic (KDU-CSL), but they wanted nothing to do with the left-wing CSSD and its foul tempered, brow-beating leader and now Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman. Quietly in the wings former Prime Minister Klaus waited.
Klaus was finally approached by his hated arch rival Zeman about forming a government. In negotiations, which could have been nothing but arduous, Klaus secured the position of Parliament chairman. But it is a government some say will not last more than six months, an assumption that continues to lead to an unstable economy and a lack of confidence from the international financial world. Zeman himself called this compromise with Klaus and the ODS a “Suicidal Government,” a coalition no less he feels “will last the four-year term.”
The mood of Praguers, to say the least, is subdued. Uncertainty is again their companion. Although, this time it is not an oppressive regime that distorts their way but rather the unstable, fragile world of Global economics–a far greater foe.
So I gathered my thoughts then formulated my answer and told the professor that social economics is what brought me here to the center (Prague) to see for myself the affects Western cultural and Capitalism will have on a country that for fifty years lived under Fascist and Communist rule. What brought me to the center of the center was a matter of great luck.
He nodded, laughed and slapped me on the back and then wandered toward his table for another whiskey. Soon I was joined by Peter, the professor of economics and former colleague of Chomsky. In 1996 I had a long discussion with Peter on the Nature of Man; a discussion that, subsequently, helped me to frame many of my thoughts on Mankind’s’ social, economic and political problems; a discussion that lasted well into the early morning.
In short, Peter stated that man was good but that his systems, which were man made and, therefore, “artificial,” were the bane of man’s existence.
This time we had a long discussion on Raw Capitalism and the International Monetary Fund and their probable devastating affect on local cultural, a conclusion we both agreed upon. When I realized that this magical city of Prague might have its great cultural suppressed or altered by Globalization, something that Fascism and Communism had tried and failed, I looked up from my beer with a feeling of despair.
“So what do we do?” I asked, hopeful that here at the center of the center there might be an answer.
Peter stood leaning against the bar, his left hand on his hip, looking at me, contemplating my question. Gradually, his contemplative expression gave way to a smile then the smile became a grin, and then in a burst of enthusiasm he put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed.
“By then, hopefully, we’ll be dead and not have to worry about it,” Peter answered and began to laugh. I too began to laugh and soon we had drawn the attention of the patrons of Galerie Kamzik.
How to explain, although, I realize here, like everywhere, there are no answers, but now it doesn’t seem to bother me as much.