TO Czechoslovakia, Prague's Wenceslas Square is a crucible of reborn democracy. But to visitors from the West the broad boulevard is more like a budding Wall Street money market. Stroll your Levis and Reeboks before the hotels lining Wenceslas' sidewalks and you will elicit offers for the deals of the day. ``Change? Dollar?'' ask locals eager to trade their korunas for your convertible currency. Then they switch to German, tauschen, Mark?
That is the language of Prague's bristling black market for hard currencies, and it is a language nearly everyone speaks. ``It unlegal,'' explains one underground money broker in his best English, ``but everyone do it.''
``It OK,'' says a 15-year-old who works in a team with a 17-year-old friend. ``I look, look, look, for police. When they no, he change money.''
Westerners who dare to dip into the black market can usually triple the value of their money. Banks and hotels change money at the official rate of 9.5 kcs to the dollar. But dealers on the street will pay at least 30 kcs to the dollar.
If your dealer's desperate, he'll pay 35 to 40 kcs. United States dollars and West German marks are the preferred cash, but says one Czech with a wallet full of pounds, guilders, and pesos, ``I take anything.''
This black market is driven by a scarcity of hard currency. Although Czechoslovaks are now permitted to travel to the West, they still cannot exchange their korunas for hard, Western currencies. And in Western countries, korunas are practically worthless.
Most money changers hope only to acquire a few hundred dollars for a trip to West Germany or Austria, such as the teenagers trading to buy jeans and stereo boom boxes in the West. Others have made money-changing their business.
One man, an engineer, says Czechoslovakia's quixotic brand of socialism drove him to find a way to make money. ``I want to work hard and make money, but it's very difficult to save money here,'' he says, identifying himself only as Stefan. ``Everything is 10 times more expensive than in your country.''
A stylish shirt costs about 500 korunas, one-third the average monthly salary. Moreover, the state's wage scale leaves little room for climbing. ``I have a university degree and the woman who scrubs the stairs at my office takes a salary like an engineer,'' Stefan says.
Real profits, however, are not made in changes on the street, says Stefan. He makes his killing importing personal computers and electronics gear from the West. He saves the dollars and marks he changes, and once a year takes a holiday to West Germany, where he buys a personal computer (PC) and accessories he can sell at home.
``A private person is not allowed to sell to Czech companies,'' Stefan says, ``but you can sell to the official bursar, who's like a purchasing agent for the enterprises, and the factories will pay a very high price for this equipment.''
For an inexpensive IBM compatible, monitor and peripherals such as memory boards and a modem, Stefan says he can get more than 20,000 korunas from the bursar, nearly doubling his annual salary. ``The Czech factories, they don't have the currency to buy computers themselves, but they can pay any price they want in korunas. If you know what to buy, it's a really good deal.''
Since he began dealing dollars, Stefan has made three trips to West Germany, each time returning with a single PC. With his profits, he has been able to buy a country cottage. His cramped one-bedroom apartment is equipped with a satellite dish, VCR, color television, and stereo, all from the West. ``Plus I got nice trips to West Germany,'' he smiles.
Stefan goes out to change money everyday - before work, at lunch, after work, and on weekends. ``It's my hobby,'' he says. On a typical Saturday, he will come home with $300, 200 marks, and a smattering of other denominations, the fruits of changing around 15,000 kcs, which Stefan refers to as his ``capital.'' He saves his capital from his regular salary, and works with a friend who antes his own korunas to the base.
They work Wenceslas and other tourist areas, and shrewdly pick out tourists from the crowd. ``The foreigners wear good clothes of quality that are not possible to get here,'' he says. But the competition is tough. ``We get really big competition from taxi drivers and waiters because they get to talk to visitors,'' Stefan says. Another man trading for currency for a Christmas trip to visit West German relatives brazenly approached people standing at the state bank's exchange window.
Along with the competition, money changers must watch for the authorities. ``You must have experience because the secret police will try to change with you,'' Stefan explains. ``You must know them. If you know them, you can spot them and they will go away.''
Westerners must watch out for unscrupulous black marketers. ``There are a lot of robbers. If tourists are not careful, they can get cheated in grand style,'' Stefan warns.