Monthly Archives: May 2009

Closely Observed Trams and some thoughts on Czech Manners

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Stand on a busy street in Prague and close your eyes. You will hear all the usual sounds – the hum of traffic, the occasional siren – but listen carefully and you will pick out a few noises unique to this city. One of them is the distinctive clacking of a zebra crossing to let the blind know they can cross; another is the repeated ringing of bells, not from churches but from trams warning pedestrians to get out of the way.

People still associate the old red double-decker Routemaster bus with London even though they have all but disappeared from its streets; Prague has sensibly hung onto its own transport icon, the cream and red tram. Taking a ride on them is a much more pleasant way to get to know the city even if you’re just here for the weekend than getting on a tour bus. Sometimes if I start to feel like I’m getting cabin-fever in our flat but feel too tired to go for a proper walk, I just get on the 22 tram and do some effortless sightseeing. In less than five minutes I’ve gone from Karlovo Namesti to the National Theatre and then I’m flying across the river, through Mala Strana and then twisting and turning along cobbled streets before finally ending up a stone’s throw from Prague Castle. Not bad for 26 crowns. Don’t forget to validate your ticket in the little yellow machine though or your ride could wind up being almost as much as your Easyjet flight over from Blighty…

Trams are a great venue for people watching and therefore as good a place as any for would-be anthropologists to get some kind of insight into typical Czech behaviour. You will all be aware that many foreigners find Czechs surly or even just plain rude. What you’ll witness on the tram though if you look carefully enough are frequent examples of old-fashioned courtesy which you would rarely see in London. Everyone seems prepared to give up their seat for an older person – in fact, people practically leap up should someone with a white stick or crutches get on rather than dutifully dragging themselves to their feet as you might expect were it true that Czechs had no consideration for others.

There are plenty of other examples of Czech politeness to be found in other areas of life. For example, it is customary to say ‘dobry den’ when getting into a lift and then ‘nashledanou’ when you leave.  This kind of behaviour in England would mark you out as being, well, a little odd.

In fact, Czechs just love to ‘dobry den’ each other. They can be heard dobry-denning their neighbours when they encounter each other on the staircase of their apartment building; they dobry-den the receptionist when entering even a large office building; they dobry-den the woman behind the counter if they go into a smallish shop to have a look around.  Frankly, I find all this old-fashioned politeness charming.

Let me tell you my own theory about Czech so-called ‘rudeness’. In my experience, Czechs are very direct.  They don’t enjoy pretence. It therefore makes sense that if you’re only paying someone 50 lousy crowns an hour to sit behind a till at Albert, they’re not going to smile at you mindlessly just because some bloke at their induction training told them they had to.  Can you blame them?  Controversial as this may be, I’d rather be greeted by a genuine surly frown than a pasted-on fake smile any day. As long as I stay in Prague, I think my wish will be easily granted…

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Some observations and my expat shopping list

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may pics 005Just back from my long weekend in England and I feel rough as hell.  Never mind.  I’d like you all to keep reading and so I guess I’d better keep posting. So, here are…

Some observations following a weekend back in England and my expat shopping list

Half of the furniture in my sister’s place is identical to that Czechman and I have in Prague.  Ah, the magic of Ikea.

I flew home from Stansted at 6.25am, which meant I had to check in at 4.30am.  Urrgh.  I went to buy something for breakfast from Pret A Manger.  You Czechs use English to name something if you want to sex up a brand (e.g ‘Coffee Heaven’); we English folks use French to achieve the same effect.

I heard the man in front of me ask for ‘a skinny capp to go’.  The Pret employee trying to take his order looked most confused.  What could the customer be after?

A skinny cappuccino to take away.  Jesus.  Has everyone decided to start speaking American in the two months I’ve been away, I ask myself…

An expat shopping list

  1. Double duvet cover.  Apparently Czech couples usually have their own individual duvets even if they share the same bed. The result is I can’t seem to find any double duvet covers (100% cotton of course) here in Prague that I like.  Czechman keeps threatening to introduce the single duvet system as I am apparently always stealing his half.
  2. Multiple copies of The Guardian.  Of course you can get it in Prague but it’s three times the price and it never has the shiny bits on a Friday or Saturday.
  3. Vegetable bouillon.  The stock cubes in Czechland all seem to have nasty additives.
  4. Indian spices in nice little glass jars: turmeric, cumin, garam masala and mustard seeds.  I’ll be able to make proper chana dal now.  Curry, not fish and chips, is the modern English national dish.
  5. Let’s Knit magazine.  Yes, I like knitting. Sometimes if I’m in a bad mood I will cheer myself up by spending hours looking through my extensive collection of knitting patterns and magazines. Don’t tell anyone.
  6. Charity shop finds.  The charity shop (or thrift store as it is known in the States) is a brilliant place to find new or nearly new clothes for next to nothing. This time I picked up two little cardigans, both of which still had the labels on, for a grand total of 300kc (£10).   I suppose though, it’s only possible to pick up bargains in this way because British people are more likely to buy something, wear it once and decide they don’t like it or worse still, never wear it at all and leave it languishing at the back of the wardrobe.  Typical spoilt Western behaviour.
  7. Cheddar cheese.  I wanted to bring back some really strong Mature Cheddar as I’m sorry to say the cheese here doesn’t seem to have any real flavour.  I hate expats who whine about Czech food, really I do, but you have to admit the cheese is a little on the bland side.  Apart from the smoked stuff, which is fine but a little on the salty side.  Anyway, I didn’t bother in the end; I was worried it wouldn’t survive the journey.
  8. Birthday present for Czechman.  I failed miserably on this front. A book?  No, he already has plenty of those.  A CD?  Hmm, I know he likes Coldplay but that’s not something I’m sure I want to encourage.  A new T-shirt perhaps?  Maybe, but Czechman is very picky about clothes and thinks that whatever I choose for him makes him look too metrosexual.  So, I give up.  Any suggestions welcome.

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There’s something fishy about Communism

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I came across this poem the other day.

Don’t be scared: it isn’t pretentious and it doesn’t rhyme.

It’s by Michael Rosen who lives in Hackney, the same part of London where I spent five years of my life.  He’s a born-and-bred Londoner and an excellent writer.  I hope he won’t mind me reproducing it here so long as I tell you all you should buy the book.  So go on, buy it then.

      Malc’s shoes smelled of fish because they had been stuck together with fish glue.  His father had brought them back from Czechoslovakia.  They were, his father said, another example of how Communism was improving the lives of the Czechoslovakian people. 

-See how resourceful they are, he said, using fish remains to make shoes.  Nothing gets wasted.

At nights, when we lay in his bedroom – Malc in his bed, me on the floor in my sleeping bag – we would talk about girls we fancied; and in the dark I could smell Communist shoes.

I’m going to be in England for the next few days.   Have no fear though: it’s just for a long weekend so I will be sharing my Czech-related thoughts once again very soon.


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A Day Trip to Křivoklat and the Need to Be Concise

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Someone on one of the Czechland related forums says my blog posts are good but a bit on the long side.  I agree.

I talk too much sometimes.  I know it’s true.  I’m one of those women who corner their partners when they come home and force them to listen to every single detail of their day at work without bothering to ask if they’re ok.  Sorry Czechman.   I know you only read this to make sure I’m not revealing any personal details about our relationship, but as you would say, ‘I do apologise.’

Anyway, I’m going to try and be more concise this time.  Here goes.

I went on a day trip to Křivoklat with some of my new friends.

Czechland has many castles. Sometimes the castles were built to be forts; sometimes they were built more to look pretty like chateaus or stately homes.  Křivoklat is the first kind.  It has a big courtyard you can sit in and eat ice-cream and the kind of big cream turret that I imagine Rapunzel threw down her hair from.  Here’s a picture:

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We went on the full tour of the interior, which lasted a leg-ache inducing 100 minutes.  Inside we saw lots of guns, old paintings, a real iron maiden (the scary medieval instrument of torture) and an impressive collection of decorated wooden sleighs.  That last part wasn’t meant to be sarcastic.  The sleighs really were very impressive: some of them had panoramic views of European cities like Amsterdam and Venice painted on the side in meticulous detail.

There was a stuffed bear too, complete with a full set of teeth and menacingly outstretched paws.  Unfortunately I couldn’t take a photo; the guide looked equally menacing and I was scared I’d get deported.

So, the tour was a bit dull but as is usual here in Czechland it was the only way to have a look around the inside.  My favourite part was standing on the battlements and seeing only green in every direction, a very rare sight in hyperdeveloped South-East England.

I will go to more castles.  I liked Křivolklat better than Karlstejn: fewer tourists and not too over-restored, at least as far as my inexpert eye could tell.

The low point on the day happened before the trip even began.  I was waiting in front of the bookshop at Hlavni Nadrazi when all of a sudden I felt a massive wallop on my behind.  Yes, some kind Czech hoodie* had decided to impress his gang of mates by slapping me really hard on my rear end.  I wasn’t wearing leather hotpants or a neon-pink mini skirt either, just an old pair of jeans and a plain T-shirt.  That’s what I get for saying that Prague is oh so much more safer than London in my last post.

This is what Czechman had to say about the incident.

‘What do you expect?  You know they call the park in front of the station Sherwood.’

‘Sherwood?  Why?’ I replied in a puzzled tone.

‘After Sherwood Forest.  You know, Robin Hood? Full of thieves.’

‘But wasn’t Robin Hood supposed to be a good guy?’ I respond, still confused. ‘Robbing from the rich and giving to the poor?’

Czechman shrugs his shoulders.  ‘Maybe he just thought you had a nice arse.’


* hoodie:  threatening looking teenager who walks around with a joint in one hand and the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up…


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The Expat Question: some thoughts on why foreigners flock to Prague

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I was sitting in The Globe last night when the conversation came around to The Question.  There were about six of us. As you might expect given the location (the Globe is an expat haunt) we all came from different places: England, the States, Germany and Russia. 

 ‘So, since I don’t know you guys that well, we could do all the ‘why are you here?’ stuff,’ I suggest.  There is some rolling of eyes for comic effect. ‘Not in the philosophical sense.  I mean, why Prague?’


‘Aren’t we all here for the same reason?’ one of the Americans offers.  ‘That we hate our own countries?’


‘I don’t hate America,’ another swiftly replied.


I always listen to people’s reasons for having decided to move to Prague with interest. Suspect Answer Number One as far as I’m concerned is ‘I just fell in love with the place.’   This just doesn’t cut it for me.  ‘You know when you come to a place and it just feels like home?’ makes me just as suspicious.  Like home how exactly?  If you come from anywhere English-speaking it can’t be the buildings or the food and it most certainly isn’t the language with its complicated ‘ř’s and ‘ž’s and ‘č’s.  Are you trying to tell me even though you come from West Carolina or Scunthorpe or Melbourne your soul is somehow Czech? 


The most common unacknowledged reason for being here – for moving abroad full stop – is that you’re on the run from something.  Maybe the something is a bad break-up or a small town with no prospects or the enormity of deciding what to do with your life now college is over and you’re somehow supposed to get by in the real world.  Perhaps you were a misfit back home and you think you can disguise your oddball nature behind the fact of being foreign. I suppose there’s nothing inherently bad in any of these reasons for being here.  Just be aware that moving abroad will not necessarily solve the problems you had to begin with. 


What about me? Moving here for love might seem worthier than the reasons listed above but of course, it isn’t quite as clear-cut as that.  I had things to run from.  London was becoming too overwhelming. Things in Prague have been made on a human scale.  Getting to work doesn’t involve taking a bus, a train, another bus and then flagging down a camel ( I made that last bit up).  There are no strange men urinating in our stairwell; no little gangs of boys smoking joints and spitting; no barrage of grot and grime and crime to block out every time I walk out the door into my allegedly up-and-coming neighbourhood. 


Of course, I’m in Stage One of the Expat Trajectory: the Honeymoon Period.  This is when you walk around your new destination feeling that you’re on a film-set.  I’m not against honeymoons.  Honeymoons can be nice but they can’t last forever.  

I’m not sure how to end this.  I don’t want to say anything cheesy or sentimental by stretching the above metaphor too far, like ‘A honeymoon may last a week but a marriage is forever’ – and anyway, you’ve all seen the spiralling divorce statistics so that would not only stretch the comparison but would also cause it to fall flat on its hypothetical ass.  Anyway.  I am quietly optimistic about my new life in Czechland. Of course, nowhere’s perfect and I haven’t managed to escape all my old problems but things are going well with Czechman and I have reason to believe that my life is objectively better than it was back in England.  So that’s good.  Happiness is a notoriously elusive thing so let’s just hope it lasts.


If you’re a fellow expat reading this, I want to know about your answer to The Question.  Why are you here? If you’ve been here for a longish spell, has your answer to the The Question changed?  Is your life better than it would be back home or just different? 

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P.S  This is a Turkish coffee.  A Turkish coffee is pretty much the same as an ordinary coffee except that it doesn’t have the little granules filtered out of it.  The only reason the picture is here is that as I said before, I’m a sucker for a well-presented hot beverage.  Also I was drinking it while writing this post.


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