Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Public Service Announcement

First of all I would like to thank the following people for linking or plugging me on their blogs and web pages:

Tim at swim/swam
Vanessa, queen of Vanessa Berry World
Jason and Chelsey at Our Prague Blog
Dan from the eponymous Dan Music
All the people behind Prague City Beat
and last of all, The Dashing Fellows for inviting me on board.

And an absolute final thanks to anyone who has offered encouragement and advice. You've made this project feel less lonely.

But most of all, you've allowed this prima donna live out his award acceptance fantasy. Thank you.

P.S. Please stay behind the white safety line.

Sunday, 21 December 2008


I have a strong connection between this place and Christmas ever since I saw the film “Anděl Exit”. In one of the opening scenes (if memory serves me correct), people are lining up to buy carp – the traditional Czech Christmas food. The carp vendors are gutting, skinning and beheading the fish on the street, discarding the still gasping heads in the gutter for a few dogs to tear at.

The reality, at least today, is less grotesquely fanciful. The carp vendors keep a respectful distance from the Christmas market set up on the block, and any fish remains seem to be neatly disposed of. The carp dwell at the bottom of the storage pools. A former student told me carp instinctively remain low in the winter, because this is the warmest place in a pond. But, I can't help but imagine they know their fate and so try to keep out of reach. One carp is even trying to wedge its way through the other fish, its head stuck between the other bodies, tail thrashing but unable to drive itself deeper.

For those who've never tried carp. It's not nearly as disgusting as you might imagine. Admittedly, the dark meat should be avoided, but the white meat is tasty. Some people complain that it is too fishy, but as I'm a lover of fish and seafood, I like the taste. The only problem are the many bones, which means a meal of carp is one of the few occasions when sticking your fingers in your mouth is acceptable.

Most people coat the carp in breadcrumbs and fry it but there are other ways. An even better way is to bake the fish with vegetables. A spicier recipe is a traditional Hungarian soup, which I tried to make once, but which I don't think I got quite right. And just today I learnt from a student a new recipe. It's from the region known as Chodsko. There, they eat black carp, which is carp prepared in plums. I'm curious to try it.

It's probably easy to disparage the markets, a seasonal knee-jerk reaction along with the other emotions, good and bad, people burden themselves with. There is also the sense that among my circle – or the people identify with, the educated, literate, well-traveled, Christmas with its once a year goodwill is an easy target. Perhaps the real challenge is to find something of value.

But some things are just inherently tacky. It's not the commercialism. This is a market after all. It's the junk that people seem to think they can pass off just because they are selling it from a quaint wooden stall. There are clunky cheap toy trucks, lots of kitschy ceramic and woolen hats only tourists and little kids wear. I consider buying some mulled wine, but I had a couple of glasses of decent wine earlier and I don't want to spoil it.

Anděl is Prague's real downtown for me. It is brimming with the bustle of everyday life. The shops are narrow and compact. Not everything has been given over to expensive cafés and restaurants. The people aren't just passing through. Many colleagues, students and friends have grown up around here. It's a place that has retained the cacophony of diversity. Quite often I come here if I have some free time.

It's one of the few places in Prague I know well. The school, where I first started teaching, has its head office here, so I've seen the changes over the five years. The butcher shop where I first stammered my way through Czech is gone. The restaurants seem to change every couple of months, getting progressively brighter, newer, as though the whole place is slowly being polished.

Around the corner, I find a second hand bookstore I've never seen before. The interior is a strange contrast of shiny new shelves and old books. The owner is a fussy old man, who answers everyone's questions with careful deliberation.

There are sections dedicated to the more well known Czech orders. A whole shelf of Hašek, another of Čapek. I scan the titles and serendipitously find a copy of Apocryphal Tales in Czech. I was given a copy in English this morning as a gift. Now I can compare the two versions. The fussy store owner is trying to convince the man in front to take a plastic sleeve for his purchase. When it comes to me, I tell him just the book and hand him the eighty crowns. He comments that I have the exact change.

I return to the market but find busy pace too much now and so head for the train. As I step on the escalator I have a strange sense that I'm leaving this place forever, though I know I'm not.

Saturday, 13 December 2008


The man in front of me is tentatively testing the escalator, so I cut in front of him. He's either drunk or very scared. Once I'm on my way up, I feel something press on my backpack. It's the man. I'm still not sure if it's alcohol or fear.

The distance up is one of the shortest I know in the Prague Metro System. The station hardly qualifies as underground when compared to the deep lairs of the other stations.

At street level, the patches of snow are still surprisingly clean and white, like parts of the scenery have been rubbed out. On the footpath, it's already a mud slushy. I've traipsed through this cold muck so many times, but snow remains pure and driven in my mind.

I remember that one of my students told me that Menzel's version of Closely Observed Trains was released yesterday. There's a newsagent, which doesn't have the movie but does have a copy of the Piano, which would be good for class.

Beside it, there is a small grocery store. Just inside the door, I join the short stationary queue. People are waiting for shopping baskets. This is a curious habit of some Czechs, at least those outside of the centre of Prague; they insist on having trolleys or baskets, even for the smallest purchase. The cashiers can be a little irate if you don't have one. A fact backed up by G.

One reason for this is that the efficiency of service relies on there being some type of grocery receptacle. But I stubbornly refuse to take one just for a single item. Whatever that will be today. However, I do wait in line, at least until a man arrives after me and pushes his way through. The man in front decides this is also acceptable. I follow the path cleared by them.

The goods on offer are not particularly noteworthy. There are baked goods, which by now are probably a little stale. There's a small goods counter where a crowd of older women vie for service. The rest of the store is like a small sample of any larger supermarket. I decide to get a yoghurt drink. They have a sour cherries and vanilla flavour and since living here I've developed a fondness for sour cherries, especially in strudel form. The best, incidentally, comes from Hungary.

I put the drink in my coat pocket and head to the nearest panelak. I was under the misapprehension that there would be little to explore here today. So far I'm getting a whole block. I pass a group of young men smoking. One of them is telling the others of a foreigner who abused him in English.

Language seems to fill the same safe social field that weather does for us. One buses and trains, you will often hear people discussing what language they or their family and friends are studying. It's never points of grammar, just their personal experience of using another tongue.

By the panelak, I see a pair of shoes. If I had a camera I would take a photo. I have a small collection of discarded shoe photos. I'm not a fan. But shoes left in public always make me curious. Though their reason for being there is no doubt banal, I often imagine something more dramatic. Perhaps a fugitive had to change his shoes. Maybe someone threw them out along with all the trappings of their former life. This all stems from a diet too rich in thrillers.

On the way back, I remember the drink in my pocket. It's not bad. The taste is more generic cherry than the tartness of sour cherries. The guys are still standing there smoking. Further on at the bus stand, someone has thrown a cigarette into the bin and it's gently puffing. The stand fills with the smell of burning paper.

There's an underpass to the pass stand on the other side. I can't imagine there will be much on that side apart from the bus stand. The underpass is decorated with a rainbow of goggly-eyed, large mouthed or smiling, sweet or scary, fish. I can see what they were attempting, but it doesn't make the underpass feel any less dingy. The fish only highlight the graffiti.

When I emerge, I see a small kiosk and decide to try my luck. They do have the film. They also have a copy of Memento. It's only after buying it that I see it's not the one that plays the story in chronological order. It probably makes me a philistine to want to do this, but I'm curious. But I've finally got Menzel, so one task for today is fulfilled.

I head to the small place under the freeway, which as far the path will go, and head in the other direction. At first, it seems disappointingly short. Then I notice a staircase, which leads down to the train line. This is one of the points where the trains can surface from the metro. In the distance, I can see what I think are the maintenance yards. Now, I know where the trains go when we're told to alight from the trains at Kačerov. I can tick another box today.

The path leads further along. The scene becomes even more wintry. The snow is a lot thicker, but it's not cold enough for it to remain fluffy. In stead, it is draped over the branches like a sodden blanket. I can hear blackbirds shuffling underneath. These birds remain here through the year, sticking it out under the snow piled bushes, unlike the swallows and house martins. Above, there is an apple tree with a few bauble bright fruits that have survived the birds, bugs and occasional frost.

I stay for a while looking down and listening for the trains. I'm hoping for one to pop up from the tunnel. But none do.

Saturday, 6 December 2008


I'm a little apprehensive about coming here. Outlying suburbs make me nervous, having grown up in one. But the suburb also makes me feel a little optimistic. It's St Nicholas tonight and since this is a residential area, I should catch some of the local festivities.

When I arrive, I find a flat broad shopping centre crowned with corrugated iron. The brightest thing all around is the supermarket. Stacks of rosy meat glisten in the butcher's window. There's a herna bar at each end. Neither look enticing. There's litter and graffiti. It sort of reminds me of places near where I grew up, more than any other locality in Prague, though I don't feel any more comfortable.

People have already started to gather at the busted benches. It makes it feel a lot later than it really is. Perhaps, they've been here since the end of work and the night suddenly crept up on them. The only remarkable thing is that I'm travelling in a clockwise direction. Not that I have much choice. Had a followed my natural inclination I would've simply passed more benches.

I find an underpass but by now all my bravery has leaked out of me. I decide to cross the station to other side where, dimly lit half built apartment blocks glow like like cold giant lanterns. The project is called the British Quarter. It isn't for Prague's expats. The name is on Czech which means that the being 'British' is a selling point.

In fact one of the shops on the other side advertised that it had children's goods from England and I've often seen shops advertising that they have furniture or clothes from there. Not so long ago, the Union Jack was something of a fashion item. Maybe, it's the colonial and republican in me, but I find this a little strange, especially the perception of the Union Jack as trendy. For me, soccer louts and skin heads adorn themselves with crosses of St. Andrew, St. George and St. Patrick. Funnily enough, the northern suburbs of Perth are something of a British enclave, so this development only reinforces the similarities between my old stomping grounds and here.

The mounds of dirt and canon sized pipes also take me back to my childhood, the imagined part, when unguarded building material became a castle, a ship, a space ship or an enemy base we had to infiltrate. In the dark, they look like a horror film set. I continue briskly on. Some of the people coming the other way, give me strange looks. When I get to the end of the path I see why. There's no entrance to the station and they weren't commuters but people walking at the site. My hyperactive imagination is having field day here, and every thing it's coming up with is bloody and gruesome, so I head back to the shopping centre.

A hiking path leads from here to Řeporyje and then on to Černošice. G. and I almost hiked to Řeporyje. We were walking through a very nice valley on the outskirts of Prague and this town was where we should've taken a train from. Fortunately, we managed to catch a train from a much closer station. I had no idea the valley was in this part of the city. I have no idea where Černošice is or what I would find there.

Some teenagers in devil horns have gathered on the benches. A St. Nicolas comes out of one of the paneláks. As I pass the teenagers, one of them ask if I'm meant to be a spy on account of my long winter coat and cap. I don't answer. What am I meant to say? 'Nejsem špion'?

Privately I'm a little flattered. Of all my insecure male fantasy occupations, spy was the top. I think I destroyed a small rain forest doing the various activities from the Spy Craft book. And at least people are now interacting.

Friday, 28 November 2008


The panels covering the walls and ceiling are anodised but not dimpled like the ones in the other stations along the green line. I'm pretty sure Skalka has dimpled panels too. I guess I'll find out whenever I go there.

I wonder if they ran out of the panels during the construction, or simply decided to vary the design as they did along the other lines. I also wonder who Želivský was that he deserved a train station named after him. It might sound sexist that I assume it was a man – but the name gives it away.

Ahead of me is the slowest escalator I've ever seen. Naturally, I go for a ride, regardless of where it will take me. As soon as I step on it, it speeds up, and I'm just as quickly disappointed. A slow escalator ride seemed novel. Now, as usual, I'm being rushed to the top.

It deposits me in front of the Hotel Dorint, whose fluid designs intrigue me. After a while I grow wary of them. I feel that rippling curves and bubbled windows were a very deliberate attempt to stand out against the squarer flats and factory surrounding it. Such contrived oddness leaves little beyond an initial sense of curiosity – a conclusion I come to as I circle the building.

Behind the hotel and across the street is a building with a jumble of triangular windows scattered across the wall. The top is lashed with the type of twisted cable once popular with interior designers who wanted to make a space appear decrepit. Ahead of me is a restaurant called 'HUI BIN GE'. Remove one of the spaces, and the name would be more apt.

As I return to where I started I notice the weak November sunlight winking in the Hebrew written on the gate of the Jewish cemetery. On the bars are three signs in Czech, German and English. All I can make out from here is POZOR, ACHTUNG and WARNING. I assume they are security notices. There are no station exits on the same block, and perhaps me going inside just to look around would not be appropriate. Instead, I head to the občerstvení(*) to buy some grog.

When I first arrived in the Czech Republic, I was a little perplexed as to what grog was. Back home, grog is slang for booze, so I was under the impression they sold some kind of generic alcoholic beverage. [Try GROG! We don't know what it contains and after one mouthful, you won't care.] As most of the world knows, it's rum in hot water. This is just one of the many deficiencies of coming from a warm country.

At the občerstvení, someone is drinking a beer called 'Beer'. I suppose the word sounds glamorous in the same way that non-English words sound to us. Unless some company tried to dominate the market here by using the generic name. Quite a pointless strategy in such a proud beer drinking nation.

I order my grog and while the kettle is boiling I peruse the interior. The owner is dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. I'm a little surprised as I'm bound up in a scarf, coat and have my hat pulled down tight over my head. The two small deep fryers probably keep the place warm. The stench of refried oil suggests they're used a lot. The woman behind me in the queue orders a straight rum. While the owner pours, she asks about his wife. I can't quite make out his mumbled reply. Before he responds to her next comment, he places the plastic cup, filled to the lip, in front of me and asks if I want sugar and lemon. Of course I do. I'm not drinking this for the taste. Once the sugar is mixed in, I walk away with the drink rather than listen to the rest of the story.

In the station passage way, leading to the other side, I stop in front of a mosaic of a knight. On closer inspection, I see the chalice I deduce it must be a Hussite soldier. Maybe this is Želivský. Or maybe Želivský was a communist. The station was built during this time. Though the name doesn't sound familiar and anything unfamiliar I usually date to before the twentieth century. I move when I become aware that I must look like a tourist – a very touristy concern, I'm sure.

At the top of the second exit is the factory. I glance to my left down its long wall but decide to go around the corner. It's only when I've gone round that I realise that again I've gone in an anti-clockwise direction. (I didn't when I went around the hotel – something I only realise now.) The factory is typical of the sort gutted to make open plan flats for professionals. This factory has actually been converted into their offices. There's no sign of its original purpose.

Behind the block, I see a woman restraining a muzzled Alsatian outside a vet's and calmly telling him, “Yes, there are other little dogs inside.” I think he / she is aware, hence his / her desire to get in. Just past her, there's a pub that ambitiously refers to itself as a restaurant. I say ambitious, because I doubt there will be much fine dining or service to be had at the base of a panelák. But after reaching the end of the block, I find there's nowhere else to sit.

I find a table at the back in the non-smoking section and decide to employ the same method the Ethiopian cooks used to keep warm in I Served the King of England and order a beer. It's got to be more as effective as the grog, which only made me feel, I'm ashamed to say, a bit pissy. Perhaps my brain was already numb, and the rum made it more so.

I consider getting some pickled cheese so as to continue my other project of sampling this dish in as many pubs and restaurants as possible, but decide on the utopenec – a pickled sausage. The name literally means 'drowned one', which also gives it a morbid appeal. The sausage comes with bread and when I'm done I sop up the vinegar with a slice.

A very pale man and woman sit opposite me. They look at each other a little puzzled when I take out my journal and start to write. However, I'm about as much a curiosity as the Hotel Dorint, and they soon return to their meals. The young man slices his chicken with the tentativeness of a science student. What will I find? – he wonders. How will I be graded?

Two woman enter the non-smoking section and after ordering, light up. It is perhaps hypocritical of a non-smoker to complain, but since stopping I notice the smell. And knowing I will smell like this on the bus ride home bothers me. Not that I say anything, nor cough theatrically, nor tap the non-smoking sign. I might be a hypocrite, but I haven't become completely self-righteous. Instead I order another sausage and continue with my notes. The women also glance over at me. 'Another foreign writer' they probably think – a very foreign thing to assume.

I finish the second sausage and the vinegar and as I'm doing so, Nohavica's song “Zítra Ráno v Pět” is playing on the radio. It would be the perfect moment to leave, but I have to wait to pay. When I do, the waitress doesn't look pleased that I want to use a meal ticket. The song has already ended and now a listener is calling in.
I give myself a self-conscious sniff outside. I hope people won't notice too much. The woman with the Alsatian has gone. In her place stands a much older woman who stares blankly at the paving as I go by.

(*) Občerstvení, meaning refreshment stand, is another word I always use even when speaking English. There's nothing particularly evocative about the word itself. Rather, the refreshment stands here are so typical for the country, and so uniform - same menu of sausage, chips, dubious hamburger and fried cheese in a bun and usually run by someone whose flabby build and bad skin hints at a weakness for their own wares, that the Czech word is more appropriate. Perhaps my next blog will be on the občerstvenís of Prague.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Pražského povstání

The station is named after the Prague Uprising of 5th May 1945, a couple of days before the end of the war in Europe. As the actual drama unfolded elsewhere, I will save the details for another post.

Pražského povstání is probably well-known to expats who've been here a while for another reason. This stop is near the Supreme Court of Prague. Around the corner is where they issue the police records (rejstřík trestů), a term I came very familiar with over the years. This document is necessary for anyone who wants a long-term visa or business license.

Before they made obtaining the record easier, it was necessary to wait about two or three hours at the offices. They had a ticket dispenser, from which you took a number, checked how many people there were until it was your turn and, if you were me, went off and hoped you returned in time. The first time I went the dispenser was broken and a long queue stretched past the court almost to the park. It was chilly but not unbearable. The worst aspect was the slow crawl toward the offices. By the time I got to see a clerk, the whole process took all of two minutes and she handed me a slip of paper a little bigger than a postcard. I didn't even have the right documents. My birth certificate should've been translated into Czech, but the clerk extended me some administrative largesse on this occasion.

I thought that I would return there – a little stroll down memory lane, but memory lane has been closed off. Or I was wrong. There's no way to get to the court without crossing the main road, so I head around the block.

As it happens I turn left and, at least in this instant, bear out the observation I read recently that right-handed people will move in room (or any space) in a counter-clockwise direction. We right-handed types apparently draw circles that way too. (Theodore H. Blau, The torque test: A measurement of cerebral dominance. 1974, American Psychological Association ). I wonder if there has been any survey of voting patterns and handedness.

Around the corner, it's immediately quiet. There were a lot of people filing out of the station but they seem to have been immediately absorbed by the blocks of flats. At the base of a few are shops. If the businesses at Nádraží Holešovice provided a meretricious covering, the ones here seem bolted in place – a sign, shelves, tables and you have an enterprise. It feels more real, perhaps it's the sense of people struggling. But it's all real even the Babushka dolls they peddle in the souvenir stores. Though a Russian tradition, are part of Prague street life. One of the stores is a second electronic goods store. I see a lot of these outside the historic centre, almost as much as I see souvenir stalls inside.

The footpath leads through the centre of the block. This is the only way I can go to avoid crossing the road. I pass under a tall ribbed steel and glass tower. It's the Ministry of the Interior. Some clerks are smoking by the door. The illusion of importance the building projects is about as convincing as the illusion of openness created by the modern office block across the road.

And that's it for the station. No footpaths promising me some hidden part of Prague. But I'm not ready to go home. I buy two mandarins and head around the block again. Ever since childhood, more than the taste, it is the ease with which I can peal mandarins that has enticed me. It's as if the fruit is eager to disrobe and get on with the act of eating. Both are sweet and disappear in a couple of mouthfuls, leaving me holding the rind, moist with juice as a cold wind starts blowing.

Only on the way back do I find a bin. Even without the juice on my hands, the wind has an edge. I'd like to look around this part of town a little more, which means I'll have to leave the block. At the cross walk, my phone rings. It's someone from my bank. In an atypical sing-song voice, the woman asks if I'm interested in a loan. Without getting into my finances, I tell her I don't need one. She rings off win an equally melodic good-bye and I cross the street to find somewhere warm.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Rajská Zahrada => Černý Most

It’s no Garden of Eden, and there are no tomatoes – at least not as far as I can see. The station is nautically themed: a blue and white colour scheme, portholes, a ventilation shaft built to resemble the bridge on a ship and rust.

All around beyond the licorice assortment styled paneláks, the vegetation is a dry autumnal brown. The colour reminds me of summers back home.

A couple of years back I wrote a poem based on the station’s ambiguous name. It was influenced by the poetry of Karel Plíhal. Plíhal’s poems are concise and often based around witty homophonic pairings. My attempt doesn’t exactly employ this technique, but I took inspiration from his approach. Here it is, my first poem in Czech:

Rajská zahrada
Byl jsem na Rajské zahradě.
Eva nedala Adamovi rajče.

In English it doesn’t work so well:

The Garden of Eden
I was in the Garden of Eden.
Eve didn’t give Adam a tomato.

The ambiguity arises from the fact that the word ‘rajský’ can be the adjective for both ‘paradise / Eden’ or ‘tomato’. ‘Rajksá zahrada’ is ‘Garden of Eden’ and ‘rajská polevka’ is ‘tomato soup’. Another amusingly ambiguous adjective is ‘masový’. It can mean ‘meat’ as in ‘masová koule’ (meat ball) or ‘mass’ as in ‘masový vrah‘ (mass murderer).

I circle the tiny block where the station is locate. I had a sleepless night last night. Maybe this is influencing my perceptions but I find little of interest. There is nowhere to sit and few people to watch. The train tunnel snakes from the station. On the top is a footpath. I decide to follow it to Černý Most to at least keep awake.

The path takes me high above the traffic. It is wide and devoid of people. I wish I had a skateboard. I wish I knew how to ride one. About halfway along and I am almost level with the large shop signs. I found them unsettling when travelling this way at night – great luminous words suspended in the dark. It was as if the bus had entered some flat textual world.

I know Černý Most as well as Florenc. It was the other station I came to on my weekly trips from Mladá Boleslav. I reach the station only passing two young women and their children and two police officers telling some teenage girls to get down from the railing.

The station has remained faithfully lodged in my memory. There is no unsettling sense of the familiar and the new that I have experienced when returning home. I wonder if I’ll see anyone I know. Unlikely. All the teachers I worked with are gone and the students would be leaving for the weekend - so set are the routines of people there.

Despite these comments, I’m looking forward to going back to Mladá Boleslav tonight. Partly it’s to catch up with an old friend. Also I’m curious to see how a place I called home for four years may have changed.

Many fond moments happened there: nights at the film club when the the gawky bespectacled president would give lenghty introductory speeches about the movies, sometimes on any topic he pleased; the camaraderie of playing badminton; the post-hike beers; dinners and music nights.

From the footbridge I can see the sun melting away through the haze. It resembles a vast peach – something Dahl would conjure up – and it’s making the smog blush.

Sunday, 9 November 2008


There's a small bronze plaque beneath a statue showing the water level of the 2002 floods. The level is just above the escalator, so every time I come here I imagine sinking beneath the murky swollen waters of the Vltava. Perhaps this fantasy is to compensate for the fact I never experienced the floods first hand.

Something else I almost always do when I'm here is check the exchange rates that flash above the exchange office at the station. I do it so automatically that I'm no longer sure why. I don't need to change any money. Perhaps, the only way to deal with this info-pollution it is to mindlessly absorb it like other toxins.

I did these things on Friday but this Friday wasn't an ordinary day. I was there to meet a friend I hadn't seen for thirteen years. As I sank in the imaginary waters, possible conversation were racing up in the dark currents. There was a slight knot in my stomach. We had been writing messages for the past few weeks and both of us had been cheerfully forthcoming. Still in the flesh it could be different. I stepped on to the platform and wondered where I would stand.

The disembarking crowds meant standing by the entrance / exit was impossible. I decided on the far end of the platform where no-one goes and where I invited quick stares from the passengers. The imaginary waters parted and were replaced by phantasmal security guards asking why I was there. The answer was as innocuous in truth as in fantasy. I was waiting for someone. I started watching the real people.

The station was strangely deserted. I'm so accustomed to being here in the tightly packed crowd which clogs at the escalator's base and being squeezed into the long human sausage on our way out that I felt like I was somewhere else, an alien place of older fantasies, reinforced by the dimpled metal, a simple fantasy, the hangar of some great space bound city sized craft. I think this nonsense is to deeply ingrained.

In this atypical serenity, the escalators ran as though projected on a screen, soundless and flat. The people who come off them have yet to become real. Back there they were silent and two-dimensional like the escalators. With the first scuff of their shoes, they become solid and real. Many disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Some stared in confusion at the sign with the stations deciding which platform to take.

The system here is quite simple. There is a sign with all the stations for that line. At whatever station you're at, there will be two arrows, one pointing left the other right. The arrows indicate the stations the train will travel to from the platform in the same direction. While I stood there, about five different groups of people became quite confused and continued to study the sign in bewilderment as to what they were meant to do.

One group of four actually conferred by the metro map, as though knowing the plan of the city would make the correct platform to choose more obvious. In the end one of the women pointed to one of the platforms and impatiently directed her friends to it. I figured this was something that got the best of most tourists until a Czech family had similar problems.

My phone beeped. I got a message from her. She was on the bus from the airport. Thirteen years. Maybe we had exhausted our topics over the Internet. Perhaps I had changed too much. I was ashamed about the weight I had put on. She'd notice. Would she comment?

Every train I watched expectantly, long before it was possible for her to be on board any of them. I wondered what she would think of my life here? Would she and G. get a long? Though no conceivable reason existed, people sometimes simply didn't click. The awkward crunch of incompatibility has often echoed when my different social circles have intersected.

But I was excited. Thirteen years. This would be the only friend from school to have visit me here. The first to meet my wife. The first to see my flat. The first to get a glimpse of my new life here. It wasn't all dread.

Vanessa saw me before I saw her. “Ryan,” she called as she came through the arches from the platform. Before the arrival I wondered how we would greet. I've become quite reserved in recent years. I offer a hand rather than a cheek. What would be appropriate in this time? She already had her hands out wide. I was glad. I was glad that the decision had been made. More I was glad for the embrace of an old friend.

“You haven't changed a bit,” she said. I thanked her but wondered if it could be true. I told her she was looking well and she did. She sounded more Australian than I remembered – but all my Australian friends do. There was a few moments as we inarticulately rubbed and half-hugged, perhaps checking the other was there.

“So why did you come here?” she asked.

For a split second I thought she meant the train station. I quickly realized she meant the country.

“Do you remember when Michael came back from Germany?” I said.

She looked at me a little confused.

“And he had all those photos of Prague. When I saw them I knew I had to come here.”

There were other reasons. I was curious to see the city of Kafka, Hašek and Kundera. I wanted to see the place where Prague Spring played and where Ginsberg was named “Král Majáles” . I had at some point years ago developed a crush on a girl who lived here but who I no longer see. But all of this is too much information for one escalator ride. Vanessa at least knows Michael and that was the starting point.

We were briefly deciding what to do. Vanessa had been here ten years ago. I could see how eager she was to explore and to retrace former journeys. I still a little confused about the afternoon's agenda. It is always the same when I have a guest. Do they want to see the touristy things? Do they just want to get a drink? Do they want some experience, which no one else has had and which they can stick up on FaceBook

I suggested taking her to the Waldstein Gardens. From there I could show her where I work. The gardens were closed, so we had to take the long way around the block. The topics fired back and forth and changed when a name, place or some event reminded us of one of the thousand questions we had for each other. I couldn't recall if this was how it had always been. Vanessa was someone it was always easy and enjoyable to talk to. She had a term for that, D and M, a deep and meaningful. Sessions like that would go into the night, though I doubt I was as open as I was now. It had to be the frisson of years. We discussed where we had traveled. I was impressed how much she had done. Much more of Europe than I had. The Middle East as well. I asked about her son. She is the first friend from school to become a mother, a parent. I told her this and she laughed. It is funny, funny that something so natural is now considered an amusing accident, or something out of character.

At the time I didn't mention that was how I saw it. In the days after I would see how unfair this was. I only recalled that like everyone at the time she wasn't that keen on kids. People change, but I seemed not to have. Physically or personally. For so long, I imagined I had abandoned my old self somewhere else. There had been so many experiences and revelations which had lead up to this person now – this person who moved here. I am just what people see.

We reach the end of the block, and though we went on, I will stop here.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Line Work

This week's post will be up on Sunday.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Friday, 31 October 2008


People file out brisk but orderly from the train station and head straight to the office building across the square. It's as if the revolving door is an extractor fan, gently sucking all the people to their desks. The whole building resembles a machine, not something sooty, Victorian and cruel, rather a stylish over-blown polished gadget with silver grills, wood paneling and gleaming balustrades for handles. It looks so fresh and ultramodern that despite its size it would be discarded within a year.

The commuters don't suit their stride. They're not worker ants encased in black suits. One of them has a suede cowboy hat and matching vest; others are in puffy bundas in preparation for the weekend or just because its cold and these jackets are comfortable; some are dressed for Friday night drinks. A couple of them have suitcases on wheels. One guy strays from the line as he reads a book. Only a skater rolls against the flow. He merely adds a long invisible score beneath their movement.

Yes, it's morning. A deviation from one of the rules, but an excusable and even inevitable one. The days are getting shorter and the thought of being alone at an unfmailiar metro station in the dark is not appealing. Plus a different time will bring a change of focus, though at the moment it seems are more interesting in the evening when there is that great collective release.

Anything of interest has given the station a wide berth. I can understand why. In the five years I've lived here, I have never been to Radlická. If it weren't for the blog, I imagine many more years would pass before I would visit. Apart from the office block and a small gilt statue, which I assume isn't real gold, there's not much.

Across from the office block is a passage way. On its walls tags and graffiti compete for space. Through the intersecting curves is the ubiquitous 'Fuck Off'. How much longer before it loses all meaning? In the future it will be an everyday expression. We'll send it to each other on greeting cards. Why not? It's on t-shirts. I just hope we will be able to emote future swear words so well.

Some bold soul has also professed his love for a girl called Šarka (Miliju tě, Šarko). I wonder if Šarka will be able to find this declaration of love among the tangle of characters.

I went through the passage earlier. It seemed the least popular route and remembering my Frost I decided to go that way before heading back to write. At Radlická neither path was worth taking. Beyond the passage is another modern building with fixed shutters, which are no doubt fixed at the optimal angle to reduce the sun's rays in summer, but which deny the tenants the opportunity to throw them open. It is a rigid shell, something to occupy not live in.

Around the corner from this building, I found a dead cat. Its fur was matted with melted frost. I am perhaps too inquisitive by nature and stopped to have a look. On hikes, I often stop to point out some carcass to G., who is far down the path, determined not looking back. The cat has no visible signs of injury. This was when I felt horrified. It couldn't have been a car. The only question was who? It was that feeling that I had when I came to sit here and start today's record.

This is the furthest I've been in the direction of Zličín along the yellow line, which I should refer to as Line B, but never do and so confuse most people when I discuss the metro with them. Everyone knows it by the letters. I can only remember the colours.

I wonder if being here only highlights the artifice of this blog. Other people write about the things they really experience. I place myself in an unnatural situation. Most Fridays before this I would be at home or today, I would have slept in – or read, rather than leave the house to come here. I'm not a part of this. I'm watching from a distance, a distance I don't know yet how to bridge.

I want to achieve this end without stepping out of the conditions I've set myself. To bastardize a saying, it is the frame that makes the picture and frames tend to be precisely measured and suited to some purpose. My frames are the stations, for the moment any way. They liberate me because they bring me to places I wouldn't ordinarily come to. The dilemma is if I should be part of the drama I see unfold and certainly in a way that doesn't involve some act of bad faith – no interviews, no spectacle.

A group of pre-school aged children pass holding hands and wearing bright pastel winter jackets. They also go via the passage way. I wonder how their teacher will explain the cat to them.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Line Work

There are now links in the posts to topics or people mentioned, which I felt required an explanation far better than I could manage.

Thanks to Sam at for showing me how.

See. I've become quite adept at it now.

Until Friday...

Friday, 24 October 2008


An immense cement and stone shopping centre. A facade of glass looking onto the car park. Bright lines and brighter shop signs inside. A great slab of prosperity and consumerism on the outskirts of Prague. It's so big it straddles a motorway. A perspex covered walkway joins the two halves. The train station which leads to it couldn't be more different. Light brown half-cylinder tiles decorate the walls. Rows of broken rain pipes come to mind.

My plan was to sit inside at a bar called Potrefená Husa and watch people come in. A snap portrait of each. I didn't consider this place because I'm endorsing the establishment. It's a characterless chain pub and it serves one of my least favourite beers. However, it's the very first place you can sit as you enter, which would mean that I don't have to go further inside. We all know what shopping centres are about.

Another reason I was going to sit there was because of the name. A few months ago a student asked me to help with the translation. The name literally means 'struck goose'. Suffice to say this meant nothing to me. He went on to explain that the term was used when someone creates alarm over nothing. “Henny Penny,” I suggested. They are both poultry after all.

Two days later G. came to me with the same request. Astounded at the coincidence and pleased that I was informed I told her I knew what it meant. She said I was completely wrong. The name came from the saying 'Potrefená husa se ovzala.” meaning “The struck goose cried out.”. It is used when a topic comes up and someone present starts to defend him/herself. For example, imagine you're talking about the environment and apropos of nothing one of your friends starts to tell everyone how much they recycle and how they don't use private transport. He or she might be accused of being a 'potrefená husa'. The best I could come up with was 'one doth protest too much,' though I realise this is more limited in use.

I'm probably a potrefená husa for explaining why I'm not at this pub.

Instead I'm by a run-down fast food stand which is part of an older shopping centre. It's the ugly cousin of the Chodov centre, Růže – Rose. Faded obviously.

Across from the bench I'm sitting at is a footbridge. Initially I thought it promised more than an afternoon at a shopping centre. I took the underground tunnels eagerly hoping to find a park, tracks and maybe deserted alleys. Before I reached it I saw a bronze coloured statue of an archetypal worker. Crimson run from his eyes. At first I thought he was weeping rust but then saw it the dry streams coming from the helmet. Someone had chosen the wrong colour to vandalise this guy. It made hims seem more heroic. They were not tears but sweat.

On the bridge three young guys were leaning over the barrier and pointing at the outbound traffic. One of them excitedly called his friends over to the side where the incoming traffic was. Here they go I thought. They're going to spit. Very clever guys. Then I saw one of them remove a camera and felt a little ashamed for making another snap judgment. They were only doing their own bit of recording.

The bridge lead to the top of a cul-de-sac. I couldn't go any further. There wasn't even a path leading along the banks of the main road. As I headed back the one who called to his friends spat on to a bus. A friend had the camera ready to capture his feat.

The bench is also opposite a bus stop. The people are mostly heading inside. It would be unfair to say they are pouring inside. Despite the cold air, they are taking their time. Once the bus pulls away, the stand is deserted. It stays this way for a few minutes. People start to queue one by one. It's a few more minutes before one of the guys frustratingly shouts in the direction of a non-existent bus. He sees me writing and falls silent. I may as well be standing here with a camera.

A woman comes with a pizza box jutting square and straight from her side. I can smell the contents.

This is soon covered by the cigarette smoke of a second woman. She's just far enough away so the smell is more alluring than repulsive. Five years ago, I would've been sitting here either patting myself down to find my lighter or brushing the ash from my shirt-front.

The smoking woman notice me writing too. She's smirking and looking askance. Je divnej, she's thinking.

Behind me at the tables near the food stand, tables I was too slow to get, old blokes are unwinding with small plastic cups of spirits. 'Blokes' is too Australian, but they resemble the 'blokes' I knew as a child, friends of my fathers I regarded with equal repulsion and admiration. It also depended on distance.

I suppose at this moment I've joined them. Like me they're recording the last moments of this day, imagining some other life, seeing lost opportunities in every fresh face to come down the path.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Jiřího z Poděbrad

I take the exit past reliefs of the Bohemian coat of arms and what appears to be Prague castle. It's hard to tell because each piece is rendered in a lazy municipal council version of cubism, which means the reliefs merely look half-finished. There's a park at the top of the stairs. I was about to write another park in reference to last week's entry, but it sounded as though I was fed up with green spaces when in fact I'm delighted to be here.

A deluge of leaves lie on the ground. A stream of them runs down the stairs into the station. I am reminded of the book World with us, which imagines how many of our largest structures would collapse through the action of the smallest agents: seeds, sands, droplets of water, guano and leaves. I fantasize the Prague metro filling with rotten leaves creating a great vein of black humus coursing under the city, crawling with worms, beetles and moles.

Today the leaves are yellow and green. Some fresh ones have followed the autumn fashion and also dropped to the ground. Though I've lived here for five years I can't resist the urge to kick a few into the air. If someone were with me, he or she would get a handful of leaves thrown at him/her. I leaf fight would ensue. But it's just me so I kick some more leaves across the path. The air has a burnishing chill. My cheeks must be red and glowing. It's probably the healthiest I've looked for a while.

Candy apple cheeks as an old friend described them – a friend I'm not in contact with any more. It would be strange, artificial even, to use his or her name. It would imply a connection which dissolved a long time ago. Who'd think such a pleasant image could make me so maudlin?

The park is mostly empty. A woman is smoking on a bench. A young guy cuts over the grass while carrying shopping bags. At the end of the park, roses are unexpectedly blooming. They are intense points of red in this green and yellow. The few that have opened fully look burnt around the edges. On my way back there's a guy with torn jeans, carrying brass guttering. Something about his tough appearance makes me think that there's a sinister motive behind those long pieces of metal, which glisten like ruddy blades in the late afternoon sun, which seem sharp enough to slice off fingers with a single blow. The poor guy is probably just renovating his flat. I'm ashamed to be so easily threatened by a stranger.

I'm in a morbid mood today and I'm ruining this park, so I go to find a coffee.

On the next block, there's a cukrárna. I decide to explore the area a little more. I find some shops, a trendy restaurant. The facades across the street are more interesting. Not as tarted up as in other places. My steps are so slow and small, I become aware of walking in a way I'm usually not. Walking that feels part of the footpath and not just getting from one point to another. Up there live the other 'mes'. The glamourous urbane tangents of possible lives. Those high ceilings and wooden floorboards would make everything come together. Well, that was what I used to think I needed. I turn the corner and say farewell to these lives not lived. My pace quickens. I really want that coffee.

Something I've never understood is why do so many Czech cukrárnas resemble bathrooms: tiles, mirrors, plastic plants and pastels. It gives the entirely wrong impression of the cakes and coffee. I would prefer something antique, but that's no surpise. Apart from an espresso I order a piece sacher, piled high with cream. I take a bite of the cake swallow it down with the coffee and take out my journal.

The crowd are a mix of people. Two university students, an old man and his middle-aged daughter, two council workers, an old woman on my right and a man on my left, who looks like he has been hiking. As much as I dislike the décor, I love the atmosphere. It's sedate and civilised. No music for my thoughts to battle with, no hyperdextrous brewster, no stylish floor staff. An old-world reserves pervades the place despite the newer trappings. The people are engaged in the quiet conversations and the simple indulgence of a cake and coffee. Kaffeeklatsch, I think the Germans call it. But I think there's a more negative connotation, implying gossip or at least idle chatter. However I like the precision of the word, and the alliteration sounds like indistinguishible background chatter. I don't know if there's a Czech equivalent.


Jiřiho z Poděbrad. When I first arrived, most of my English speaking colleagues refered to this place as the unpronounceable station. I mangled its name pretty badly myself at first. I think I have a better grasp of the sounds now. Or that's what I tell myself.

Most of my friends who have come to visit me have come to Jiřiho z Poděbrad. One reason is that a favourite pub of mine is here. It's unpretentious and relaxed, if smoky. In fact I'm going there later tonight hence the reason I'm writing about this station. I know. I'm cheating again.

When my father first came here I took him to that pub. It was a sweltering August day. We were sitting at the outside benches having a beer. Behind us some old guy was muttering in what sounded like English. I think he was parroting us. I went to a newsagent to get some water for the bus ride home. When I returned dad had befriended this old guy. In conversation with Dad he was lot more lucid. Dad even gave him a cigarette.

The other reason I often come here is that it's the location of one of my favourite buildings: the Church of the Greatest Heart of the Lord (Nejsvětějšího Srdce Páně). It was known by most of my early colleagues as the cubist church, though the inspiration was apparently early Christain architecture. This term was used instead of the train station. “Let's meet at the station by the cubist church,” we would say. Despite knowing this is incorrect, I continue to use this term as it was how we knew it.

The most striking feature is of course the clock. It has two faces both made of glass and at the right time of year, and the right point of the day, the sun can be seen through it. I'm here too late today and have to be content with its more ordinary splendour.

In all this time, I've never been inside. All day I wondered if I would go in. I couldn't come here to write about this church and not venture inside. At the front of the church I have second thoughts. I'm not religious but these people have a right to worship in private. As I'm reconsidering an old woman is holding the door open for me. Since there is no facial expression to convey “I'm just here observing stuff for my blog, and since I'm not a Christian I'm not sure if I really should go in,” - I go in.

The ceiling is incredible. Imagine a series of squares, about a metre and half by a metre and a half, with gradually smaller square inside, so that each portion resembles an impression left by a miniature Mayan pyramid. At the front are proud brass looking Christ figures, not as delicate or sickly, nor eternally benign, as the stautes I remember from childhood. There is a stern nobility in the face worthy of worship. From the ceiling hang 34 metallic spheres. Just below the ceiling are stained glass mirrors each with a representation of a heart along with fish and crosses.

It's been five years since I was in a church that is still being used. The last time was at Christmas in Scotland. It's been about seventeen years since I've been in one as a member of the faithful. I can't justify going and sitting a pew, so for once loitering back with the small tourist group is the better option.

People are going to confessional. It's been a long time since I did that too. In one of the four ornate booths, I see a young boy reading from a note book. There's no screen to provide him with any privacy. I wonder how can a young boy fill a note book with his sins. When I went to confession I would just repeat my two standard misdemeanours, “I took biscuits when I shouldn't and I was mean to my sister.” I've made up for it since then.

The boy's younger sister is also taking advantage of the lack of screen and is going into say hello before her mum whisks her away. She doesn't return to see her brother. She's found something better, the entrance to the priest's side. Her mother just manages to grab her before she disappears all the way in. The mother tries to occupy her with the statue of Christ after the crucifixion, when he's slumped in Mary's arms. An image I know better than those aristocratic versions at the front. The little girl is determined to see what's inside this booth.

Her behaviour makes me think how unnatural religion is. All the girl's most human features – her curiousity, her delight in life, her playfulness are inappropriate here.When she's old enough she'll be filling in an exercise book with her wrong doings and no longer smiling so freely.

Suddenly a voice comes through those spheres. I can only make out the word 'otce', which is the fourth case of 'otec', the Czech for father. I assume at first that they are announcing the arrival of the priest. The church has changed a lot in two decades.

Then I realize the woman is reciting the Lord's Prayer followed by the Hail Mary. The people in the pews recite the prayer back in barely audible voices. It's as private as they can be in a crowd. I stay to listen to the woman's voice. I like the sound of Czech, when it is annuciated as softly as this. It's a language which can carry a lot of tenderness and sincerity, though I'm only enjoying the soothing burr of her voice and ignoring the message.

The pleasure doesn't last long. I suddenly become uncomfortable with this whole scene of a prayer broadcast over speakers and the people repeating it back. Even after I stopped believing I would often defend people's religion for the comfort it brought them. The church was guilty of enumerable crimes, but faith at least provided succour even inspiration. At this I only see the drone mentality it engenders. I think of how I used to take part in this. I have to go.


The closest Czech translation I could find for Kaffeeklatsch was 'klevety', but the use seems to be closer to the English word gossip.

Friday, 10 October 2008


After half a bottle of decent Argentinian wine and a glass of just palatable modrý portugal, I'm in Prosek. Until now I've only known it from the metro map. I shouldn't be here though. I intended to start this blog a year ago, when there were only 52 stations, one for each week, and so give the blog a temporal as well as spacial completeness. Procrastination interceded, so now there are three new stations. Prosek is one of them.

The train glides to a stop. I think it's the bold primary coloured freshness that has made me choose that word. I doubt the trains operate any differently here as any other station, though it is easy to imagine that, like the rare occasions when I enter an upmarket bar, this machine is affecting some grace.

Before I look around I head to the newsagent to buy a copy of Reflex and some gum. I noticed on the ride here, that the latest Hana and Hana is in English. For the uninitiated Hana and Hana are two ever youthful high school students who ruminate on the world from an apparently Czech, teenage, female perspective. Sometimes they come across as Socratic fools, expressing great wisdom in their senseless remarks. Sometimes it's just deliciously cruel. I'm curious to see how it works in English. The gum is for my post-wine breath.

The afternoon's drinking has also made finding a loo a necessity. I flick through the magazine to find the comic while heading toward the WC sign. The comic seems to work. Some of the language seems a little unnatural, but the final comment raises a smile. At times I like a cheap laugh. And I see I've over shot the bathroom entrance.

From this little stop I head to the nearest exit. It opens out into what seems to be a business park. Around the corner I see it is called Prosek Point. I assume they mean point as in 'position' and not 'promontory'. Around me there are only paneláks. Some of the longest I've ever seen. They stretch about 100m and in a line appear to be sawing up through the ground. The three buildings in the park resemble, if you'll excuse the analogy, those big vehicles the jawas drive in “Star Wars”. Only these buildings have many more windows.

Beside the second exit is a poster of Octobriana, a Soviet comic book heroine, drawn by the Czech Bohumil Konečný. There's an exhibition of his work at the moment. I only know this because I read an article somewhere about Soviet comics a few months back. This entry does have a sort of geek feel...comics, jawas. That was all part of my history as much as an earnest pursuit of expression.

Above ground there's a shopping centre. I walk past it and head a little further on to a park. A huge park. It stretches for a couple of city blocks. This was not what I imagined when G. closed her eyes, spun around and pointed to Prosek on the metro map. The business park was more what I expected. Instead there 's this expanse of autumn colours, kids running and cycling, smaller ones waddling beside prams. Some older boys are trying to rap in one of the parks many nooks. There's a park with a flying fox (zip-line for Americans, aerial runway for the British). I'm going to try that if no-one's around later. Two younger children are damming an artificial stream with small stones. They seriously give each other instructions about where to place the rocks. The artificial stream leads to an artificial pond. There are benches around. I join a young couple laughing and wrestling and a policewoman stealing wistful glances at them.

Magpies skip around us under the trees. They're smaller than the Australian ones, and not at all vicious. Their tails stick out rigid and elegant like a clasped fan. For a long time I had no idea they were the namesake of our hairstealing, eye-gouging counterparts. I knew them only as straka, and the foreign word suited what I took to be a completely foreign bird.

The police officer gets up. There mustn't be much for her to do here. Ward stray children and dogs away from the water? Or perhaps this serenity is just an outsider's illusion. I'm going to enjoy it for today though. It's not just Friday and the wine. It feels like a while since it's just been me in a park with my thoughts, not matter how inaccurate. The young couple move off too. Perhaps they've had enough of me writing all of this down.

A trio of teens soon replace them. Two of them are clearly a couple, and unlike the first two, they seem more accustomed to each other. Arms just hang over shoulders. They're including their friend in the conversation. They're also sharing a joint. They must've waited for the police officer to leave, though it would be nice to think that she displayed some largesse and left to let them have this time. A little gift she could enjoy vicariously. But it's just too much to believe.

Mid-conversation they start saying, “I'm a stupid blond girl.” It's clearly directed toward the girl. For all the textbooks, course and efforts of their teachers, it dismaying to think that is the sentence they use. They repeat it so uniformly it sounds as if they're imitating it from a movie or TV show, which is even more dismaying. The language will one day be rendered down into these thick rubbery chunks, harmlessly hurled about a park for a laugh but meaning nothing.

The three of them get bored with this and go back to talking. Their natural conversation is much quieter than those practiced lines. Eventually they finish the joint and go, glancing at me as they do. I suppose this is one of the perils of doing this so publicly. People start to become a little suspicious. I could do this more surreptitiously and try to mentally capture everything, but I enjoy writing in the open like this. It frees me up. I'm likely to invent less – a little less. And since this is a blog, it only makes sense to take the exhibitionism a little further.


There are dog prints at the bottom of the artificial pond. The leaves are the colour of the evening's sunset. In the air is the chill I love. I can smell dirt. The playground is still full. The flying fox will have to wait for some other time.

The last block from the train station appears massive. Behind the blocks of flats, there is a long wall running unbroken over the small hill. There should be enough to make this a double entry. But the access roads to the flats run across the path and after last week's minor infraction I feel compelled to adhere to my rules a little more today. I could wander along some of the footpaths among the blocks, but they seem modern and uninspiring.

Being so far from the centre, there are hardly any people on the train. An empty carriage is a rare pleasure and the ideal place to finish these last few lines. It will only be like this for the next two stops.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Line Work

It is now possible to leave anonymous comments on the blog.

Friday, 3 October 2008


This morning G. said, “Why don't you go to Palmovka?”. It's not exactly random, but it isn't part of my route, so this seemed like sufficient reason. As with many of the stations on the yellow line, Palmovka is characterless. Instead of the daydream inducing paneling there is acrylic and brick. Next week, I'll pull a name out of hat.

Out of the train I can go left or right. I go left. The upper concourse, like many stations, is crammed with small shops. One difference is the coat of arms for Líbeň affixed to one of the walls. I seem to recall that Líbeň was an independent town before it was absorbed into Prague. I could later check this out and incorporate the facts into the post. Right now I'm not sure.

Of the four exits I take the closest. Aboveground is what could've once been a town. The terraces seem to be arranged around a former square. I follow the block behind this exit. At the very first corner a small sculpture sits on the awning. It resembles a word, but none I recognise. By chance I have the camera and go to take picture. Then I change my mind. A camera will establish a different, though not worse, relationship, a more detailed but compartmentalised one. I want to wander around here and absorb the broad and imprecise feel of the place.

Time has gone to work on the buildings, cracking bricks, ripping off plaster, punching out a few windows. Developers are starting to cash in on its efforts. Not as much as elsewhere thankfully. The area is as close to what I imagine Prague would be like all those years ago when I decided to come here.

The path around this block leads back to the supposed square. Prague metro is quite new and cars were not as numerous as they are now. This place could easily have been a place of business where farmers brought goods. Maybe people worked in what looks like the remains of a brewery. That wouldn't have employed too many. Maybe time had been more merciless with some of the other buildings.

I return to the station to go to the next block. A wall runs across the concourse, so I will have to return to the platform to get to the other side. The wall looks new. What made them decide to suddenly cut the two halves off from each other?

The next exit takes me to a bus station. It's a scene anyone at a bus station anywhere knows well - people queuing, a few guys sharing a drink. That's not a bad idea. Summer is pretty much a memory. Those benches aren't going to be so welcoming for the next few months.

Back to the concourse and another exit. I leave and immediately approach a bright red mural. It's a man breathing fire. In the long serrated flame are words. All I can make out is Laďa. That might not be right. I follow the black wrought characters, trying to make out more of them. On an adjacent wall I see 'B. Hrabal' carefully painted and above his name an excerpt. Above on the same wall as the mural is this:

Bohumil Hrabal, *28.3.1914 + 3.2.1997

one of the greatest Czech authors of the 20th century, lived in the years 1950-1973 in the street Na Hrázi in the house no. 326/24, which stood in this place. He considered his stay in this house to be the happiest time of his life. Here he wrote Diving for Pearls, Pábitele, Tales of Those about to Die, today now classic works. Closely Observed Trains and Dancing Lessons for Seniors and Advanced were composed here too. Even later he returned to this neighbourhood in his memoirs and set the plots of his books Tender Barbarian and A Home Wedding. Thanks to the translation of Hrabal's works into dozens of foreign languages this little street, which he called timeless Na Hrázi, has become renowned through the whole world.

Further down is mural with pastel images of the former inhabitants, Hrabal, books, shelves, cats, a frothy capped mug of beer, a giant typewriter. This must be where he lived with Boudník. Tender Barbarian was his memoir about the artist and Boudník died sometime around the time he was here. I could check all this, make it look like I know, but this blog isn't about that.

G. must've known though. No wonder she sent me. Hrabal and Boudník are two people we admire. The blog's name is a pun on one of Hrabal's books. Gifts don't come much better than this – a memory ready formed for me to collect.

So where are his old haunts? Where did he watch the poet philosopher Egon Bondy wring beer from his beard? In which of these pubs if any did he hear Boudník speak at length on sex and art? I don't know. I will know. But not now.

I get out the camera. I want some pictures for me. I want to show G. later. In my enthusiasm I realise I have stepped I am no longer on the footpath. A few more steps and I am on another block. Why not? It's a rule I'm imposing and it's only one more block. But where does it stop? Next week the entry could be anywhere.

But the camera's out. I head back to the first corner and take a picture of the sculpture.

Friday, 26 September 2008


Randomness is proving harder to achieve than I had assumed. My third entry, and again my routine has brought me somewhere I have to be rather than anywhere. I worry my life is too fixed, too well-formed. It's got its immutable shape. If it were furniture, it would be one of those trunks that my mother and aunties kept at the base of their beds, rectangular, hard to move and crammed with naphthalene scented junk. I'm back at Malá Strana, teaching, so I came to the library at Staroměstká metro station to return some books and do this.

I was dreading writing about this place. The greats have covered every corner. Guidebooks have ripped out, reconstituted and rendered it down to bite-sized pieces. There's nothing I can tell you that you don't already know. The clock is probably doing its hourly little jig. The tourists have flocked with penguin necks, ready to catch it. The klobása guys are there and the saxophonist with the cowboy hat. They all have been every other time I've walked through the square. [If you were there on the 26th September 2008 and witnessed something different. Feel free to leave a message. All contributions welcome.]

I don't know any of this for certain because the little 'rules' I agreed to don't allow me to actually venture to the station's namesake. I can only venture to blocks directly connected to the metro stations exits. I cannot cross any roads. This seemed the most effective way to delimit this project, to create an arbitrary and creative constraint. Since I broke the 'posting every Friday rule' last entry, and I am breaking the 'writing in the afternoon' rule right now, I have to observe at least one.

G. thought I should do this only in the platforms. It would certainly make the title more accurate. Staroměstká is would be a good platform to describe. The tunnels are covered in anodized panels, each with a convex or concave spherical cap, as are all stations along the green line. I was rapt in these stations when I first saw them. Confined and clean, they were tunnels to a futuristic subterranean world. The wall paper on this blog is meant to evoke these panels.

Yet, this condition would have been too constraining in the long run. The blog would have been a constant description about the commuters surging on and off the trains. Plus I doubt the guards would tolerate someone standing there for a couple of hours taking notes. The cafe around the corner from a second exit suits me better.

Sitting at a cafe is about all I can handle right now. I'm glad my student postponed her lesson. There was a party last night. I lost count of the drinks. We missed our train, got in at 1:30 and were up at six. I feel like a sponge left in dishwater. It's a feeling I know well in varying degrees. Sometimes I quite like it. Nothing can touch you. Perhaps it helps me to absorb more. It certainly makes me less self-conscious about gazing into windows.

The block at the south eastern exit was my starting point. It comprises of art nouveau apartments attached to what I think is a neo-renaissance building. I'm basing this uneducated guess on the square windows. On the river side of this building is a piece of graffiti that has been there for as long as I remember. It reads 'Pochybujte si, chcete-li, o osobě, která Vás miluje. Nepochybujte avšak o lásce samé'. [Doubt, if you want, the person who loves you. However, don't doubt love itself.] I remember this message not for its homespun sentiment but because it helped me remember the Czech word for doubt. Whenever I passed the graffiti, I would revise it.

Around the corner there are a few pubs and a second hand bookstore, which is closed today, but which I recall had reproduction of the futurist poster Franz Ferdinand used on their second album. Up from here is an antique store. In its window are the pale porcelain figurines I loathe. Always have done.

My nonna liked them. She was one of the most important people to me in my life, so it isn't some negative association. It's the actual and assumed delicateness. The figures can't seem to escape the fragility of the material. They are cold mockeries of people, all the rouged cheeks and soft brown painted hair only emphasises this.

A little up from them, there is a bright orange mule about twenty centimetres long. It's one of the few modern pieces here. Another is a glass fly playing a trumpet. But I want the mule. It has its head down and hunches raised as if about to bray. I won't get it though. It would only lose the wonder it has on the other side of the window. At home it would become lost under papers. It would become another thing. Here, it stands out against the reclining ladies, tricorned gentlemen and musical insects.

Nor do I want to go inside. If I do, I will come out with a handful of porcelain shards worth a few hundred maybe thousand crowns. I also find these shops so cluttered. Things which have no other use other than collection. It's not that I'm not materialistic. I certainly have enough junk. I even brought some over with me, but lately I think I have to deal with the internal clutter.

If I opened up the chest, what would I leave behind? What would I display? Is there anything that I want other people to have? There's something novel – maybe a novel – a shop selling memories and experiences. When we're gone, all that we've done is put on a shelf, perhaps in orderly sets, perhaps higgledee-piggledee, where there is a space. People would come and take what they needed. Maybe an experience that was no longer produced, or a memory that was a collector's item.

I doubt there was anything that there would be anything from the Old Town Square that would be put on the shelf. Maybe into a one dollar box at the door. The memories here aren't so unique. They're cheap knock-offs that everyone is taking home. And there are enough real knock-offs around here to not need mental ones.

Can you own a memory? Travelling seems to be built on that assumption, experiencing something unique, special, yours. And if you own it, would you really want to sell it? Memories are gifts if anything, but like all gifts, they are ones given as cautiously as they are received.

Across from the cafe, the Greek music is blaring. It is the most authentic thing about this area now. Greek music, from a pizzeria, serving original Czech Pilsner. The autumn cold, held in the shade of the awnings, has worked its way into my shoes. I'm going the library on this same block.

The café at the Municipal Library of Prague is probably my favourite cafe in all of Prague. It's quiet and the food and service is unpretentious. Old ladies gather here for a midday glass of wine or a cup of coffee and a chat. Students work. The tourists who come here seem to adjust to the general quiet. The only noise is from the teachers who use the cafe for private lessons.

The best babovka is served here. I should use bundt cake an English word, appropriated from the German, but I've always known it as babovka. It's like the word bunda. The first time I owned a real winter coat was here, so the Czech word, bunda, sounds right even when I'm speaking English. It's a puffy comforting word. Jacket reminds me of a tearing sound.

The pancakes with tvaroh, another word I don't feel right using the English equivalent, are quite tasty too. The coffee is not so good. Today though I order vývar (We even have to plunder French to get the word bouillon.) with big liver dumplings – a personal favourite, and chicken curry. In case of the latter no language has an apt term for the tasteless watery dish I'm served.

The library is one of my favourite buildings in Prague, so the trip is not entirely in vain. It is an example of socialist architecture I like. It is composed of great cement blocks with large doors, square windows and a row of statues representing various socialist archetypes. The latter I'm not so keen on.

It was my habit last academic year to come here on Tuesdays, to borrow some new books, return the old, read and maybe write. Last night's excess is making me feel increasingly edgy and the best thing for it will be to sit in the sun. There's nowhere here today. On my way back to the station I stop at another of my favourite places, another small second hand bookstore. They're selling illustrated field guides for plants and animals in Europe for only 20Kč. They're in English. So I grab one. It's about time I learnt the English names for the mushrooms. I also buy a cinnamon swirl from the bakery next door. This was usually the first part of my Tuesday ritual. I'd scoff one in the short walk to the library. If I was lucky they would be fresh from the oven and you could feel the butter in the pastry. It's not the case today. And I have plenty of time to eat it. It's Friday after all.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Nádraží Holešovice

Nádraží Holešovice comprises of uniform rectangular slabs, each about 80cm x 150 cm. The regularity is unsettling. Nature couldn't produced something like this. It doesn't even feel right for people. It's more like a vast play set.

Some of my friends like this unpretentious unadorned style. My tastes are more 'decadent'. Maybe it's all this concrete which turns me off. On a day when the sky looks freshly poured and about to set, the occasional spire or arch provides relief.

This station would have provided a ready-made symbol the Czech Republic's transition from communism to capitalism, a meretricious veneer of commerce over a drab building. Yet already this mix feels outdated. A better symbol of Prague would be the gentrified buildings, gutted to make way for trendy boutiques or cafés. Nádraží Holešovice represents what has been left behind. Perhaps it will be modernised like the main train station. Perhaps the building will be preserved in the amber of nostalgia.

A parrot mobile dangles from the rafters of the beer garden outside. The only greenery are the weeds sprouting from the cracks and the parrot's wings. They sort of look like broad wilted leaves. This wooden bird describes a stupefied arc and while doing so surveys each of us at one of the six large tables.

Perhaps I should've called this Closely Observed Bars. I had wanted to sit in the main foyer and watch the stream of people. However, all the seats were occupied, mostly by students. From the snippets of conversation, I assume most of them are German. Probably off home after a school excursion here. Instead of the human pageantry I've got this parrot, five quiet men staring blankly into space. In the next room there's a trannie and her trick.

Though I'm in the bar, a patina covers it. It's as if I'm looking at it at it through a smudged pane. The grandeur that was intended, the raucous last drinks and couples luxuriously sipping wine on the ample velvet seats, only becomes apparent with some imagination. The immediate impression is a place of loss, where people come with a few private thoughts.

Holešovice wasn't chosen randomly. G. and I heading to Berlin for the weekend. Our train leaves in thirty minutes, hence the brief entry. (I only got to enter it after we returned.) I haven't been to that city in five years. After my first visit I raved about the place. I fell in love with its vastness, its teeming possibilities, an abandon I haven't even experienced in London. I hope after all this time the magic is still there.

Friday, 12 September 2008


Florenc is pungent, pungent with details: basement shops, hidden courtyards, people arriving from all over Europe, as well as quite literally with smells: new asphalt, stale rubbish, klobásas sizzling in day old fat, wafts of cheap cigarette smoke and the smell of a city baking in its residual heat.

My family don't believe me about summers in Prague, or the Czech Republic for that matter. To them, Europe is cold.  The name itself is covered in snotty icicles.  They cling determinedly to this misconception despite visiting the country.  As much as I relish any fact which contradicts my parents, this heat is becoming wearisome after four months.  To paraphrase Saul Bellow, it feels as if this city too has broken free of its terrestrial moorings and flatted to warmer latitudes.  Humidity and bitumen brew here into a heavy air.

This stop seemed the most logical place to start a weekly record of the Czech capital from its metro stations.  A block away and you could imagine that you're anywhere.  Graffiti colours the crumbling grey walls; bill posters advertise American and British bands; workers rip up the road; cars groan until they have their chance to pounce into another queue.  Added to this is the constant flow of tourists coming from the bus station and metro.  Behind their wheelie bags follow, jogging over the stones.  Others stand at corners turning maps over until they've made sense of the knot of Prague streets and then, jittery bag in-tow,  they barge through the crowd.

Yet this an undeniably Czech place.  Herna bars promise riches on most streets.  Wine stores sell wine straight from the barrel into PET bottles.  Locals - punks, homeless, commuters - sit and chat on the small square, or quietly read.  The pub I'm in is like any pub outside the tourist zone,  English and Czech pop in the background and a single weary barman serving everyone.  Nothing in English except an old Coke sign.  In this tourist hub, the Czech language is proudly visible on shops and pub windows.  It's completely unlike the dead historical centre, which doesn't feel like anywhere.

To go to those places often overlooked was one of the motivations to write this blog.  Florenc isn't exactly out of the way by my afternoon there uncovered an organic food store, a gaming store and this quiet pub.  There was also a personal reason for coming here.  Florenc was my main contact point with the city for the four years I lived in Mladá Boleslav.  Whether I was making a trip to the city itself or embarking on a further journey, I usually had to pass through Florenc bus station.

Though I use the Florenc metro stop everyday, I haven't been to the bus station for over a year.  The statue of Jan Žižka is now only visible from the furthest traffic island still accessible from the metro station.  I'm sure he used to stand unobstructed in full military glory.  The small markets are gone.  Where they had been, the ground is now dug up.  This seems to be a frequent sight in Prague.  The station remains charmingly insalubrious.  People are still hanging out around it, minding their business.  If they could be bothered, they'd probably wish I would do the same.

Apart from all the embarking and disembarking I did, there are a few moments linked to Florenc which really stand out. The earliest and surprisingly still memorable concerned a trip to Český Krumlov. It was when I was still in the thrall of cheap beer and limited responsibility. I arrived at Florenc, a four hour bus trip ahead of me, with only a couple of hours sleep and a nights worth of beer in my system. It did a lot to foster a particular reputation with my colleagues.

A fonder memory was when G. and I went on our first international trip. It was to Munich, which is five hours away across the border. It had been cold back then, the sort of cold that confirmed my parents' dread. We arrived at a still darkened bus station on the outskirts of the German city. There were no coffee machines and we had to wait another hour for the bus to the centre. Even then the cafés didn't open for another hour or two. But G. and I strengthen our relationship through a mutual love of wandering through galleries, shared caffeine cravings and the ability to laugh at our misfortune.

Just outside the pub there is a supermarket, something else I never noticed before. I'm going to buy some water for the journey home, so this afternoons exploration hasn't been entirely uneventful.