Why are so many British louts vomiting all over the cobblestones? Queen's Subject Ken Shifrin investigates...
Once again, those all time record-holders, the Americans, were beaten this summer for the Number One Tourist Plague of Prague - their loud voices and even louder plaid, extra-loose fit, wrinkle-free, no-iron, stay pressed, wash 'n' wear, drip dry polyesters notwithstanding.
Although other competitors made a good showing, the dubious distinction did not go to the pre-season pick: the big spender Russians. Nor to such perennial contenders as the incredibly rambunctious Italians, regimented Germans, or small swarms of Japanese.
By unanimous decision in a highly competitive field, top dishonors went to the English team, which captured the title with a distinctive style and well-balanced attack. The veterans (affectionately known as "Those Crotchety Old Farts" weighed in with steadfast determination on the offense by referring to the locals as "bleeding foreigners" and backed it up with their unwavering certainty that by speaking louder, they would make the natives understand them.
What really impressed the judges, however, were the rookies on the squad, shouting at the top of the their lungs "Doesn't anybody speak English in this place?" - and when instant gratification wasn't provided, putting on a dazzling display of chair-throwing and beer-glass smashing worthy of their first cousins, England's most famous export: the soccer hooligans.
Unlike the Black Plague of old - which hitched a ride on the backs of rats to London - this plague travels from London in the cabins of airliners, spawned by the cut-throat, cut-rate low-fare competition between Czech Airlines (CSA) and GO, the slick, well-run, no-frills, budget affiliate of British Airways. But it would be unfair to blame the carrier for the disease, or for what happens after it disgorges its contents at Ruyzne Airport.
On a one-day visit to Prague this summer, the American founder and CEO of GO, Barbara Cassini, was asked by an interviewer whether she thought GO had greased the path for "young British soccer rowdies puking in the streets of Prague."
Instinctively she defended her brainchild with these words: "I don't think you can attribute it to GO. Maybe it's a saddening reflection of the famous British manners disappearing on us."
Then, on reflection, she went on: "I'd probably attribute it to the price of beer." A moment later, she added: "This is the first time I've heard of it being an issue." Though she didn't have her demographics with her, she said she thought they'd show that GO's public "is quite old and quite young, which is quite weird."
Similarly, Sarka, a flight attendant for CSA, relates how she has witnessed a definite decline in the "quality" of passengers now coming on board from Manchester and London compared to just a few years ago.
What lures these latter-day louses to Prague? Is it the National Theater? The Dvorak Museum? The Stone Bell opera recital series? Doubtful. Cheap beer and the Atlas Night Club? More likely.
Vasek, the bouncer at Atlas, says the only trouble they experience comes from young Englishmen. In a recent incident, fighting broke out amongst a group of Mancunians - those are blokes from Manchester, not sophisticated sheepherders from Manchuria - tanked up with too much testosterone and Staropramen, who interrupted the club's star attraction in the middle of her dance routine.
For those of us, like Ms. Cassini, brought up on the straight-laced "pip-pip, tally-ho, jolly-good-show" image of the quintessential proper English gentleman on "Fireside Theater", the transformation into something that must have crawled out of the cellar from "Upstairs, Downstairs" can be overwhelming.
It's hard to explain why, but when these normally upper-lip stiffs let down their hair on friendly foreign soil (or back home at a curry house or Greek tavarna) they frequently also let loose their darker side: the innate, insular xenophobia that all too often manifests itself as an "if it wasn't for us, you'd all be speaking German, mate" nasty brand of jingoism.
One United Kingdom travel agent speculates that "unlike in England, where drinking times in pubs are strictly regulated by law," the non-stop availability of good cheap beer abroad turns your typical English male into a cranky six-year-old running among in a sweets shop.
"Then there is the English obsession with the weather and the fact that we have no real summer." The travel agent goes on. That is to say, even a slightly more clement clime than back home has a near-intoxicating effect on Brits. "The combination of being abroad, sun and cheap beer," says the travel agent, "makes us go out of our heads with the booze."
This is especially true when travel affords a rare opportunity to shed clothes and sprawl on the beach: just ask the locals in Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca and Costa Almeria who have see their formerly quaint Spanish towns of Torremolinos and Benidorm morph into crass and gaudy fish n' chip clones of the crassest and gaudiest aspects of Blackpool.
So indelibly stamped are they with the mark of the Plague that, outside of England, few tourists have even heard of these places. Of course, just as not all of those late, now lamented Ugly American tourists were ugly, plenty of Brits cringe at the crude carryings-on of their countrymen.
But enough bad apples have barreled in to uphold England's reputation abroad and spoil the cider. Let's hope the bottom of the barrel doesn't find out about the sandy beaches of Costa del Prague.
- Ken Shifrin is a trombone-playing dual national (US and UK) and has brought his Baroque to Broadway Trio to Prague for the last four years. He is also a researcher of 18th century music with the Czech Academy of Sciences.