Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Movin' on up

I was going to help a friend move today. Not to lug boxes around or to help clear a way for the new sofa or anything like that. Rather, Carron was to pick up the keys and take a look at the place, making sure what she was getting was what she signed for in the contract. I was there to communicate with her landlord-to-be, who apparently spoke no English. So during the 10-minute walk there, I rehearsed some likely Czech apartment-inspection phrases. "Prosim vas, kde je toaleta?" (excuse me, where is the toilet?), "To najem vcetne topeni a elektrina, ze jo?" (the rent includes heat and electricity, right?) and that old favorite, just in case, "jiste, platila zalohu" (of course she paid the deposit).

We rang the doorbell, and were told to come down to the basement. Uh-oh, the basement. Damp and dark, good place for a mugging...but no, this was respectable Vinohrady, so instead of a mugging we were shown the cramped offices of a real estate company. Eventually, we met the woman who would be handing Carron the keys and letting her in...a friendly young Italian who spoke servicable English. My assistance no longer required, I left Carron to be helped by the professionals and returned to my apartment.

Landladies who spoke English? Courtesy? Professionals in offices? This wasn't like the old days. When I first came to Prague in the mid-1990s, finding any of the above was a rare and beautiful thing. Apartments were usually in the hands of older Praguers, cranky and distrustful types who didn't like the idea of strangers - particularly of the foreign variety - occupying their living space. On top of that, most renting was done illegally, as the landlords usually either a) weren't owners in the first place, rather occupants of low-rent, state-owned flats, b) renters of the apartment themselves or c) owners who didn't much like the idea of paying taxes on their extra income. This meant that many of these people were skirting the law, which always makes one a little jumpy. On top of that, Prague society back then was fresh out of communism, so the general unease around People You Don't Know was still fresh in the air. After all, this was a country where around 10 percent of the population was estimated to have some kind of relationship with the StB, the beloved secret police. Given that, how could you ever know if Bob the Happy Foreigner was really a spy renting your place to bug the phones?

It was typical back in those dark days to suffer "visits" at least once in a while from landlords. They'd just, you know, uh, drop by to see...see if you had fresh milk in the refrigerator. Or maybe they were checking the fuses. Yeah, there was just...something...they needed to take a look at in your room. You don't mind, do you?

It was common for tenants to pay a lot of money for a place and be spied on in the process. My friend Tim's landlady felt the need to stop by occassionally to poke around in the kitchen and God knows where else. Another pal, Alex, would sometimes be greeted Saturday mornings by his landlord and the landlord's wife, who would let themselves in and inspect the living room while Alex was sleeping. My own landlord, Lubos, a skinny, scared middle-aged man, would once in a while find it necessary to go into my room "to do your laundry". At the time, I was in my mid-twenties, didn't have much money and had very little in Prague except for some clothes, a few cassette tapes and a couple of books. What in the world was he hoping to discover?

These days, my living situation is miles better and I don't have to deal with a guy like Lubos poking his way through my stuff anymore. Tim just bought a house on his own and Alex is in the US somewhere, undoubtedly having a properly distanced relationship with his renters, if he has any. And most of the foreign Praguers I know live (more or less) trouble-free in apartments with (more or less) absentee landlords, who usually show their face only when rent time comes around. I don't hear too many apartment horror stories these days, and the domestic spies seem to have melted away, replaced by a more professional class with better things to do than root around in refrigerators and underwear drawers.

This is undeniably a great development. But I have to admit, I kinda miss the days when Lubos did my laundry.

1 comment:

Julie said...

heh, nice to know on October 19 instead of wishing me a HAPPY BIRTHDAY you were watching Czech reality-TV. Oh the horror. Woulda beena lot more interesting had they done it in the mid-90s by the way (weren't the old days always better?). Ah, remember the time Susan and I inadvertently locked you into our apartment? Those were the days my friend....
Oh by the way, in case you were about to miss it, Friday marks the first anniversary of the BIGGEST Triumph in Baseball History. Have yourself a Fenway Parek to celebrate.