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.