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


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


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


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.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Normal Services...

will resume on Friday 9th of January. In the meantime, please enjoy this fine musical selection.