Monthly Archives: May 2009

Five against five: the wonders of the Czech small screen

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It’s been raining rather a lot today here in Prague and  I’m feeling quite sleepy.  This should be the perfect opportunity to flake out in front of some mid-afternoon TV.  Sadly, there is a problem.  Digital switchover day was 30th April – last Thursday – and neither myself or Czechman has made the effort to buy a digital receiver or ‘set-top box’ as they’re called here.  I’d like to pretend that’s because we regard the medium of television as being beneath us and spend our evenings reading extracts from the Collected Works of T.S Eliot to each other, but the sad fact is, we’re both just lazy.

So, what delights am I missing out on?  Well,  my observations on Czech TV will be rather superficial, due to the fact that I can’t really understand much of it.  However, the daytime schedule seems to be dominated by re-runs of old American serials dubbed into Czech: cop shows and soaps and comedies, some of which I recognise, some of which I don’t.   Even in the Czech output, there are echos of formats I recognise from my trashy viewing binges back home:  reality TV shows where some grotesquely fat person is forced to exercise and stop eating too many cakes, another one where an angry chef shouts a lot at some hapless hospoda owner about how crap the food is (this one’s imaginatively titled ‘Yes, Chef!’) and a soap opera called, wait for it, you’ll never guess – ‘The Street’.  So far, so run of the mill.  However, there is one ray of gleaming hope in the schedules and it comes in the form of ‘Five Against Five’.

‘Five against Five’ is the Czech version of the quiz show called ‘Family Fortunes’ that used to be on in Britain when I was a youngster.  There are two teams each with five people in (hence the catchy Czech title) who try to guess the most popular answers to a question posed to 100 members of the public.  Here’s an example, just in case you haven’t got the idea.  Name something that people consume a lot of in hospital (I know, I thought this was weird).  The top answer?  Blood, closely followed by tea.  Apparently the reason for this is cultural: the Czechs also believe that consuming vast quantities of some special tea-like brew when ill will restore you to optimium health.  My students tell me the stuff is vile.

Anyway, the main reason I love the show so much is that it’s the only thing on Czech TV which I can actually understand.  Some of the questions are real posers.  For example, name a quality which a good secretary needs.  Foreign languages?  IT skills?  Yes, they were all up their on the board but so was – S-E-X.  The Czechs are certainly far less politicially correct if their quiz shows are anything to go by.  Czech this one out (pun intended).  What toy doesn’t a little girl like to play with?  Soldiers?  Lego? A toy car?  One team member actually said (you can see where this is going…) – penis.  Even the normally loquacious presenter was lost for words when the contestant came out with that one.

Thanks to the fact that the answers are flashed up on the screen, I can manically flick through my dictionary in an effort to build my vocabulary and work out what the hell is going on.  This is now my idea of fun here in Czechland.  I think my next entry needs to focus on the more typical expat pastime of drinking Budvar in smoky backstreet pubs until the wee hours, followed covering the cobblestones in vomit.  Perhaps I could skip the last part.

V ateliérech zřízených v nevyužívaných výrobních halách Modřanské potrubní, a.s. se točí i po výměně moderátora Petra Novotného za Petra Lesáka a v nových kulisách.

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Clock watching: Prague’s Dancing House and The Astrological Clock

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There are clocks everywhere here.  Three faced clocks like the one you can see in the picture are marooned mid-way up lampposts.  There are digital clocks on metro platforms – no surprise there – but you can also find them on buses and trams.  No need to fumble in your bag for your mobile phone to check if you’re running late.  Very practical.

The building in the picture, by the way, is the Dancing House by Frank Gehry.  It is one of the most photographed buildings here and one of my favourite sights.  Its nickname is Fred and Ginger; the metal perched on the top of the right-hand half is supposed to represent tufts of Astaire’s hair.  When I went to take the picture, there were lots of bemused tourists pressing their face up against the glass trying to figure out a way to get inside.  You can’t, unless you’re prepared to fork out for dinner in at the Celeste, the fancy French restaurant on the top floor. They might let you get away with just having a drink at the bar and enjoying the view, which looks great. I think I’ll twist Czechman’s arm and get him to take me. He’ll probably spend the whole time moaning about the price of the drinks, like he did on my birthday, a very Czech attribute I’m told.

There is one particular clock which people love to take photographs of, despite the fact it can’t tell the time to the nearest second or even minute.  It’s the Astrological Clock in the Old Town Square:

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I took this picture myself. It wasn’t easy. Around twenty minutes to the hour the tourists started gathering in front of the clock, armed with digital cameras and DVD recorders. The conversations are in Russian, Italian, English, French and Dutch. I don’t remember hearing any Czech. A horse and cart goes by ferrying some tourists. Five minutes before the clock strikes the hour and the crowd has become a rugby scrum. The Irish man behind me is helpfully reading the appropriate section of the guidebook out loud to his wife. This is how I learn that the names you can see written around the circumference of the clock face at the bottom are the names of the saints and that this building is the old Prague town hall, a fact I should probably know already.

There’s one minute to go. I start to feel a bit nauseous; I’m not very good at crowds but I remember my mission and get ready to hold my camera aloft at the vital moment. At last, the clock strikes; the two wooden doors fly open. I take aim and shoot. Here’s the picture I got:

pics-may-2009-digital-camera-042Can you see them? The two little figures in the doorways either side of the angel at the top? That’s what I spent so long waiting for. There are four figurines and if I remember correctly from Irish man’s guidebook said, they represent lust, death, vanity and something else medieval folk thought it was important to remind people of on the hour, every hour. The show lasted about ten seconds. Everyone stood there as though fixed to the spot, waiting for something else to happen. As I fought my way out of the crowd, I noticed that the conveniently placed Starbucks opposite was so full people were queuing out of the door.

I have a theory about why there are so many clocks everywhere in Prague. It goes something like this.  When the Communists were around, they wanted people to feel they were being watched.  Having clocks everywhere encourages people to monitor themselves, making them feel as though they’re being watched, even when they’re not.  It’s this kind of panicky self-talk that having clocks everywhere induces. ‘Is it really 7.53 already?  I’ll be late for work if I don’t pick up the pace a little.  Do I have time to buy a new packet of cigarettes or take some more money out of the cash machine?’

Czechman is dubious.  ‘But how do you know it was the Communists who put up all the clocks?’  I don’t, but I think the theory is interesting; it’s asking a bit much for it to be true.

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Ten things you had always wanted to know about Czechland but were afraid to ask

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Today is May 1st which means Czech boys will be kissing their sweethearts under trees in blossom to celebrate the arrival of Spring.  Aww.  I think Czechman will have to have his arm twisted to participate in this tradition.  He may be Bohemian by birth, but he is conservative in nature and doesn’t really like public displays of affection. Don’t worry ladies, after being beaten on the arse with a stick in the name of marking old Czech customs, I’m not going to let him get out of this one.

Anyway, today’s post is completely unrelated to May Day.  Instead, I’ve decided to delight my little audience with a list of fascinating facts about Czechland.  If you know most of them already, you have my permission to pat yourself on the back and feel smug.

10 facts about Czechland you had always wanted to know but were afraid to ask

1. The Czechs are a resourceful bunch.  They were responsible for such contributions to the advancement of mankind as the screw propellor, the sugar cube and Hittitology.  We also have them to thank for the word ‘robot’, introduced to the public by Karel Čapek in his play R.U.R.  That’s what Wikipedia says anyway.

2. Skoda, the internationally renowned car brand, is also a Czech word meaning ‘pity’ or ‘shame’.  Czechman sees no irony whatsoever in this, not even when I regaled him with my collection of Skoda jokes which I picked up in the primary school playground.  It includes such howlers as ‘What do you call a Skoda with twin exhausts?’  The answer? ‘A wheelbarrow’!  Stop it, please!  My sides are splitting!  Oh look, there goes a kidney…

3. The Czechs are of course, responsible for producing many of the world’s great beers: Budvar, Staropramen and Pilsner to name but a few.  One unfortunate result of this has been the birth of the Beer Bore, the bastard child of that equally loathsome creature, the Wine Snob.  He wants to explain to you at great length just why Gambrinus is so much better than Pilsner, despite the fact that the latter is 12 crowns more expensive.  He uses words like ‘hops’, ‘malt’ and ‘distillation’ repeatedly while you nod politely. Just shut up and drink it.

4. Was Franz Kafka Czech or German? Even academics can’t make up their minds (see here).  He didn’t write in Czech, that’s for sure.  Still, the fact that he lived in Prague does help to shift a lot of souvenirs.

5. Milan Kundera is Czech but he wishes he wasn’t.  This is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from his decision to write his most recent novels only in French.  Merde! Who does the pretentious frog wannabe think he is?  If I had to choose between being French or Czech, I’d opt for Cesky every time.

6. Goulash may be considered one of the cornerstones of Czech cuisine but it was, of course, originally Hungarian.  I’m not sure they can be blamed for coming up with the concept of dumplings made from potatoes and semolina.  These Czechs!  Such innovators!

7. Ultra-chic mini-breakers be warned! This is not a city in which to parade around in your Jimmy Choos – and not only because you will mark yourself out as being spoilt and western.  If the cobblestones don’t scrape all the leather off the back of the stiletto heels, you’ll end up stranded in a metal grate down in the metro while people point and laugh.  Most uncool.

8. One invention that the Czechs – or at least most shop assistants – wish had never seen the light of day is the 1000 crown note.  God forbid you try to pay for anything with it.  Ever.  You may think that by picking up a few bits at Albert in order to break into it is reasonable.  Pah!  Prepare to be humiliated as the checkout lady complains volubly about having to part with a tiny fraction of the change her till is crammed with.  I find the best policy in this situation is to look pathetic and mumble, ‘Nic malého nemám’ (pidgin Czech for ‘I don’t have anything smaller’).

9. Vaclav Havel is ace.  Few people who’ve actually done something significant to change the world remain so modest and unassuming.  I wasn’t blown away by his most recent play, ‘Leaving’ but I enjoyed it more than Tom Stoppard’s Czech related offering, ‘Rock and Roll’.  I suspect that Sir Tom is just too smart for me though. He’s sort of Czech too.

10. Hi Mum. The place where I now live isn’t called Czechoslovakia anymore.  It’s the Czech Republic.  It is not acceptable to call this country simply ‘Czech’, as in ‘I’m going to Czech on holiday’.  Don’t.  I can’t bear it.  ‘Czech’ is an adjective, not a noun.  You went to school back in the days when they taught English kids something about grammar so you should be able to get your head around this.  And yes, they do have telephones here.

I wrote today’s post while drinking café au lait in Café Louvre.  Here’s what the waiter brought me. The coffee is in the little porcelain coffee pot and there’s a thimbleful of fizzy water tucked behind it in case I get too dehydraded by the caffeine.  I’m a sucker for a well-presented hot beverage.

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