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


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.


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.