Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Hlavní nádraží Part Two

It's impossible to write about hlavní nádraží, or hlavák as the Praguers call it, without mentioning the people. The station is a confluence of visitors and locals, the transient and regulars, though who is who is usually a matter of perspective.

I take a bench to the right of the central stairs. Opposite there used to be a newsagent. Now, there's a burger-store and its smell fills the upper hall. The first thing I notice about the people is how straight they walk, regardless of speed. As I tend to meander, often stopping to check out some incidental object or event, I am surprised that most people keep to a straight mental track. Even the woman in the painfully fashionable boots, her feet forced almost vertically straight, doesn't teeter.

This direct movement is all I can see that people share. Otherwise it is a mix of age, social background and I can only assume nations. And it is this blend that makes the place seem ordinary and is it this ordinariness that leads so many friends and acquaintances to be disappointed with Prague, that the city is too far from their lustrous, or dark, presumptions. As I remember one friend opined "Prague is just another international city." An understandable lament when you're passing through. But I'm happy to forsake some "authenticity" if it means meeting different people or finding decent wine, food and other comforts.

Beside me two teenagers chat. The guy is angle toward the girl. The girl is facing forwards but regarding him askance. He's offering her some cola and she's adamant that she doesn't want any. Health food advocates would cheer. Most of the conversation is a verbal tennis match of direct questions and answers, returned short and sharp. It reminds me of a conversation class, and I think they're both going to play the distance. I don't have the patience.

******************************************************

I head to another knew addition, another Potrefená husa. I take a table by the door and watch the action. It seemed to be a poorer choice. The people maintain their determined private routes, but there's little else. A bad afternoon. I've seen so much here before. People shooting up. Punks wiling away the hours. Working women soliciting customers. People dressed for medieval battles.

A man comes into the pub. He hasn't entirely lost the face he had as a boy. His eyes seem mildly bemused as though this his first day out alone in the big smoke. Along with this there is the caution people have before experience clocks up. He catches me studying him and gives a perplexed, though not threatening, look, I guess the journal I'm writing in isn't so alarming, if only a little odd.

An older woman enters not long after. She smiles at me when I notice her. It's the first time this has happened while doing this blog. The usual reactions a more like the man's. I hear her order Modrý portugal, a variety of grape and the name of the wine made from it. Of course, she's getting the wine. G. and I had a fantastic bottle of St Martin's Modrý portugal last week. I think I'll end with this little coincidence.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Hlavní Nádraží Part 1

There might be more of me than usual in this post. I'm looking at the station through the grainy visors of the sleep deprived. But that's another story.

Aficionados of main train station's past may be disappointed by what they find. The herna bar on the top concourse - gone, the old scummy toilets - gone, the Fornetti shop - gone, the right side of the building - gone. Actually, they've been gone for a while but it's taken me this long to get to he station, which is currently being refurbished.

One thing about construction is that it brings out people's creative side. I'll miss these pics when the panels are removed. I wonder who will get them.









One benefit of these changes is the bookstore. This is the first time I've been inside. Usually, I'm in a rush to get my train or I want to avoid an impulse buy. Today, it's research.

The first book to grab my attention is a book of Nohavica's songs translated into English. I'm a little skeptical about this. I'm not so well versed in Czech that I would say the translation would lose some of the meaning. However, I am disappointed by the loss of mystery. I felt that the magic of his lyrics was something granted to those who took time to learn the language. I can see that I might be guilty of the more Bohemian-than-thou attitude a friend of mine accused other expats of demonstrating. At the same time, it would be a pity for Nohavica to become slotted into mass convenience, which is the fast track to mass indifference.

Beside that book is something by Jiří Gruša's Instructions to Czechia. His The Questionnaire is one of my favourite Czech novels. I was drawn to how rooted it seemed despite the imaginative flights. Again, this is an outsider's opinion and one no doubt formed from reading it here and so knowing the places before reading about them. His Instructions looks amusing and is something to add to my list of books I will try to read in Czech.

One book which everyone knows is Švejk. though I've read it a few times, I stop to flick through the large hard-cover edition. This one is illustrated by Petr Urban. Though Lada may have given us the definitive Švejk, there's something about Urban's scrappy rendtion, which seems more fitting, less an icon and more human. On the back of the book is an illustration of the two Švejks meeting. It seems a perfect image of the old and new Czech I think as I go to get my train home.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Jinonice

The name of the station reminds me of jitrnice, which I'm quite partial, providing it's prepared well and there's more offal than bread. This is not the only station which reminds me of food. The marbled columns of Můstek reminds me of the marbled appearance of tlačenka. As I once said, food always finds its way into the blog, though I'm not hungry now.

The area around Jinonice is covered in leafless trees, low bushes with gaudy berries and billboard towers. It's urban but totally removed from Prague. I feel as though I've strayed into some dead end around some tightly curled bend. Not that this is at the end of train line. It just doesn't feel part of the city. Háje or Černý most seem to be more apart of Prague though they lie on the outskirts.

Perhaps it's all the traffic which seems unnatural to me. Maybe, it's the building material merchants. One of them is a betonárna. "Beton" is the Czech for concrete and "árna" is added when place is associated with the product. So, a betonárna is a concrete plant, just as a cukrárna is a sweetshop (cukr is the Czech for sugar) and čekárna a waiting room (čekat is the Czech for wait).

As I approach the betonárna I catch a leaf. I suppose anyone my age from the Northern Hemisphere would find this embarrassing yet autumn and its colours remain an annual delight. Catching falling leaves is something I've only recently mastered.

Richard Lopez said in his blog I write like a tourist. At first I was a little dismayed at the comparison. I always hoped a tourist was what I wasn't. I've learnt the language, the culture, the history, keep abreast of current events here. But I suppose in some ways, these small ways, he's right. I am a tourist in that I'll never fully be of this place while this place continues to delight, amuse, confound and frustrate.

At the moment though, there is a feeling of deja vu. I'm sure I've never been here, so it can't be presque vu. Funnily, proof is all that distinguishes a sense of being somewhere you haven't visited from not quite remembering some place you have, except the only proof I have is memory. I guess I can ask G. when I get home.

What finally confirms that it's deja vu is the housing estate ahead. It consists of many square apartment blocks with balconies like soap dishes. I'm sure I would've ranted about something as ugly as that before. My last clue that I've not been here is that I see a bus driver lavatory. Though I doubt I would've noticed it if I hadn't read about it in Andrew's blog "Seldom Asked Questions."

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A Quick Note

The following post was from a week ago. I know. I've sunk back into my bad ways.

Českomoravská ==> Vysočanská

I'm struggling to find anything interesting at Českomoravská. The exit is linked to a single block. There is a Dům Šance at the back. In the distance I can see a panelák with silhouettes of animals painted on it. Sorry to digress, but has panelák entered the English language? Wikipedia seems to think so. That would then bring the total up to between two and three depending on who you ask. As you all know, robot derives from the Czech word 'robota' for forced labour. Some suggest that pistol derives from the Czech píšťala, which means whistle. The spelling on the etymological dictionary appears to be wrong.

Anyway, back to Českomoravská. The area is dominated by the squat metallic Sazka arena. Fifties style UFO, giant Frisbee, overturned dog-bowl could all be used to describe, but none of these comparisons would capture its ominous presence, inhuman and sterile amid the flats. I went to a jazz festival there many years ago. Apart from this guy and a Hungarian pianist, whose name escapes me, it was singularly one of the worst musical experiences I've been to. The venue had a lot to do with it. And Van Morrison. Though it's against the rules, I'm going to head to the next station.

Unfortunately, a large shopping centre stands above Vysočanská. At least it's warm inside. I circle around to warm up and, vainly, search for something interesting. The best thing I spot are a group of kids racing in the opposite direction of a pedestrian conveyor belt. A girl with bright leggings wins.

Outside, there's a park with a grammar school opposite. The park is littered with leaves. Whereas last year, the leaves were a bright carpet, today they take the term litter quite literally. Hundreds of discarded brown paper bags come to mind. Admittedly, it is later in the year than when I was at JZP.

Vysočanská is the adjective of Vysočina, the name of the area, which also means highlands. The shopping centre has commandeered the top. The area gets more interesting when I head down. I watch a fishmonger try to catch a pike in his net. Despite the small size of the aquarium, he's having difficulty. The sleek fish glides away from the net. It takes him five attempts before it's caught for the two women waiting patiently.

Nearby is a second-hand shop. I think of my good friend, the writer and second-hand shop connoisseur Vanessa Berry . I think Vanessa may be disappointed by this store. It is not the trove of discarded objects awaiting her imagination to vivify. It's like a clothes store, the items perfectly arranged only faded and musty. It's tempting to imagine that the folds of these clothes contain more than the lining. Were these clothes abandoned by families who had fled in 1968? I suppose that's the typical outsider's perspective - to constantly romanticize this place and keep it always just beyond the finger tips.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Flora

I'm in the mood for a walk through a cemetery, and it's not the time of year. It's the easy quiet and solitude I'm after or at least what I imagine I'll find here. The outside still creeps in over the crumbling walls. There are children here too with their little scooter bikes and some people appear to use it as a short-cut from the tram stop.

Why I'm in this mood I cant' say exactly. I've just felt a sudden need for the sort of sobriety found here. Those that know me can make a pun on that as they wish. Maybe, all I needed was somewhere to let the well-spring of random thoughts surge and flow out. Lately, whatever I've written has been purpose driven. Being in an old cemetery is a pleasure for its aimlessness - and there are fewer people here than in a park.

Czech graveyards bear the marks of the country's changed history. Angels weighed down with cement wings and forlorn Christs with moss coloured robes populate the front section. Further in I find a gravestone in Russian and another in German. Unfortunately, I can't get to visit the Jewish section. A road blocks my access as it when I was in Želivského.

The newer stones are as austere as the older ones are extravagant. Slabs of black marble with only names and dates. A few of them have photos or engravings of the deceased. These engravings are eerie. Grey and translucent, it was as if the family wanted to be haunted. And the images immortalize more than the memory. Double chins, eighties perms, caterpillar mustaches commemorate the dead. But to be loved is to be imperfect. Only idols are flawless.

The blank slabs are an invitation to my imagination. What would I want as my epitaph? To be honest, I'm too distracted by the names to think of anything remotely witty or appropriate. Czech surnames are far more descriptive and imaginative than English ones. Among the gravestones I find a Mr Blackbird (Kos), a Mr Hedgehog (Ježek) a family of hooks (Hák), someone who is black (Černý)and another who is quiet (Tichý). The most interesting was the man whose name means "was having breakfast" (Snídal).

The use of the masculine past tense as a surname is not uncommon. Bohumil Hrabal's surname means "raked" or "was raking" depending on context. Perhaps, his ancestor was a gardener, though I'm not sure why eating breakfast warrants a family name.

As I leave, I notice someone taking photos. On the exterior of the cemetery wall was some stencil art, which I'd like to share with you:


Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Náměstí Republiky

I need Lt. Hůrka's help with this one. I can't do it alone. So, I'm slipping into my Hůrka suit. Flaky skinned, droopy eyed Bolík Hůrka is on the case, though I'm not sure what the case is. Maybe he'll be able to work it out from the clues he's gathered:

* Photos of tea collectors happily toiling. Pictures by Liptons. Tea leaves are waxier than expected.
* 'Blesk' on the side of a van. Blesk, which means both flash and lightning is the name of his friend's dog. It is one of the few Czech dog names he knows. It's also the name of a tabloid.
* A stray feather. No idea which bird. He once had a feather in his favourite hat but he lost it on the way home.
* Ties in the window look as though they're waiting to be examined by doctors (Ahhhh)
* A leaflet asks "Why are ginger-haired people disappearing?"
* The German for Italian shoes is "Itaienische Schuhe".
* This picture reminds him of his daughter's boyfriend. That's if he existed and actually had a daughter.

* He hears someone whistle. This is the first time in a while.
* A mother calls her child "Little Bug". He called his daughter this too. Still does from time to time.
* He sees the statue of Žižka. He's never been down this block before.
* He's never noticed the tops of those building before either.
* Another man is whistling.
* There's a stain on the wall of the escalator tunnel exactly the same shape and same position as in Narodní třída, except this one is black.
* This statue again.
He doesn't know what it means.
* The leaves still look waxy.
* He lied about the stain.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Kobylisy

I met G. on the platform. We were going to walk her Grandmother's dog together. This is not a typical weekly ritual. Not for me anyway. I'm here because I've got some time to kill and Babi's place is near the metro station, so it seemed a fitting moment to reboot the blog.

The dog himself is the reason this won't become a habit. Of the various annoying traits a dog can possess: disobedience, a grating incessant bark, nauseating body odour, food thievery, invasive muzzle and over friendly tongue - this dog possesses all of them to their utmost. His name is Čert, which means devil. Needless to say, I've never met a more aptly named pet. He's also one of the few dogs here with a Czech name. Most seem to have English names. And he's only a dog in as much as anything vocal, hairy and four-legged is a dog. He looks, and certainly smells, like a used sheepskin car-seat cover.

G. told me that she walked Čert only in as much as she walked WITH Čert. He was very much in charge and dragged her and later me around a few blocks. This is when I discovered Čert's other annoying habit. He marks his territory constantly. On one occasion, he did it with as close to wryness as a dog can manage. A guy called Lerry left his tag on a gate. The tail of the 'y' was topped with an arrow. Čert left his mark exactly where Lerry directed him.

Later, Čert seemed merely senile. When G. finally coaxed Čert to turn around and head home, he sniffed a mark he just made the very instant before and sprayed a bush he'd marked not a minute earlier. I think the poor guy can no longer remember his signature.

If Čert is deserving of any credit it is that he's not aggressive. When other dogs rush to the fence and bark is one of the few times Čert doesn't make a sound. His lack of confrontationalism means you are saved the effort of dragging him away. But, it has come at the expense of his bravery. When he hears another dog, he drags whoever's attached to him along the path until he's at a safe distance.

Incidentally, Čert took us in a counter-clockwise direction. If he had hands, his right would be the dominant one.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Comparisons

I would say that my tardiness is inspired by the MO of the blog. But, the Prague Metro is actually efficient. Perhaps, I need some benevolent dictator or worse to get my act together. Suffice to say, there'll be no post this week.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Service Problems

Once again things have got away from me this week. In my defence I had two interesting writing assignments, so little time for the blog. Everything will be back on track...yes, yes, pun intended.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Háje

The stations are so much more ornate than the ones at home. Great coffee cream marble interspersed with the same anodized panels found along the green line. And they are such crowded hubs of activity, not merely waiting places. As soon as I leave the escalator I see the familiar bakeries, newsagents and other stores. People are shopping or just milling about. They're not scattering themselves home.

From a courtyard I see beyond the city's limits. The change from urban to rural is sudden. The paneláks create a neat wall keeping the city in. It's not the fraying patchwork of suburbs still forming. Just grey then greens.

I can smell the vegetation - the late summer ripening and rot, the same crisper smell I've mentioned before. Blackthorns have all but fallen from their trees. Most are fermenting on the ground, adding a yeasty sweetness to the other odours. Further on and it's cut grass, also sour from the heat and humidity. It's not the tropical humidity I experienced recently, but it's oppressive in its own way, in its unexpectedness.

I would've loved this place as a kid. There are so man bridges and overpasses for the mind to convert into ships, so many tall blocks to imagine as castles. It feels like a little city hear, like Budějovická, but without the guy with the pig.

A couple of junkies pass by, eye lids dropped for the day, or not yet open, their voices in low gear.

Two Roma are digging up the road. One operates the jackhammer, the other shovels away the rubble. Between breaks I hear the low mournful song of one of the one with the shove. It's seems like such a clichéd 'Eastern European' image - Roma in the streets. I mention it - a part from the fact that I can see it - because one of the most pervasive and pernicious stereotypes of Roma is that they are lazy. Funny thing is, it's always Roma I see doing these thankless jobs.

Beside them sit two well dressed old women. One has coiffured hair a wind tunnel wouldn't move. They sip tea with an old world sophistication that belies the disposable cups they hold, and the hot paved footpath where they sit. The coiffured woman has a frightened bird face, thin cheeks and nose like a pinch of skin. At the moment, she seems unruffled, but she could take flight at any moment.

The reason I'm here is not entirely random. I have to review a film, so for you it might be Saturday but for me it's Wednesday. Wednesdays don't seem that different to Fridays. Maybe there are more people, since they're not all at their cottages.

G. and I have a check whenever we come here, which isn't often. One of us will say, "Jedeme na Háje?" and the other will say, "Ano, a do háje." In translation, "Are we going to Háje?" / "Yes, and to hell." But it probably only works in Czech.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Attention: the train is approaching the station

I will start posting again as of Friday. I'd been away...I should've left a notice I know, but with all the packing...Friday, really, Friday.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Strašnická

The stations are beginning to look the same. First an ascent up stairs that exist more for advertising than locomotion. There is a newsagent at the top. Maybe a cheese shop, maybe a bakery, today it's a florist and a dried fruit shop.

Outside is a pizza stand, two občerstvenís and a gyros van. Someone is selling punnets of strawberries. They're selling strawberries everywhere at the moment. Pale red with yellow tips, sure signs they've been picked too early and not left to ripen in the sun. But I can't begrudge people the need to make a living.

By the station is a large abandoned building. My first thought is that it's a monastery. The reason for this is that I assume most large abandoned buildings are monasteries. The garden is overrun with wild wheat and amongst them I see two mushrooms. They're early for this time of year. Then again, we have had a lot of rain. They already look a bit old and I'm not that keen on eating fungus that is growing about 20m from a main road.

Along the rear wall someone has spray-painted "Fuck off the government." I find it strange that when the Czech language contains as many profanities as English the person chose English. It's not as though they're writing to English speakers. Cynically, I assume that there political program amounts to appearing cool and it's much cooler to swear in English, or so I've been told.

Beyond the building is a market and this one seems more lively than most. It's mostly fruit and cheap clothing. Some guys are playing cards. Other are drinking. It certainly has colour, but the people are wary that I'm more interested in them than the produce so I continue on.

Outside the front of the building I see it's a school, and it isn't even abandoned. It's just neglected. There are stickers on the windows and inside I can make out furniture.

The underpass leads to a park. As I wander through I pass the same people and I realise that with my dishevelled hair and unshaven face I might look a little dodgy. It's one of the problems with observation. You yourself become visible.

Because of this feeling I hurry through. That and I want to avoid the humidity. On the way back to the station I notice a bumblebee working away in a flower. As fey as it sounds, it puts me in a good mood. I just like these insects. I watch it for a few minutes and then head back thinking what junk food I will purchase. I'm not in the mood for it but I haven't had lunch.

Suddenly, I recall the fruit stands and change direction for the market. The fruit seems ridiculously overpriced. My knowing this is either a sign of my domesticity or the length of time I've been here. Or both. But wait? I have an apple in my bag. I soft-ball sized red apple from a farmer whose produce we trust. I work it free from my bag and start to eat it on my to the station. By the time the train arrives, I've eaten it down to the stalk.

Zličín

I feel I've been here before but I don't remember why. It couldn't be the shopping centre. I wouldn't come all this way, not when the identical stores are more conveniently located. It couldn't have been for the atmosphere. It's not even charmingly decrepit. People stand stiffly while trying to smoke casually. Everyone's reading everyone else. Then there's a sudden burst of moment. This time two guys hurry to the train platform. And it's back to the awkward stares.

Maybe, G. and I went on a trip somewhere. There is a bus station here. But I honestly can't recall where. I have this impression I've been here but no firm memory. It's not that it seems familiar. Quite the opposite. It seems mostly strange with a nagging sense that I've been here though until I arrived I thought I never had. Is this what they call presque vu?

This nagging feeling is irritating me the more I stand here, so I walk around the block. The first path leads to a traffic jam and the outskirts of a city ossified under billboards and consumerism. I double back and take a path heading through the long grass.

It is the type of grass we were warned away from as kids. "Dugites might be there." Any snake was a dugite. No snakes today. Only snails. Huge snails lugging their limestone like homes across the rain moistened path. Some smaller ones are dining on the unfortunate victim of a careless foot. All around is the pervading smell of an unwashed crisper.

We warned about other dangers in the grass and be so suddenly isolated, I can't help but given into those fears. "It would be my luck," I think but I reach a gate without incident and turn back.

While I approach the station I hear the distinctive rattle of a spray can. As a child I wanted my father to open up a can to show me the ball bearing inside. I asked no matter how many times he explained that the can would explode if he tried. Years later, I found an opened can in the bush. The ball bearing was still there just as I imagined. What else could it be? It was one of those distinctly disappointing moments.

The juvenile graffiti artists lower their voices and crouch behind the railing. Do they really think I care? Then I remember a game we played as kids. We would stand at the end of the drive way and wait for cars. At the last moment, we would duck for cover. The cars went on oblivious and our hearts pounded and our bodies wriggled with pleasure. Subterfuge of any kind is tantalising.

I head back to the platform disappointed I can't get more from this place. Partly, I feel ashamed, as though I'm letting the station down by not finding something more. Of course, this is a home to someone. Someone else had their first smoke or drink or god knows what here. The graffiti artists will perhaps think back to this place as one of their first hits. To me though, it's just a suburb that smells like day old salad.

And I still don't know why I came here the first time.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Vyšehrad

I had my notes already to transcribe as I usually do, but I decided to scrap them and go with what I remember.

At first, I thought this was going to be easy. I was sure there was nothing to this station, so I was just going to describe the Tom Waits concert I went to last year in the Congress Centre, where the seat were designed so that none obscured the ones behind. All had a view of the podium and the speaker could see all. Perfect for a performance.

There were actually a lot of places to walk - but it didn't take me anywhere. I could see the little garden hidden by train line, the twin spires of St. Peter and Paul and the defensive wall from where the mysterious house with the radars is visible as well as the whole historical collage of Prague. But I couldn't get close to it without breaking the rules.

I was at least able to cross the Nusle bridge, which has a Golden Gate reputation amongst Praguers as a bridge of last resort. From there I could see the hidden garden in more detail. Further on, a much larger park I never knew about was visible. Traffic sped like a motorised wall. I imagined what it would be like if they shut it off, if someone staged a reclaim the streets type action. IT would be one hell of a party. The most daring I know of were some Greenpeace activists abseiled from the bridge. They most have been quite fit to get over the 2m high fence with its arched top.

Incidentally, the Czech for banner is 'transparent'. Make of that what you will.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Můstek

I'm in the Chinese restaurant in the arcade beside the Palác Knih book store. I have a novel open as I wait for my lunch. Someone has written "Don't read this if you are already feeling depressed!". I wonder how grim the story can be. Not gr4im enough to hold my attention. I put it back in my bag and watch the people passing through the arcade.

Chinese restaurants remind me of home. They are a quintessential component of the suburbs. Sweet and sour pork, fried rice, chicken and black bean - these are the true staples of home. Not meat pies. Not vegemite. The mock lanterns, faux-jade and water paint images of our view of China transport me home more than those kangaroo road signs. Incidentally, there is something of a crave for them here. I've seen a few suctioned to the rear windows of cars. The nearest kangaroo locked up in Prague zoo. I guess what we associate ourselves with has little to do with where we are.

My duck arrives. It's not a prohibitively expensive type of poultry here, so I can enjoy it more often. However, the sauce is a little salty, something my beer on exacerbates. Thankfully there's plenty of rice to cut the flavour. I plonk each thin slice into my mouth and survey the restaurant before going back to looking outside.

A group of twenty somethings have gathered at the theatre opposite. Two women engage in one of the most elaborate social kisses I've seen. The keep about 50 cm from each other and crane in gingerly, as though the other is smeared in something noxious. They pucker their lips into a broad duck's bill and then as quickly as possible dispense with the perfunctory greeting. Is this something they have to practice? Do they occasionally judge and head butt their friends? Being half Italian I'm used to the full lipped variety of kiss. Even form uncles which would be planted wet, bristled and slightly sour smelling on the cheek.

With the greetings over, they stand around like a group of strangers. Their occasional glances suggest they're waiting for someone. The waitress eyes me warily as she takes my empty beer glass. Writing has a way of making people feel uneasy. I guess they're worried I'm writing about them and in this case I am, but maybe I wouldn't have even said anything if it wasn't for the look. I leave some of my duck and about half the rice pay up and go. It was too much, which is a lot given my appetite.

I follow the arcade which I've been through many times before. There's the back entrance to Palác Knih, the glass booths with new pieces of art or photos, the lingerie store where the scantiest under wear is paired with the most structurally elaborate boots, the stair well which I've never been down, the guitar store where I always think of buying something, the cafe which could rent itself out as a smoke machine and the exchange bureau.

Most times I turn right and head to Hlavní Nádraží. Today, I swing left to do the block tour. There's a slight drizzle but I can't be bothered getting my umbrella out. It's only when I see that I'm passing the main head quarters for the Communist Party that I realise I've never been down here before. I had assumed it was some other street. A little further on and I'm behind the GPO. A single postal van glides through the back. It symbolises just how laid back the city is. I'm sure if I were behind the Sydney GPO, I'd have to be dodging traffic. I'm glad I'm here.

My shoelace has come undone, so I stop in the vestibule of the GPO to do it up. I was here with a friend a few months ago. She wanted to take a picture of the ceiling. A guard moved faster than his age suggested and wagged a finger at her. For the same reason, I haven't supplied one this time. But I never do.

I head down into the concourse of the station. It's like another mall down here. There's a supermarket, several newsagents, whose main purpose is to sell cheap DVDs, a small bistro, a bakery, health food store -which sells good juice and a pharmacy. Oh and one of the ubiquitous herna bars. Practically everything you need is here. If it weren't for the lack of accommodation you wouldn't have to go aboveground. Well, you wouldn't in my post-apocalyptic subterranean fantasies.

On the next block is a French deli I've been meaning to check out. I'm heading to Mladá Boleslav to visit V. and I want to take something. There isn't all that much which is French about the produce. It seems like any other deli I've been to here. But while I'm here I decide to explore the arcade a little more. Some wiry punks are playing with their dog in the centre. The arcade ends at a dilapidated and empty bar. I spin around. A hooded punk is roughing the jowls of the dog. The dogs tail is an ecstatic metronome ready to fly off at any moment.

The drizzle has become a deluge. I cower with other people for a moment under the awning of a hotel. I understand what the French mean when they say, "Il pleut des cordes." I wait for the strands of water to break up into more more manageable droplets.

My trousers are still soaked through though. I decide to cut through the shopping centre, Černá Růže. I had wanted to avoid this place because I have visited some many other shopping centres around the train station. At least there's an Arabic food store. I pick up some hummus and baba ghanoush. The shop keeper is chatty, so I here Czech with an Arabic accent. It must be just as novel to hear the language with an Australian one.

The rain has cleared almost as quickly as it started. A man raps to himself as I head out onto the mall. I have two options. I can check out this section of the station or head back up and complete the top. I decide on the latter. I wind through another arcade, through the Františkánská zahrada, which would usually be full of people slurping ice creams, but is now just another way from one soggy point to another.

I could still go to the bottom part of the station where the small bridge that gives Můstek its name is allegedly found. Instead, I head down Jungmannova. There's a deli there that specialises in game. At least I can get something for V. there. It does, however, require me to break the rules of the blog as I have to cross the street.

[Narrative interruption]

I'm back on the block with my pheasant pate, mouflon sausage and rabbit ham. V. should be satisfied with some of that. I follow Jungmannova back around to Wencelas Square. On the other side is Lucerna. Another place I know well. Since I'm here I think I may visit one of my favourite bars and get a coffee. Then I notice a sign for a store called Myšák. G. has mentioned this many times. She used to visit it with her grandmother. She has been talking about the place a lot since she heard they were reopening. I have to go and sample something.

One of the things I like about the Czech Republic is the simple yet broad range of the ice creams. You won't find chunky monkey for example, but you can get pear ice cream, which is what I order along with a scoop of peach and one of lime. The place is very first republic, flock wallpaper, curlicue wooden light fittings and waiting staff in white and black. The pear ice cream actually feels like pear, but I prefer the lime which is nice and sour. The peach is a little over powered by the other two.

Three scoops was a mistake. I feel a little bloated and would like to sit and rest, but I haven't the time. I have a bus to catch and I still have seen everything that is around the station. I do Lucerna quickly, heading back and forth across familiar stores. The upside down sculpture of Wencelas is there - check, the wine store - check, the tacky gift shop - check, the great little book store and cafe - check, the Belgian chocolatier - check.

I'm not as close to the bottom section as I had intended. I should've started at the top and worked my way down. I hurry through the crowds until I get to the bottom. I do another familiar block, where caters almost only for tourists. I cut through whta I assume is a supermarket but which turns out to be an old market place. The word tržnice is still visible above the automatic doors. So are some of the old fittings, though most are obscured by the insulation panelling. It is such a pity to waste this space on a generic food store. I know a market is just another place to buy food, but if we have to have capitalism I'd rather the bustle of a grower's market, the tactility of the produce, the noise and smells. However, given it's location, any market would become kitsch.

There's a book store around the corner I used to pass quite often but haven't been to in years. I used to stare into its curved windows and wonder if I would ever be able to understand anything inside.

At the next block, I'm even further into nostalgia. This is the very first pub where I came when I arrived. The bar tender spoke no English - one of the few in Prague -, so I at least could practice my phrasebook Czech. I had venison for the first time too. I met an English guy there one night. He spent most of the time complaining about Czech dumplings.

The final block connects to Národní třída. I could've done the two as one, but it seemed too much at the time. You know this area already, and I'm out of time and so head to the metro. I haven't found the bridge.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Vltavská

The last time I was here, it was late and the air was spent of its evening energy. The people's faces were sunken and drained. Now, the air has the static charge and heaviness of a coming storm, but everyone is too much of a hurry to be allowed a moments languor.

The station leads out to an cement island of občerstenvenís. All around people are sitting on the low walls, smoking and drinking. Their ages and states of inebriation vary. They are about the only humanity among the circling access roads. Everyone else clears out as soon as they arrive. It doesn't feel that I'm close to the city centre. All cities have places like this, at once near but forgotten. There's the former East Perth or Alexandria in Sydney.

Up from here there is a knoll where people take their dogs. A gutted fridge lies on its side. A few people glance at me as I wander back and forth. All my notes are mental ones at the moment.

From here, I can see the top of cathedral. The buildings are a mix of communist era tiled offices and turn of the century apartments. Unfortunately, there's no way of having a closer look without crossing a road. I return to the platform to meet G. We're seeing a film tonight at a cinema called Bio Oko - so the station was selected for that reason.

While I'm waiting I run into a colleague from the university. In his inimitable style he rattles off some details about a training session we're attending together and then says good-bye before I can respond. I wonder if I can survive a weekend with this guy.

G. arrives a little late and she's had a bad day at work. She fills me in as we cross the cement island to the tram stop. I glance back to make sure I haven't missed anything but in this moment I've gone back to being an ordinary commuter.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Invalidovna

There are some worn and peeling benches just outside. The perfect place to have my lunch. And having lunch is a good cover to do some people watching. On the bench just over from me is an old guy with pants secured far above his waste and a bright red trolley. Two metal-heads stand at my right with jackets draped imperially over one shoulder. It's a fairly humble duchy they lord over. Crooked cement slabs, a bistro, the old man and a mother trying to coax an ice-cream into her child's mouth but succeeding only in smearing on the child's face.

I wonder where the word bistro comes from. It looks Italian, but it could be a French word that has been rendered 'phonetic'. There's a hairdresser's beside this bistro, which makes it less appealing. Food and coiffure don't mix.

I get half way through the cous-cous I brought then put it away and go and do my thing. Perhaps, it's the recent illness but I don't feel inspired and Invalidovna is not a place to lack inspiration. I weave through the panelaks. They remind me of Mladá Boleslav, especially why I was happy to leave. A boy dodges the explosions which arise from his mind and exit through his mouth. And then it's quiet.

All that intrigues me here is the seemingly empty panelak in the centre of the block. Someone was living in the very bottom corner. There's a bed, a portable electric hotplate, magazines, centre-folds on the walls, table and chairs. This abandoned life is on show like any shop display in the wall length windows. I try the main door but it's locked. I don't think I have the courage to go further even if it had been open.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Slackness

Sorry about recent slackness. I've had deadlines, general fatigue and now the flu.

Dejvická

The station is familiar but not commonplace. The walls, the stall , the bookshop are just fleeting images as I rush to take get to the airport bus. It was the first airport I saw when I arrived, the one I see when I see people off and so it will be the last one I see if I ever leave the city for good. Today, though, Dejvická is tulips.

They are searing a scarlet and yellow ring in the centre of the traffic island. Beside me, they are imperial purple licks of paint without a royal portrait. It is the simplicity of form which attracts me to these flowers. I am not ordinarily a flower person. I don't know species, not particular breeds. The tulip has a special place. The simple cup perched on a the single slender stem is nature's most perfect moment. Though, I know, tulips have been selectively bred to look this way.

It's quiet, but not the suburban quiet of Nové Butovice. It's the quiet of city abandoned by the warm spring weather or people stifled by the heat. A girl is meditating in the park. Some guys are sharing a beer at the benches. I wander to the end. There are a row of alders and the leaves of one them are covered in crimson nodules. I wonder if this a disease or mutation. If it is, it's funny that nature would be so complementary, the crimson of the nodules is the perfect opposite of the leaves deep green. [I later find out they are in fact the larvae of some insect.]

The station is also has good examples of Czech styrofoam art. There is a perfectly sculpted TV with a tractor set inside. The piece is in almost perfect condition though it has been here for years. It must be the only TV to go unnoticed in the world. Some of the other pieces are damaged since I was here last.

I return to the platform where a new line of tourists has formed to replace the old. I'm the only person waiting on the other side. G. is expected soon. Then we're off to meet another friend and go for a walk in Divoká Šarka.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Střížkov

Too clean, too new to be real...I feel reduced in size, like I'm pulling into a display model...outside and I'm back to reality...panelaks, pebbles and pigeons...the occasional blackbird...trees and shrubs decked out in spring...branches heavy with bright green buds...bushes sprayed yellow or purple...bumblebees make haphazard paths to each...groups of children well and then burst with laughter, screams, chatter...cracks arc through the side walk, traces of a dinosaur that didn't realise it was extinct...but really from countless lighter steps - and the weeds, weeds which remind me of home and weeds which I always confuse with strawberries, though they're not...a long boulevard, good in theory but the uniformity of the buildings is oppressive...a blackbird slaps a worm against the sand...it's two-thirty in the afternoon...this bird obviously never heard the old adage...it's like a suburban kingdom in here, walled in by the flats...the kids hold court...a bumblebee hovers around a motorbike...can insects be boors too?...at the edge of the block I can see Prosek, where I was in autumn, watching the trees turn the colour of the sunset...now I'm here among the green...I've been walking along a giant jigsaw puzzle piece, which I've been looking for for some time.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Depo Hostivař

A month has gone missing. Last week was grey and sodden. Today the sun has burned its way through the last remnants of winter. It feels like we're in the last weeks of spring. The air is warm and dusty. You feel it on the roof of your mouth. I think I've forgotten what warmth was.

Just outside the station are a group of well dressed attractive young women. Before any of them approach me, I catch a whiff of their perfume and automatically deduce what they are: perfume sales reps. One approaches me as I stuff a newspaper and magazine in my bag. I tell her I'm not interested and after a pause add "in anything". I know she's only doing her job, but I can't abide these pushy sales people. I especially can't abide how they wait at the exit of the station like brightly coloured fragrant herons ready to stab some frog just trying to make his way home - or write about Prague Metro Stations.

I follow the path around the bus depot. It passes outside a building with OZM. I try to guess what it could mean. The best I can come up with is obecné zemědělské ministrsvto, which would mean general agricultural ministry, except the Czechs probably wouldn't call it that. (It actually stands for Opravárenská základna metra - Metro Repair Workshop. ED.) (Wait. I don't have an editor. Ed is that you? RYAN) Apart from a canteen there doesn't seem to be much else of interest and it looks like I'll have to go back past the ladies with their perfume.

Except that I was too rash. On the other side of the bus depot is another footpath and it leads on down a road. I stop to survey the train tracks - the "Driver 8" video clip and boxcar fantasies playing in my mind. Those who know me well would say I would never have done that. I would have been too scared. And it's perhaps time to accept they're right.

From here it's just the disappointment of a long straight road. Not far away, I see a building where I used to teach. That must mean the Skalka metro stop is not faraway. Up ahead is road, so I'm sure I will not reach it. I will just follow this block around. Except the road does lead in the direction of Skalka. Two stations again? It seems a bit much. In the distance I see another cross road. I follow it to the end. If it's a cul de sac, I can continue and mazbe zig-zag my way to the station. It ends in a car park, so though I decide to continue on to Skalka, what I see there will have to wait for some other time.

However, I find this remarkable building there tucked away behind renovated factories and warehouses. I just wonder if the slanted floor ever becomes tiresome.

Sorry about the mullets.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Nové Butovice --> Hůrka

I always get a kick out of seeing the restricted sections of the train stations. They make me think of what is behind the scenes on film set. It fits nicely into a fear I had as a kid that life was just a TV program. The fear lasted until I was about five and school brought a new batch of worries – I also realized this was one of those things you didn't admit to. Colored perforated metal fins run along the station's ceiling, which is made from metal tiles. It accentuates the imaginary nature of the place . It's as though it will all be pulled apart and packed away in a box at any moment.

People are queuing outside the station. I don't think I can stay too long before I attract attention. I circle round once. In the distance a barren fields walls in the area. I grab a pear from the fruit stand and head to the other side of the station. I assume there will not be much to see today.

The path leads to a square from which ventilation pipes poke. On them are graffitied the names 'killer', 'bloods' and 'many'. I assume the guy meant 'money'. (It's a common spelling mistake, which I know from teaching.) Unless the person responsible thinks of himself as some type of collective. There is a crown above the name, so perhaps he refers to himself in the royal we.

The quiet is unsettling. It gives you an impression of a ghost town. A few families pass by, but there are moments when the only sounds I hear are my footsteps and the murmuring of my trouser legs as they rub against each other. It doesn't seem possible. I can see cars and people in the distance. Behind the square is a construction site. But, the noise remains distant, as though muffled by the silence. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It is 2:30pm in the afternoon.

I continue along the path. It leads to the next train station. Around me are The buildings are different styles of buildings, some old and cake shop beiges, browns and creams, some tall and licorice all-sort pastels, thers modern highest quality German steel grey. Across from here is a panelak, which looks like a faded and dirty work by Mondrian. I pass some high glass arches and through them see the train station Hůrka. Nové Butovice is still visible in the distance.

The name Hůrka, reminds me of a police officer, Sergent Hůrka. He would be overweight with floury white skin, and folds under his large long-suffering eyes. His rank doesn't mean much. He's happy not to have the responsibility or the compromise.

From Hůrka, the train tunnel appears out from the ground. A great metallic worm making a dash from one side to the other, but caught and pinned on the cement pylons. If I follow the worm I will be able get to the next station Lužiny.

The worm passes over a park with small lake. It's noisier here. Mostly kids' and dogs' names and the occasional siren. A Great Dane passes me. Its shoulder come up to my up waist. It ambles passed with the clumsy gait of all large dogs. Its head seems too large for it to control. The other dogs keep away.

The park becomes an open field on the other side of the worm. A dirt track has been worn through the grass. An old man and his grand daughter don't stick to it. This is the first time I've seen this here. People are usually careful not to walk on the grass. I can still hear sirens and a child releasing a gurgling cry. I kestrel screeches and I see it alight with tentative claws on a winter stripped branch. It expertly sheaths its wings while it surveys its hunting grounds from the perch.

Sgt. Hůrka wonders how the girl went missing. Not that there is anything to work out. He knows what happened. It's just he likes to punish himself by going over it.

The girl was bundled into a car. The people had grown used to ignoring screams – that was other people's business. Or it scattered them like pigeons. Someone claims they saw two Roma guys nearby. They could've been Roma the witness said after the second questioning. Everyone at the station knows they didn't do it. The description given were too generic. As soon as Hůrka heard them he imagined a sketch on the front of a newspaper. Plus the times didn't match. The witness said he saw them speaking to the girl at two when she was still at school. Funny the little details people don't think to check when making something up. A younger cop said that they should pin it on them any way. The station chief rubbed his lined head and said that they didn't even have the funds to scapegoat people. So, they would keep asking people questions, while the girl was already over two borders and somewhere where cops came even cheaper, along with guns and cameras and whatever else you needed.

After the first few days, when despite the training and experiences, cases like this still found the soft places under the armour, Hůrka after his second beer, and too tired to deny the truth, said that what they should do is get a list of every film studio, every film distributor and basically shut them down until they got some names. Hůrka was moved to another case the next day. He had only said this to one of the younger officers.

It didn't even happen in this park. But it was similar. Coming here won't bring him any closer to the answers. It just reminds Hůrka that he is no stronger than any other person. He looks up when the sirens whines past and like everyone else he wonders what could've happened.

I return to the worm and follow it up the embankment. The ground is soft and almost sucks the shoes from my feet. There's a cement path at the top which leads to the courtyard of a grey panelak. All around are old faded signs. I find it comforting, somehow more comforting because it's real. Up from the panelak I see the entrance to Lužiny. Unfortunately a road blocks my path. The entrance is only 150m away.

I return along the worm. When I reach the lake again I realise that I'm going around the lake clock-wise. I went around the lake clockwise earlier too. Two kids run past. One stops suddenly and calls out to the other that she's feeling sick. I assume she's got a stitch because she starts to wretch. Stitches are something I associate with childhood too.

Lt. Hůrka goes around in an anticlockwise direction. He's right-handed and he's never thought about which direction he heads. Right now he's thinking about his own daughter, and as soon as he thinks of her he thinks of all the things he disapproves of, her boyfriend, her studies, her music.

I cross the square down from Hůrka train station to another square. It is connected to the first square by a bridge and there is a small doorway at the entrance. I assume that the square had once been a church and this was from the original structure – or they wanted to suggest the original structure. It's like walking through an unfinished sketch. In the centre is a gazebo which resembles a basilica. Inside are painted ceramic reliefs. The images are all non-religious. A fox, a lamb, a crown, a tulip.

I cross the bridge back to the original square, where there is sea blue building which suitably resembles a submarine tower. There's a bell and intersecting pipes at the top. Only when I read the sign that I realise it's a church, Kostel sv. Prokopa. The intersecting pipes are a cross. Perhaps, the resemblance to a submarine was intentional as though they felt religion was a resurfacing.

Before heading up to Hůrka train station, I scan the are one last time. Lt. Hůrka is heading home to one of those perfect identical squares. He's opening a beer and waiting for his wife to come home so they can watch Star Dance.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Guy with the Pig Returns

I was pleased to see the guy with the pig outside my office today in Budějovická. The pig isn't some domesticated variety but a tame wild boar, though smaller. The pig was relieving itself in among the hedges by the road side, so I didn't take a picture.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Budějovická

I have the song "Living End" by the Jesus and Mary Chain in my head as I circle the hospital. At some point, it becomes their song from the Crow soundtrack, and I step in a puddle of icy water. Surprisingly, it snowed this morning. Most of it has melted by now. My shoes are water-proof, but they are low-cut, so while the water doesn't soak into the leather, it does dribble inside.

I return to the front of the hospital where I hope to see the guy with the pig. I saw him a few months ago on my way from work - I work near the station. A colleague said that there were quite a few clips of the guy with the pig on You Tube. He's not here today, though.

The guy with the pig is as you've guessed a guy who owns a pig, which he's known to walk in the vicinity of Budějovická. The one time I saw him, he seemed to be having some difficulty controlling the creature. To get it to go in the direction he wanted - or rather just to prevent it from going where he didn't want it to - he would stand, legs tight together, to block the pig's path. The pig would then scamper in another direction and he would run to ensure it didn't continue to far in the wrong way or worse, run out onto the street.

He's not going to appear any time soon, so I head underground. As I do, the guy who sells honey everyday at the top of escalator, says something to me which I don't catch. He seems to be speaking to me. It could be that he recognises me since I'm here twice a week.

To me, Budějovická feels like a city in a city - a collection of glass steel hives, with tunnels connecting them, and the almost endless flow of people. The main square is a depression, which only adds to the insularity. I often wonder if this was intentional or if they couldn't be bothered filling in the hole.

I'm looking down into it but then notice a phone shop and since I need to get a new one, I head inside. There a young people outside dressed as doctors handing out flyers. I tell them I'm going inside anyway. A woman inside, also in doctor get-up, offers me a gift. It's a badge advertising some service of theirs. How generous of them!

Though I know nothing about phones, I stoop over each one, deep in thought. This is to prevent any unwanted attention from the woman in the medical coat. When I get to the end of the line of products, I take a brochure, and also make a play of studying it. No one bothers me. They must be the most apathetic bunch of sales assistants I've encountered. Thank goodness!

I continue to study the brochure over lunch, which is filling but not great. The main reason I'm taking this seriously is that I'm considering getting the Internet with my phone. It will be quite useful for work. My current habit of buying second hand phones maybe a false economy.

Once I've finished lunch I go back to see if I can see the guy with the pig. He still hasn't made an appearance. Only the spring sky from yesterday has returned. I enjoy it for a moment then head off to get a coffee.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Křižíkova

This doesn't feel like Prague. Maybe it's the display of bongs in the shop window as I step out onto the small square. This feeling stays with me as I walk away. It could be the preponderance of Italian themed establishments. But none of it looks like Italy. Not even a little Italy.

A few doors down from these renovated places is an empty shell of a place. The floor boards have been ripped up to reveal the capacious cellar and pitch black tunnels underneath. Wouldn't that just be the perfect place to explore? But there are bars on the windows and no way in, so I peer inside one last time and continue.

It could be the light that lends the place this different character. I started this blog in autumn, so the days were shortening. My most recent trips have been mostly in darkness. Today, the remnants of a clear spring day linger above, suffusing the streets with crisp light. Friends have said to me that Prague makes more sense in the winter - and I certainly have that association. I guess we're all guilty of that Europe = cold generalisation. Then again I prefer Sydney in the winter too. I feel more secure under clouds.

At the corner of the first block there is quite a large cathedral. The entrance reminds me a little of Notre Dame with the three smooth arches and statues lining the top. Or is my memory playing tricks on me. I don't stay to ponder this for too long. I guy gives me a look as if to say, 'tourist'. I don't know the implications. It's enough to make me move on.

Around the corner there is a second hand store. In fact there are a few on this block. All most all second hand stores in the Czech Republic display the union jack, and most claim to stock English fashion. I was confused by this as first as I wasn't sure there existed any major English fashion labels. A student explained it to me that these stores buy the second hand clothes in Britain then sell them on here. So in fact it is second hand British clothing. Don't ask me what Czechs do with their old clothes? Stockpile them in their cottages perhaps.

There is also a second hand book store. It's in a courtyard in fact that's its name Antikvariát ve dvoře = Second hand book store in the Court Yard. It's near closing here. I go over to a stature of man on a bed, on which books are piled and take a picture.

I wonder if it's the boulevards which make this place feel so different. Prague isn't short of wide streets, but I do have a strong association with claustrophobia - yes, yes, too much Kafka. There's something about the place.

As is often the case when I do this, I buy something to eat. It's not that I'm a glutton, not much, it's just that the time coincides with dinner. I need a snack and so go to the bakery back at the station. One thing I've noticed is that most metro stops here have one.

I order two doughnuts but stop as I catch myself about to say "Dvakrát koblihy" (twice doughnuts) when the correct way should be "Dvakrát koblihu" (twice doughnut. I manage "dvakrát", stammer and the woman adds "kobliha" then stops speaking to me entirely. She doesn't even tell me the price. When I say goodbye she carries on speaking with the next customer. This is even rude by Prague standards.

It is around the second block that I realise I'm going in a clock-wise direction. There was no reason for this. There was no obstruction which forced me to do so. At the exit I could go either way. I mentally retrace my steps back to the metro and realise that I headed to my right. I only realise this because though I'm following the block I suddenly feel lost. For some reason, I'm sure I should cross the road, but apart from the rule that says I shouldn't, there's no logical need. As certain as I am that I must cross I continue. Once again retracing the journey in my head.

And I still can't work out why this place feels so different. Back at the square I spend sometime looking at the small goods shop. Partly it's from my love of salami. Partly,it's because the rows of salamis and the racks of wine are close to how I imagined Prague to be when in fact the small goods stores can sometimes appear quite surgical. Perhaps that's the source of the feeling - finding a place that has conformed more closely to my former expectations.

I'm startled away from the window by something large and black moving beside me. It's a man carrying a double bass on his back in a black case. He's dressed in black. He stopped for a moment to speak to someone but now waddles off like some great beetle.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Karlovo Náměstí

I was here on Friday by chance. Though I had decided not to do a post, I realised that I didn't have a ticket and got off here to get one. Since I was there, I considered having a walk around, but I was still suffering from the aforementioned commitments and decided to go straight home.

So I'm back. It might not be the best way to randomly chose a station - but the whole system has been random thus far, changing with each post. The first block I headed to was the one I was looking forward to the least. [It was only after that I realised I left the station in a counter-clockwise direction but continued in clockwise fashion once aboveground.] On the block is yet another shopping centre. All it offers is a little warmth. The arcade a couple of doors down is more my style: rounded shop windows, small tiles on the floor, a cukrána, sock shops and florists, among others - none of which are usurped by the architecture or lighting. I'd like to return.

On the other side of passage is a bakery crammed with food and people. I grab a couple of koblihas, Czech doughnuts, and head back outside. A rude blast of cold air bellows up the street. As soon as it's made its entrance, the sleet follows. Today, I cam prepared. We had sleet this morning, so I made sure to pack my umbrella.

You know what I miss most about home? The rain. It's not what people associate with Australia, least of all Perth. The picture postcard sunshine - the bone drying reality of the heat - but when it rains, it's rarely in half-measures. It isn't the spit of a disapproving crowd, which covers me now. It isn't sky sweat. It falls in ribbons; coils in pools; beats windows and roofs. That's if it rains.

The wind has all its teeth bared but I don§t mind and stop at the corner to look at the golden orbs atop the tower of the New Town Townhouse. They shine defiantly against the grey. People are running = partly for safety, but from the smiles on their faces, I'd also say to remember a younger time.

Icy flecks cling to my jacket like overlooked dandruff. I can't tell if that is a mother and daughter coming toward me - or two sisters. The younger of the two grips the older ones hand so trustingly. I come to the end of the path and turn around.

The rain and sleet clear when I get to the other side. I carry the umbrella like some drowned raven, which I feel compelled to bury. (I didn't drown it.) There is one thing I know here. It's the great mud grey tree near the centre, split in two to reveal its blackened middle. The tree is a historical landmark, literally a memorial tree (památný strom). I like that a tree can be part of the cultural landscape as much as the natural. Individual trees are at times mentioned on maps. They are monuments along with the chapels and castle ruins. Maybe, it goes against nature that we preserve those things.

I call G. to find out the significance of the tree. It's been a while since she's made an appearance in the blog. Not that she minds. I can't reach her. We've been playing phone tag all day. I flip my phone closed and continue to wonder what the significance of the tree is. Perhaps someone was crowned there - or killed. I head to other side of the square to see the orbs one more time.

While passing back through the station, I remember the layout above to determine which exit I need. It's then that I become aware of the road above. It seems to me that the plastic ceiling strips are all that support traffic. I wonder if they will hold and hurry out.

I've never been to the second side of the square before, so I've never appreciated its size. It's still hard to imagine that this is the biggest square in the Czech Republic. It's twice the size of Wencelas Square. Wencelas is noticeably longer, 172m longer in fact. But Karlovo Náměstí is over twice as wide, 130m versus 60m. The roads have diminished its scale. There are more dogs over here.

While walking around [Yes, in a counter-clockwise direction] I find some graffiti on a bench. When I get around to translating it it seems to be about a woman (in Czech it's possible to tell from the inflection of the past tense) who has had a shoe stolen. I won't bother transcribing it. Instead I head back to the arcade and to the cukrárna for a Turkish coffee. When I sit down, I madly search my bag for my pen. I think it's fallen through the hole in my bag until I realise it is wedged at the bottom of my pocket. Now I can start writing.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Apologies for the Inconvenience

Due to commitments professional and social, I won't be doing a regular post today. Please, try again Monday evening(GMT).

If you're a newcomer, feel free to check out the older posts. The invitation for others to submit their experiences of Prague metro stops still stands. Send anecdotes, stories, photos, sketches and or poems to closely_observed@hotmail.com. I'll put up what I like.

In the meantime, please enjoy this new project I'm doing with my good friends Tim and Vanessa.

Saturday, 28 February 2009

Smíchovské nádraží

It starts to rain as soon as I get to the station - a light spring rain. This feeling is emphasized by the unseasonal warmth and the urban humidity. I don't have as much time today because I'm going to the cinema. It's a pity because Smíchovské nádraží proves to have a lot more to explore than I first thought.

My first mission is to find an ATM. I figure that way I won't have to leave so early. Though the concourse is filled with shops, there isn't a dispenser, so I give up and decide to follow the sign to the second hand bookstore. I can't say that my Czech is so good that I can freely browse, but I might find something to add to the 'I will read this when my Czech is better pile'. It's already getting a little large.

The store is crammed into a space usually reserved for občerstvenís. It's not so much a shop as a great disorderly stack of books, which the shop owner has borrowed into, making just enough space for his desk and one customer at a time. There is a copy of de Sade in Czech and just above it a Rod Stewart album. The rest are unfamiliar English authors in translation and some textbooks. I continue around the building. I consider taking the bridge but decide to go to the park.

This area is probably what some people think of when they want the 'authentic' experience of Prague, dilapidated turn-of-the-century blocks, lines of pubs, few tourists. Only one building has been renovated and it is literally tarted up with hot pink window frames and a blushing rouge paint job. A man passes me speaking into his mobile phone. He gesticulates as though his interlocutor were there in front of him. If I continue down this foot path I will get to Anděl and I would like to see more of the station.

As I pass again through the park, I notice some people speaking behind me. It's a group of four guys in hip-hop gear. I quicken my pace a bit. I'm not proud of this, nor am I proud to admit it. I don't want to give further credence to the already pervasive mistrust out there. But it is how I react, and this reaction leads me away from the bridge I wanted to cross and back to the station. I had a knife pulled on me on a bridge in East Perth. That memory is all that's going through my mind. My steps flash underneath me. I don't slow down until I'm back at the station and I see that the guys had stopped long ago to chat.

From this side I can go down to the metro platform. Around the corner, I find an ATM hidden behind a station controller's office. At least now I can see more of the station. I even have time to go and check out the platforms - but first I'm going to head back to the bridge. I can't exactly admit to the guys that I thought they were going to rob me, but at least I don't have to behave like a total fool.

The bridge leads to a sparsely developed part of Prague. There are blocks and flats, but behind them the land is bunched up into smooth hills. On top of one is a house a friend once pointed out when we were on the other side of the river, looking down from Vyšehrad. He said that no one knows what the house is for, but when a student of his tried to walk up the hill he was turned away. It is possible to make out radar dishes at the front - though that could just mean the occupants have good TV reception and don't welcome trespassers. I could walk to Anděl from here too, but there's something I want to see.

I've taken trains from here a few times. Almost as soon as you leave the station you see two sculptures of cars, which look as though they have been molded from resin and then pinned with giant stakes to the factory wall and left to dry, so that their bodies are now stretched. Unfortunately, through all the overhead wires the two forms only resemble red blobs among the grey brown walls. And I've got to go if I'm going to make my movie.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Náměstí Míru

An early post and I'm not exactly at the station either: I'm in a café across from the square. I'm not going to be here on Friday and since I had to pick up a book and meet some friends in the area, I thought I'd do my post.

In case you're wondering, the book is a collection of Isaac Asimov short stories. Lately, I've found myself returning to the interests of my youth: sci-fi, comics, the Cure. I guess it has something to do with being over thirty. I'm meant to be going to a cocktail bar with my friends. I haven't had a cocktail in about six years.

Outside the café is a wonderful winter urban scene. People shuffle in their coats, or run for the trams. A guy is getting a hot dog (párek v rohlíku) from the občerstvení. The statue of the small girl reaching for a dove glistens softly. It looks as if she was suddenly frozen while playing. Above, the cathedral sits pompously. There's a crust of fresh snow protecting the ground.

Because the days are now longer, the scene is suffused with a blue grey light. Perhaps this is what lends the view its levity. I'm ashamed to say that I've never adapted to the shorter winter days. I understand the physiological explanation. But when I was young I loved the night. I always felt more active, more alive. Insomnia was just another word for a reversed sleeping pattern. Here, I've found I actually crave sunlight. I know, physiology you say again.

I'm only a block away from I.P. Pavlova, named after Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, he of the famous dogs. Náměstí Míru, meaning Peace Square, has the same inner city atmosphere, but the distinctions I mentioned in my last post are born out here. It's as if the classes have followed the metro line as it borrows underneath. Beyond the square, a variety of rather swish looking restaurants glow invitingly. That, of course, is a superficial impression. The food could be rubbish.

Jesus, I just had a shock. A man leant his skis against the window. The skis are in a bright yellow carry case with a draw string opening. It is a little too long for the skis. I thought someone was dragging an amputated arm across the window, the yellow sleeve dangling loose.

Not only was I wrong about the arm. I'm wrong about the owner of the skis. It's in fact a young girl. I can now see as she boards a tram.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

I.P. Pavlova

This is even more random than usual. I had meant to go to Nové Butovice, but since I don't have enough time before work, I'm getting out here. Yeah, this is another morning post and I.P. Pavlova is the closest station to where I realise how much time I've got to write it.

I wasn't sure about doing this place. I didn't think I'd be able to do justice to its vibe and bustle. Like Anděl, it has a down town feel. At the same time, it looks a bit more upmarket. The buildings are more gentrified, the people have that young professional sense of purpose; there's a hip record store around the corner and a place called "u Džoudého" literally "at Jodie's" where people can seek succour in a variety of brass trinkets, incense sticks and meditation CDs. Anděl might have the Smíchov shopping centre. But off the main drag, its working class blocks back.

No wonder an American friend of mine chooses to live near Ípák (Ee-park), as Praguers call this station. It suits his night-owl life style. There's a late night café around the corner, and if he needs to take his dog for a walk, he's not short of sights and scenes in the wee hours. This morning it's no less sedate, maybe just a bit more commonplace.

This is probably a good as time as any to mention my observation about class and the Czech metro, something else I've been postponing. [*********WARNING GENERALISATION ALERT*********] It struck me from the moment I arrived in the Czech Republic, and while there are exceptions, the three lines A, B and C seem to service the suburbs of the upper class, working class and middle class respectively. This is no surprise as social classes do tend to congregate in certain suburbs. With a freer property market, it's expected the wealthy will choose the leafy picturesque historical centre while the incomes of the working people are going to limit them to the rent controlled panleláks on the periphery. The train stations don't impose this divide. What's noticeable is the way the metro stations and the trains reflect this, especially strange since most of the stations were built under communism, when the country was meant to be 'classless'.

As I've mentioned in a previous post, that the A line stations are the most aesthetically pleasing with their oft-photographed dimpled anodized panels. I've never seen anyone take a photo the stations on line B. Moreover, until recently, line B has always had the older trains, Line A the newer ones and Line C a mixture, though with more newer ones. Line C also has the greatest number of shopping centres which is something I associate more with middle-class and suburban living, though I assume their presence is more due to the wealth in their surroundings than some town planners scheme to segregate the city.

There are exceptions to the class character. The opulent cathedral of spending at Náměstí Míru, which is found on line B, seems to be aimed at the wealthy. Florenc on line B and C is not far from the working class area of Žižkov. Skalka on line A is indistinguishable from other suburbs. Despite these examples, the stations do generally have these characteristics, something I reflect on as I turn the corner, the domes of the National Museum poking over the top. A block away was the scene of the Prague Uprising. I hope to get there one of these weeks.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Derailment

Just a couple of things. Firstly, I was wrong about the factory in my Kolbenova post. What I thought was factory is in fact a flea market. Prague's biggest no less. I wish it had been open when I arrived.

Regarding the delay of posts, I think this will be a permanent. Though I visit the stations on Friday, other commitments mean that I don't have time until Saturday. If you are a regular reader, check Saturdays.

Hradčanská

Just above the station, stuck to the charmless faux-marble façade of the office block, are four Styrofoam sculptures. Here as in other parts of Prague, the local municipality has left them. Maybe they like them as much as I do.

The stateliness of the area strikes you immediately. The Spanish embassy is across the road. There's a Japanese Restaurant up ahead. The homes have angled balconies and reliefs of cherubs and grapes. People are walking dogs. Whether large or small they convey the leisurely lives of their owners - these are people who have time to indulge such demanding pets. Unless of course, all these people are professional dog-walkers.

The houses are a mix of the renovated and run-down. On one ground floor is a vast open plan architectural office filled with people whose laid-back poses are belied by their wide-eyed expressions. It's Friday afternoon after all. A couple of doors up there's a winter garden crammed with old broken furniture. The window frames are split and peeling. I wish I could live there.

On a street lamp is a poster for a Roma music night. It's in English which is not entirely surprising. It is not only because of the pervasiveness of the language. The evening is probably aimed more at the tourists. Czechs are quite well-known for their prejudice against Roma people.

As I get to the end of the block, a couple of police officers arrive to speak with a man, who until this point has been chatting to a barman from the corner pub. The matter is probably trivial but that they arrived in a large police van seems excessive. Unfortunately, the menu on the pub is too far away for me to eavesdrop so I keep heading round the block and wonder what it was about.

Surprisingly,I find a traditional Chinese medicine store. Not that I've been looking, but they are so common back home, it is only seeing this that made me realise how uncommon they are here. The sign is in Czech, so it's not for the expats. This shouldn't be so surprising. I would say that Czech people have the same fascination and misconception of Asian cultures as most Europeans.

At the very end of the block is a typical, though thankfully not traditional,Czech pub. They have Lobkowicz on tap a beer I've wanted to try since I taught someone whose claim to fame was that he once worked for the house of Lobkowicz when they returned to the Czech Republic.

I've lived here for a while and I've visited many pubs and consumed enough beer to drown any number of large mammals, but I've never attempted a review of a beer. So if you will please indulge me just this once...

"The Lobkowicz lager, 11 degrees, has a malty taste with a slight honey finish. It's not as crisp as a Pilsener Urquell nor as sweet and effervescent as a Budvar. (I mean the Czech Budvar.) However, the sugar content is enough that it leaves a sour after-taste which detracts from the initial pleasure. I don't think I'll be going out of my way to have one again."

...I know what you're thinking. I should just stick to drinking the stuff.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Národní Třída

This station is deep. One of the deepest in the Prague Metro System. During the Prague floods of 2002, it was submerged. But I never have that sense of going underwater when entering. Just a sense of vertigo on the long steep escalators when I leave.

When I first came to this station a little over five years ago, the few Russian words I learnt in history came in useful. I remembered the 'narodniks' were the populists in the nineteenth century Russia. Seeing as there was also a 'narodní divadlo', it was easy to surmise that the word meant 'national'. It was my second day on the mean streets of Prague and I was already learning.

It would be wrong to assume that cognates can always help. This confusion was exploited in the movie Kolja, by Jan Svěrák. In the film, the boy, Kolja, points to the Soviet flag and says 'Ours is red.' The Russian for 'red' sounds exactly like the Czech for 'beautiful'. Zdeněk Svěrák's character assumes Kolja is commenting on the aesthetics of the two flags and promptly chastises him, telling him that the Soviet flag is red like a pair of underpants.

I buy a blueberry pancake and and Turkish coffee. While I'm eating at the counter beside the stall, the woman who served me continues to chat with the store owner from the adjacent stall. They speak in Russian. Their half-intelligible words remove me from this place, and I can delight in the incomprehensibility and just enjoy the sounds.

In the summer there are fruit and veg stalls here, at least as far as I remember. The wasps buzz from the split weeping fruit and dive-bomb any unguarded drinks. Today, it's just the buzz of the commuters and shoppers. There is a shopping centre here too. They have display for Valentine's Day with love hearts that read 'Miluji tě'. I'm not going in. I think I've covered that topic enough.

A man joins me at the counter. He has a lunch time beer. He notices me writing and so turns away. He finishes his beer in a second mouthful and he walks off. There's a couple at the end of the counter chatting and smoking strong foul smelling cigarettes. The man tells someone on his mobile telephone that they are at Naměstí Míru. The woman he's with corrects him and says that they are at 'Národní třída'.

A family arrive at the pancake stand. The two women stop chatting. The second goes back to her stall. The little girl wants a strawberry pancake. The lanky teenage son wants a cola. The cold has made my Turkish coffee drinkable.

It's not the Turkish coffee I know from home. It's not prepared in a small pot held gingerly over a flame. It's ground coffee, over which boiling water has been poured. It's better than instant. The trick is to wait until the mound of granules on the top has settled. But you always get a few grains in your mouth.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Kolbenova

Sometimes this place gets to me - the unfriendly commuters crammed around me, the faux-American teens squawking and chirping, the indifference, the insularity, the parochialism, the fact that this is just like anywhere else. Perhaps it's the cold I've had since Opatov. All week I've waited for this moment to climb into my looking glass which protects as much as it reveals. But Kolbenova was, perhaps, not the best place to take it.

The platform is decked out in blue acrylic panels favoured by a second rate installation artist. The upper concourse would be his/her aluminium period. The front completes the conceptual art motif. The name KOLBENOVA is stencilled on the glass like a text based art piece where some word has outgrown its referent and means only itself. KOLBENOVA - I imagine some solitary misunderstood woman. A woman who struggled and the more she struggled the more she resented until she just turned away from the world and denied it her gifts.

But the station doesn't offer as much as the name. Across the road is a factory rimmed by a covered walkway which connects to an overpass leading to the factory's extension behind the station. But I can't go inside. The only place I can go is a supermarket.

I feel in need of some spontaneity. A concert maybe, or an exhibition so something. But the most daring act I'm capable of today is to splurge on some anchovies, duck-liver pate and sun-dried tomatoes to go with the wine I plan to drink while listening to Mingus.

Sometimes Prague can surprise me. Sometimes it can have me in awe. Then there are days like today when it just crowds around me.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Ládví

The air is damp and heavy. All around it smells like yeast and the snow looks like mashed potato left to congeal overnight. At least it's warm enough for me to walk around.

First of all, I'm going to return my library book. On the way, I pass a poster for Karel Plíhal. I need to look into getting tickets.

The library is shut when I arrive. I've only got myself to blame. If I hadn't gone to the wrong platform at Staroměstská I wouldn't have headed in the wrong direction. I would've just made it. I guess even experience with the metro system doesn't prevent these bouts of confusion.

I'm a little disappointed because I wanted to write about the Ďáblice branch. I was there before Christmas and it reminded me of the suburban libraries from home. New thin legged shelves housing an eclectic mix of classics, airport fodder and rarities. I'm not even able to negotiate with the librarian to let me return the book. I'll have to come back next week.

So instead of the library, there are shops. Lots of shops, bakeries, newsagents, a clothes shop, supermarket and the Czech equivalent of a two-dollar store. There's also a cinema and the ubiquitous herna bars. I opt for the two-dollar store. Except here, they are 39Kč stores, which is a bit more than two US dollars and about $3.50 AUD, though the latter rate may change by the end of the week.

I set myself a task. I'm going to buy the coolest and simultaneously most useless item I can find for 39Kč. When I go in, I observe the custom of always taking a basket and start down the aisles. I'm not the only man here. However, I am the only man under sixty.

The first aisle is stocked with rag-in-waiting brightly coloured clothing, so I don't linger long. Fluorescent undies are useless, but not all that cool. The next aisle shows some potential. There are penguin shaped picture hooks, balls of yarn and novelty safety scissors to name a few. I inspecta packet of scissors in my hand then put it back. A shop keeper eyes me suspiciously.

The back of the store is full of knick knacks and toys. There are some serious contenders here. Sad-eyed statues of dogs, each with a concave back. I can't work out what's meant to fit there. Below them, I find tiny wooden houses with a nylon loop at the top. Christmas decorations? Bird feeders? They have a wind-up dinosaur and I do like toy dinosaurs. But it seems to soon to put it in the basket.

The third aisle is footwear. And not all of it is 39Kč. Not even the slippers. I need new house slippers (We follow the Czech custom of removing shoes at home.), but I did say it should be useless. And they are 59Kč. Stuff it. I've been meaning to buy them for a while and I'll probably forget. In they go.

There's nothing else here, so I head to the last section, which at first is just rows of shampoos and cleaning products. I'm mistaken, there are small Chinese dragon statues, and salt and pepper shakers, oil pots and then I see it. And as soon as I see it, I know it has to be mine. This is to be my purchase.



It's obviously cool and undeniably useless. A soft boiled egg requires three minutes to cook properly. This timer only goes up to a minute. What's more, the egg design is in keeping with my chicken shaped egg cup I got in Leipzig.

As I pay I succumb to my second non-39Kč purchase. They have hip flasks for half the price I've seen elsewhere. And these ones aren't emblazoned with the logo of some distillery, so I grab one too. Quite a successful trip all round.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Opatov

Even more of the landscape has been rubbed out by the snow. The fields on both sides of the station are plain white sheets, except for the cigarette butts and other city detritus.

One of the things I love about snow is - when there's enough of it - that the built environment becomes blurred. The edges between the natural and artificial are not so distinct. Cars can't just glide over the top. Bins and benches become tiered mounds. Stairs meld into the slopes. Everything is subsumed in landscape.

The other thing I enjoy, and the two kids out on the field are getting into this already, is that the world becomes a vast playground. Slopes are for tobogganing. Snowball fights can break out anywhere. You can sculpt or just throw yourself down and make a snow angel.

The field is fringed by feathery frosty trees or branches of bony white ice or what can only be described as chandeliers for an apocalyptic ball. Only the cars mark where the field ends. A woman asks if this is where she can catch a bus from. I tell her she has to go to the flyover. She remains convinced that I don't know.

I shouldn't be out here. I'm on to my third cold for the winter. I have a little heartburn from all the juice and anti-flu pills I've been knocking back. At least, I don't feel sleepy. But I could do with somewhere warm and so head back to the restaurant between the platform and the flyover. It's all windows, so it will be a good place to people-watch.

It's the usual mix of students, office workers, retirees and people ready for the weekend. The restaurant itself is quiet. I slurp down my salty gulášová and try to casually take notes . A large skin-head type glances over at me a few times. When he's done he places his dishes on the trolley provided and leaves.

On the other side of the restaurant is a large fibreglass croissant which looks more like some giant jaundiced insect larva. I decide to get a small donut to go with my coffee instead. Apart from the sickly grub, there are posters advertising the different foods here.

Perhaps, I'm missing something but most of them seem either quite prosaic, e.g the ad for a hot dog reads 'Vezmi si něco na cestu...'(Take something for the trip...). Otherwise, they are a little didactic like this one for salad: Každá spálená energie se musí dobít (All spent energy must be replenished.) The only attempt at a pun is ...oslaď si život (...sweeten up your life) which advertises a cinnamon swirl.

This quite dry approach I find surprising as the Czech slogan for their EU presidency is "Evropě to osládíme" which literally means "We will sweeten Europe." Innocent enough, but the actual meaning is more like "We will give Europe a taste of its own medicine" or "Europe will get its just desserts". Witty but it doesn't exactly inspire confidence.