PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia - Their wedding reception had barely ended in Winston-Salem on Aug. 10 when Glenna and Macon Patton, 1986 graduates of UNC-Chapel Hill, flew off to Czechoslovakia.Today, they are among the young Americans on the cutting edge of capitalism in this formerly communist country.
Glenna is director of advertising for Bonton, a Czech company that, until the 1989 revolution, was an underground operation promoting Czech music. Today, Bonton is above ground. Literally. Its antenna, high atop a building in Prague, began broadcasting music and news this month. It is the second privately owned radio station to go on the air since the collapse of communism. Bonton also produced the first privately made Czech movie, and has quickly become the country's top entertainment company.
Glenna's five years with a New York advertising agency were her training ground for Bonton. Her husband's three and a half years on Wall Street were his prelude to Czechoslovakia.
A native of Greenville, S.C., Macon left New York because, he said, ``I was ready for a change and wanted to see Europe.' Today, he is assistant to the president of Helios, a company with signs popping up all over Prague.
Helios is in real estate, parking garage construction and growing hops for beer. The company's president is Czech; its owners are Alabama native William Bru and Swedish businessman Per Baer, two entrepreneurs getting in on the ground floor of capitalism.
Macon arrived in Prague last February and instantly loved the city. By the time he brought his bride here in August (she had never seen the place), he felt at home. But the newlyweds were homeless. They lived in five hotels before finding an apartment in a city with an acute housing shortage.
Adjustments were inevitable. Buyingtoilet paper was almost as hard as landing an apartment. It required a two-day search.
``Coming from the United States, I logically looked in grocery stores and drug store-like shops,' said Glenna. How wrong she was. ``I finally found the toilet paper in an office supply store next to typing paper, as in paper. After two days of searching, I was so excited I called my husband!'
The Pattons have hired a tutor to teach them the difficult Czech language, and they are planting stakes. ``We don't think a year is long enough for us to get to know this country,' said Glenna. The Pattons plan to stay two years.
Erik Best is a native of Burlington, a 1987 MBA graduate of UNC's Kenan-Flagler Business School and a pioneer. He was among the first young Americans to arrive in Czechoslovakia nearly a year ago, as a member of the MBA Enterprise Corps.
The language barrier was awesome and isolating. But Erik now conducts business in Czech, thanks to daily language lessons. ``The Czechs are flattered that someone wants to learn their language,' he said.
Erik lives alone in the suburbs, rides the bus to his office, and works for the Center for Democracy and Free Enterprise. The latter places Corps members with Czech businesses.
Margaret Minichini, a 1991 MBA graduate of the UNC business school, is a rookie. She's been here only six weeks and, like Erik, is a member of the MBA Enterprise Corps. Margaret also lives alone in the suburbs, spends an hour getting to work by bus, and is learning the language.
The salaries of Margaret and Erik, paid by their Czech sponsors, are a far cry from the earnings of most American MBAs. They make $150 to $200 per month. But they're managing.
Their organization grew out of an international economics conference held in Chapel Hill shortly after the fall of communism in 1989. MBA students asked: What can we do to help?
That led to the MBA Enterprise Corps founded by UNC's Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. Twenty leading U.S. business schools, including Duke, Stanford, Virginia and Dartmouth, are involved in the program. More than 50 MBA graduates are now in Eastern Europe at the invitation of host governments.
Once there, jobs vary. Margaret is adviser to the president of a newly chartered Czech bank. Under the communist system, there were no banks in the Western tradition. Czechs paid rent and utilities for their state-owned apartments at the local post office, and in cash.
``America is a cashless society,' explained Margaret, ``because we use checks and credit cards. But Czechoslovakia is a cash country.'
The new banking system will eventually turn that around. But the transition has been slow.
Margaret's bank, the Postovni, offers only certificates of deposit so far. Eventually it will introduce checking and savings accounts. The bank's CDs have been a novelty and a hit. More than $80 million worth have been sold since June.
Why did these young Americans - Glenna, Macon, Erik and Margaret - leave home, family and the cushy life of America for the frontier of Czechoslovakia?
Their personal reasons vary. But one phrase keeps cropping up in their conversation: ``History is being made over here.'
And they have front-row seats.
Rosemary Yardley is a News & Record editorial columnist who has been visiting Prague. This is the second of three columns about Czechoslovakia.