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.