Saturday, March 18, 2006

Prague, continued

Upon emerging from the depths of Prague's metro system, having navigated successfully through Czech language-only bus and tube lines, the city lay beneath a modest snowfall, wrapped in a transluscent mesh of fog and smog that floated over the Vltava. From every vantage point along the river, Prague Castle's ancient spires rose above the mix of modern, Baroque, Rennaisance and medieval buildings that gathered at its feet.

The city is an agglomeration of old and new; beyond the tourist-centric neighborhoods of Josefov and Stare Mesto, ancient, proudly decaying towers stand beside glass-and-cement office buildings. On our third day, we traversed Nove Mesto and Mala Stranska, two neighborhoods bordered by the Vltava, but outside the areas where most visitors journey. In these places, it becomes clear that Prague is in the midst of a vigorous growth spurt after the end of its Communist occupiers. Everywhere, backhoes and bulldozers shovel aside mounds of rubble from demolished buildings to make way for new apartments, condos, office parks and transit centers. The city exudes a quiet sense of forward-motion, of transition away from a bitter past. It's a quirky, lighthearted, beautiful place where many of the streets are meticulously tiled with hand-sown black, white and red cubes of stone from another era. Coffee bars, beer halls and restaurants line the narrow, winding alleyways, competing for space with cluttered souvenier shops offering an endless array of glassware, beer steins, ceramics, nested dolls, jewelry and t-shirts that only the tackiest of visitors could love ("To Beer or Not to Beer?"). For the most part, locals are extremely friendly, patient with people who stumble over the dearth of vowels in Czech words. Life is sweet...

We had our share of memorable experiences, including an illustrative episode in the joys of working with different languages. I'd reserved tickets to a Mozart concert online before we left England, and we arrived at the Rudolfinum box office with a printout bearing the reservation number and instructions for paying. The woman behind the counter seemed extremely flustered and kept insisting that our reservation wasn't in her computer. I tried to show her the reservation number, but she just repeated, "The tickets paid already...I show no number in my computer." To us, this sounded like someone had nabbed our tickets -- and it didn't help that neither of us really spoke the other language. My Czech is limited to hello, yes, no, thank you, you're welcome, pardon me, and please. Her grasp of written English was small, but she laboriously struggled to read through the paper, only to sigh in consternation and repeat, "Tickets paid." Finally, after about 10 minutes of this, we resorted to shouting at each other really loudly and really slowly, as though somehow that would make it easier to understand the problem. One last time, she said, "Tickets paid?" in more of an inquisitive tone than before. I gave up, shrugged and said, "Yeah, sure." She turned, pressed a button, printed our tickets and said, "Goodbye." The concert was nice, I have to say. I still don't know if I actually paid for those tickets or not.

It was a wonderful trip, and I think we managed to avoid too many Americanisms...although we did offend/bemuse one waiter by completely failing our etiquette test. He brought out a huge slab of bruchetta, which we cut in half and ate by hand. A few minutes later, he returned and raised an eyebrow as he removed the untouched, extra knife and fork from each of our place settings. Oops...Seriously, I've learned from both England and Prague that we Americans have the most unrefined table manners of any group on the planet. Switching our knife and fork hands, daring to cut things with forks when they don't require a knife, eating "too fast" (which in Prague meant taking less than an entire night to finish a meal, apparently)...

I have a few more pictures to post, but I'll save those for later. If you ever get the chance, I definitely recommend visiting Prague...or in the immortal words of another bad t-shirt hanging in a window, "Czech it out!"


Anonymous said...

Even in Prague they acknowledge Washington! Now, why is it so hard for most Americans to remember that it is a bona fide state? :)

Your trip sounds AWESOME and I'm completely and totally JEALOUS!!!

Your Stanford Bud

Meg said...

Hey you! Come visit sometime - we'll trek through all the places we've never been (okay, that could take awhile, but still...)

How's Vick? I've been thinking of him!