Archive for January 2011

I Blog Prague by Diane

January 23, 2011

For some of our Prague photos, click here.

Shots from our recent trip to Lake Como are here.

“I Blog Prague.” That was to be the catchy name of Michael’s writings about our time here.  I’ve hijacked the title and finally I’m taking the time to put some thoughts on paper – make that on-screen.  If I had to say how long ago this journey started, without referring to a calendar, I’d venture to say I was a lot younger, in a land far, far away, and our plans were very very different.  Some of you know that our move here began with a phone call in mid-Feb 2010, just after a sunset scotch, neat, while we lounged on a houseboat in Kerala, India. Five months later we were all set to move to Budapest, 30 days beyond that we were in Prague for a look-see trip and a full eight months after the “what-are-you-going-to-do-next?” phone call, we landed in Frankfurt.  We were relieved to be reunited with the no-worse-for-wear Chutney, our beloved Standard Poodle, and started the six-hour car ride to our new new city, old old Prague.

Cool Air.  Bodacious beers.  Dogs and their lovers everywhere – on trams, trains, in restaurants – running loose, playing freely, scary to no one. Bread so varied and abundant it inspires poetry,  whole aisles of yogurt, cream and lactose loveliness, wines from the countryside that conquer their critics and a smothering of sausages –  cooked, smoked, curled, grilled, baked, aged, but mostly just speared and carried as street food. What did we feel so soon and so clearly?  Relief.  A Homecoming. Soothed and Enticed.  Europe, bless your historic, cultured, civilized soul.

Don’t let me fool you, getting here and staying here has been a crazy uphill pursuit of work permits, short term visas, no-crime-committed certificates, foreign police check-ins and paperwork galore.  It’s not over yet, and it comes with one agonizing promise – we get to do it annually.  Now imagine all that transpiring in a language that really does sound like people are talking backward.  It’s near impossible to mimic the Czech language, though I did learn that native English speakers get much better at it after a drink or two, when we’re inclined to relax our mouths and ease into the tsi and zhe sounds the Czechs lush onto one another all day.   A friend told me to find my inner child and exaggerate and dramatize the words, which is certainly more fun than being one of those hopeless Americans who simply say foreign words louder and louder, as if hearing equates with comprehension.  Even the basics are hard, as we found when we asked someone how to really pronounce the word for four.  His advice? It’s easier for foreigners to say “three plus one.” Czechs seem to fall into two categories:  they speak near-zero English, or they’re quite fluent.  We’d heard it was an age thing and that most young people speak English, but that’s not been our experience.

Strange as it seems after all these years on multiple continents, this is the longest time either of us has lived in a proper big city – Singapore was a big fabricated city – good in a zillion ways, but just not real in a dozen other ways. It hit me right away – cities are teeming with activity and all space is shared space.  Life is being lived pretty much on the move and Prague is a sensory playground for the newcomer. There’s so much classical music being played here that on my daily commute I see more people carrying musical instruments than I’ve seen anywhere, in my life.  And everyone is eating – usually chocolate or poppy seed croissants (my day to indulge in this breakfast is still ahead of me … the anticipation being part of the pleasure) or sausages in wardrobes of great variety.  As a lifetime mustard lover, I am thrilled to be back in a place where I can slather and dredge this condiment with abandon.  Contrarily, I’ve learned the hard way that “Americka style” is code-speak for mayonnaise, and sushi is one place wherein this detestable-to-me but loved-by-many foodstuff just doesn’t belong.  Prague is the land of potato soup and borscht, a veritable menagerie of roasted meats and doughy dumplings.  Gone are the tropical scented meals laced with lemongrass and coconut and chilies.  Czechs don’t like hot and spicy.  A chef of a new Indian restaurant here confessed to racial profiling:  he turns down the heat when Czechs are eating and cranks it back up for everyone else.  Thankfully, the Italians are here in large numbers and so is ALL of their good food.  Asia forced me to fantasize about good cheese, here it’s part of my everyday joy.  I just realized how much I’ve written here about food, and that’s because when you are new to a country, and your shelter is decided, food is often a thrice-daily adventure full of lots of wrong turns and delectable discoveries.  Michael noticed recently that this is the first country we’ve lived in where there are four languages written on most products, none English.  We guess a lot, we’re usually lucky and I’m glad we’re good at winging it.  You may not realize how it feels to stand in the meat section and try to decipher chicken from duck, cow from deer. Graphic icons are lifesavers.  Last week I guessed that a word with a “z” in it might be my best bet for finding sour cream – got it right.  But there was that pastry that I swore was a cheesy strudel and it turned out to be a too-salty-to-take-home-to-the-dog egg pie.  When in doubt, stick to fruits and nuts.  Still ahead, and full of mystery of varying importance, are doctor and dentist visits, train travel and more trips to government offices.

Of course, winter came and startled us into reality.  It snowed on Dec. 3rd and just about every other day that month. It’s snowing as I write.   It’s been seven years since either of us wore boots, scarves or gloves.  Come to think of it, I haven’t really worn socks in over six years, except for a few annual trips home.  I’m enjoying the simple fun of wearing layers and covering myself with a blanket while reading.    If you don’t have to scrape snow off your car or shovel, winter can be downright pretty. Warm clothes have improved a lot over the years – technology delivers  more than gadgets.  And much as I loved my pedicures and open-toed shoes in Asia, I adore having shoe choices.  Just for the record, I have a lot of shoes because I am someone who loves shoes, period.  This part of the world my friends is the land of sensible shoes.  Where we live in Prague it’s hilly and cobblestoned and winding and tricky and boots are your best friend.  It’s a casually-clothed city, people dress for moving around and walking distances and I couldn’t feel more at home.

Speaking of winter clothes, it’s worth mentioning that I have a much better appreciation for fur coats.  Don’t worry, I’d be happy if none of these were ever made, before, now or again.   I’m not going to get one (though there are marvelous ones in US thrift stores!) but I sure have felt pelt envy while walking around here in the throes of my first winter in years.  Women of a certain age and Russian women of all ages, are sporting amazing fur coats, designer editions that only hint at how gorgeous the beasts who wore them must have been.  Sure we all look good in our Dr. Zhivago faux fur hats, but these ladies look toasty, correction, they look hot in their outerwear.  Speaking of hot ladies, and now that I’ve got you thinking about underwear, this is the first place we’ve lived in a long time where my head turns on a regular basis to look at a beautiful woman.  The sheer variety of appearances – tall, blonde, brunette, fair-skinned, long legged, etc. — only adds to the sweetness of the babe-land candy shop that is the Czech Republic.   I’ve seen only a handful of men whose good looks might make it into a magazine, but clearly they are doing their part for the beauty of the gene pool.  Unrelated, I happened to mention to some Czech friends that I had noticed quite a bit of hugging and kissing going on in public, especially on the up-to-four-minute escalator rides up from the depths of the metro. (This was so socially verboten in Asia that I’d forgotten if it was normal anymore.)  He said that Americans often mention this with surprise, and Czechs can’t figure out why it’s even noticed.  In case you’ve heard that Czechs can be dour or serious I’d have to say that my first impression is quite the contrary.  They look busy, they’re always reading, much more rarely on the phone than what we’ve seen in other cities.  Plus, there’s an awful lot of socializing going on in this city and it starts everyday by 5:00pm.

Czechs drink.  A lot.  Like most European countries, beer and wine are part of everyday life.  I’ve heard that Czechs don’t really get too politically involved unless the government attempts to increase the price of beer.  It’s a national drink, a cultural icon, mother’s milk to most.  And it’s good and getting better all the time as more microbrewers open and it becomes an entrepreneurial industry.  I’m pretty sure being born without a tolerance for alcohol (mentioned so frequently in Asia) would be considered a physical handicap here.  Overindulging is a major social problem in the countryside, and city dwellers certainly contribute their share to the statistics.  I’ve seen young people absolutely hammered at 11am, unable to negotiate the purchase of a sandwich.  On more than a few occasions I’ve seen people in the park at 8am who have clearly been there all night, still drinking and not looking homeless or scary, and more than once I’ve seen a guy on the 8:30am metro slugging a beer. During the Christmas markets, which were their own kind of magical, I passed by ladies my mother’s age having mulled wine for breakfast.  We don’t see people drunk often and in many ways it’s just like any other city with people enjoying themselves responsibly and respectfully.  But as a social problem, it’s not at all funny and I’ve noticed my colleagues don’t laugh when the subject of excessive drinking comes up.  I’m guessing that a large share of families here are affected by alcoholism and that’s not a national badge anyone wants to wear.

There are days and sometimes weeks when we say “We love it here…let’s stay for a decade.”  We know that’s part of the newness we’re experiencing and how refreshing it is to live in Europe.  I really feel that I had to be this age to appreciate where I am now – any sooner and it just wouldn’t have felt so right.  I’ll be 50 this year and some of my natural energy is waning, so city life is just my speed.  Of course we miss family and friends, but we have high expectations that come spring some of you will be sprung across the Atlantic and come to visit.  People here rhapsodize about Prague in the springtime. They keep telling us if we like it now, we’re going to LOVE it soon. I think it’s because winter is grey and when the sun comes, it makes a star appearance!  After three years of hiding from the relentless Asian sun, we’re enjoying the clouds.  We’ve found an apartment in Vinohrady, adjacent to a marvelous park (this is what dog families do) and it’s just 15 minutes walk to the city center.  For the first time EVER, in 30+ yrs of working, I can walk to my job.  (Living in/at/over your job as we did in the B&B and the hotel is a whole different story.)   And if I choose not to walk, the transport system here is superb.  Ticketing is on the honor system, which is a terrific privilege and brings out the Catholic in me.  On the rare occasion the metro police are checking for tickets or passes, I get the excited feeling of “oh pick me so I can show I’m a good citizen.”  Pretty juvenile huh?  Guess it comes from years of wanting to avoid the cops at all costs. Prague is safe, easy and efficient – but have I forgotten to say how beautiful it is?

If you haven’t been, it really is one of Europe’s fairy tale cities. The castle keeps watch over the city and even though I see it every day, I still go giddy because…it’s a castle! (We have a craned-neck view of it from our flat.)  The city streets have a twisty magic to them and the architecture is nothing short of breathtaking. It’s the kind of city where the reward of looking up, at the wide variety of building styles, is even greater than what you see looking around.

Work has gotten off to its usual bumpy start, I should be used to this by now.  The challenge one accepts is rarely the challenge one actually gets, and I try to remind myself that thanks to superb parenting, I’ve always tried to do the most with what I have and stay grateful for the opportunities I’m enjoying.  Michael is off to a fast freelancing start with work that intrigues him and promises to pay for a more than a few jaunts to Croatia, Greece and the Nordic countries.  He’s also about to begin taking Czech lessons, not with my blessing, but if he sticks with it, I’ll be glad to share the benefits.  Chutney is a born-again dog, enamored of the snow, a lunatic in the park with her ball, friendly on a daily basis with Vizlas, mutts, Schnauzers, Great Danes, Shepherds, Labs, it’s like dog heaven on earth for her….and us.

I’ll wrap it up now by adding a little nugget I learned when I inquired about life during and after communism.  Our new Czech friends told us that after the fall of communism in 1989, it was amazing to have the privilege to travel freely, read and see all sorts of films and to enjoy the freedom of religious expression.  Of course I was most interested in what, if anything, was better during communism.  They volunteered freely that people were closer to one another, felt like equals, there was little or no competition, everyone had a “job,” be it meaningful or meaningless and so there was very little stress.  They certainly don’t want to return to that time, but they did want me to know that it wasn’t all bad, and in some ways, life was sweeter and easier.  I’ve always been a fan of the sweet and easy life, so I enjoyed this honest perspective.

I owe so many of you an answer about how we like things here, and how we’re settling in, etc., so thanks for keeping in touch and asking after us.  I thought this was the best way to reach out to everyone and give you the not-so-quick low-down on how good it all feels.  We happy, we’re healthy, we’re keeping open minds and hearts and we’re at the start of another adventure, the outcome of which, thankfully, is always unknown.  Keep in touch and I will try to Blog Prague again in a few months.

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