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May 20, 2024

My Prague

By Jerry Seeger

Summer has come, and along with the long days and short skirts, Prague is starting to receive her annual onslaught of tourists. They are received graciously; the locals know a paycheck when they see one. (Actually, there are no paychecks here, but that's another story.)

The start of any visit to the city should start right in the center, with the Astronomical Clock. A centerpiece of every travel book and tourist brochure, it will be attracting crowds all summer. It is a very old clock, and on the hour wooden figures move about.

Here is how to get the most out of the Astronomical Clock. Just before the hour make your way to the Old Town Square. There will be a large crown gathered around the clock; at first you might give up on getting a good view. No worries. There will be space directly under the clock. The reason there is space there is because you can't see the clock. That's all right. Armed with the secret knowledge I am about to impart, you won't worry about that. You're about to see the best show in Old Town. Get your video camera ready!

As the clock strikes the hour, the crowd will go still, all eyes glued to the ancient timepiece, breath held in anticipation. You, savvy tourist that you are, have your camera trained on the crowd. After a few seconds the attitude of the multitude begins to change, as a group raised on Disney animatronics slowly realizes that this is not Pirates of the Caribbean. The action ends, the wooden doors close, and the gathered throng looks around, the same question on all their lips. "That's it?" Some will open guide books to see if perhaps there are other hours when things are more interesting. Others will be visibly angry -- they held their good spots for almost an hour to get a good view. Capture their faces and save that video, my friend, you'll be watching it long after the rest of your trip is in the "archives".

Why is the clock so hyped? Because Prague is not Paris or London. There is little of the sensational here, no museums that take weeks to appreciate, no Eiffel Tower, no skyscrapers. Prague just isn't that kind of girl. The clock is about the only thing of that sort she has to offer.

Take a look around for a few minutes, maybe check the Jewish Cemetery (I hear it's nice). Done? Good. It's time to go find Prague. There are actually two Pragues to choose from; Party Prague and My Prague.

Young travelers know how to find the Prague they're looking for. They come to town and go to overpriced (by local standards) clubs and listen to the same music they heard back home and drink the same booze they drank back home and hang in groups talking about all the other places they've gone to and listened to the same music and consumed the same booze. Prague is a favorite among this crowd. The combination of cheap alcohol and relaxed moral attitude makes this a world-class party destination. As a culture, the czechs have a long history of turning a blind eye to inconvenient legalities; you can do pretty much anything as long as you don't cause trouble. (Note there is a zero tolerance policy on drinking and driving. Driving with even the smallest amount of alcohol in your blood is definitely causing trouble. But then, even driving sober is pretty risky in this town.)

If the above is what you're looking for when you come to town, go back to the trash can, dig your guide book back out, and have a good time. I visit that Prague on rare occasions, and it can be pretty fun. But it's not My Prague. There are no signs that point to my city, and no guide books that list its charms. This article will only do a little better; while I will give you some clues, when you visit the City of One Hundred Spires you will have to find it yourself.

What is My Prague? How will you know when you find it? Why should you even bother looking? Those are complex questions, without definitive answers. And there lies your first clue. You are in a country with a population less than Los Angeles, a society that likes its questions complex, distrusts the easy answer, and scoffs at the pat endings.

To understand that better, let's start our tour of Prague in Vyšyhrad. It is an old fortress on a hilltop, and is now the national cemetery. It is quiet here, away from the bustle and commercialism of the Old Town. A church bell is ringing nearby. Let's wander a bit, and see who the nation reveres. Oddly, many of the names seem familiar. Composers, writers, artists. These are the heroes of the Czech people. It is the start of the answer to the questions above, but it is also the start of a great contradiction. The Czechs wouldn't have it any other way.

Once we have looked around for a while, the weather will become a factor. If it is sunny and hot, it will be time to find a nearby beer garden. If it is raining, it will be time to find a nearby pub. If it is overcast ... well, you get the idea. It is easy to find a place to relax over a beer here; easier, I suspect than anywhere else in the world. Paris, New York, anywhere else, there are neighborhoods where you have to walk blocks to find a bar. In the suburbs, it could be miles to the closest watering hole. Not in Prague. In this town I have been to a telephone repair place that serves beer, a hotel-finding service that dispenses the stuff, even an archery range with a tap. Nothing goes with deadly weapons like a nice cold one!

Prague is a city in which you decide what beer you want to drink, then choose where you are going to go. Places with too many taps are not trusted -- the beer might not be fresh. Some bars have only one tap, few have more than three.

Before we go in to our new favorite pub, however, let me give you the key to My Prague. The Czechs are not an outgoing people, but they place a high value on politeness. It only takes a few phrases to be a welcome visitor.

Dobrý den. Hello (literally, "good day"). Any time you walk into a shop, pub, restaurant, or residence, find someone to look in the eye and say hello to. On a practical level, the polite exchange of hello's with the wait staff establishes your presence much more effectively than sitting at a table does; the wait can be long otherwise. More important, the very first thing you have done is exchange a pleasantry that will last the rest of your stay.

Prosím (pro-seem). Please (also 'you're welcome' and 'what did you say?'). As with anywhere else you might visit, it is not possible to use this too often.

Děkuji (dik-wee). Thank you. Also impossible to overuse. This should be the last thing any shopkeeper, waiter, or host hears you say. Even if you don't buy anything in a shop, float a dik-wee in the direction of the clerk when you leave. I feel odd now, even in America, even in a place like Target, when I can't find someone to thank or wish good night to when I leave. It feels nice to leave on a good note.

Got it? There a few others almost as important, but those three are the foundation. Let's go into that bar, now. It's a small bar, a bit smoky. Dobrý den. Before we even finish exchanging greetings with the bartender, a dog comes over to say hello, a good sign that we are getting closer to our goal. Prague is a dog town (watch your step).

The locals are drinking Budvar desitku, we'll follow suit. It's sure to be fresh. While we sip our glasses of National Identity, we can ponder a seeming contradiction. Those people at the other tables, the ones wearing stained coveralls, taking their afternoon beer break before going back out to pretend to work for a while longer, those guys overthrew their government a few years ago in a bloodless revolution, and made a playwright their president.

These guys don't look like revolutionaries. They don't look like people willing to risk jail to go to a concert or read a banned book. But then, what does a revolutionary look like? The government has matured now, complete with corruption, scandal, and fiscal mismanagement, but there is no talk of overthrowing it again. Capitalism is here, the latest of the -isms to be endured and outlasted by the Czechs. They've been run over so many times that it has deeply affected the national character; the Czechs are survivors.

Our pub is furnished sparely. There is a large flat-screen TV on the wall but it is only turned on for major sporting events. Conversation is low but generally good-natured. The dog has returned to lie by the chair of his master. On the heavy oak table there is a sheet of paper with lunch specials. It is not in English. The waitress doesn't speak English. What to order?

Meat and potatoes, that's what. Luckily you don't have to read czech to order meat and potatoes, all the choices on the menu are meat and potatoes. There is the potential for some surprises, but choose one based on the portion size (provided by law) and the price -- which, since you've escaped Old Town, will be quite reasonable.

Our food arrives. I got a pork cutlet with blue cheese sauce and french fries; you scored some well-cooked beef ("rare" doesn't really happen here) with a rich sauce, along with potato dumplings and pickled cabbage. Not bad! (Next time we'll get the goulash.) Another round of beers, and now it's time to sit back and consider where you are. A little bar, a neighborhood place, with a plateful of heavy czech food in front of you, and a fine, easy-drinking beer in hand. You're surrounded by laborers who read literature and prefer art films to thrillers.

You're in My Prague.

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-08-27
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