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.

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