To put your minds at rest, below I list some of my favourite things in Prague. I say this is Take-One because, as well as being terribly sarcastic, I am also very fickle and am likely to change my mind on an almost daily basis. Some of the list are not quite “favourites” but things that made me wonder and giggle. In the past few months I have been so interested in talking to people who have grown up here. There can’t be a background more different mine than the childhood of someone who grew up in a communist country where you couldn’t readily leave and where there were restaurants abound, but they generally all served the same few dishes – Red Soup anyone?
There have been some things that puzzle me so much its untrue, and so I also list some of them below for your wonderment.
1. The metro system
It works. And is clean. And affordable. And punctual. Which is all great. But there are two particular things about the Prague metro system that make it one of my favourite Prague features. Firstly, it’s easy to understand. There are only three lines, they have minimal overlap or interchange and they are colour coded. All of which taken together means that I can find my way from A to B with little difficulty. Anyone who knows me will confirm, this almost never happens. I never know where I’m going, regardless of whether or not I have been there before (even multiple times). The fact that even I am able to navigate the tube system (sorry, metro – some habits won’t die) is only slightly short of a miracle. And, on the basis that most places in Prague seem to be about 50 meters from a metro station, I am never lost for long, even when I’m above ground.
The very best thing about the Prague metro however, is its decor. Most of the stations are for some reason decorated to look like a carton of nespresso capsules:
As with the metro, they are affordable. We have been to the cinema twice since we moved here. The first time (in Andel) it cost (on prime-time Saturday night viewing) 35 crowns – which is about £1.10. Including popcorn and a drink, the entire night was £12, including travel. This is a bargain.
Opera is becoming one of my favourite Praha pastimes, for a similar reason. Tickets to the Prague State Opera are around £35 per person – and that is for the VERY best seats you can get. For more of a budget affair, they start at about a tenner, and the opera house is quite intimate (read: small but very beautiful) so it really is quite hard to sit anywhere with a poor view. If you fancy splashing out at the interval, a glass of fizz will set you back 30 crowns (one pound) and a plate of food only slightly more. Certain local Czechs are a little snobby about the Czech opera, and it is true that it rarely attracts the biggest international names. But to my (uneducated yet highly critical) eye, both of the productions that I have seen there have been lovely. The building’s interior is particularly stunning and, thrillingly, it is an opportunity to dress up properly, which I love. What’s not to like?
3. Carp at Christmas:
Really? Served with potato salad. Cold potato salad. On Christmas Day. Really? I think the English readership will agree with me that this is an unusual choice of festive dish. In the words of Girlinczechland “Carp in breadcrumbs accompanied by potato salad…fails the Christmas decadence test”. I completely agree with that. Bought up in a household where Christmas comes with a glass of something bubbly, nothing less than a big fat turkey will do.
Additionally, some Czech families apparently buy said carp live a few days before Christmas, leave it in the bath as some sort of family pet to which the kids can get attached and then take it out on the morning of Christ’s birth, massacre it with a wooden mallet and feed it to the family. I think this takes the edge of the festive spirit.
4. Inexplicable Name Abbreviations:
Hanna to Hanka. Ok.
Jan to Honza…really? That’s neither shorter nor similar. And sounds a bit like one of the Muppets.
Coupled with the fact that Czechs tend to either use these over-familiar shortenings or otherwise address people as people Mr. So-and-so or Mrs. Person, it makes for an uncomfortable middle ground. I know my secretary pretty well but am her manager, so should I be calling her Hanka (which is like saying “little Hannah”). Probably not – her name is actually Zuzana.
But the point is, if someone called me “Little” anything at work I’d think it was a bit annoying and patronising, and akin to patting me on the head and saying “there there”. But on the other hand, I know her pretty well so don’t want to be the awkward English person that calls her “Miss Zuzana”. It’s a bit like how really posh English people call their great aunty “Tiddles” or something. That is so dreadful if you’re never properly introduced; you don’t know aunty well enough to call her Tiddles, so you end up calling her Mrs. Fitzherbert-Erstwhile-Smyth or something, which marks you out as the outsider who doesn’t know Tiddles from Adam. Tricky…
5. Czech Inventions:
Czechs invented (i) the sugar cube and (ii) phallometric testing.* There’s nothing terribly exciting about the humble sugar cube but I needed an intro before tackling (ha-ha) number (ii). Phallometric testing, where men are shown both homosexual and heterosexual pornography while censors monitor the blood flow to the penis, has been in the international news recently. Last week the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights said that its value in determining the sexual orientation of an individual “was questionable”. Questionable is putting it mildly, surely? This test relies upon there being some sort of base animal urge on the part of homosexual men meaning that they would find any man attractive, regardless of his age, appearance, smell, characteristics and personality. It also fails to acknowledge the existence of bisexuality and ignores the fact that a gay man could possibly be aroused by heterosexual pornography or vice versa.
There’s a joke here somewhere but it might be a bit close to the bone…(I am so sorry for that pun…)
On a lighter note, the first sugar cube was made in Moravia in the 1840s by Jakob Krystof Rad. Until this time sugar came in loaves or cones and was cut off in smaller amounts as needed. Rad’s wife apparently dreamt up the cube method after having cut herself whist trying to cut off a piece of sugar to put in her tea. What exemplary lateral thinking – I think I would have just asked my husband to go to Bakeshop for me…
* the Czech-Canadian Kurt Freund was a physician, best known for the development of “phallometry” (the objective measurement of sexual arousal in males)
6: The Woman on Zelezna:
There is a woman on Zelezna, a street which runs due south from the Old Town Square. She is there all day every day (I walk past her on my way to and from work) come rain, snow or shine, always wearing the same, except with additional layers. Her basic wardrobe (which I saw in the autumn) consists of hot pants and a vest-top. Now that it is colder this is supplemented with thermal leggings, long-sleeved T-shirts, gloves, scarves and hats. She still wears sunglasses, even in the dark. She holds the menu to a restaurant (which I assume employs her…?) but never makes any attempt to encourage either tourists or locals into it. She must be the Czech equivalent to the Golf Sale man on Oxford Street.
Who is this woman and won’t someone please give her some proper clothes?!