Monthly Archives: November 2009

The only girl who could spell Czechoslovakia

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November 2009: twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolution that was velvet.

 Back in 1989 I was still at primary school.  I think I remember seeing the fall of the wall on TV but perhaps I’ve invented that later.  A boy in our class brought in a fragment of the Berlin wall to show everyone.  I remember being disappointed.  It was just a small bit of grey rock I could have picked up on the wasteground where I used to take my dog for a walk.  The dog was called Teddy.  He was a Bearded Collie and had masses of fur that I didn’t brush often enough so it matted into huge clumps I’d later have to cut off with nail scissors.

My very first Czech-related memory goes back to primary school too.  We had a spelling test and I was the only person who knew how to spell Czechoslovakia. There aren’t many words in English that begin with ‘Cz’. 

I also collected stamps.  Three pages of my album were devoted to Czechland. I still have it.  The ones from exotic places like Equatorial Guinea and Cuba and Malaysia have huge butterflies or angelfish or Disney characters launching space rockets. The Czech ones are less colourful. Some have tiny engravings of castles or a thumb sized portrait of Gottwald. Another one has a zebra; one has a Soviet red-star with a 50 in the middle. There are a couple with pictures of carp on them.  They are all very neatly arranged on the page, pasted on carefully with stamp hinges, those little strips of gummed paper.  I was that kind of child.

 According to Samuel Johnson, no-one but a blockhead wrote but for money.  Or a bloghead.  I’ve been trying to write for money recently which is partly why you’ve heard less from me here.  My recent assignment was to interview an ex-pat novelist whose last book was set in Czechland. I spent some time compiling a thoughtful and intelligent list of questions which I first saved as a Word document and then fired off by email.

‘You haven’t sent those questions yet have you?’ Czechman pipes up.  He’s been using my laptop since the graphics card in his gave up the ghost.

‘Yes, I have.  Why?’

 ‘There are spelling mistakes. Look, you’ve spelt Czechoslovakia wrong.’


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Prague is just one big old folks home

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island and roztyly pics 027

For some, Prague is the new ‘between the wars’ Paris, a place for would-be Steinbecks or Fitzgeralds or Hemingways to be literary poseurs.  It is also an infamous location for stag parties: pissed-up Brits who attack defenceless telephone boxes and then turn up at the Embassy stark bollock naked unable to remember their name or where they put their passport.  Then of course there are the tourists: Russians, Germans, Italians, Americans, Japanese, Chinese to name but a few.

There’s one section of the population you cannot help noticing if you pay just a little attention.

The old.

In Prague the elderly haven’t yet been erased from the centre of the city.  You can still see them shuffling along with walking sticks and their shopping trolleys which they somehow manage to manoeuvre on and off busy trams despite the crowds.  They don’t go around in jeans and branded tracksuits like the pensioners back home. Instead you see them in a shapeless acrylic jumper or garish floral print dresses made of hardwearing nylon.  Perhaps the reason no senior citizen wears that kind of thing anymore in London is that all such items have been rounded up and put on sale in vintage stores dotted around the East End to be sold to bright young media types at vastly inflated prices.  Nothing here in Czechland has actually gone out of fashion for long enough for it to be successfully rebranded as ‘vintage’.  Every time I switch on the radio all I hear is the sounds of the Eighties and I don’t think anyone’s doing it to be ironic.

It’s not just the clothes they’re wearing that make the old people look older: their faces seem more heavily lined, more haggard.  Is this a sign that they have led less pampered existences or just my overactive imagination? Some of them seem so frail I’m amazed by the sheer determination it must have taken them just to get out of the front door.  Bent over almost double, you see them doggedly grab onto the handrail of the tram door and somehow haul themselves up the steps before collapsing into one of the seats designated for invalids.  Yes, of course, there are old people in London too but they lack that kind of grit.

It is a commonly acknowledged fact that in the Western world to which post-revolution Czechland belongs, the population as a whole is getting older.  However, while this generation of pensioners may have managed to hang onto their low-rent apartments, who is to say what will happen in the future?  By the time my generation is ready to retire, the centre of Prague truly will have become a sinister, sanitised Disneyland where all the old folk have been forced out by aggressive property development to live in the suburbs or placed in care homes by their well-meaning cash-rich time-poor children.  The only people with wrinkled faces you’ll see shuffling along Jecna or Stepanska will be track suited British tourists.


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Magic Prague nights: Mariee Sioux and Matt Bauer play Prague

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mariee sioux

I’m going to break another rather long silence by telling you all about my Friday evening.  It was magical.  It involved listening to an indie-folk songstress called Mariee Sioux and bald-headed man with a beard from Appalachia Matt Bauer sing their hearts out in a semi-deserted cinema in the bowels of the French Institute.  Great stuff.  This is not merely my attempt to stray off into the territory of music criticism: I want to make a more general point about life in Prague versus life in London but I’ll save that until the end.

My nights out here are pretty tame and don’t involve one very Czech ingredient: that amber liquid produced by Pilsner and Staropramen. This was no exception but I wasn’t the only one abstaining.

 “We saw all these huge white birds when we were driving in here,” Bauer said, pointing to the logo on the a bottle of Mattoni mineral water he’d just taken a swig from, “but we didn’t know what they were about.  We thought it would be a beer or something.”

There was something a little surreal about sitting in an almost deserted cinema watching Matt blast out bluegrass-flavoured tunes of murder, heartbreak and sorrow but in a good way.  Broad-shouldered Bauer acknowledged the strangness of the situation as he quipped in a break between songs: ‘I feel like I’m in a Fellini film.’

Bauer shared the bill with Mariee Sioux, a self-taught singer songwriter with a doll-like face and appropriately Native American influenced dangly blue earrings. (I’m not much of an earring-wearer myself which is why I was admiring them.) If you had to try to define Mariee’s music, then I suppose you’d end up calling it something like ‘indie-folk’; complimentary comparisons have been made with Joni Mitchell. 

In a world where most so-called recording artists have their voices digitally enhanced when they play live I was impressed by how melodic and magical Mariee sounded with just her guitar for accompaniment.  I used to listen to a lot of angry music (I came of age as part of Generation Grunge) but these days I prefer soothing tunes that make you forget your cares and transport you somewhere else. Mariee Sioux’s music hits the spot for me in this respect.

Czechman enjoyed it too. He even made a few very shy wooing sounds while applauding and then shocked me further by buying Matt Bauer’s CD which apparently was “a good price”.  Allow me to digress slightly at this point in defence of Czechman who would like me to stress that his thiftiness has been overstated in this corner of cyberspace. He can be extravagant too on occasion and has specifically asked me to make it known that only last weekend he spent 500Kc (around £15) on the New York Times. 

When I lived in London there were thousands of different live concerts I could have gone to every night but I rarely did. When something happens here in Prague, you make the effort to go along.  London’s enormity, the sheer vastness and bulk of it, defeated me in the end. Prague is a place on a human scale.

I’m sorry you weren’t at the concert on Friday.  Really.  You missed out.  But it makes me feel smug and special that I’m one of the few people who got to see a really fantastic gig and I didn’t have to spend an hour of my time and use three different forms of public transport to get there.  Viva Praha.



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