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.