Living on Bitcoin in Europe: Wrapping It Up in the “Parallel State”

Living on Bitcoin in Europe: Wrapping It Up in the “Parallel State”

Bitcoin Magazine supplied reporter Colin Harper with a fistful of sats and set him loose in Europe. This is the fourth installment in his “Living on Bitcoin in Europe” series. Catch up on Colin’s earlier adventures in Living on Bitcoin in Europe: From Amsterdam to Prague, No Cash Required, Living on Bitcoin in Europe: High on the Hog in Arnhem and Living on Bitcoin in Europe: Lightning Strikes in Berlin.

Bitcoin Magazine journalist Vlad Costea didn’t make it back to our hotel room until 3:00 a.m. or so, which made for a brief rest, as his flight departed around 7:00 a.m. I woke up to find his side of the bed completely made, so I wondered if he even slept at all. He left me some money with which to pay the breakfast tab we’d been accumulating with the hotel, and I sent him some bitcoin in return. 

After breakfast, I met up with Kevin Mulcrone, a Denver-based software engineer for RADAR, who works on Lightning stuff. We had synced up before the conference and I told him about the Living on Bitcoin experiment. He was staying in Europe after the event like me and, with some time to kill in the days succeeding the conference, asked if he could tag along with me to Prague. 

“For sure, bro,” was the obvious response, as I was stoked to have a travel buddy. And with his bushy beard, taste for jam bands, dedication to Bitcoin and generally chill vibe, it would be hard to find another companion whose personality was so in-kind with my own (it also helped that I could buy my train ticket through him in bitcoin, but this was secondary). 

But before we boarded for the (over) four-hour train ride to Prague, I wanted to visit a section of the Berlin Wall. I hadn’t had much time for touristy things during the conference, but this was one historic landmark I had to see before I left. 

The Wall, while unassuming at a distance, towers with a bespoke gravity that only becomes more apparent the closer you get. Its concrete — full of chips, cracks, graffiti and body-sized clefts — do more than tell a story: They emit an aura of importance. The Berlin Wall looms over spectators as a specter of one of the most impactful geopolitical shifts in modern history, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

“[T]he spectre of Communism,” as Marx wrote in the “Communist Manifesto,” is indeed “haunting Europe” to this day — for better or worse, depending on who you ask. I had experienced this haunting myself in my brief interactions with Berlin’s hacker community. And I would again in Prague, as the impetus behind the cypherpunk ethos in Europe became increasingly clear. 

Paralelní Polis: Bitcoin Accepted “All the Time” 

We arrived in Prague shortly before sunset and humped it to the Airbnb, which I’d booked with credit purchased on Bitrefill. After getting dinner and a few rounds of the Czech Republic’s delicious and inexplicably cheap beer, we crashed early so as to be fresh for our first full day in the city. 

The next day we breakfasted at a Czech bakery and checked out a Czech national history museum. Just as I’d done with my other programmer buddy, Dustin Dettmer, during Living on Bitcoin in San Francisco, I had Kevin acting as a flesh-and-bone bitcoin ATM. But hey, good for him, because the coins he received in return were KYC-free (probably shouldn’t have said that).

Anyhow, I was a bit behind on writing the article series for this absurd experiment, so we decided to hit up Paralelní Polis (PP) to do some work. Kevin had a feature he was coding for RADAR Ion that he needed to crank away at, as well, so PP’s Bitcoin Coffee shop was an obvious choice. 

I have to be honest, I had heard a lot about what is arguably Europe’s premier cypherpunk haven, so maybe I had too many preconceived notions. But it was not what I was expecting. C-base had this grunginess to it, almost like a frat house but for nerds, not jocks. 

Living on Bitcoin: The Parallel State
The parallel state

Living on Bitcoin: The Parallel State
The parallel state

But PP was clean. Sleek, even: a modern industrial building that belies the anti-state intentions of an intensely dedicated faction of crypto anarchists. Bitcoin Coffee was just one aspect of this crypto mecca. The hacker space was under construction, I was told, so that would have to wait for another day. 

I ordered two flat whites. For my fellow, less bean-house-cultured Americans, a flat white is basically a latte with less milk. Which is what I thought a cappuccino is supposed to be, but whatever, man. Language is arbitrary. I asked if many people pay in bitcoin. The black-haired pixie-like barista dressed in all black answered, “All of the time,” with a bit of a snicker. 

It was a dumb question, I realized later, because PP — both its coffee shop and the cowork space it provides upstairs — only accepts cryptocurrencies. Sure, someone could pay in litecoin, monero or ether, but like, c’mon, who would do that?

Normies, apparently, I would find out on my last day in Prague. Landon and Guy came into the shop with the express purpose of buying crypto to pay for their coffees. Landon, an All-American boy from Kentucky with a happy-go-lucky attitude, had heard about PP and had come there explicitly to buy coffee with cryptocurrency. So, he bought some litecoin. (“Are you sure?” I winced, but he was just spending it on coffee.)

Personally, I was amazed that anyone would go through the additional steps of buying coins to buy coffee when they could have gone across the street to buy a cup without the added hassle. But people do it all the time, one barista told me. Sometimes they get 20 people a day doing this. 

A curious Trojan horse, I thought. But there it was again — the fringe cypherpunk movement, even if only as a novelty, bleeding into the centerfolds of society. I discussed this ingenious consequence of Bitcoin Coffee’s only accepting bitcoin with one of its co-founders the same day that Landon bought baby’s first crypto. 

“That Sounds Like Digital Gold”

But I’m getting ahead of myself — back to our first full day in Prague. We asked the pixie girl if she knew of any good bitcoin-accepting restaurants in the area. She recommended a Czech pub, U Sadu. Finishing our coffee and work, we set out for the pub and hitched a free ride on Prague’s public transportation (which isn’t free, but, given that we didn’t see a single public official check for validated tickets, it was a useful exercise in game theory).

Kev ordered a steak and I ordered pork with potato fritters, and we both had our fill of beer. I paid for the dinner on-chain, with Michael, the joint’s owner, processing the payment himself.

Sated by cheap-but-delicious Czech pilsners and porters, we headed back to the hotel to turn in.

The first half of the next day was pretty uneventful. We both worked for most of the morning and early afternoon. When we were done, we went to a Czech modern art museum (which was free) and then took a night tour of Prague Castle.

“Taking notes for my citadel,” Kevin wisecracked to me on the tour.

Marcus, who is Irish but had moved to Prague after graduating from university, accompanied us on our walk down from the castle (situated on a hill) to the Old Town city center. Bitcoin inevitably came up and we fielded his questions. After going back and forth on a few “bitcoin starter pack” lines of thought, he dropped what felt like a bombshell.

“Well, it sounds a bit like digital gold,” he said. 

“Yes! Oh, my god,” I sputtered, completely flabbergasted. “You came to that on your own.”

Neither Kevin nor I had really prompted that response or used those exact words. He came to this conclusion by just listening to us blabber on about bitcoin.

If this dude can come to that conclusion by just listening, then maybe we’ve got a shot.

Back in Old Town and next to the Metro, I asked Marcus for his phone number so I could send him some bitcoin through DropBit. This, I believe, is the best way to win people over. Give them some bitcoin, let them play with it, and then they will reach their own conclusions.  

“Now you can say you tipped your tour guide in bitcoin,” he said, before making his descent into the Metro.

Hanging With Hemingway

Kevin and I made our way to the Absintherie, a bar that Katia Dolzhenko from Trezor had recommended, which, yes, sells absinthe and accepts bitcoin.

Living on Bitcoin - Kevin
Kevin was very excited to drink absinthe paid for in bitcoin.

Living on Bitcoin - Kevin
Kevin was very excited to drink absinthe paid for in bitcoin.

Inside, we took a seat at the bar. The bartender greeted me in Czech, of course. I flashed an awkward and reticent smile. In an aggravated tone, she said something about tourists to her colleagues. I don’t know Czech, but I know enough to understand a cognate when I hear one. 

We ordered a respectfully run-of-the-mill absinthe and the waiter set it up. As the cold water dripped from the fountain and into our cups, obliterating the cube of sugar on the serving spoon on its way down, I was telling Kevin that I was positive I had been in this exact bar a few years prior. I had been visiting Prague with another buddy, who had studied abroad with me in St. Andrews, Scotland. The déjà vu was a bit eerie, not just because I had been to that bar before, but because I had returned to it due to bitcoin, as though it were something inevitable. 

Living on Bitcoin: Our absinthe setup
Our absinthe setup

Living on Bitcoin: Our absinthe setup
Our absinthe setup

“Wasn’t there, like, a famous author who, like, drank straight absinthe all the time?” 

Kevin was talking about Ernest Hemingway, and I answered by referring him to the protagonist, Robert Jordan, of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” who guzzles absinthe throughout the story while he fights with a guerrilla resistance group in the mountains of Spain (and pursues the codependent affection of an excessively dainty maiden, Maria). In the left-hand corner of the bar, Hemingway loomed in portrait over patrons who were drinking the consequence of his generation’s influence on “culture.” The drink’s legendary significance has been completely abstracted away from reality at this point (no, you don’t see green fairies).

Anyway, it was time to pay, so I asked if I could use bitcoin. A smartly dressed waiter with short-cropped blond hair began fidgeting with a smartphone. It took him a while, but he finally figured it out and produced a BitPay invoice. Audible hissing.

Yes, reader, hiss away, because I actually couldn’t pay the tab. My Samourai Wallet didn’t accept the QR code standard set by BIP70, a standard that (as far as I can tell) BitPay alone uses. This was the first time I had run into BitPay on my trip and I was disappointed, not least because I couldn’t add “absinthe” to the list of things I directly purchased with bitcoin. It was also proof that this bar, advertising bitcoin with a gilded sticker as it does, probably wasn’t a “true” bitcoin bar.

How toxic of me. And to think a year ago I didn’t consider myself a maximalist. 

Kevin paid and, a bit disappointed, I suggested we head in for the night.

The “Parallel State”

Technically, this is where the story ends. The next day, I would be departing for Belgium to meet up with my girlfriend, Molly, and our friends, but I had one last thing to do: I wanted to return to PP to interview one of its co-founders, Pavol. 

Kevin and I parted ways early in the morning and I went to a cafe to work. Like a sinner with a guilty conscience, friends, I do admit: I spent fiat. Hélas, quelle tragédie! My convictions are in the toilet; I’ve abandoned my principles! 

But nah, it was kind of a relief. I didn’t have to worry about checking the restaurant beforehand or relying on someone else for the purchase. Plus, I would be making my way to PP, anyway, which would give me the option yet again to spend bitcoin on coffee. 

Ivca, a tall blonde woman with lucid eyes who runs the coworking space, greeted me when I came in. Pavol would be there later, she told me, and she gave me a quick tour, which included the hacker space.

It was smaller than I expected, containing a conference table in the entry room and a separate, plane-glassed room that I was told would become a podcast studio. PP was launching a new multimedia journalism project for the Czech hacker community, hence the construction. This basement was littered with hacker widgets and doodads, including a few low-end laser cutters and 3-D printers. An outdated ASIC collected dust on a shelf. 

Upstairs is a coworking space, whose patrons pay entirely in cryptocurrency. When PP began, they fashioned tables partly out of various cardboard cartons as they were cheap and sturdy, Ivca told me. The aesthetic remains, and it adds an urban, utilitarian charm to the space. Upstairs is the lecture hall where talks, meetups and (most recently) PP’s Hacker’s Congress take place.

Ivca regaled the history of the hacker space during the tour. Its inspiration dates back to Charta 77, an anti-Soviet artistic group that manifested in the late ’70s and dissolved in 1992. One of the founders, Václav Benda, penned an essay entitled “Paralelní Polis.” Literally translating to “Parallel State,” it conceptualizes an alternative sociopolitical structure that operates outside but side-by-side with the modern state.

With this as a basis, PP materialized with all of the ideology espoused by its predecessor organization but with one crucial, formerly missing component: decentralized currency.

“It’s part of this place and its values,” Ivca told me.

Indeed, bitcoin was the missing piece and is what makes PP different than other anarchist communes. It has an anarchic currency, as well.

“One thing we show people with cryptocurrencies is that you can use it if you want to be a member of parallel society,” Pavol Lupták, one of PP’s founders, told me over a piping-hot glass pot of black tea. 

He recounted the origins of the community that Ivca had told me about an hour before, but he included a discussion of Ztohoven, a Czech guerilla art group that is famous for, among other things, replacing the Czech flag at Prague Castle with a giant pair of red underwear. (This group has collaborated with PP to hack into parliament members’ cell phones to send texts to each other urging reform, and to falsify a nuclear blast on national TV.)

Differing Perspectives

Art is actually one of the pillars of this cyber community; its triangular symbol represents art, science and technology, and the common political intersections of each piece of this trifecta. The break in the triangle is meant to symbolize the point where PP’s confined, radical ideas leak into society’s larger consciousness. (Case in point: Landon coming in to buy coffee with cryptocurrency.)

“We want to be global, and we want to target all people with a taste for freedom. We want to help people transport their lives to [a] parallel society using crypto technologies,” Pavol told me. 

In the early days, accepting only cryptocurrency was risky, he admitted. But eventually, it caught on, he claims, and a few local businesses began accepting bitcoin because they knew PP’s foot traffic might spill over into their own stores.

I pitched Pavol my argument that Europe’s Bitcoin community (or at least the members of which I had interacted with on this trip) were, at the least, more willing to spend and accept bitcoin and, at the most, more cypherpunk than their American counterparts. He tended to agree and chalked it up to historical differences.

“Unlike the Central European, unlike the Eastern European, Americans do not realize it fully,” he said. “Because you have no experience with socialism, authoritarianism and dictatorial regimes. In Czechoslovakia and Central Europe, we also have less freedom than we did 30 years ago. But people realize that we are moving in the wrong direction, back to totalitarian states. So the thing is that, what I think the difference is, it’s that Central Europeans, because of the historical context, they are much more able to reflect on these totalitarian movements.”

Americans, by contrast — and these are my words — are complacent and willing to trade privacy for convenience. To be sure, there are those of us who aren’t like this, and there are obviously those in Europe who are similar to most Americans. But we have lived in a democracy largely unimpeded by authoritarian atrocities. That’s why denizens of a state with the most monolithic surveillance capabilities in the world, ironically, aren’t as conscious of the consequences of potentially incipient authoritarian practices. 

“It’s a bit strange because the original cypherpunk movement came from San Francisco,” Pavol mused. “I think it’s that the U.S. is much less free than it was in the beginning of the ’90s during the cypherpunk movement. At that time we had a freer, unregulated internet; no censorship, no KYC, no AML — nothing.” 

This changed gradually with things like the Patriot Act and the contemporary surveillance system that Edward Snowden blew the whistle on. 

Perhaps the difference is simply expressed in trust: Most Americans, disgruntled as they may be with the state of things, trust the fabric of our democracy. 

“We don’t trust the government,” Pavol said of his circle, joking that everyone thinks the same in his group, so this might not be the best example. Then there’s the scarring effect of Soviet-era communism. 

Telling that Timothy May lifts the first line of his famous “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” from Marx: “A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.”

I thanked Pavol for the opportunity to talk (and the inspiration) and took my leave.

In the Uber to the airport, I experienced what I can only liken to intellectual fireworks. I should have been doing work, but the erratic navigation of my driver made me queasy whenever I looked at my computer screen. So instead, I filled my head with fantasies of building my own hacker commune back home in Nashville. Or perhaps it would be a sustainable commune out somewhere in the middle of bumhuck nowhere, a crypto anarchist commune outfitted with mining rigs for heat and income. Never before had I felt so energized or affirmed for working at this point in time with this specific technology. Price be damned. It is a tool that works exactly as intended. 

The future is ours, friends. Now let’s go out and build it.

Published at Mon, 28 Oct 2019 12:36:19 +0000

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