From random ……….. to planned

In yet another very old post, I unveiled The Old Apartment Rule, my proposal that anyone ought to be allowed to ask for a quick five minute tour of any apartment or house that they’ve previously lived in from the current residents. I finagled my way into a real-life instance of this last week when we went back to Prague last week for a short visit and stopped by our old apartment that we’re currently subletting to pick up mail. There was the sight of our old place— ours for five-plus years, the longest I’ve lived at any one address as an adult!— shifted around and decorated with somebody else’s knick-knacks and sensibilities. I worried that the cognitive dissonance would fry my son’s young brain, but he enjoyed the visit and seemed unbothered by the weird collision of old/new, ours/not-ours.

Also strangely transformed is Prague’s hlavní nadraži, aka main train station. They’ve been renovating it for several years now in order to turn it into a typical spacious, organized, appealing, identical Western European train hub, just like any other. Previously, it had this weird sense of spatial compression from the low ceilings and an infernal red-ness, plus the large number of pigeons that seemed to be trapped inside at any given moment:

(photo credit: milov)

[Admission: actually, this renovation basically finished like a year ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about this whole time, but only just remembered when I was back there this week.]

In general, the changes are nice, if bland. It’s nice to be able to buy your ticket from a visible, accessible person rather than leaning over to shout into a tiny voice hole set in shatterproof glass with a grumpy, shadowy personage lurking behind. It’s nice to be able to buy food that you don’t instantly hurl into a garbage can four steps later. But most of all, I’m delighted by this series of ads that appear in the station, touting the improvements made. They are essentially before-and-after pictures, with a shot from the old unrenovated days on top and an up-to-date image below. Like this:

‘From random…. to planned,’ boasts the caption. First, I love the fact that they took the effort to organize a shoot of characteristic stuff from the old station just so they could poop on it later by dint of comparison. You can just see the proprietor of the ‘random’ stand throwing up his arms in insulted disbelief upon seeing this: What?! That’s what I was told to sell. That’s what Czech people eat!

The series contains several other gems:

The abandoned, sloshy bucket on the floor is really great. Again: it kills me to imagine the prop wrangler and art director for this shoot in action.

This might be the best:

From the ‘before’ scene, the grumpy old guy scratching his head is perfect casting— I mean, I can just picture myself defeatedly approaching that guy for information and trying to struggle through a conversation with him in Czech all the while knowing that it’s not going to avail me of anything. But what’s up with the woman straddling the suitcases? The encounter doesn’t seem that ‘distant’. It actually seems kind of ‘romantic’, at least when compared with the Oral-B blandness of the lower ‘new and improved’ reality.

Shine on, you crazy kids.

Other images in the series get a bit more predictable— this one, for example, uses the old black-and-white vs. color contrast used in every negative political campaign spot since the dawn of time:

Still, there are nice details sprinkled throughout. Notice above, for example, that while the bad old days were devoid of color and lighted signs, they were replete with leering strangers with no umbrella heckling you from the neighboring bench.

p.s. any time we’re on the subject of Czech mass transit, it’s worth linking one more time to the timeless Onion TV bit about Prague’s Franz Kafka Airport.

Mysteries of Czech Language: Diminutive Fever

Though I’ve left the Czech Republic for Germany, I feel obliged to keep up America’s favorite ongoing blog series, The Mysteries of Czech Language.

Czech language has a built-in structure where you can form diminutives from just about anything. A waitress at our favorite Prague restaurant seemed to have a nervous disorder that compelled her to use them constantly and ask me things like if I want ‘another little beer-y-poo.’ But the system of forming diminutives is applied most exhaustingly to children’s names: Zuzanna becomes Zuzka becomes Zuzinka and so on.

One couple we know had a daughter and named her Justina (like Justine, but the Ju sounds like ‘You’). Via the diminutive system, she’s most frequently called Justinka, like ‘you-STINK-a’. It’s almost impossible for me not to laugh every time I hear this. I try to keep a broad mind and remember that it sounds perfectly acceptable (a touch exotic, even) in Czech. But it just sounds like a corny set-up for one of those old ethnic humor shows, like Life With Luigi:

Hey-a. I come to America and everyone says, ‘Hey… you stink-a! And I say, ‘No, it’s-a not me. It’s my baby.’ And everyone says, ‘Oh, what a poor baby. She’s such a pretty girl. What’s her name-a?’ And I says-a-to-them ‘Justinka’. And they get angry and a-punch me in the cucalabanga! Hey-a!

While we’re here: my friend recently posted photos from his vacation to a small town in the Czech Republic, Lazy. He reports that there is also Horni Lazy nearby (Horni = high).

And: there is a phrase in Czech that sounds exactly like this: ‘FUCK YO?!’ It means, ‘Oh, really?’ and Czechs say it all the time. Just so you’re forewarned.

Tricked-out Gypsy Tombstone Fail

We were back in Czech this past week (yep: already) for reasons that are more complex than interesting to relate: basically, I had been under the impression that my proposal for the Jewish Museum identity was due then, so we also made plans to visit my wife’s father in Karlovy Vary, hang out in Prague for a few days, go to a wedding, and for my wife to play a field hockey game in Pilsen. By the time I found out that my Jewish Museum deadline has been extended to the end of the month, we were already locked into going…

Since it wound up being an accidental working vacation of sorts, I decided to use the time available in Prague to go investigate something my wife had brought to my attention: near where we live used to live, there’s a huge cemetery where she sometimes hangs out with one of her mom allies. She’d noticed a section of gravestones belonging to gypsy families that are apparently dazzlingly tricked out. It sounded to me like Prague’s answer to the highly-accessorized cars, low-rider bicycles and – back in the day – horses of the Mission’s chicano community, so naturally I was intrigued. Unfortunately, when I got to the graveyard, I was helpless to find the section she had told me about–- I mean, this place is GIANT. After awhile, I got tired and was afraid to lie down and take a nap in an open grave, so decided to split…

So, all I have to offer you are a few shots of plain old non-gypsy Czech grave sites. I really liked this one for Leopold Batěk:

The impulse to have a statue of yourself on your tombstone is natural enough, I suppose… but I really like the restless spryness of this pose: it looks like the figure is about to impatiently hop up and go down the street to buy some cigarettes. Good stuff.

Then there’s Zděnek Šimek, who was into training bears:

This strikes me as a more upscale version of the kind of knit sweaters that you sometimes see guys wearing with Kawasaki motorcycles or some other choice hobby stitched on them.

Since this post is looking a little skimpy, here’s some totally unrelated bonus entertainment:

Trashy Czech romance novels! Be still my heart. The title of this one translates as ‘The Heartfelt Guy’. This came from the bookshelf of my cousin-in-law, who has a whole raft of these– perhaps the entire ‘Čteny Pro Dívky’ (Books For Girls) series?

Let The Facile Comparisons Begin!

So far, during our first week in Berlin, my wife and I have agreed to a system whereby I’m allowed one comment per day along the lines of ‘Berlin awesome! / Prague sucks!’ so that I don’t drive her crazy by continually beating the same conversational drum throughout the day (plus, you know, denigrating her native culture and that stuff).

I find that I get the most mileage out of my one daily comment if I present it as a pseudo-amnesiac episode. Example: on Saturday afternoon, we went to a bike store to get help fixing our kiddo bike seat onto my wife’s bike. On the way back, I decided to use my allotted comment this way:

Me: ‘Boy, that sucks that we didn’t get to the bike store before noon and so it was already closed when we arrived.’

Wife: (confused)

Me: ‘Oh, wait– we’re in Berlin, I forgot… the store was open! That’s Prague where every bike store in the city is closed by noon.’

I have to admit that this construction gets pretty contrived after a while, but I don’t think I’ve totally worn it out. Yet.

Other comments-of-the-day have revolved around fairly banal (yet strangely evocative) differences in day-to-day life. The fact that people will stop for ice cream and sit down with it on the curb and idle away a few minutes enjoying themselves there instead of sullenly bustling away as fast as possible. The fact that the bank machines actually dispense notes that you can break without getting the Czech Iron Curtain Face (Czech ATMs for some reason dispense the equivalent of $120 bills, which you’re subjected to eight kinds of contempt simultaneously if you try to use anywhere). You get the picture– lots of small things of the Pulp Fiction ‘Burger Royale’ caliber. Then there’s also the UNBELIEVABLE RELIEF at being able to bike everywhere again. (You can bicycle in Prague, but will quickly drop it if you value life and living to any degree). I almost feel it breaks the entire social contract if you’re living in a city and can’t bike…

But most of all, there’s a startling sensation of dilation for me coming from a place as culturally-compressed as Prague. Everything in Prague is still done in a way that is just Czech, Czech, Czech… often, nobody seems to know why it’s done this way… maybe the thinking behind it hasn’t been revisited in three centuries… but it just is a certain way and there’s no negotiating with it. Berlin has the kind of elasticity preferred by rootless cosmopolitan Jewish homosexuals like myself– the city seems to mutate and adjust to meet the shifting demands of its inhabitants, be it a demand for ethnic food or stores that stay open past fucking noon on a Saturday.

(Photo: on same Saturday, we all biked together to Mauer Park, as I hoped that something interesting would happen that would justify my constant ‘Blah blah, Berlin is so cool’ claims. We arrived at the place where I’ve heard about the karaoke being done and came upon this impromptu mime act. Whew!)

Inside the Spanish Synagogue

I have a new design project that seems interesting. It’s a competition between five designers to create a new identity for the Prague Jewish Museum. What makes this especially compelling (beyond the fact that it doesn’t involve selling sneakers, or producing Flash banner ads with involve breakdancing clowns, or adding a Miffles stream-of-consciousness feature) is that the fact that the Prague Jewish Museum isn’t just a museum per se but rather a group of six interrelated historical sites in the Old Town. So, it’s like designing (or trying to design, anyway) an identity for a considerable chunk of the Josefov district.

This is what differentiates the Prague Jewish Museum from all others, I would say: Berlin might have a cool Daniel Libeskind-authored concept, another city might have a great exhibits, or artefacts (or actual Jewish people living in the city, for that matter, something Prague essentially does not have)… but Prague is the only city I know of that can bring an actual historically-preserved Jewish Quarter to the table. Famously, the area was left intact by the Nazis during WW2 following Hitler’s chilling decree that it should remain standing as a ‘monument to an extinguished race’. Interestingly, though, when I met the museum directors to discuss the logo project, they were eager to dispel the general misconception that this marked the beginning of the attempts to preserve the district (which would make Hitler the de facto founder of the museum, in a weird way… so you can see why they were eager to correct this notion). Actually, the preservation effort had already begun in the beginning of the 20th century, when urban renewal projects in the New Town started to prompt concern about the potential destruction of synagogues and artifacts contained within.

This is a architect's sketch of the above-mentioned cool Berlin concept. The museum's logo is simply this distinctive shape.


Anyway, my strategy this time is to avoid all attempts at ‘creative thinking’ and go straight for a trusty cliché. So, I’m thinking: a star of David… but instead of the star having points, each point will be a well-recognized Prague tourist site, such as the Charles Bridge or Prague Castle. It can’t miss!

One fun thing about this project is that I’ve been furnished with a pass to all six sites and a special form granting me permission to take photos (as to gather fuel for my awesome and mysterious ‘creative process’, if you will). On the downside, this entails setting foot into the utter tourist INSANITY that is happening at all times but especially during the springtime in the Old Town Square. It’s indescribable: a constant rate of chaos and oblivious people with backpacks bumping into each other in narrow spaces that you COMPLETELY forget about the existence of if you’ve lived in Prague for a while. Still, it’s well worth it for the chance to see these sites again, and also for the opportunity to ham it up and self-importantly brandish my photo permission at the smallest of pretexts.

I used my ‘press pass’ to take the photo at the top of this post, which is the ceiling of the Spanish Synagogue. I would love to post a bunch more photos, but worry that I will get in trouble for abusing my photo privileges. (It seems to me that the ceiling is known and photographed enough that it shouldn’t be a problem to post this one lone shot– if you are a director for the museum and reading this and thinking about getting angry at me, please consider this logic.) The artifacts on display inside this building included lots of lovely old book covers (my favorite!) and also a few sample bills of the special worthless ‘funny money’ that was issued to Jews inside the ghetto (back when Josefov was a walled-in apartheid zone). The text on the bills was, of course, written in German (naturally… but still strange to see) and really did look like Monopoly money.

However, my vaunted ‘press pass’ did not allow me the exalted, unmolested status I’d hoped for. The photo at the top of this post was taken milliseconds prior to me being subjected to a lengthy and melodramatic plea from the security guard not to take any more photos. This despite the fact that I’d already shown her my pass and she’d already okayed it. Apparently, her thought process was that she first accepted my right to take photos but then freaked out when she realized that the Synagogue was full of people (as it always is, duh) who were likely to take my lead and start trying to take photos themselves. Therefore, her appeal to me was delivered not on the grounds of museum policy, but rather as a sort of desperate personal favor: Can’t you come back on Saturday instead when I’m not here? You’re making my life harder! This, I must opine, is a classic example of the old-school Communist generation mindset at work: the beleaguered functionary’s total inability to consider both sides of an equation and make everyone’s interests meet within a given dynamic. Go do your job!, I considered hissing at her, but in actuality wilted under the barrage of her long, insistent pleas (delivered exclusively in Czech, what’s more– maybe that’s part of what wore me down) and just made little sketches of whatever else interested me.

Shot of the Ghetto funny-money discussed above, taken by somebody else (i.e. not me further abusing my photo pass)

Existential Confusion In The Czech Marketplace

These local establishments seem to express a certain amount of uncertainty vis-a-vis the existence of an objective and extrinsic reality:

1. Kuchnyě Dada (‘Dada Kitchenware’)

Fun shopping environment. But why did the refrigerator we buy there arrive with an old boot and a bird nest inside? And this iron is totally damaging my clothes:

This stupid bowl and spoon need to be dry-cleaned after every meal:

2. Probably The Best Czech Art Glass

If I had to design a promotional brochure for this place, here’s how it might look:

Prague’s Most Desolate Bars

Seeing as I’m leaving Prague in a few weeks (maybe permanently… more likely just for six months), I thought I should do justice to some of Prague’s most shudderingly bleak bar spots. Now, there’s a lot to choose from, and everyone who’s lived here as his or her own personal nominations. My friend always talks about a neighborhood bar he ventured into only to kill time one afternoon when he’d locked himself out of his apartment…. only to discover that Tuesdays are ‘Topless Barmaid Night’ there… and ‘Topless Night’ also extends to include afternoons… and the barmaid on duty at the time was old enough to be someone’s grandmother.

I promise no such NSFW delights here, but focused on a few places that I’ve noticed while walking around or that are (cough, cough) familiar to me from personal experience:

1. 777 Bar, Vršovice

If your idea of a good time is a window-less octagonal bunker settled in a totally residential, out-of-the-way neighborhood, then you’re in luck:

You might reasonably assume that this bar is simply closed for the afternoon and will later throw open its shuttered windows to take on a more welcoming persona. You’d be wrong, though:

The signage on the far left side of this picture indicates that it is ‘Nonstop’ (Czech parlance for ‘open 24 hours’… and also a notable teenybopper anthem). Indeed, the open door reveals that this place is in fact as open for business as it will ever be at the ripe hour of 3pm on a Sunday. I must admit that I was legitimately frightened to venture inside, but did take a peek– it looks like the indoor portion of Zeitgeist, except pitch black and with no customers.

It’s common knowledge in these parts that a lot of the more improbable bars around (especially the ‘Herna bars’– i.e., ones that advertising gambling) are just money-laundering operations for the mafia (the adjective ‘Russian’ is usually thrown into this equation as well, but I have no way of evaluating how widely this assumption applies). But, then, the stubborn question persists: why stay open all day and night if your bar is simply a ruse? Sadly, braver souls than me will have to venture inside to investigate the truth…

From a design perspective, I love how the ‘777’ theme is suggested mainly through ‘bang’ graphics on the shuttered windows… but then is also reiterated on the weird banana crescent sign hanging over the door.

2. Hostinec U Starejch Hadru, Vršovice

OK, this place is (regrettably) familiar to me, since it’s open late and in the neighborhood:

I think this means ‘Tavern of the Old Rags’, although I could be wrong about the ‘rags’ part. One thing that is certain is that the distended Scooby Doo-style haunted-house lettering creates an accurate premonition of the terrors that await you in this local speed metal bar.

The thing that really sets this establishment apart is the fact that it’s encased in a metal cage and the bartender has to actually personally emerge from behind the bar to let you in with his key (no buzzer). It’s essentially like checking into prison for an evening:

Once inside, you’re free to gaze at the exit and dream longingly of freedom…

… but to get out, you need to ask the bartender, who is apt to momentarily disappear behind these two regulars:

Once back on the outside, I didn’t know how to adjust to the real world again (as lamented by so many reformers of the criminal justice system) and immediately committed a petty crime in order to get back in.

3. Ventilation Duct, Hlavni Nadraži

On the way to investigate Wolf Prefa (see below), I passed this place, which at first glance looks just like the sister bar of 777 Bar:

As it turns out, however, this structure exists only to release air in and out of the underground metro system that runs right nearby. Interesting, right?

4. Wolf Prefa, Holešovice

Also not a bar, as it turns out. Bear with me here:

If you take an international train into Prague, you will arrive at one of two stations. If you come into the more obscure station of the two, Nadraži Holešovice, one of the first things you spot from the platform is the fantastically forbidding structure:

Without really thinking about it, I’d half-consciously assumed that this must be some disused nightspot– the homespun lettering is something I can only associate with nightclub, rather than a legitimate business. Obviously, I was forgetting the fact that, during Communist times, homespun lettering was A-OK. Anyway, upon closer research, this turns out to be the headquarters of a semi-disused cement factory.

One more bleak view, for the road:

Galanterie, or haberdashery?

This afternoon, I scampered downtown to find a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom among Prague’s multi-language book stores. As it turned out, none of the usual suspects had it on the shelves, but I managed to track down a copy at a curious little place called The Academic Bookstore, where they wrapped up the book in paper and taped it shut (??):

Anyway, here are some of the things I saw while securing my little ‘literary parcel’:

Please do not disturb or startle this delicate creature, or we will be forced to remove the installation.*

In search of a swanky double entendre, this establishment obliviously wound up at a somewhat nauseating triple entendre.

Prague’s Saddest Building: The Kotva Shopping Centre was quite literally an international tourist sensation when it opened, in part owing to its unique honeycomb shape. Its shelves were often half-empty during the waning years of Socialism, though, and it has been since upstaged by more modern shopping malls that have the advantage of looking like they might actually be enjoyable to spend time in.

I normally don’t start clubbing in the middle of the day, but this Elektro place just looked too awesome to pass up. Until I realized what kind of ‘Elektro’ they’re talking about:

Multi-lingual signs at Tesco:

Galanterie, or haberdashery? I’ll take one of each, please.

Finally, remember when I warned about the coming of Dork Season? Well, it’s September, and here we are…

* Seriously, though: what is going on here?

Drinking with Czechs

Last night, I went for beers with colleagues from my first, bad job in Prague (an agency that spat out an endless supply of banner ads and sitelets for Vodafone– my co-workers were really nice, but the work was shallow and boring). When I started this first job, I was naturally curious about the drinking habits of my Slavic colleagues, and especially about a certain workplace convention– previously unknown to me– called ‘shots in the office’. Back in the US, I worked at a few places that contrivedly attempted to let their hair down on Fridays and have would beers in the office as the weekend approached, but hard liquor was another story altogether. At this first Czech job, in contrast, I’d be intently hunched over my computer attempting to meet an end-of-day deadline for some inane Vodafone thing when I’d feel a discreet tap on my shoulder, turn around and see Jirka or Lenka or Pavel making the international ‘let’s have a shot’ motion. A bunch of us would scurry into the conference room, where somebody would produce a bottle of slivovice (plum schnapps). Everyone would toast and down a small shot, then busily run back to their battle stations to resume working. Lest this sound too primitive and iron-curtain-ish, I should add that these co-workers were distinctly up-and-coming-professional types– hardly anyone in the office smoked cigarettes, and the general office atmosphere was very trendy and hip in manner of ad agencies everywhere.

Last night, we met at a bar called U Zlatého Tygru (‘At the Golden Tiger’) that’s one of the most representative classic old fashioned Czech bars. The moment I walked in, I thought, “I wonder if this is the bar that Václav Havel famously took Bill Clinton to?”. Soon enough, I was informed that it in fact was the very bar. I would tell you more about the place, but it was hard to see with water gushing out of my eyes from the 50 cartons of cigarette smoke floating around in the air. Rest assured that I was having as good a time as Bill is enjoying in the photo above. I wonder who the guy on the left is– trusted Havel advisor, or random barfly? I wonder what kind of Czech bar food they ate (probably something hideous, given the year). I wonder if Bill remembered to order some wiener schnitzel to go for Monica (heh heh).

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before here and here, Czechs sure do love their old fashioned bars. There are few places where anyone feels inclined to try to look or act cool– generally, a kind of relaxed slobbery prevails. As evidence, I present this handsome specimen whom I photographed a few years ago at the spot around the corner from my current job (on a Friday evening, no less– one can only assume that this was his special ‘going out’ outfit):

Farewell, Blind Eye

I forgot to write anything about what I did on my birthday last Saturday. First, we got a babysitter, which was great… and unchartered territory for us. We’ve had family members look after the little guy from time to time, but this was our first hired mercenary. I’ll tell you, you haven’t truly felt like a grown-up until the first time you pull out your wallet to ‘pay the babysitter’.

Then, after dinner, we went to the closing party for the Blind Eye, the one and only real Mission-style dive bar in Prague. Just about every other bar in this city either involves sullen Czechs sitting at tables being served beer in formulaic fashion… or rampant tourist buffoonery… plus there are a few weird meat-market places for professional types in their 30s that I’ve only gotten a fleeting glimpse of. The Blind Eye was about the only place where people would drunkenly mill around and mix; the bathroom door’s broken; there’s no light in there so you have to leave the door ajar a bit to do your business; but you’re afraid to see what’s on the floor so you don’t want to open it too much, etc– you know the drill. My friend was so enamored of the place that when he wrote a manuscript loosely based on his own debauched experiences in this Zizkov neighborhood, the action partly centered around a  thinly-veiled bar called ‘The Other Cheek.’

The Blind Eye officially closed two weeks earlier with a farewell party that I missed because I was in Berlin. In the annals of ‘Wow, that didn’t take long’, though, they predictably re-opened for  ‘one final night’ to raise funds for some future incarnation of the bar at a new location. You could tell things were really on their last legs when they ran out of beer at 2am. It seems that my Berlin buddy and I got the last two ever served beer in that fine establishment, which is a nice closing note.

(Photo: Kristýna Holubová, stolen from her Facebook album)