It was a crisp February night, a light snow was falling. Unlike so much of winter in our era of climactic weirdness, this particular eve was actually "seasonal."I was walking from Náměstí Míru toward I.P. Pavlova enjoying the pleasantness of it all, trying to place myself in one of Josef Lada's innocent Czech folk paintings. Trying.
Then I saw it; or rather, I walked straight into it's radiance. In brilliant red and white, large electric broadside signs announced the intrusion of Kentucky cuisine into yet another square in Prague. Two neon signs – one announcing the presence of fried chicken, one helpfully announcing the direction of the take-out window – blinked slowly and out of synch.
I hadn't been in Prague for over a month, but still construction must have been swift. I couldn't recall what had been there before. And I suppose it doesn't really matter; it's hard to be sentimental about I.P. Pavlova. The North-South highway roars next to it, and a small fast food stand offers up burgers and fries across from the tram stop. Radost, in many ways the cultural epicenter of post-communist Prague, is just around the corner.
But these are quaint in comparison to the new KFC, which is loud from a distance at three angles. In Wenceslas Square the chain seems at home; but outside of the corrupt and immediate center one's tolerance for fast food and the effluvia it inevitably brings declines rapidly. The paper bags and wrappers and cups weren't scattered around the street yet, but they will be, in accordance with the laws of the fast-food universe. Local hospodas and potravinys haven't started to suffer yet, but it's a good bet they will. Then of course there is the bloody global dealings of the Pepsi Corporation, which nobody ever seems to care about.
Jolted by the leviathan in front of me, I began to inspect. Accompanied by the Tears for Fears coming out of the mini-speakers above my head, I peered into the light. The large picture windows revealed a grand-opening level of cleanliness: shiny steel, clean glass, freshly ironed uniforms. Thankfully, this outlet had chosen not to follow the lead of the KFC in Old Town, which is decorated in a faux Americana style, with an erratic emphasis on African-American athletes.
No, this location was done up in what might be called Classic KFC. A nickel bust of the Colonel himself watched over the registers, looking a touch too much like Lenin for comfort. The walls were adorned with (relatively) artful black and white photographs of children playing with large empty containers of fried chicken. (The colorful playroom for real children offered plastic balls in place of paper buckets.) Looking at the indoor playground I remembered by own days having fun in the parking lots of fast food chains. I always got stuck on the slides.
For single overworked mothers, the playroom at KFC is heaven sent. She can sit and eat while her kids burp contentedly in the ring. Whether it is possible to actually relax in such an environment is another matter. As for the negative nutritional value of the food, I guess Czechs don't care. And the trash and litter that these places generate is just an ugly shame, for which reason alone I despise them.
Job creation? Minimal and degrading.
As these thoughts trudged through my cold brain, the restaurant security guard came out to eye me. It wasn't 1991; why was I snooping around? Maybe I was an anti-globalization terrorist, come to blow the colonel and his profits sky high. Or maybe I was a kooky animal rights activist, who thought chickens shouldn't be treated like car parts. (They shouldn't).
But of course I wasn't any of these things. I was just a jaded expat trying to figure out what he thought of this huge new business squatting in his old neighborhood. My final thoughts fell into place when the poor security guard nervously approached me. They were a mix of pity and regret and hatred, but of a non-combustible sort.
I made a 'hands-off' motion to the guard and backed away from the window. Doing so, I remembered a piece of graffiti I once saw on a wall not far from the new restaurant. During the IMF/World Bank clashes, a protestor had spray-painted "we are still winning" on a boarded-up window.