Saturday, 31 December 2016

Make the Most of Things

As we hurl towards another new year, it's typically a time to reflect on the previous one. I can be as nostalgic as the next person, and while I love to look back on my memories, photos, and posts I try to be grounded in the now, rather than the past and the future.

2016 has been an exceptional year for me. After returning to Prague in October 2015 following a six month absence, I enjoyed another seven months living in the city and I don't remember being more content and generally thrilled with my life. Even though I'm back in the UK now, my work is still Prague based and I get to return for at least a week most months. I pretty much have the best of both worlds - living at home but still with strong ties and connections to my second home.

It could have worked out so differently...

Although I loved my first stay in Prague from October 2014 through to April 2015 it wasn't the easiest of times for me, and looking back, although I tried to make the best of a difficult situation, I don't think I was able to fully appreciate where I was and how to truly embrace what was happening to me. So much so, that when I was offered the chance to return I initially turned it down.

If I had continued to stubbornly reject that opportunity because of a set of circumstances that were no longer relevant, I would have missed out on what has become the most satisfying period of my life. I would not have made the new friends and connections I made in Prague. I would never have truly understood the peace and freedom that I now feel in the city. And I most certainly would not have felt the sense of belonging that I now have whenever I'm back.

You can rub the plaque on the statue of John of Nepomuk on Karluv Most as many times as you like, but there comes a time when you just know that Prague is truly in your blood and that wherever you are, you'll never really have left.

So, next time you're in Prague, whether as a tourist or as an expat, leave your emotional baggage at home and make the most of your time there. I got a second chance - not everyone will be so fortunate.

"Užijte si tento den, jako by byl ten poslední, a od zítra bude vše ještě lepší! Krásný Nový rok a ještě lepší celý rok 2017!"

[Enjoy this day as if it was the last one, and starting tomorrow all will be even better! I wish you a beautiful New Year's Day and even better the whole of 2017! - Thanks to Czech Word A Day on Facebook from where I shamelessly stole this!]

Thursday, 22 December 2016

A Tale of Two Drinking Cultures

As I've mentioned before in these blog posts, Prague is a city of contrasts, even extremes, and that's illustrated perfectly in the drinking cultures in the centre of town. Prague has a very old tradition of social drinking typified in the hospodida which is much like the traditional English pub. These are still the best places to aim for if you wish to experience classic Prague.

To many people, especially in the UK, Prague is synonymous with the worst excesses of Stag parties. Cheap beer, tolerance of ‘reacreational’ drugs, and a fairly open sex trade are the perfect ingredients for a lad’s weekend away. It’s not just the Brits (thank goodness); over the past few months I’ve come across German, French, Italian and numerous Eastern European stags.

Many of these stag parties and other large group of males are attracted to music clubs that have sprung up around the centre of town. The biggest of these is Karlovy Lazne - with five floors of different music types. The noise from the club itself is almost non-existent. The problems come when it’s closing time at five in the morning. Extremely drunk (and generally) young men gather on the embankment outside the club and treat the neighbouring residents and hotel guests to loud and poor renditions of classic club songs - the favourite seemingly is "No Limits”.

The singing is generally accompanied by clapping, shouting, renditions of football anthems, and women shrieking. And because of the numbers of people tipping out over the road, honking of horns from angry drivers doing their level best to not run over the idiots dancing in the street.

In the summer months, especially July, when temperatures are still around 20-24C at night, I found it impossible to sleep much more than 5 hours a night, even with the windows closed. Prague’s narrow streets and relatively tall buildings act as perfect echo chambers, amplifying every noise 10 times or more.

There’s a strange irony that concert venues are subject to strict curfew laws - live gigs are almost always over by 10:30pm - but the clubs are exempt and the police show a blind eye to the appalling behaviour of the clubbers. Maybe there simply aren’t enough cells in Prague.

I'm the first to admit that I like a few drinks and occasionally it's easy to get a bit carried away. But I'd like to think that, along with all my ex-pat friends, regardless of their nationality, we respect the fact that the majority of people in the city, just like us, live and work there and behave accordingly.

And I like to remember that on two or three occasions, when the Tartan Army has been in town, everyone I later speak to comments on how well the Scots conduct themselves (regardless of the outcome of the game!). No matter how tanked up you are, there's no excuse for ignoring the fact that you're still a guest in someone else's country...

Slàinte mhath / na zdraví!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

A Unique Species - Homo Touristia

You can't live in Prague and not notice the tourists. I went to school in the centre of London in the 1970s and tourists were very much a part of life then, but even that experience hardly prepared me for what I have encountered here. As London became more and more cosmopolitan during the 1980s and 90s we used to joke that if you asked anyone directions in the street they'd probably be able to tell you, but they wouldn't be able to do so in English. Here in Prague, they probably wouldn't be able to tell you, because they've only just got off a plane.

Old Town Square in Prague at midday under the astronomical clock

After a year here, I still struggle to get used to the sheer volume of people walking around in the centre of town. Even getting out of my apartment on Smetanova Nabrezi can be a challenge on a hot day. But what really strikes me in Prague is the behaviour of the tourist in my natural habitat. It is a small wonder there isn't more pavement rage. There are various sub-species of Homo Touristia.

  • The Map Reader - probably 50% of the tourists I encounter have a little paper map which they get from the hotel or the tour guide. Or maybe a slightly bigger map that comes with a guide book. Prague is not the easiest place to navigate I admit. In my first month, it once took me five hours to get home to Namesti Miru from Dlouha. In my defence, it was snowing, power failures had knocked out the pubic transport system, and we had been in the pub for the best part of six hours after a long day at the office. But around both the Old Town and Mala Strana, all roads eventually lead to the river, or up to the castle, from where it's easy to get your bearings. The sad thing about the Map Reader is that they spend more time looking at the map than seeing all the amazing sights all around them, and they miss that fantastic experience of getting completely and utterly lost but not caring about it because it's part of the fun
  • The Phone Gazer - the Phone Gazer is the hi-tech version of the Map Reader, but cheats even more by using GPS and Google Maps on their mobile device, having directions listed for them to follow, and still managing to get lost, because they never learnt how to tell left from right
  • The Umbrella Gouger - almost the most lethal genus of Homo Touristia is the umbrella gouger (the most lethal is the Map Reading Umbrella Gouger). The problem with tourists using umbrellas is that they simply cannot see you, therefore you don't exist, and therefore they can't hurt you. Unfortunately, having your eye poked out by an umbrella does hurt. A lot
  • The Abrupt Halter/About Turner - this sub-species used to be found primarily in super markets (and at the tops of escalators) but has now spread to just about everywhere in Prague. I'm fairly certain this behaviour is related to the absence of spacial awareness in the species, but it's characterised by someone stopping dead in their tracks and optionally spinning around 180 degrees in order to walk right into the unfortunate person who was previously behind them
  • The Pavement Hogger - pavement (or sidewalk to my American friends) hoggers hunt in packs and fulfil the universal law of nature that a group of people will expand to fill the maximum about of pavement and will not allow anything past (or even around)
  • The Segway Leader - despite regular rumours of their imminent demise, the segway tour is still a popular activity in central Prague. To be fair, the tourists in this case aren't the real issue, although a tourist on two motorised wheels is even more dangerous than a tourist on foot. The really dangerous sub-species are the young enthusiastic leaders who dot and dart around the place like they own the place - very few of them seem to be from Prague however!

Tourists are big business in Prague and it is a 24*7 industry. They are here to stay and you can't avoid them, but at least this little guide will help you understand who and what to watch out for.

Happy hunting!

Postscript - last night we went to watch the procession for the Navalis (celebrating Saint John of Nepomuk) on the Charles Bridge. It was a very spiritual event, but many of the tourists on the bridge saw it as a major inconvenience and were pushing, shoving and jostling in the wrong direction against the flow of the pilgrims. Not a pretty sight...A little respect for local traditions goes a very long way.

This town ain't big enough for both of us!

Saturday, 30 April 2016

A Year In Prague

Last weekend I celebrated a year of living in Prague. OK, it hasn't been all in one go. I spent seven months here between 2014 and 2015, and it has now been another five months since I returned in October last year. But it's still a milestone that brings me a lot of happiness.

Prague Castle and Fireworks - March 2106
I'm not a stranger to living abroad. I spent six months in Oslo, and nearly two years in Zurich (again with a few months break in the middle), but I've been happier in Prague than anywhere else away from home.

It's interesting to read back over my first few posts on this blog and realise how I now feel about many of my first impressions. Prague is such a city of contrasts - old and new, peaceful and loud, foreign and yet strangely familiar. But of course, after a year, things ought to be familiar. The great thing is that here, familiarity doesn't breed contempt - everyday I seem to see the same things with different eyes.

Sometimes, on my way to work in the morning, I look out of the tram windows and wonder about how different this all was thirty or so years ago, before the new republic was born. And just seventy years ago, when the streets I now know so well were being worn down by Nazi jackboots, now replaced by marginally less menacing tourist hoards and equally savage stag parties.

I have another two months working in Prague and then I have a final month to savour the sights, sounds and smells of the city without any cares in the world.

Never mind Prague Spring - it's Prague Summer that I'm looking forward to!

Friday, 22 January 2016

Prague - Under Wintry Skies 2016

In February 2008, the New York Times published an article called "Under Wintry Skies, A City Revealed" written by Evan Rail. Things have changed a lot in eight years - many of the places mentioned no longer exist, the exchange rate of 18.29 Kc to the Dollar is ancient history (at today's bank rates a dollar now buys you 24.78 Kc!), and the days of streets devoid of tourists even in the depths of winter are long gone.

Right now, even the temperature comparisons are significantly different to his experience. We're currently experiencing much lower temperatures than traditional seasonal averages,

 with highs of -5C and lows as low as-13C. Whereas this time last year we had a couple of isolated snow days, this year we've experienced many more days and much more persistent snow.

I'm the first to admit, that Prague looks gorgeous under a snowy mantle - and my view from the tram stop, looking over the Vlatava to the castle, has been transformed into a wintry wonderland over the last couple of weeks. Walking around Prague in the snow is a different matter altogether. Snow, ice, cobblestones and marble pavements do not make the pedestrian's lot a happy one.

Sub-zero temperatures no longer seem to have quite the same effect on tourist numbers. Walking back along the Charles Bridge on Sunday was even more fraught with danger than usual. The relentless movement of people ambling across the bridge had created icy furrows down each side of the path with what appeared to be an inverted luge run down the middle. It seemed an endless trek to get back onto Smetanovo nábřeží and the safety of the Pent-Palace. It's not all bad news on the tourist front - the cold climes do seem to have caused a drop in the numbers of rowdy drinkers slopping out of Karlovy lázně at 5:00am! You rarely see rowdy Japanese tourists, and hear them even less! Unfortunately I do still hear the odd drunken Brit, but the novelty of going to Prague for stag/hen parties does seem to have worn off - at least for the time being.

In his article, Evan Rail talks about grey, overcast skies but I have to disagree there as well. The constantly changing light in the city is one of its greatest attractions for me. Rarely are the skies just grey. There are subtle pinks, mauves and blues on most days, and when the sun breaks through both the castle and the buildings around Muzeum Bedřicha Smetany shimmer like gold.

Off to a new venue tonight - The Red Rooms bar where our mate Jill is performing tonight. And off to see Paper Kites at the Rock Cafe on Tuesday. Luckily both places are within 10 minutes walk through the's dropping to -11C tonight!