Europe | Czech Republic | Prague – Life in a cement detergent-bottle world
I did finally get away from the tourist centre one night, meeting my old friend Clare from London in an area called Zizkov. Finding where to buy tram tickets was not easy I found myself in a dark, foreboding train station, where only a few dodgy looking men milled around. It was a short tram ride so short that I missed my stop and had to walk back. There was not a tourist in site; very few people on the street at all. Steady rain fell and I popped into a local shop and found a cheap but pretty bottle of absinthe. Id been keeping an eye out all week, as I like to paint them.
Clare and I go back about 15 years. Shes lived all over the UK, in Hamburg and now is teaching English in Prague. I was a bit disappointed to find her with a crowd of friends, especially as I ended up next to a very drunk stranger when in fact all I wanted was a quiet catch up with Clare.
The drunk girl was 24, from Hong Kong, English-private-school educated, and now travelling alone in Europe. She really wanted to go to Istanbul before her flight back to Hong Kong in a few weeks time. Alone? To Turkey? I was shocked. Ive been to Morocco alone, the girl replied. Really? I asked, forgetting that at the very same age I had travelled through 4 countries in Africa alone, even hitchhiking when there was no other available transport. Oh, how motherhood changes one. I was even worried about this poor wet (buxom) student who kept repeating a tedious story about a stag party shed met in a bar in Prague centre.
Ok, I admit Im writing this in hindsight now. I took notes in Prague and even looked at some Internet cafes. But with everything being much more expensive than we expected, I couldnt really justify spending ?2 for half an hour on what was likely to be a tediously slow connection…
So what else did we do? Drank beer in the sun drank beer in the rain… had the best mojito Ive had since Cuba at a place called Mama Lucy on the Old Town Square. In fact it was better than in Cuba perfect balance of ice, rum, mint, sugar and lime, says the cocktail expert.
One night we found a cheap, cozy bar; Conny, who works at a communist newspaper in Berlin got into a heated discussion with a Czech journalist who despises communism with all his soul. Im not sure how it all ended, other than the Czech telling us he had to meet his girlfriend when she finished work at the theatre. Unusually for a Czech this guy did not touch alcohol. But he enjoyed his late night life so much he wasnt sure if children were a good idea. I reassured him it was fine; only one parent has to babysit. You can still have a night life, just a little less of it, which is fine after a certain age.
Lucy entertained herself playing football in the square in between looking at the cock (clock) and running after little boys. We visited a toy store that had all the same toys we have at home at the same prices. Even the minuscule section of Czech toys had the same wooden duck someone gave Lucy for her first birthday. They did however have some excellent bubbles. They even smelled of bubble gum. And a fun slide that was too high for Lucy. And friendly staff who let us play with all the toys. And a toilet which was essential when I got a case of Delhi belly. And a LIFT so we didnt have to lug the buggy up and down stairs. But still… what Czech people can afford those toys? Czech wages are still well below those in Western Europe.
When we werent wearing our buggy out on cobblestones, or drinking beer, we ventured up to Letna Park, which was much better for strolling with a stroller. We found a lovely communist playground it even had buckets and spades for all to use. Not like at home where you have to practically lock up your beach toys to keep them getting pinched.
Lucy met some little boys. I wonder if she even knew we were in another country, the way we hear so many languages spoken in London. For her, this was her usual stomping ground, just with a slightly different design: slides, sand and swings. Boys, girls and babies. Dad lying on a park bench. Mom reading a guidebook.. ok that part was different but I doubt she noticed.
Lucy and dad had a bags of fun in the technical museum. There was a large display of old cars, trains, bicycles and motorcycles. It was very buggy un-friendly with lots of steps. But the long walkways that went around on 4 floors were great for a toddler to practise running. Plus the whole Letna Park/Technical museum area was pretty empty. I guess all the tourists just congregate in the castle, Charles Bridge and Old Town Square.
Speaking of that bridge, we inadvertently walked across it one evening and saw some pretty good musicians. A woman playing classical guitar, and a group that had double bass, horns, accordion and percussion.
And under the surface it wasnt that hard to find a non-westernised bit of Prague. Although the sign outside read Tesco in a familiar logo, inside the store had almost no food. Instead it had oddly incongruous islands of perfumes, cosmetics, stationary and random items there was a shelf of beer followed by one with cheap souvenirs followed by hair dye and then wine and then crayons. One small corner had some biscuits and yogurt. And more alcohol.
I meant all week to get to Mucha and (some photographer I liked in the 80s) exhibition. But after a leisurely lunch and a text message from John saying beer in the sun we headed off to meet him instead. Rather than beer in the sun, though, John was having a sombre indoor lunch with a group of very serious looking conceptual artists. Once they filtered out, Lucy found a friend AND a play area in the back of the pub/restaurant.
Later on we went along to the conceptual art show, where a pile of rotting garbage stank so badly Sexton walked out. It was hard to tell what, if anything, was art. Lucy and I held our noses and went up to the other floors of the crumbling building. There was a lot of peeling plaster, broken tiles, and torn up floors. In a few rooms were TVs. In one room a woman appeared to have made something, even if it was just washing up liquid bottles cast in cement. At least she had DONE something. The artist took photos of Lucy some life in a cement detergent-bottle world.
Being a parent certainly brings out ones inner critic of other parents… one day we met up with someone, who I wont name, at a restaurant. We were meeting a group of people, and another baby. We got a large rectangular table in the non-smoking area. But the guy we were meeting, also a father (though a cheating one who does not even live with his girlfriend) insisted on waiting for 2 tiny round tables in the smoking section. It seemed absurd to us, when we had a perfectly good table, that this guy HAD to be in the smoking section, even if it meant angering the waiters (the place was very busy), cramming around 2 tiny tables, and, most of all, exposing young children to smoke. It was a difficult situation as there was a reason we had to be nice to this person, though in fact neither Sexton nor me liked him much.
Although I seem to have moaned a lot about the over commercialisation of the place, we did all have a lovely time overall. Though it was a great novelty to stay in the Old Town Square, I would prefer to be a bit further out, somewhere more real, next time.
The best part was at the end, our last night, sitting in the big window watching dusk descend over the square, horses going in for the night, the carriages with their tops folded up like they were in days long gone. Sexton and I enjoyed a bottle of cava to celebrate my 40th birthday, and we were just talking about how great life is when the Vampire turned up with a case of beer. He had other friends staying after us. Still, I hope we had a chance to tell him what a lovely time we had, and that we had much appreciated our accommodation.