Today for the first time in Prague I saw a large group of children. They must have been in the ballpark of 8-10 years old, and there were about 20 of them. They were gathered outside at the tram stop with chaperones, on their way to a school sponsored field trip to somewhere else in Prague. It was fun to see a bunch of little people running around speaking in Czech and being silly: so far when someone says "young Czech people" I get the mental image of a 12 year old who looks like a model making out on the Metro with some nasty pimple-faced guy dressed as a skater, both of them taking huge drags of unfiltered cigarettes when they took a breathing break.
There's a reason I haven't seen that many kids around: I've been drunk. No, seriously, the real reason is much more unfortunate. Statistics say that in the Czech Republic there is 1 child per 4 families. That's right, the numbers are in the correct order. 1 child born per 4 married couples.
Marriage itself is also not a huge deal here. Weddings are almost always held on Thursdays so that everyone can go away for the weekend. One of my professors told us an anecdote about one of his students. One day she walks in and says "I can't make class this Thursday, I'm getting married." She had not previously mentioned a boyfriend, fiance, nothing. Further conversation lead to the revelation that her parents were not even coming to the wedding. "I wouldn't bring my parents to register my car," is a paraphrased quote from the bride to be regarding that issue.
And what of the children who are actually, well, produced? They start smoking cigarettes extremely young. Many of them turn to other drugs, sniffing glue being among the cheapest and most accessible options. A tremendous number (I think more than the US, not sure) have parents who no longer live together. And the Czech Republic doesn't even have the worst of it: a walk through Bucharest, the capital of new EU member Romania, paints and even starker picture.
A year ago, I knew the Czech Republic existed mainly because I knew all the lyrics to the Carmen Sandiego song. Now when I read articles predicting dire futures for Czech children, I can't help but feel heartbroken.
One of the kids on the tram was swung a little too close to an older woman sitting down when the tram came to an abrupt start. He solemnly gave her the most formal version of the Czech "excuse me." Hopefully that kid will not only keep his good manners as he gets older, he will also avoid the perils of growing up in Prague. If he stays off drugs and gets a good education, he might be able to survive in the economic chaos that will ensue in two years when the Czech Republic switches to the Euro.
One of the lessons of my twentieth year is that there are no quick fixes. Echoing in my head are the people of post-Communist Central Europe who have all learned at least one English colloquial phrase: "Damn straight."