Booming economy, strong banks: It’s a matter of perspective — and place

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC — The economy is booming. The nation’s banks last year celebrated record profits, driven largely by sharply increased demands for home mortgages and personal loans.

Been a while since you read that in the headlines?

That’s the news of the day here in the Czech Republic, where at the moment I’m sitting in a cafe reading the Prague Post. (It’s the English-language paper. I can’t make any sense of Podniky A Trhy, the city’s daily newspaper, although I can recognize the front-page pictures of Hillary Clinton.)

A friend and I are spending a week in Prague on a long-anticipated vacation. He called last week while listening to NPR to report that the U.S. dollar had just hit a historic all-time low against the Czech crown. “Savvy travelers, aren’t we?” he said. “Traveling to Europe at the most expensive time ever?”

But getting out of the U.S. is a good antidote to Americentric thinking that revolves around our anxieties about impending recession. Apparently the world doesn’t revolve around us. The boom in the Czech Republic actually is occurring because it isn’t a major player on the world market. Although it’s true that other European countries are feeling the effects of the U.S. housing crunch, Prague and other parts of Eastern Europe are doing fine on their own, thank you very much.

Some U.S. colleges and universities are reporting declining numbers of students doing foreign study because of the dollar’s decline. And on our flight on the way to Europe, our Airbus 330 was only half-full — something my more worldly traveling companion can’t remember occurring.

But concern over the exchange rate is relative. Prague is typically one of the least expensive cities in Europe. A good beer in a restaurant costs 30 crowns; at the local market, it’s 15 crowns. That translates to tipping a Pilsner Urquell for between 90 cents and $1.75. So what if that would have been 50 cents a couple of years ago?

Given that if we were back home, we’d be paying $3.15 a gallon for gas and in Praha we’re walking everywhere along cobblestone streets, it might be cheaper to be here. 

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