Interview: PraguePig.com vs. Derek DeWitt of The Prague Haps
Derek DeWitt’s Facebook page, formerly known as simply “The Haps”, is one of expat Prague’s great online resources — an eclectic, entertaining and unashamedly subjective events guide that gathers up the city’s best and most bonkers happenings.
PraguePig.com met Derek at Mr. HotDog in Prague 7-Holešovice to find out more about the man behind The Prague Haps, and why he does what he does.
I’d intended to carry out a short, straightforward interview, but was quickly sidetracked by a torrent of anecdotes, reminiscences, observations and asides about Prague and the people who live here. Here’s an edited version of our chat.
PraguePig.com: How did the Haps get started?
I’m from San Francisco, and The Haps started there. I lived here [Prague] for five and a half years in the ‘90s. And then I moved to Germany and then Portugal, and then I went back to San Francisco. I’d been living in non-English-speaking countries for seven and a half years, so I was like, “Wow, man!” I’d forgotten how much awesome stuff there is to do in San Francisco. Just phenomenally weird stuff: you know, SantaCon; Brides of March, where men dress up like brides and harass everyone at Macy’s and then get thrown out of the bar at the St. Francis Hotel…
There were five or six sources for events, so I just started compiling them together into my own personal list of stuff that I wanted to do. And I would print it out and have it with me. And then my friends would just bug me all the time about what was going on, so I started writing it up with a little commentary, and emailing it to them. And then, you know, San Francisco’s where Craigslist was founded, so I stuck it on Craigslist. Pretty soon I had other people saying, “Hey, is this an email list?” (This was late 2000.) So pretty soon I had a couple of hundred people on this email list, and I found suddenly it was like this other job I had, to do The Haps.
But I wasn’t making any money on it, and part of that was because I used it a teeny-weeny bit for self-promotion for a tour company I had. And for that I had a lot of the same philosophy I have with the Haps the recommendations I make on my tours, they’re my recommendations. And even places that would see that I recommend them, they’d say, “Hey man, let’s give you a free meal or something.” But I said, “I can’t do it.” Because if Panta Rei, this great Italian restaurant that I love, wants to give me a free meal, I then have to also accept one from North Beach Pizzeria, which I hate and is just for tourists.
Prague was kind of a series of sleepy villages and that was fine. There was no compelling reason to leave so we stuck around. And then right around 2011, I just started noticing that there’s a lot of stuff happening.
Anyway, then I got married — to one of my tourists, actually. She was a tourist on my tour. So I quit The Haps. And then we were travelling around and we ended up back here. We were supposed to be travelling round the world but we ended up in Prague. We were going to run out of money in Azerbaijan in the worst winter since 1945. And I said, “Hey, maybe we could stay somewhere for six months, and make some money, and then continue.” You know, I’m a tour guide and an English teacher and a writer. She’s a designer and web person. So we can kind of work from anywhere. And I said, “We’ve been to 46 cities so far on this honeymoon. Which one did you like best?” She said Prague. I said, “Really?! Prague?! Again?!” But we came here for six months — that was 13 and a half years ago. Got this great apartment next door to what’s now Mr. HotDog. And started living and working.”
You know, this was a funny city, say, mid-noughties, especially… I was really reminded of San Francisco in the ‘80s in the way that there were a lot of student-based things, there were a lot of small-scale events, and that a lot of the advertising was done by sticking photocopied flyers up on a telephone pole or a lightpost or, you know, these big boards they have around town. I was like, “This is like San Francisco in the ‘80s! This is how, pre-internet, you communicated things. Wow!” Because no one’s going to read Annonce, and Lidové noviny doesn’t do stuff like this.
Prague was kind of a series of sleepy villages and that was fine. There was no compelling reason to leave so we stuck around. And then right around 2011 — end of 2010, early 2011 — I just started noticing that there’s a lot of stuff happening. More stuff than I can keep track of. So I thought, “Oh my God, it may be time to revive The Haps here!” But how do I do it? Because Czechs don’t use Craigslist. At all.
I’d read an article somewhere saying how much Czechs — despite the fact that at this time younger people, Millennials, were starting to get off Facebook — were embracing it like crazy. So I was like, “Facebook page! Obviously! That’s the answer.” Since then it’s been, every year, more stuff, more stuff, more stuff…
2013 is the real crux year. And I remember this specifically because my wife and I went back to San Francisco for a whole month, and just said, “Let’s spend July in San Francisco, catch up with the city again. It’s been years.” And we left on, like, July 2nd, we came back on July 30th. All our friends are going, “Oh, Náplavka, Náplavka!” We said, “What the hell is Náplavka?” (It opened in July 2013.) “Oh, you gotta go, you gotta go!” For years, even in the ‘90s, we were laughing that this city didn’t use its riverfront at all. It was just car parks and a wasted space. It was sad, really.
It was like this perfect storm of all these things happening at the same time. Náplavka happened and that’s partly because of the Auto*Mat people and those guys. Remember, they did that thing along the embankment between Charles Bridge and Národní divadlo, where they used the waterfront. The City started going, “Oh! Riverfront!” Of course, there was some graft-filled plan to sell all the riverfront land to hotels, who would just build a corridor of garbage and ruin the city. Thank God for grass-roots, citizen-based, urban groups like Auto*Mat.
It was also around the time that the farmers’ markets started. They stopped doing them only once a month and charging 300-crown entrance fees. Because, remember, you’d travel to Germany and go, “Why don’t we have this? We have 1.3 million people!” I think Bamberg’s got [a population of] 40,000 and it’s got a kick-ass farmers’ market. Why don’t we have this? We always used to laugh and say, “Prague’s just a city that just keeps missing these opportunities,” and suddenly now they’re not missing the opportunities.
We used to all laugh: Vietnamese have been here since the ’60s but there were no Vietnamese restaurants. Suddenly they started showing up, and I believe I traced it back to a three-part series on TV Nova about SAPA, and why you shouldn’t go to SAPA — because “it’s dirty”. It was just xenophobic yellow journalism. Literally yellow journalism.
I only put things on the Prague Haps that either I like — things I’m possibly interested in going to do — or that are so bizarro or off-the-hook that I feel that they just need to be mentioned.
If you didn’t have a business license or if you weren’t an s.r.o. — or a živnostenský list-holder, you couldn’t enter SAPA. And then they dropped that. People started going. In my English-teaching, I started noticing students who were younger, they were far more travelled… You know, back in the ‘90s… If I ask you — you’re British — “Hey, what’s your favourite kind of food?” What’s your answer?
PraguePig.com: Probably Thai.
Right. It’s a cuisine. I would ask Czechs of all ages, all backgrounds, “What’s your favourite food?” “Chicken?” Like, they just couldn’t… The concept of other cuisines wasn’t… Because Italian food was comical here, you know? I remember the first Italian restaurant in Prague. They served you pasta and a bottle of ketchup, and you were just like, “What the fuck is this?” And now, you know, I’m suddenly getting students who say, “I love sushi”, “I like spicy food”, “I like this”, “I like that”. So SAPA… Again, Nova’s just trying to be inflammatory but, as a result, they ended up advertising the fact that SAPA has all this really awesome, authentic Vietnamese food. And people went in droves.
Around the same time, Vietnamese places started opening up. And then around 2014, I guess, or 2015 — maybe late 2015? — the EU created this new “Bistro” category for restaurants. And suddenly it was a lot easier and cheaper for young entrepreneurial types to open up food trucks, small restaurants — like this one. This is one of the first ones here, Mr. HotDog. And it opened up because they didn’t have to be a restaurant, they could be a bistro. So, for example, you’re not required to have toilets. (But they do because, of course, who doesn’t want toilets in a restaurant. Durrr!) But it just made life a lot easier for all these people. Because the rules before were so ridiculous. Suddenly those rules all relaxed.
My wife said recently, “You have four jobs. One of them’s the Haps, because you spend at least an hour a day on this.” And that’s true.
So this all happens about five years ago. And at this point, I’m spinning plates, you know, trying to… I’ve got my job and I’ve got another job and I’ve got my own projects and then I’ve got this Haps and it’s just… It’s a lot of fucking work!
Thank God Praguers, and Czechs — but especially Praguers — are really into Facebook, and they have a tendency to create Facebook events for things. And Facebook’s also been altering how they do things over the years, so now you can share events. And then they added a feature where if you have a page, you could add an event to a page so it showed up in the events listing if you hit events. Now it’s all in chronological order. I was like, “Well, there you go! That’s it!” Because before I hit upon Facebook, I was like, “Am I going to have to, like, what? Make a Google Calender?” I don’t even know if Google Calendar was around at the time, but some kind of online calendar. “And then share it with people? On the web? Like, ugh! It’s going to be a colossal pain in my neck, you know.” Facebook just made it so easy.
My wife said recently, “You have four jobs. One of them’s the Haps, because you spend at least an hour a day on this.” And that’s true.
PraguePig.com: What are your other jobs?
I’m a teacher of English as a foreign language, which I have been since 1994. I’m a copywriter, and online and social media marketing guy mainly now. I’ve actually scaled my teaching back a lot. After I… Ironically, after I got the Cambridge Delta, I was like, “Yeah, I’m kind of burnt out.” I mean, how many times can you explain the Present Perfect, you know, to people who go, “But we don’t have it!” And I go, “Yeah! I know you don’t. Anyway, this is how it works…”
PraguePig.com: Why do you do it?
For myself, number one. Primarily for myself. Which is why I only put things on there that either I like — things I’m possibly interested in going to do — or that are so bizarro or off-the-hook that I feel that they just need to be mentioned.
So, for example, Prague has, for some strange reason, become this European centre of pole dancing as a quote-athletic-unquote activity. Now when it first started off, I would see these pole dance competition events — I thought they were hysterical so I stuck ’em on The Haps, and then I started to see them, like, every two weeks and I realized, “Oh! This is a thing now.” So I stopped putting it on there.
So it’s stuff that I personally… It’s curated to my tastes.
But I’m also aware that my friends use it as well, and some of them, for example, are vegetarians so I’ll throw vegetarian stuff up there. Plus I think it’s interesting that a city that Anthony Bourdain called “Porkopolis” is one of the most vegan-friendly cities on Earth now.
PraguePig.com: It’s a slightly bizarre thing.
It’s weird, right? It’s such a, like, “Fuck it! Let’s do it!”
PraguePig.com: When I arrived here, I never foresaw that coming.
If you had told me, I would’ve bet you 10,000 crowns, and I would’ve lost.
There are a lot of bullies out there — a lot more bullies than I thought there were. There are also a lot more funny people and a lot more interesting people than I thought there were.
It’s funny. The people who like The Haps are not really participatory on the page like they are on, say, other pages or groups. And there’s a certain blessing to that because, as we’ve learned through the advent of social media and Web 2.0, there are a lot of bullies out there — a lot more bullies than I thought there were.
There are also a lot more funny people and a lot more interesting people than I thought there were. As a friend of mine said yesterday when I was saying this, “It could be just that there are a lot more people than you thought there were,” which is probably the case.
Like, every once in a while, Expats.cz will have an article on [something like] the five best places to have real Spaghetti Bolognese in town. I was like, “Awesome! I love Spaghetti Bolognese. I didn’t know about four of these places.” So I stuck it up there. Of course, some dickhead has to write, “You know, it’s not even an authentic dish. It’s not really from Bologna.” First off, he’s wrong because I was in Bologna and I went to four restaurants, all of whom claimed to have invented it. The difference is that they don’t do it with beef, they do it with veal but, other than that, yes, Bolognese is in fact Italian, it really is from Bologna, you don’t know what you’re saying because you’re 22 years old, and you’re just trying to be smug.
PraguePig.com: Everybody’s an expert online.
Yeah, everybody’s a fucking expert. And I argued with him about it. And I was, like, “Look, dude, nobody wants to hear your opinions. If you don’t want to go to any of these places, don’t go. Just don’t go! I don’t care!”
[British nationalist politician] Nigel Farage was in town. I don’t like him but I stuck it on The Haps. Of course, then I started getting people going, “I can’t believe you’re putting this up there!” And I’m just, like, “Then don’t go!”
PraguePig.com: It’s noteworthy.
Yeah. “Don’t go [to the event], or go and throw things at him! I don’t care! I’m just letting you know Nigel Farage is in town in case you wanna fuck with him. Haha!”
I don’t mind if people ask me questions. And I used to always get people, you know, writing me, like, right before an event: “Where’s the gate? Where’s the entry gate?” I’d catch it on my phone and say, “I don’t know. I’m not the organizer. We’re not the organizers here.”
And it confuses people because I use the “we”, which is just what I started doing in San Francisco, but it really is just me. It’s just me all by myself. So, yeah, I do it for me and then for my friends and people I know, and then I’m vaguely aware of my audience — kinda, sorta.
And I actually went through about a year and a half ago… I went through and got rid of a bunch of people, so it actually dropped my numbers way down. I dropped about 500 people.”
PraguePig.com: How many followers do you have now?
It’s very close to.. It’s going to hit 2,600 quite soon.
PraguePig.com: That’s pretty good.
Considering that I’ve done literally nothing to advertise this, except once in a while I’ll throw up a vinobraní list or a Zažít město jinak list on some of these Facebook groups. Or if somebody writes and says, “Hey does anybody know where you can find cool things going on?” I say, “Yeah, there’s this curated thing on there” but I don’t tell them it’s me. So, yeah, I’ve really not made much of an effort at all.
PraguePig.com: Do you have any plans for the future? Do you see it going anywhere beyond this? Or are you quite happy with the way it is?
Yeah, it’s a good question. So I have this idea to create two… I don’t know what they’d be. Websites? Blogs? I don’t know what. One about food, one about drink.
I mean, this city’s on fire, you know? It’s crazy! We can get poké! There are two places now in Prague that serve poké. What?!!!
PraguePig.com: Is one of them Manifesto?
Manifesto is one, yes.
PraguePig.com: It’s Hawaiian…
Hawaiian raw fish salad. And now there’s another one called Sisters Poké, and you gotta love ’em, they mention that “we’re not associated with Sisters chlebíčky”, which is over by Naše maso, you know. Just all these places…
Ambiente Group is certainly leading the charge on that but Paul Day, he’s a friend of ours, and he’s got his things and he’s doing The Real Meat Society, and these guys. It’s just all these great places, and I love seeing them partner up. Brut. down the road partners up with Food Truck sometimes.
It really reminds me of San Francisco in the ’80s. Like, it really, really does. It’s so much fun to be here now.
There’s so much stuff you can’t do it all. Which is awesome, because it reminds me that I live in a really vibrant, modern city. I honestly think that, right now, Prague is the most dynamic city in all of Europe.
So, I started thinking, with all this new food and drink stuff going on, it might be an interesting idea to start two websites, one called Chomp and one called Glug.
And then it’s like, “Well then, what do I do?” You know, do I contact Brewsta at Czech Please and say, “Hey, man, do you wanna pair up?” Why the fuck would he, because he’s got his own thing going on. He’s a smart guy. I’m sure he’s figured out how to monetize it. But, you know, especially when talking to Americans, they’re always like, “How are you going to make money on this? How are you going to make money on this?” And it’s not for that. But if it gets much more of a pain in the ass, it might have to. Because I don’t have a staff. It’s just me.
PraguePig.com: Is it more difficult to find events in the summer?
No — it’s madness! It’s madness! Summer is off the hook. Though, you know, again, autumn… Like, summer is food festivals and outdoor stuff and, you know, park things and summer cinema — which there are more of every year — beer gardens.
Then there are Metropolitan Opera simulcasts, the simulcast season. We have… September’s “Zažít město jinak”. It’s vinobraní time. October is Signal fest. Lots of film festivals, lots of theatre festivals, design festivals. [In early October] it’s Architecture Days. So we’ve got plenty of stuff. January’s a bit light. December’s a bit light, strangely enough, maybe because so many people go away for Christmas. And then, you know, March, it starts kicking in again. It’s pretty crazy.
If you go into the events tab on The Haps, you see all the previous events. Some months, there are 150, 200 events, in a single month. And this is just the stuff that I’ve found that I like. And I’ll still be out with my wife or friends (or both) and we’ll be on the tram and see an ad, and go, “I didn’t know about that! I should put that on the Haps.” So, there’s so much stuff you can’t do it all. Which is awesome, because it reminds me that I live in a really vibrant, modern city. I honestly think that, right now, Prague is the most dynamic city in all of Europe. That might change to another city in a few years, but right now — this is it.
I don’t like knitting. No interest in knitting. Unless it’s, like, “how to knit an octopus”, then, yeah, I’ll stick it up there because that’s fucking funny.
There’s so much going on — Manifesto, Vnitroblock, Kasárna Karlín, the Karlín viaduct should open soon, all these great eateries — this town just gets more and more varied, and more and more interesting.
I clearly like architecture because I put a bunch of architecture stuff on there. I’m clearly really into urban planning so I put stuff like that up there.
PraguePig.com: Me too, actually.
Yeah, I love that stuff. I don’t like knitting. No interest in knitting. Unless it’s, like, “how to knit an octopus”, then, yeah, I’ll stick it up there because that’s fucking funny. You know, book fests? Sure. DJ stuff? Not really. Weekly tai chi — no. Like, music, I’m real sparse with, because the stuff I like doesn’t really come here very often — but when it does, I stick it up. Or sometimes if I really hate the act but they’re a big name. Because maybe someone in the audience likes Phil Collins, for example.
PraguePig.com: So the Haps is purely a Facebook thing now? You’ve never bothered with email in Prague?
Purely Facebook. Nobody under 40 uses email anymore. And why? I mean, yeah, I guess if you’re not on Facebook, you know, you don’t get to see the Haps. Oh well. “Fuck you. Sorry, man. Sorry, man!” [laughs]
I could create a website, I suppose…
So, I don’t know. Will it be bigger? It’s kinda big enough for me right now. Maybe. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m 51. I’ve got to start thinking about money-making opportunities, I guess. So I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe. An app, maybe? I don’t know. Because when I travel I use Field Trip and Atlas Obscura religiously. So, I mean, something like that, maybe? Do I really want to become a guy who, from Prague, has to manage, you know… There’s one in Barcelona, there’s one in Berlin, one in Amsterdam… It’d be kind of cool. Oh, yeah. Would it be cool if the Haps, like, took off and went to every major city in the West? Sure!
PraguePig.com: But it’d be a lot of work.
It’d be a lot of work and, more importantly, I have a very particular voice too, a very particular sense of humour, and I kind of want it to have that sense of humour. So, I don’t know. I’m not opposed to it but I don’t have any specific plans beyond possibly these food and drink blogs. Mainly because, again, what I see out there is either… Like, there are a couple of good apps or websites for, say, Czech beer but the English is either non-existent or comical.
And Google Translate’s getting better but it’s just not there yet.
So, like, this is something I was talking to my old business partner with, in San Francisco, who I sold my tour company to. I was like, “Dude, you really should think about coming to Prague for a visit and seeing the opportunities that are here.” This is a massive tourist city, like San Francisco — Prague. Huge tourist city! Huge! And, again, most of the tourist stuff is worthwhile. And even better, we don’t have a Fisherman’s Wharf. Fisherman’s Wharf is garbage. And even though that’s the case, I had a “10 cool things in Fisherman’s Wharf” tour that I did. If you look, you can find them.
Here it’s the Golden Lane, and that weird corridor between Lávka and the Charles Bridge.
PraguePig.com: Like, the King’s Way [sic], or whatever?
Whatever the fuck that thing is, yeah… And, you know, part of Karlova. But even on Karlova there’s some kind of crazy, cool stuff, especially if you know the history. The very first cafe in Prague was right there where that used to be an Icelandic place and now I guess it’s a TGI Friday’s or something.
This must have been the ninth time I heard this story: “That’s a statue of Darth Vader because Star Wars was one of the only Western films allowed here under Communism.”
I started doing tours here, actually, in 1993. I was the only native English-speaking tour guide in Prague in 1993. And it all started because… You know the statue of the knight on the new Old Town radnice, over by the library, on Mariánské náměstí…
PraguePig.com: Yeah, yeah. The one that looks like Darth Vader?
Well, that was it. So, in 1993, I heard…
This must have been the ninth time I heard [this story], completely intended to be taken seriously because they believed it was true because they grew up on Hollywood: “That’s a statue of Darth Vader because Star Wars was one of the only Western films allowed here under Communism.” That’s not true!
PraguePig.com: That’s not true on any level!
On any level! None of that’s true! That statue predates film as a medium!
PraguePig.com: I mean, just look at it. It looks… It looks old.
More importantly, the actual story is great. It’s a great story. So, I just went, “Fuck it. I’m going to do my own tours.”
And there was a guy, Jonathan the Magician, in 1993, who had one of the greatest shticks I’ve ever heard. He would walk up to tour buses — tour buses were parked. Germans, Americans, British people, whatever, Australians. “Hi, I’m an American living here in Prague — illegally — and, you know, we have to find creative ways to make a living. I’m going to show you a magic trick. It’s free to see it. If you’d like to know how to do it yourself, I ask for a minimum donation of” some amount. People go, “How much is 200 crowns? How much is 200 crowns?” And back then 200 crowns was, like, you know… I don’t know, 12 bucks. So people were giving him something like 30 bucks a pop. He worked three days a week and he made three times the national monthly wage.
PraguePig.com: I can imagine!
I was like, “You’re a genius. What’s the trick?” He said, “Fuck you, I’m not telling you because you’re going to steal it.” Which I would have. But I used the same idea. I would walk up to tour buses and go, “Hi! I’m an American. There are a lot of people giving tours here because it’s completely unregulated. And isn’t that an interesting story as to why that is? I actually know some of the real stories here. If you like, I’d be happy to take you on a tour. I ask for at least this much but you can pay me whatever you think is worthwhile. And if we make stops along the way for food and drink, you can buy my food and drink. I will only get the second-most expensive thing on the menu. (Ha, ha.)”
The thing is, you know, it’s Americans. Americans are like, “Here’s 20 bucks.” I’m like, “20 bucks?!” Twenty bucks was, like, 800 crowns, back when a beer was,15 crowns. I was like, “Yeah, you can give me 20 bucks. Sure!”
PraguePig.com: When I first arrived here, I was earning 40 crowns an hour and managed to survive on that. I was a dishwasher at the James Joyce.
At the James Joyce! Oh my God. I remember when that opened.
PraguePig.com: And then everybody would go to U Krále Jiřího in the basement to drink, because they couldn’t afford the James Joyce prices.
I remember what this city used to be like and I thought it would never… You know, you’d go to Berlin, you’d go to…even Nuremberg, where you’re like, “Hey, Nuremberg’s kind of jumping.” And then you’d go back to Prague and go, like, [sighs]. And when I was a San Franciscan, I was a very houseproud San Franciscan. I’d call it “my city”. You know, I’d meet tourists and go, “Welcome to my city.” I know it’s pretentious but I don’t care. And I kind of feel now, in the last few years, that sense of ownership and belonging with Prague. I feel like Prague is now “my city”. I think I love it here. People are like, you know, “What? Are you going to die in Prague?” Back in the 90s, I’d have said “No way.” But now I’m like, “I dunno. Maybe.”
• Update: In addition to the Prague Haps Facebook page, Derek recently launched a Prague Haps Facebook group, open to questions, comments and suggestions. PraguePig.com thinks you should sign up for both.
Great interview, Sam!