Wednesday, September 27, 2023

News and Updates

1. I’m trying to figure out what the spammer in Singapore who has been pinging this blog several thousand times a day for the last month is getting out of all that effort. There isn’t any monetary value in what I post here that I’m aware of, and there’s nothing personally identifying here that couldn’t be found with less effort in readily available public sources so identity theft is kind of a long shot (though it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to deal with that in this world of the damned that we live in). Maybe I’m just popular in Southeast Asia? Whatever. Hi there, my guy. Leave a comment and introduce yourself.

2. The semester is rapidly heading toward high gear as we slide toward October, which means that I’m pretty much running on fumes most days. I like teaching. I like advising. But 130% of a job is a lot, especially when I keep agreeing to do other things on top of it. I suspect I will slide into semester break the way that speed-skating pile-ups sort of Keystone Kop their way across the finish line, and then I will do very little of anything for at least six minutes until I am informed that plans have been made for me. Oh well. I’ll rest when I’m dead, I suppose.

3. On the plus side it does look like I will get paid for all of my various jobs, which gives me warm fuzzies all over yes it does.

4. Two of the musicians that I found last year kind of by accident as small but rising acts have more or less hit the big time now and I’m feeling sort of hipsterish about it except that I really like that they’ve become popular since good things should be well known and hard-working talent should be rewarded. Gatekeeping is for people with no vision.

5. Both Lauren and Oliver went to Philadelphia separately earlier this month – Lauren drove out with Max to spend a few days hanging out in South Philly and touring the city a bit, and Oliver flew out to see Dustin before he went to the Sleep Token concert – and then both went from there to visit my brother and sister-in-law outside of NYC for a couple of days before heading back to Wisconsin. Lauren and Max did some touristing around NYC, while Oliver and Dustin both went to the Sleep Token concert there. Thanks to Uncle Keith and Aunt Lori for hosting! Someday perhaps I’ll get back to my native city as well. It’s been a while. The cheesesteak content in my blood is getting dangerously low.

6. Watching der Sturmtrumper being systematically dismantled by the legal system has provided me with the first glimmer of hope for this nation’s future that I’ve had in a very long time. The smoking ruin of the MAGA movement will a balm to the soul of American patriots when it finally comes, and I can only hope that a) I live long enough to see it, and b) it will continue until every last one of them is afraid to show their face in civilized company ever again.

7. Of course on the other hand watching the right-wing extremists in the House of Representatives actively seek to destroy the government by refusing to pass any budget but their own masturbatory fantasy list has been kind of grim. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill to keep the government open this week with more than half the Republicans in the Senate voting for it and the wrecking crew on the Fascist right in the House won’t even allow it to come to a vote because reasons. I suspect that even most of the GOP is losing patience with this nihilistic and fundamentally unserious movement and perhaps someday they’ll discover their spines and stand up to them. Today isn’t that day. Tomorrow likely won’t be either.

8. That same wrecking crew has also opened an impeachment hearing for President Biden based on … uh … something. Not sure yet. But it will be big! Yeah! BIG! You’ll see! And then you’ll be sorry! Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick but it’s like watching a detention hall full of held-back middle-school bullies take over a theater and try to perform a slapstick version of Hamlet live on national television except that none of them know how to play funny or take direction and half of them think they're Hamlet and don't understand why other people keep talking and haven't read all the way to the end to see what happens to Hamlet either – it's fascinating, in a “what the aggravated fuck are they doing?” kind of way, but no way to run a country. So far the various “charges” they’ve suggested range from “that’s not the right Biden” to “that’s been conclusively disproven months ago.” But they press on, because the alternative would be to allow the grownups to return to rational governance and you know that’s just not going to happen in their bleak little world.

9. We went to a nearby Peruvian restaurant the other day and I have to say that the food was very good except that if this restaurant is any guide Peruvian cuisine consists of about 60% cilantro and I’m one of those people who just can’t do cilantro. If you ask, they will take the cilantro off the things that they can take it off of and substitute out the things they can’t take it off of, but you can tell that they see this as one of those inexplicable demands that non-Peruvians make of them here in the gastronomical wasteland of Wisconsin. Why would anyone not want the cilantro? No idea.

10. I just got the lawnmower out of hock today so I can give the grass a final trim before the colder weather sets in, assuming that there will be a winter (not a guarantee in our changing world, really). We’ve had this mower since the late 90s and it works pretty well most of the time. We bought it to replace an old reel mower which was fun but required us to mow the lawn every couple of days to stay ahead of things and I’m just not that dedicated to lawncare. The neighborhood kids had no idea what a reel mower was – they were convinced it could not be a lawnmower since it had no engine. And eventually they were right and we got the gas powered one. It has a new pull cord and a new ignition coil now, and at some point soon the meadow beyond our front door will be more level and the city will not feel any need to write tickets.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

BFT23 - Wenceslas Square and the Old Town

We spent a fair amount of time in the doner shop, enjoying our first meal in Prague. But the weather reports were telling us that this would be one of the only dry evenings we’d have while we were there and the night was still relatively young even for us so we after a while we pried ourselves away from the table and headed out into the city.

If you go to Prague as a tourist you will end up at Wenceslas Square. That is the law. We figured we’d attend to that first thing, and I have to say it was a lovely place. It was about a twenty minute walk from our apartment and we ended up going there several times over the course of our stay. It has a sort of magnetic pull, for one thing – you’d head off to see something in an entirely different direction only to find yourself back there somehow without meaning to or really knowing how you got there – and for another our time in Prague was much less linear than our time in Italy. We’d often find ourselves looping back to places we’d been to before, to see things we missed or just on the way to other places.

We walked up the main road for a bit, slowly getting used to the fact that we were in a place we’d never been before and trying to take it all in as best we could. Eventually we turned left. From there we followed the sloping side of the road until we got to the large impressive building ahead of us, a beacon in the distance, which turned out to be the Czech National Museum.

The Museum sits at the top of Wenceslas Square, which really isn’t a square at all so much as a very long pedestrian boulevard, flanked on all sides by shops, hotels, restaurants, and random buildings of all kinds. It is occasionally crossed by roads or tram tracks.

We never did go into the Museum – there were plenty of other things to see, after all – but it made a handy landmark. The other big landmark at that end of the Square is the big statue of St. Wenceslas. He’s the guy on the horse. Surrounding him are statues of St. Ludmila (who can be found pretty much everywhere in Prague, possibly in more places than Wenceslas himself, or even Kafka, if you can imagine), St. Agnes, St. Prokop, and St. Adalbert. I can’t say that I knew any of this at the time as I was content to follow my “see it now, look it up later” approach to tourism, but the statues are impressive nonetheless and it doesn’t take a whole lot of mental firepower to figure out that the tallest guy sitting on the biggest animal and carrying the pointiest bit of metal is probably the one they named the place after. That’s how these statues work.

We spent a happy evening just kind of walking up and down the square, enjoying the much cooler weather and seeing the sights. Prague was about 10 to 15C (20 to 30F) cooler than it had been in Italy and for that reason much more comfortable to us northerners, though the weather forecasts were correct in predicting rain for much of the rest of our time there. It wasn’t a deluge of water – more of a light rain that you could never really tell whether you should open your umbrella or not for – but it kept things cool and to be honest I love grey, rainy days anyway. That’s my weather.

One of our first stops on the Square was a festive little store that sold – among other things – umbrellas to tourists at extremely reasonable prices, so we bought some. They were perfectly serviceable umbrellas and ultimately we ended up leaving them at the apartment for the next people so perhaps they are still being used.

The Square was crowded with people. One of the things that I really liked about all of the places we visited this trip was that there were always people about at all hours. You could be out walking at 11pm on a Wednesday and there’d be people out enjoying the cities, talking with their friends, heading to this or that place to do whatever it was they were going to do there. We are social animals, we humans, and it is good to be reminded of that now and then.

One of the things on Kim’s list of Required Elements for this trip was to have a beer in Wenceslas Square, and once you’ve made it to the Square the hard part is done. It is surprisingly easy to find someone to sell you beer in Prague. The Czechs consume more beer per capita than any other people on earth, including the Irish and the Germans – 140 liters (roughly 37 gallons) per year per person, if you’re looking for the numbers. Germans consume 99 liters per person and the Irish 93, though surprisingly neither is in second place. That would be Austria at 108 – a full 32 liters behind the Czechs, so it really wasn’t much of a contest. If you’re wondering, the US comes in 20th on that list, with Americans consuming roughly half of what Czechs do. Do not mess with the Czechs when it comes to beer.

We sat down at a table and someone came right up to ask what we wanted and then we sat there and watched the crowd float by on a gorgeous summer evening, sharing the time together.

Oliver has become a fan of a metal band called Sleep Token recently. I’ve listened to some of their songs and they’re good if not really my thing. They’re not a huge band as these things go but they have a devoted fanbase that follows them on Discord, stages meet-ups and events around concert dates, and generally seems to look after each other in a communal sort of way. So it was kind of fun to be sitting there at our table in Prague and notice a guy wearing a Sleep Token shirt walking by with his family. Of course Oliver got up to talk with him, and of course they had a good time bonding over their shared love of the band. This is how music fandoms should work, after all.

We ended up wandering into many different shops on Wenceslas Square that evening, including several tchotchke shops and a bookstore where most of the books were in Czech, of course, but which did have an entire alcove devoted to fine writing implements and you have to love that. We also sat for a while on the abundant benches, just taking it all in. It’s a good place to do that. Sometimes there are musicians out busking, though the quality can vary widely. This first night the musicians were pretty good, but it has to be said that on at least one subsequent visit the guy caterwauling into his little microphone was chased off by people from the nearby restaurant because he was scaring away their customers. I can’t say they were wrong.

As noted, Wenceslas Square has a certain pull and we ended up back there more than once. Most times it was rainy, but not always. Oliver and Lauren got some warmer clothes at two adjacent clothing shops and wore them around the city for the duration of our trip. One afternoon I was my own while everyone else was scattered around the city doing other things and after exploring the city aimlessly for a while I found myself back at the Square in front of a bakery that made remarkably good chocolate rolls, a situation which I did not let go to waste. Oliver, Kim, and I also had a good lunch there while Lauren was busy getting her hair cut and it was perhaps a bit touristy but certainly very tasty and really that’s all you can ask of a meal sometimes and we enjoyed it.

At the bottom of the Square the streets led out into the Old Town – the medieval heart of the city – and we spent a fair amount of time exploring that as well.

One of the first places we went was an open air market that sold pretty much everything, from souvenirs to mead to fruit. We sat on a bench nearby and sent Oliver to get some fruit and for a few days we were convinced that the fruit sellers had grievously overcharged him until we went back and took a closer look at the prices and realized that he had in fact paid the correct amount, it’s just that those fruit were more expensive than we’d thought. It was good fruit, though.

The Old Town is full of winding little streets and shops, and we had a good time wandering around in it, that night and other days as well. It extends fairly far from the Square, and there are all kinds of places to visit, and we’d run into bits of it on our daily travels, here and there.

There were places that sold elegant glass. There were places that sold Czech makeup. There were places that sold pretty much anything you might want and a lot you probably didn't. You could get candy bananas, if you so desired. We didn’t, but we could have.

By this point it was getting toward 9pm and we wanted to see the Astronomical Clock. The Astronomical Clock is the oldest such thing in Europe still functioning, and if you get there on the hour when it is set to do its thing you get treated to a pretty fascinating show.

The crowd waited patiently.

Eventually the hour came and the clock came to life. Wheels spun, figured appeared and disappeared through various openings, bells rang, and eventually the golden chicken at the top sounded its call and everyone was happy. You can’t beat a golden chicken for crowd satisfaction, I say. The crowd then dispersed to its various places.

Afterward we wandered around the nearby square as the sun went down over Prague. The square was golden in the light and smelled of roasting pork from the nearby sausage stand, and it all fit together oddly well to end our first night in the city.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

BFT23 - Living Briefly in Prague

The first thing we did in Prague after dropping off our stuff at the apartment was find a place to eat because by this point it was late in the afternoon – bordering on early evening – and we hadn’t had any food since leaving the Bari airport. Fortunately the neighborhood where we were staying was one of those busy urban places that’s just far enough away from the touristy areas to be relatively uncrowded but close enough to have pretty much everything we could want.

We’d noticed a place selling doner kebab as we made our way from the tram to the apartment and since it was close and Lauren had fond memories of doner from her time as an exchange student – memories that we had been only partially successful in recreating back in Wisconsin – we decided to go there. Ordering was a bit of an experience, as between us and the people working behind the counter there were at least five different languages being spoken with absolutely no overlap among any of them but eventually we figured it out and found a table.

It was very good food but still not quite the doner experience that Lauren was looking for. That would wait until we got to Germany a few days later. But still – how great is it that you can just walk to a place like that in your own neighborhood? This is why cities are such wonderful places.

We enjoyed our neighborhood immensely while we were there. I love cities, with their energy and noise and constant stream of things to see and to explore, and the neighborhood where we stayed not only had all of that and then some but was also within walking distance of many of the places we’d wanted to visit as long as we were willing to walk a bit more than the average American does. We have feet. We know how to use them. And for those destinations that were further away than that, our neighborhood was right on several different tram lines so we could get pretty much anywhere else easily as well. There was a nice little park that we’d go through to get to some of those tram lines, too. We invariably went through it coming back to the apartment from the tram, and sometimes leaving as well.

And it had an assortment of funky shops, some of which we actually went into and some of which we did not.

The barbershop was right across the street from us and we appreciated it from our window without actually going in, though Lauren did eventually make a hair appointment somewhere else in the neighborhood while we were in Prague. The rest of us didn’t see the place as she made the appointment on her own and we were all scattered about the city doing other things while she got the cut, but we met up afterward and agreed that it was indeed a nice haircut. The other photo is of a tchotchke shop full of cat-related merchandise that we did go into the one time we passed by when it was open. There was much adorableness inside.

Just down the block there was a second-hand shop that sold very … interesting … things, to judge from the window display, though it was never open when we walked by even though Lauren and I made a specific attempt to go there one day. Next time, perhaps.

We also spent some time in a pencil shop just up the street from the apartment, because really how often do you get a chance to do that in Wisconsin? We are a house full of academics and artists and we all appreciate good writing implements.

Of course the fact that cities are lively places full of energy and noise does mean that it can be difficult to get to sleep if you are used to quieter neighborhoods. Our apartment faced a busy street that seemed at times to be the central point for every fire engine, ambulance, and police car in Prague, all of whom were in a hurry to get somewhere else, and while you can adjust to that – the dorm I lived in for three years as an undergrad was within a mile or so of four major hospitals and right on a corner where the trolleys had to turn, and I slept fine – it does take time and our first night in Prague was a bit jumbled that way. We were just so glad to have cooler weather after the fierce sunshine in Italy that we left the windows open to sleep. Fortunately our house in Wisconsin is only a few blocks from the hospital as well so we were somewhat used to the noise, but I will confess we kept the windows closed after that night. It was a bit stuffier, but much quieter.

One of the best things about our time in Prague was the fact that, as with Rome, we were able to be there long enough to get a sense of daily life – to see how people went about their days in a living city, and do normal things there. There were several times where, either separately or individually, we ended up just walking around the city and taking it all in, stopping here and there or just moving on to the next thing. You can’t really know a place in less than a week, of course, but having the unstructured time to wander around and just see what there is to see is a good start.

I got to know the currency, for example. Czechia is not on the euro yet, so you work with Czech crowns. These were about 22 to the US dollar when we were there, though the number fluctuated slightly every day and when the US saw its credit rating downgraded thanks to the ideological fanaticism of the American right and its near default on the national debt, we did notice the difference. But mostly it was interesting to see the coins and bills. As with Italy you can go to any ATM and get money that way – let your bank do the conversion to avoid the fees – and as with Italy the ATMs are programmed to give you unmanageably large bills so you have to find someplace that will break them into something more reasonable. It’s as if the ATMs in the US only handed out fifties. But eventually you can get them down to coins, and then I’m happy since I collect such things and here was a brand new field to explore.

The 50 crown coins were interesting to look at, since they were more or less equal to the 2-euro coins in value and similarly bimetallic only with copper around the edge rather than the brassy metal that the euros have, and it’s always a good idea to keep a few 20 crown coins on hand should you need to pay for a restroom visit. But the ones I found most intriguing were the lower value coins – the 5, 2, and 1 crown coins, which were bright and shiny like American nickels but you could pick them up with a magnet.

Our neighborhood was full of food. There were, by my count, at least half a dozen minimarkets within four blocks of our apartment and I visited as many of them as I could. I love food stores in foreign countries. It’s just fascinating to see what people consider normal food, and when you’re in a little market you can buy whatever you want for what is usually a reasonable fee. Mostly I’d get stuff to bring back for breakfast – cheeses, salamis, yogurts, breads, that sort of thing – but sometimes when we were walking around we’d stop in other such markets and just see what looked tasty. Lauren and I had the run of the city on a Sunday morning while Kim and Oliver went out on their own, and we ended up with quite a few snacks and drinks though we never did find the pineapple Pepsi that I had seen in a different store. This is probably for the best.

There are actual supermarkets in Prague as well, and I ended up visiting a couple of them. They’re just as fascinating to me as the minimarkets, with their variety of new and interesting foods and drinks, but the thing that struck me most about them is that they were invariably located underground. Czechs seem to feel that such things are best in basements, which I suppose makes a certain amount of sense in a crowded city where parking is a blood sport and land is at a premium. You don’t find the three-acre stores with the five-acre parking lots that you do in the US.

We ate dinner in our neighborhood most of the nights we were there, though we only ever ate “Czech food” – what can be defined as the local dishes – once or twice. There was so much else, and it seems that the locals like variety as much as anyone else so we didn’t feel too bad about it.

On our last night in Prague, for example, we spent a fair amount of time looking for a place called Saki because Kim and Lauren wanted sushi and they assured me and Oliver that it would have other tasty things on the menu as well – notably pad thai and pho. We started up one street and then turned around and went down another before finally stumbling across the place, and it has to be said that it was wonderful – low key, cozy, and full of tasty food. Afterward Lauren and Oliver went back to the apartment to pack up but Kim and I went out walking in search of a combination bookstore and bar that turned out to be a lot further away than we thought and the bookstore part was closed when we got there anyway, but it was a nice walk there and the tram got us back to the apartment with no worries.

My favorite neighborhood meal, though, was at a little pho place just down the street from us. I never did get a picture of it,* but you know what it looks like: a tiny little storefront restaurant, the sort of place you’d walk by without noticing if you weren’t hungry and looking for a place to eat, with a few spartan but clean tables and a counter where you could order. Cash only, please, and not that much of it all things considered. But really, really good food – some of the best pho I’ve ever had. We sat there with our soup, idly letting the conversation wander from food waste to food consistency to the perpetual adolescence of American culture and how men can stop aging emotionally at 16 but are allowed to age physically thereafter while women have to stop aging emotionally at 25 and physically at 17 and how this all worked with the maiden/mother/crone archetypes and any number of offshoots from there, and if there is anything better than a free-ranging conversation with people you love over a shared meal I haven’t found it.

EDIT: Actually, on further consideration, I did get a photo of it!  Kind of!  If you look down the street, to the left of the tram, you can see the sign for it.  It says "Pho," because that's the kind of no-fuss place it was.  I'm standing more or less in front of our apartment in this photo.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

BFT23 - From Irsina to Prague

I’m not really sure why we chose to go to Prague on this trip.

We have no particular connections to the city or to Czechia – a recent rebranding of the Czech Republic, which in turn was one of the component pieces of Czechoslovakia back when I was younger. Things change, including the fact that I am no longer young, alas. We have no family heritage in Prague the way we do in Italy and no golden memories of our own to revisit. A few friends and family have been there and enjoyed it but that covers a lot of places really. There’s a lot to do in Prague, as we found out, but there wasn’t an overriding sense of “This is something we must see.” It was just a place that ended up on the list of possibilities when we put it together that night at the trivia contest – one that I may have put there myself, if I remember correctly – and everyone basically said, “Prague. Yes. That sounds interesting. Sure, let’s go there too.”

So we did.

We woke up in Irsina to find the valley below us obscured by a fogbank that crept slowly closer as we watched from the balcony of the apartment. It was lovely, but the thought of driving down the mountain on those twisty little roads through dense fog was a bit daunting. Fortunately the fog stayed on the other side of where we were and let us get on our way with reasonably good visibility. The drive was pretty uneventful as that goes, as we’d had several runs toward Bari at that point and knew mostly what to expect. It’s surprising how quickly you get used to even the most outlandish things.

Things got more interesting, in the liberal arts sense of the term, the way three-headed frogs are, well, interesting, when we got to the airport.

For all of its wonders, GPS can be a blunt tool sometimes and even a half-second delay can be tricky when the roads are small and the turns come up quickly. We got to the airport in Bari just fine but the signs were just ambiguous enough to give us a bit of hesitation and the turns came up just quickly enough to make that hesitation a problem, and this is why we ended up circling around a bit to get to the rental car drop off. Fortunately Bari’s airport is not that big, so this didn’t take long. Eventually we found the drop off lot and how to get into it, drove around the place for a while in increasingly tight spaces until we got to the little shed where we could return the car, and completed the paperwork to give the Speck back to its rightful owners. They seemed happy to see it.

And then we had to get to the terminal.

The lot was entirely ringed with chain link fence and it was big enough and crowded enough to make finding the exit rather confusing. At first we looked for an exit on the way to the terminal – which was clearly visible in the distance as a beacon to the lost – but after a while we just started looking for any exit at all on the theory that once we’d made it out of the parking lot we could orient ourselves toward the terminal from there. We found a gap in the fence eventually and from there it was simply a matter of heading toward the big building where all the people were and walking until we got to the front door, but for a while we had visions of being the Lost Tourists of Bari, forever circling the rental car parking lot, dragging our carry-on suitcases behind us and making that rattling noise that carry-ons make over bumpy pavement like Marley’s ghost rattling his chains. This is how mythology and legend begin, after all.

We got to the airport with a fair amount of time to spare, because we knew we’d need it. We were flying Ryanair, after all.

If you’ve never had the Ryanair experience, you can think of it as Spirit without the frills but with a much better record of actually getting you to your destination. At least that’s been our experience. We did this once before – as with this time, the only Americans on the entire flight – and they promise that for a small ticket price and a host of hidden fees they will deliver you and your luggage to your destination safely and on time, and both times we have flown with them they have delivered. They make no promises about comfort, convenience, or amenities of any kind, and they do not offer such things though they will sell you lottery tickets in flight if that’s your thing. But in stark contrast to my experience with Spirit earlier this year, Ryanair does deliver on the things it says it will deliver.

Ryanair is one of the two main carriers in Italy now that the Italian flagship airline, Alitalia, has collapsed – the other being ITA, which we avoided on the way to Italy on this trip thanks to the kindness of the Delta person at O’Hare – so if you’re going to fly into, out of, or within Italy the odds are good that you’ll be on Ryanair. It’s an experience. So is getting hit on the head with a line drive.

The Ryanair counter was a large island in the middle of the terminal at Bari, one that was clearly capable of being staffed by two dozen people or more. When we got in line, there was exactly one Ryanair person working there and we took some time to determine that yes, this is where we needed to be since we had to check baggage there. The line got longer and longer and started to snake through the terminal. It did not move forward. People with earlier flights than ours began to panic. Foot traffic through the terminal came to a snarling halt. The one person at the island tapped away on various computer keys that might have been accomplishing something but it was hard to tell from our distance. Eventually a very angry man in an airport uniform walked over and started speaking in urgent and clearly unfriendly tones into his radio. Even for someone with the limited Italian that I have it was obvious that the person on the other end of that conversation was whoever was in charge of Ryanair operations at the Bari airport and the first man was telling him that if he didn’t ramp up the staffing levels at his airport there would be Consequences. You have to imagine this conversation in Italian, which is an expressive language in both vocabulary and gesture when it comes to this sort of topic.

New staff rapidly appeared, and the line slowly began to move forward.

Meanwhile we’d noticed that there was a McDonalds across the way, and since it was now getting closer to lunchtime and you’re not going to get food on a Ryanair flight in the best times, we decided that we’d take advantage of this in shifts. Hey – sometimes you’re in the mood for a crappy American burger, what can you do? And I have to say that when my turn came around it was unreasonably good. Maybe they’re just better in Italy. Or maybe we were just glad to have anything. Hard to tell. It was quite possibly the slowest McDonalds I have ever been to, though, right up there with the one we went to in North Carolina before going to my cousin’s wedding – if they’d been moving any slower they’d have been going backwards, as my grandmother used to say – but even so I made it back to the Ryanair line with plenty of time to spare.

More or less.

That was a matter of some confusion, but it all worked out in the end. The only downside to getting through security was that I had been wearing the hat that I had purchased against the sun in Rome (rather than trying to find a place to pack it) and when I put it through the scanner it disappeared from my mind and I never thought to pick it back up. I’m not much for hats in warm weather and I can’t say I miss the hat, but it seemed a shame to abandon it like that.

I left my hat in Bari. It’s almost a song.

We all met up at the gate and rested for a while before waiting in another long line to board the plane. Kim’s phone had almost but not quite survived its salt-water rinse and it died one of its thousand deaths just as she was about to hand it over to the guy for her boarding pass – fortunately I had her pass on my phone too – and then we walked out onto the tarmac.

Ryanair is nothing if not efficient – they want you in and out as quickly as possible because every minute you spend doing something is a minute they’re not selling your seat to someone else for a higher price – so they board you from both front and rear. Honestly I don’t know why every airline doesn’t do it this way. You walk out, you climb up the stairs at one end or another of the plane – we boarded and left from the rear on this flight – and everyone is on board in half the time. It’s great! Every airline should do this.

And then you sit down and wait for the flight to begin.

It was a pretty uneventful flight but you couldn’t tell that from our fellow passengers. We were surrounded by what appeared to be one large Italian family on their way to their summer vacation – or perhaps just a large assortment of random Italians who acted as family – and they spent most of the flight hopping up and down to talk with each other about what may well have been their first flight ever to judge from the reactions they had to things. The ones behind me were doing well until the end when the plane began a series of slow turns and started descending toward Prague. Every time the plane would turn or get noticeably lower they would startle and tell their compatriots that they did not want this to happen, in very expressive ways. I’m not really sure what the alternative would have been, though. The plane went up. It had to come down somehow. Gravity: it’s the law. They were very relieved when we actually landed.

We got off the plane, found our bags, and made our way to the bus stop outside. Prague has some of the best public transportation in the world, as near as I can tell. They have a subway system that has stops all over. They have buses. And they have an astonishingly good trolley system, though they insist on calling them trams. You can get anywhere in Prague on the trams and we did just that – they’re reliable, frequent, and clean though you do have to know the trick to get the doors to open (there’s a big button you have to push on the doors, which we figured out by watching people do it). Also, people read on public transportation in Prague – actual books, in fact. I can see why Prague has such a large expat community from all over the world. We spent most of our visit on one tram or another, and it was lovely.

Having spent half a century under Soviet occupation, more or less, Czechs also have very little patience for the current Russian invasion of Ukraine and you see support for Ukraine emblazoned on pretty much everything there. Even the trams.

We found the ticket machines at the airport station pretty easily but unlike Rome you can’t buy a pass for a week – they’ll only sell you three days at a time. We did the math – it worked out well for us, given our later plans – and bought our tickets.

The 119 bus comes fairly regularly and we got on board. It rolled through a long series of pleasant neighborhoods before dropping us at the metro station at the end of the bus route. We went in and spent some time debating which side of the station our subway would be arriving on. This is tricky because none of us actually speak Czech. I can usually get the gist of things in Italian – especially if it’s written rather than spoken. It’s a Romance language, there are English cognates through French (thank you, William the Conquerer), and I remember enough of my 40-year-old Spanish classes that between these things I could usually figure things out. But Czech? It’s a Slavic language and all I know of that entire language family are the words for a few food items. Most people in Prague speak at least some English, though, and many of the signs are also translated (though not all). And really, there is only one subway line through that particular station so we stared at the big map until we found the station that Google Maps said we had to go to and then got on that side.

Getting down there was an experience, though. The Prague Metro is located not far from the center of the earth and it is a long way down. But the ride is nice if somewhat disorienting because they angle the posters along the escalator so it looks like you’re level even though your body is telling you that you’re losing altitude (or gaining it, coming back), and you don’t really need to look at a schedule – if you miss a train, the next one will be along momentarily.

We got off the metro, climbed back up the surface of the earth, and looked for our tram. This was somewhat more complicated because there are a lot of trams, some of which went to the station we were looking for and more of which didn’t, and there were several different places to wait. Eventually a couple of guys sitting on one of the benches came over and told us we were in the right place, and when our tram in fact did come by a few minutes later we got on board and took it to the stop about a block from our apartment.

We were supposed to meet Tatiana there, but we ended up meeting her mother instead – Mrs. Tatiana – who was a friendly person who welcomed us to Prague and gave us the tour of the apartment, which took less time to complete than it did for you to read this sentence. It was an exceedingly compact and efficient place, but clean and comfortable and more than enough for what we wanted. It was a nice place to hang out in after being out and about in the city.

It was on the fourth floor and the bar patrons hanging out in the entryway by the street were always polite to let you through. You could either walk up the stairs or take an elevator that was big enough for two people or one with a suitcase. Be sure to remember to close the door and hit the timed switch for the hallway lights! When you got to the apartment you came in at the middle. To the right was one bedroom, where Oliver and Lauren stayed. To the left was another – a converted living room that overlooked the street – where Kim and I slept. It also had a table and a refrigerator. Directly in front of you was a kitchenette about 1 meter by 2 meters, and a slightly larger bathroom to the left that also had the washing machine. We loved the shower there. It was a stall exactly 1 meter square and if you weren’t careful you’d butt dial up some very different water temperatures without meaning to, but it had the kind of water pressure we’d missed after ten days of exceedingly efficient Italian plumbing.

Mrs. Tatiana went to great lengths to warn us about the neighborhood – it’s good if you turn left, but not if you turn right, she said – but after six days there we never figured out why. It was a lovely place in either direction and we had a grand time walking around pretty much everywhere there.

We dropped our stuff, took care of the various loose ends for the rental, and then – since the day was still young – we headed out into Prague.