Monthly Archives: July 2009

How to Be Spoilt and Western: a Beginner’s Guide

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The first time I heard him say it was during a trip on the 254 bus. We had passed through Stamford Hill and we were now travelling along the Seven Sisters Road towards Manor House tube.  This long straight stretch of road was flanked on both sides by a collection of vast housing estates. Although they weren’t the high rises filmmakers use as a backdrop when they want to suggest urban decay, something about them depressed me.

‘Can you imagine what it would be like to live in one of those?’ I said in a low voice.

‘You are just spoilt and western,’ came the reply from my Czech companion.

I admire the way Czechs know how to get by without spending a lot.  I do, really.  I’m pretty thrifty myself: I can make a roast chicken stretch for at least three meals and unlike many of my British friends, I have modest savings rather than a whopping overdraft.  That’s why it puzzles me that my behaviour is still somehow deemed spoilt.  Anyway, here’s a list of my deviant actions I have complied so you can judge for yourselves…

 8 Ways to Impress your Czech Partner with your Spoilt and Western Behaviour

1)      Paying for anything you already have or could somehow get for free.  You’ll notice how very few Czech people ‘forget’ to bring a carrier bags with them to the supermarket now you have to pay for them.

2)      Owning more than two pairs of jeans.  It has taken me a number of years to convince Czechman that owning more than six T-shirts, two sweatshirts and two pairs of jeans is not bad and wrong.

3)      Spending money on having a tea or coffee not because you really want to drink it, but because you want to sit somewhere warm while waiting for the train/bus.

4)      Using a taxi.  Ever.

5)      Refusing to eat sandwiches in a bus shelter in a remote part of Scotland in the rain while on holiday and demanding to be taken to the nearest pub for lunch instead.

6)      Believing it is acceptable to spend more than 100Kc (£3) on a hot meal at lunchtime (including a hot or cold beverage).

7)      Believing it is acceptable to spend 150kc (£5) on a hot beverage and a slice of cake while socialising with girlfriends.

8)      Refusing to travel abroad by coach rather than by plane.  It may reduce your carbon footprint.  It may be cheaper.  It may be a way of avoiding annoying stag parties.  I’m not sitting on a coach for fifteen hours.  Sorry.

DISCLAIMER 

The points listed above may or may not be based on actual events or reflect the current views of Czechman who may or may not exist.

Sorry.  I had to put that bit in or he’ll get upset.

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Family holiday Czech style: my trip to Orlik and Podskali, Southern Bohemia

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I hate people who produce blog posts consisting solely of their holiday photos.   Save it for Facebook or the round robin email to your mates back home.

What you see above then, aren’t really holiday photos at all, more like documentary evidence from my latest expeditionary trip deep into Czechland.  Czechman’s parents rent a cottage (chata) near the same man-made lake every summer: they invited Czechman and I, along with his sister and her husband, to join them.

The cottage is in a holiday camp in a place called Podskali (literally ‘under rock’). The whole place had a ramshackle feel to it with chalets and tents and caravans scattered along the edge of the lake around a rundown looking hotel. A holiday camp back home in England usually means a place with a bingo hall, several amusement arcades and an entertainment complex where cabaret acts in the twilight of their careers put on a show for a few bored pensioners.

Not in Czechland.

Here the only ways to spend your money were playing table tennis, buying a paper or renting a rowing boat.  Or, of course, in the pub which we visited only once to get a beer to take to Czechman’s dad while he was fishing.

I’m not complaining though.  I think that this is just an example of how Czechs have mastered the art of having a good time without forking out too much cash.  We spent our time playing board games and cards, rowing back and forth across the lake and going for walks in the countryside. One of these expeditions turned into a spontaneous mushroom picking session.  I’m not very good at picking mushrooms, it turns out, probably because as Czechman’s dad pointed out, ‘you don’t really have a lot of this terrain in London, do you?’

I should also mention our day trip to Orlik, the white castle you can see in the photograph at the top.  It was inhabited by the Schwarzenbergs, a bunch of soldiering aristocrats who filled the palace with the antlers of deer they’d shot and lots of guns. There were so many dead things mounted on plaques and displayed on the walls I’m surprised they had time to do anything else but hunt.  The place must have looked even more impressive perched on the edge of a cliff as it would have been before the river was flooded to create the lake which powers the nearby hydroelectric dam.  It is worth seeing if you get the chance.

I spotted a woman striding into the lake with a bottle of shower gel in her hand, presumably to get a wash without having to pay for the showers.  Am I alone in finding this odd?

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Czech Summer Rain Explained

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Here is a picture of the view from my window. If you look really closely you can just make out the tiny silhouette of Prague Castle on the horizon. It’s hard to make out because of all the cloud. That’s because it’s raining.

It’s been doing that a lot here recently.  Not just ordinary rain, but torrential downpours with thunder so ear-poppingly loud it made me wonder if a grenade had gone off outside.  We have plenty of weather in England too – sometimes our entire summer consists of two or three sunny days in August – but nothing quite like this.

In England cold and rain go together like fish and chips or milk in tea. (Yes, there should be milk in tea and no, I shouldn’t have to ask for it.  Sugar is an optional addition to a nice cup of tea.  Milk isn’t).  In fact, this crazy Prague summer time weather means a baking, oppressive heat which lasts most of the day punctuated by a swift opening of the heavens around five or six in the evening.  The water buckets down cats and dogs. There’s none of that fine spray we call drizzle or the few scattered drops that might be described by the forecasters as a light shower: it’s like monsoon season wandered north.

This is macho, no-nonsense precipitation; its mission is to soak you to the skin. If you forget to take an umbrella, there’s no hope for you.  Your best plan of action is to dive into the nearest pub and drown your sorrows until the storm passes.   Don’t bother asking for a mineral water unless you want to get a very dirty look from the waiter and have the others around you assume you got lost on your way to an AA meeting.

I want to go out now but it’s still raining.

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Not Charles Bridge

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This is not Charles Bridge. There are no soot covered statues of long forgotten saints. There are no guided groups of tourists here, no traders selling fridge magnets or offering to draw a caricature of you for a very reasonable price.  There are no musicians playing old jazz for spare change or trying to flog you their CD for only 500kc. There are no pickpockets, no crowds, no scaffolding.
  
There is, however, for those who have the initiative to take the tram half a dozen stops from the centre, a picture postcard perfect panoramic view of Prague as you can see here:
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The bridge is primarily for trains but there are two narrow pedestrian walkways either side of the tracks which run along the centre. When the engines rocket past they seem to be within touching distance, speeding along with such force that violent vibrations shake the wooden planks, just like at the start of an earthquake.  There’s no way the Health and Safety brigade back in England would allow it.  While there’s little chance of coming to harm in a collision with a train, do watch out for cyclists and enthusiastic joggers. 
Officially, the bridge doesn’t have a name (according to this reliable source anyway) but as it connects Vysehrad with Smichov, it’s known as the Vysehrad Railway bridge or Vyšehradský železniční most.   This means that if you tear yourself away from the view of Prague Castle and face south west, you’ll see the gothic towers of Saint Peter and Paul’s Church, Vysehrad’s main landmark.  You can also see a couple of nearby beautiful Cubist villas, a style of architecture pioneered in the Czechland in the early 20th century.
Of course the main reason to escape the tourist trail is to observe Czechs in their natural habitat.  While standing on the bridge, I noticed quite a few people fishing; a lone girl in a hooded sweatshirt sat on a bench feeding ducks in peace, at least until some crazed English blogger sneaked up and took her picture.
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railway bridge 025I wanted to take some arty shots of the bridge which juxtaposed the ugliness of the rusty girders with the beauty of  the surrounding landmarks. I did my best, really I did.  I tilted the camera at odd angles. I zoomed in.  I made sure the sun was behind me.  Here’s my best effort.  Hopefully you’ll find it atmospheric in some way:

Girl in Czechland decides to see Prague from a quirky angle - literally...

Girl in Czechland decides to see Prague from a quirky angle - literally...

Ok, it’s terrible. Lone Girl Feeding Ducks is as arty as it gets today.  Ten points for effort though.

I’m not suggesting that those visiting Prague don’t bother with Charles Bridge, which is undeniably beautiful.  Unfortunately, if there’s a crowd of tourists somewhere, it’s usually because there is something worth seeing nearby.  If you really want to have Charles Bridge to yourself you could try getting there at 6am before the hawkers and holidaymakers are still in bed. Alternatively you could travel just a few tram stops off the beaten track and see a city from somewhere most visitors overlook.  Try it: you never know, you might like it.

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Prague graffiti and the Lennon Wall

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I’ve barely been out since I came back from England so today I decided to go and take a look at the Lennon Wall.

It is less than five minutes from the main drag of Charles Bridge and yet this morning, at least, there were very few tourists around.

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‘Láska’, the huge word in purple, means ‘love’ by the way but if you’re thinking of leaving your own  here, don’t worry, most of the messages are in English.

I keep wanting to call it the Lenin Wall, but so far I’ve managed not to make that potentially embarrasing slip of the tongue out loud.

Velkopřevorské Námestí felt very calm and secluded.  There were lots of trees and pretty buildings and a little secret doorway in the side of the wall with a cafe with a lovely terrace where I had another one of my many overpriced cups of coffee and the waitress didn’t laugh at my Czech.  It was good.

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I wanted to make all kinds of clever observations and witty asides but now I’m sat at my keyboard, inspiration seems to have left me.  I should at least say something like the Lennon Wall started after John was shot by a crazed fan in 1980 and then became  a symbol of the struggle against Communism, but then writing phrases like ‘a symbol of the struggle against Communism’ sends my cringe-o-meter off the scale.

Here’s another nearby collective work of art I stumbled on around the corner, this time involving barbed wire and padlocks.

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If you take a closer look, you’ll realise that this too is intended to be a kind of shrine to love.

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It seems that couples write their names on a padlock and then leave them here to symbolise their eternal devotion.  There it is again, that word ‘symbolise’.  My cringe-o-meter is going to let that one through. Does anyone know more about this place and how it started?  And am I the only one who thinks that a padlock might be a problematic metaphor for a long-term relationship?

Anyway, here’s some graffiti I spotted in nearby Kampa that made me laugh, given that the Czech Republic is not a nation renowned for promoting vegetarianism:

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Has Banksy sneaked off to Prague and decided to cover the city in hairy baked beans?

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