Sunday, 30 November 2014

At Few Random Thoughts from a Not-so-Newbie...

Dobrý den (hello) from Prague...

Just in case you thought I'd gone home, I can assure you I'm still here and still on the look out for interesting things to entrall you with. In some ways I think it's a good sign that my posts are starting to become more spaced out, because it means the I'm beginning to settle down and become more comfortable in my new environment.

While it's true I am becoming more settled, my excuse for not posting more frequently is simply that I've been so busy. My day job is ramping up rapidly and my the last couple of weekends have been fully booked. On one I went home, and on the second, my girlfriend Melina, came over from the UK to stay.

Anyhow, here are a few random thoughts that have occured to me since my last post...
  • Winter is probably not the best time to start a new life in Prague, whether temporary or permanent. It's now approaching the end of November, and not only are the temperatures declining, the days are getting seriously shorter. When my alarm goes off at 6:00am it's pitch black outside, and the light is starting to fail by 4:00pm. Although this is common to people living in the Northern Hemisphere, the downside of this in Prague is that it really isn't condusive to finding your way around, especially in the Old Town, where all the streets look the same in daylight never mind the dark. So, when Mel and I went off to play at being tourists last weekend we actually looked very convincing - mainly because I kept getting lost and had us walking around in circles. Indeed quite large circles. Several times
  • However, with it being winter, it's time for the Christmas markets that Prague is famous for. It is impossible not to feel a little glow in side as I walk through the little market in Námēstí Miru on my way home in the evening
  • There are still some things that take some getting used to in the Czech Republic. One of the strangest is the currency. The smallest legal tender coin in circulation is the 1 crown coin. But, almost without exception, goods and services are charged with fractions of a crown in the price. Actual prices are rounded up or down to the nearest crown. I'm not sure who the winner is here, and I'm not so anally retentive that I'm going to sit down and try and work out my P&L over the last 7 weeks!
  • Going to the post office to buy a stamp is not recommended. When you get to the entrance there is a machine with a large number of buttons on it. Pressing a button issues you a numbered ticket for the service you want, and when your number comes up you go to the appropriate service portal. Of the ten or so option buttons, not one had any words that vaguely resembled my phrasebook's word for stamp - and as it was a busy lunchtime I decided to beat a retreat. You can buy stamps at many of the kiosks in and around Metro stations (13CZK) with a lot less hassle!
  • Despite living largely on a diet of meat, dumplings and vast quantities of beer you don't see that many obese Czech men around the place, and even fewer obese Czech women. Unlike the lardies in the UK...
  • Jaywalking is illegal in the Czech Republic, but only if you get caught. So don't do it while there's a policeman watching!
  • Don't argue with trams. You have the legal right of way on a pedestrian crossing, except when a tram is approaching - and they are a lot bigger, faster and heavier than you!
  • It's definitely worth passing through one of the little local Christmas markets on your way home from work in the evening and sample a shot of local Medovina - a hot, spicy mead that will help take your mind off the cold!

Until next time...

Na zdraví (cheers)!

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Supermarket Sweeps

At the end of this week, I'll have been in Prague for a month. It is amazing how quickly four weeks have gone past, and how dramatically the tide of emotions has ebbed and flowed. I always difficult to establish a routine when I first start living abroad. Sadly it can't be put down to jet lag - it's a 'me' problem.

There's simply so much stuff to get used to - at the macro level you have to deal with the newness of the living environment, the work environment, and the cultural environment. At the micro level there's the currency, the transport networks, the language, finding your way around, the food, and the shopping experience as a whole.

So unfortunately the whole concept of a Bohemian lifestyle has to take second place to the realities of the mundane. Grocery shopping is the most challenging of the mundane activities! At home you know where to go for what, even to the extent of generally even knowing which aisle to head for when looking for specific commodities.

Prague isn't short of grocery shops. Quite the opposite. On my street in Vinohrady, there are at least a dozen mini-markets, ranging from cramped, stacked and dingy to cramped, stacked and well lit. These are all little independent shops, mostly run by Vietnamese immigrants, with an extraordinary work ethic. They open at the crack of dawn and close late into the night. They have the freshest vegetables and fruit, and stock a wide range of exotic and not so exotic foodstuffs. And racks and racks of booze! Choosing between them is impossible so I use them all - and if I can't find something in one I move onto the next one. I maybe misguided in my approach - they are probably all owned by the Vietnamese mafia!

The local Czech run stores, or Potraviny, follow a similar pattern. They all stock pretty much the same stuff, it's just easier to find in some shops than in others.

There are some megastores around - there's an InterSpar across the road from the office and a Tesco supermarket near the Mustek metro station which sprawls over five floors. And then of course there is the M&S food section in their shop in Wenceslas Square.

But the real problem is universal. In Zurich, I got by because, although I don't speak German, my French and Italian was good enough. But here in Prague, being unable to speak or read the language, I am totally reliant on the pictures on the labels. OK, M&S is an exception as all their foodstuffs are imported and have Czech stickers plastered all over them, and that big Tesco does have a few brands I recognise. But familiar brands often get renamed in different countries, so sometimes buying groceries is a bit of a lottery - and the little stores pretty much only stock Czech brands.

So far so good. I'm beginning to get a grasp of which yoghourts are the creamiest, which are the most delicate crips, and which cold meats, local cheeses and sausages taste the best.

But that's part of the adventure and the learning curve - and going four weeks without poisoning myself makes me believe I might just live through this whole new experience!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

My Top Five Likes and Dislikes After A Week in Prague

About this time last week I had just arrived in Prague, ready and eager to start my new great adventure. My mind was racing with an equal mixture of excitement and trepidation, knowns and unknowns,  and served up with a side order of cockiness and humility.

As a seasoned traveller and having already been through the expat experience on several occasions I had some ideas of what to expect – but then again I had absolutely no idea about what not to expect in this specific instance.

But a week is a long time, and in seven days I’m already strutting around the streets of Prague like an old timer. And I’ve been here long enough to be able to share my top five likes and dislikes (not in any significant order).


  • Despite the supermarkets, mini-markets and drugstores being full of men’s toiletry products it appears that at least half the male population that uses the metro either doesn’t understand what they are or don’t know how to use them!
  • I find it desperately sad that beautiful cities around the world are subject to such pernicious vandalism in the form of graffiti. OK, Oslo and Zurich aren’t renowned for their architectural grandeur but they are thought of as being clean and wholesome cities and I was shocked at the levels of graffiti in both places. Prague is a magnificent mediaeval city which has also been subjected to acute attacks of mindless, artless aerosol abuse
  • Cobbles and tramlines are a lethal combination, especially in the rain! And doggie-doo doesn't help - pooper scoopers haven't yet made it this far

  • Bus and tram stops are a nightmare with regard to people milling about aimlessly waiting for the next bus or tram to come along. As a pedestrian you have no choice other than to put your head down and charge through the throng!
  • The sheer volume of people in the old town square and on the Charles Bridge is unbelievable. At three o'clock on last Saturday afternoon the area around the Astrological Clock was busier than Oxford Street on Christmas Eve (pre-recession!)


  • It seems that wherever you go in Prague, the Palace and Cathedral are watching over you. The office is about three miles outside the centre of town but you can still see these awesome buildings across the skyline. My flat is also across the other side of town, but from the top of the hill there's a great view. It all adds to the sense that you're in a city where history is engrained in the fabric of the buildings.

  • Beer and food are undeniably good value – a decent pub lunch of a meat and potato dish with a half-litre of budvar budweisser will cost less than a fiver. The food is filling, the beer is refreshing and the wallet is grateful
  • Despite what I'd read about the Czech people being surly and abrupt, especially in shops, I've found that I've been treated with patience, courtesy and usually a wry smile when they find out I'm a stupid foreigner. It's true, even trying a little Czech lingo seems to be appreciated.
  • Much of the new town is very open and grand - great sweeping boulevards with lots of green spaces. Great in good weather, but no so good in the rain!
  • There are a lot of beautiful people here - I was struck at how classy the ladies were in Zurich, but given the average salary there is probably twenty times that in Prague, these girls really know how to look good on a budget! 
It'll be interesting to revisit this list in two or three months time, especially when winter arrives and when I've become a genuine old-timer! And if you've spent any proper time here (not including stag/hen parties) how does my list compare to yours? 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Halfway Through Week One - Putting the Pieces Together

They say that moving house is one of the most stressful activities the we endure (along with getting married and dying). So moving overseas (to a country where the language is unintelligable and unreadable to all but a few) completely alone and at the begnning of winter must rate up there alongside discovering while you are on your deathbed that your best friend has eloped get hitched to your long term fiancee.

But as I intimated in my previous post, it is a necessary evil if you really want to feel liberated and unfettered by suitcases and hotel checking out times. So it was with a mixed feeling of excitement and trepidation that I left the relative security of the Máchova Hotel on Sunday morning to take custodianship of the keys to the apartment on Francouská.

I trundled up the cobbled street with two thirds of my luggage and got the flat at the same time as the agent. A good start. The omens were looking good. Security certainly wasn't going to be an issue - a red key to get through the street facing door. A yellow key to get into the courtyard, and a green key to get into the actual apartment block. Then there's the key to the actual apartment. Deterrent to any casual cat burglars, but I wonder how easy it's going to be to get into Fort Knox after a night on the town.

To be fair to the agents, the place looked just like the photos - they weren't trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. It's a good size, 48 square metres, or twice the size of the Pent-Flat in Zurich (and 8 times the size of the Pent-Room), but this has separate living and bedrooms. Almost everything was as described - with the notable exception of the electric oven. There is a microwave as expected, but it isn't a combination cooker or even a grill. There are four hobs - one of those fancy flat induction units which is a doodle to clean. There's a big fridge with an ice box, a kettle and that's it. I guess the kitchen(ette) is designed with the Czech diet in mind - fried meat and potatoes! It is an infinite improvement on the original Zurich Pent-Room, but the Pent-Flat was superior in that arena.

The bedroom is uncluttered but comfortable, and the living room is fine to sprawl out in and fall asleep in front of the TV - an 'old' square Grundig - no HD, but there is a cable box which gives me access to 19 channels which I can understand. That should be enough to keep me company and stop me from talking to myself for too long at a time. But a shame I can't rig up the Apple TV.

I've got the laptop set up on one side of the dining table where it works well. There's a pretty good WiFi connection but I wouldn't want to download many HD movies through it! It's easy to forget how lucky I am at home with 157 TV channels and 152Mbps internet connection.

But - of course there are some 'buts' - the kitchen has clearly never been used to cook anything more than hot water. The knives are blunt, there isn't a saucepan lid in the house, nor any microwave proof cooking vessels, not even a potato peeler. No strainer, no wooden spoon, no measuring jug.

And the biggest 'but' of all - the boiler keeps conking out on me. I first noticed when I went for a shower on Monday morning (luckily I wasn't needed at work until lunchtime). Instead of the piping hot shower I was expecting, the water seemed to have come straight from the Vlatava. It was clean but freezing. It took a moment or two to dawn that there was a red light flashing on the boiler. Anyhow, I pushed the RESET button and lo and behold a hot shower. With paranoid tendencies. What happens if the boiler fails again and I've got a head full of shampoo and suds?

And so it has been for the last 24 hours - red light flashes, reset boiler, boiler works, worry about boiling failing, boiler fails, reset boiler...

Prague is warmer than Kegworth at the moment - so I can do without heat - but I can't manage without hot water. The periods of a functioning boiler are getting longer so I'm hoping it's nothing more than a hiccup and not something more serious. Although the agents are there to deal with exactly this sort of issue, and I have no doubt that they are up to the job. (UPDATE: It's now 24 hours since I originally drafted this post, and the boiler has been up and running throughout. It clearly just needed some TLC!)

And I fixed the other 'but' at lunchtime yesterday when I found the Czech equivalent of Habitat down the road from the office. I still can't make toast, but my fried meat and potatoes is going to be a heck of a lot easier to prepare and cook from now on!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Days Zero and One - The Newbie Has Landed

After what has seemed like an eternity, but in reality has been exactly nine weeks, I landed at Václav Havel Prague Airport just after dark last night. Nine weeks ago I got the first phone call about a possible six month contract for a pharmaceutical giant who were setting up an IT services group at their Prague hub and my experience in Quality Management appeared to be an excellent fit.

Having spent quite a lot of the last five years working abroad, firstly for six months in Oslo and then for nearly two years in Zurich, I wasn’t overkeen on the idea of packing my bags once again, but I politely acknowledged their interest and agreed to take it further. The money I’d earned over the summer in London wasn’t going to last forever after all. But after three telephone interviews, they made me an offer I couldn’t really refuse, and so it was ‘once more unto the breach’ so to speak.

It helped that I’d been to Prague before - three times actually, and all on business. I knew how beautiful the city was, and that even now, some ten years later, the cost of living was still comparatively cheap (especially compared to Oslo and Zurich!). Strictly speaking the last time I was here was when I presented at a conference and we never left the out-of-town hotel during the four day proceedings and everything except extra beer was included.

So, once I’d got written confirmation, I booked some flights (based on a three month stint initially so I’d be home for Christmas), bought some upto date guidebooks and read Me, Myself & Prague by Rachael Weiss from cover to cover in two nights. But it was too late to pull out now!

The biggest problem with these long stays away is finding somewhere to live. Hotels are out for anything longer than two weeks (two days in my case) so one needs to rent a flat. Location might be important, but it has to be balanced with cost, facilities and just how right the apartment looks. Given past experience I like to get everything arranged up front which means I am completely reliant on the honesty of the real estate brokers.

I was given the details of a reliable agency by a former colleague who lived here for six years, and we started the process. It took four or five days, a few false starts and a couple of disappointments but eventually we found somewhere that ticked all my boxes. We’ll find out tomorrow morning whether it pushes all my buttons as well, but fingers crossed. I’ve had to stay in a hotel for a couple of nights before the flat becomes available but I picked somewhere a few hundred yards down the road so that I could suss out the area. And I feel I have chosen reasonably. Prague 2 is close enough to town and my new workplace to be able to walk on a good day, but also easily accessible by public transport when necessary (or desireable).

There are plenty of little mini-marts, bars and restaurants dotted around, and it’s a fairly quiet part of town, away from the mainstream tourist traps.

My flight landed twenty five minutes early last night, a fact unbeknown to the pre-booked taxi driver who arrived ten minutes after I emerged from arrivals. But he did show up, and I was in my hotel room by eight. I went out briefly to stretch my legs and suss out the lie of the land, but since it had been dark for two hours already I didn’t really see too much - especially through the fog. I peered through the front door glass of my apartment block and it looked clean and well looked after.

After a few stressful days and nights thinking about everything I needed to get done, get packed and get ready, I was really looking forward to a good night’s sleep. The sandman had other ideas however, and clearly didn’t want my company. The hotel room was like an oven and the only air-con was the window. However, opening the window had the effect of filling the room with the sound of a small group of disembodied male voices from somewhere in the vicinity - and boy could those guys talk. They were still talking at five o’clock this morning. And my alarm was set for seven. I tried dozing off, but Czech pillows seem to be fillled with little fluffy clouds. I had a similar experience previously and on that occasion ended up sticking a pillow on top of my travel bag. That trick wasn’t going to work with the 22Kg suitcase I’d bought with me on this occasion (or even the smalled 14Kg suitcase). Eventually, after telling the world of my problems on Facebook, I did doze off, with sleep punctuated with nightmares about vampires - my subliminal mind was clearly in a different country to the rest of me.

And so my first full day in Prague began, with great big bags under my sleepy eyes. Thankfully the shower was like a sand blaster and blew all the cobwebs away - temporarily at least. A quick breakfast, and out into the city with two goals to achieve - get a quarterly travel pass and get a SIM card for  my spare phone. Both could be achieved by walking down to Wenceslas Square (Václavske Námēstí) and my mission was accomplished by nine thirty. I spent the rest of the day ‘doing Prague’ at a rate of knots even an American in Paris would be proud of. By noon, I’d clocked up over nine miles and seen pretty much everything in the Old Town and this side of the Vltava river. And regretted not breaking in my new Converse boots before coming here - my right foot has been shredded.

Panorama - View up the Vltava towards the Charles Bridge
At the end of day one, I have my new travel card, SIM card, I’ve been on the metro, had a couple of cold beers, walked 9.93 miles (19046 steps), climbed the equivalent of 54 floors, had a mid afternoon lunch/dinner (lunner?) at the Hard Rock Cafe, used a little Vietnamese run mini-mart across the street from the flat and written this blog post.

Surely I’ll be able to sleep tonight!?!?!?!