Archive for May, 2010


Walking down a street I now know as Vinohradská, down a patch I don’t usually, I pass one of those chain-store baguette places they have all over the place here. The Subway rip-offs with the overpriced menus and the option of toasting, the name tags and the microphones and the matching tables and chairs bolted to the floor in smooth undulations of plastic. And I recognise it somehow – that street corner, that restaurant. And then, then there it is – just above here was one of the flats I looked at when I was still trying to find a place to live. I remember the guy pointing out the restaurant below as a positive attribute of the flat – “When you are hungry, it is just downstairs this place” – and through a door in the side of the building and the whole stairwell having that cooked plastic cheese and wilted lettuce fast food smell.

Despite all this, the flat was actually pretty cool – fairly cheap and well placed, the best room I had seem by far with three walls of windows, a double bed, a door out to a narrow balcony and a view of the tram tracks and the TV tower. If the kitchen had been better and the guy a little less creepy, I probably would have taken it too. But it had been one of those situations when you’re standing and waiting for someone you don’t know, and you see a guy who’s also got that look of trying to spot a stranger in a crowd, and you think to yourself, “Please, please don’t let it be that guy. Please.” And then he comes over and asks, “Uh, you are Zoe? For the flat?” And I shake his hand and he leads me from where we had arranged to meet at Flora, down what seemed to me at the time to be a complicated succession of streets, and up to his flat above a fast food baguette place.

That complicated succession of streets is one I now know quite well. Actually, I live within fairly quick walking distance of it, and I cross over Vinohradská several times a week to get to and from the Jiřího z Poděbrad metro station, which is just down from the baguette place, or to my Czech language classes in Žižkov. I now know (via several trials and near-fatal errors) the difference between Flóra and Florenc, Karlovo Náměstí and Náměstí Republiky, as well as the quickest route by foot, tram, bus or metro between them. I can stumble out of a bar in most places in the city at all hours of the night and, after a brief period of disorientation, figure out where I am and how to get home.

This was not a victory easily won. Prague is probably the most confusing city I have ever lived in, and it has only been in the last month or so that I have been able to leave my map (nicknamed the “Wondermap” by Solveig) behind with confidence. One of my favourite places here is Letná – this great big park on a great big hill on the castle side of the river – and I’ve stood up there on several occasions trying to figure out where everything fits. Murmuring to myself, “So if that’s the TV tower there, and Karlín’s over there, then that back there must be Žižkov. So where’s Náměstí Miru? Those steeples maybe? But hang on, I could swear that’s too close to the river…” and so on until I finally get overwhelmingly frustrated and give up. Acuse the whole place of not making sense, of shifting around when nobody’s looking.

I’m still inclined suspect this, actually, even though I mostly know my way around now. The pinched rises and streets at all angles suggest a city lying cramped up and uncomfortable on its bed of unfortunately-placed hills, trying to twitch its streets into a more agreeable position. Prague is an ill-planned obstacle course – a scrunched up press of cobblestones and tram tracks, barriers and roadworks, faded pedestrian crossings and sudden main roads, so that every quick walk to the shops becomes a feat of navigation.

What makes figuring the place out extra difficult is the metro system, which is extensive and efficient, so that more complicated navigation often becomes a matter of descending an escalator, getting on a train to nose blind through some tunnels for a bit, and then popping up somewhere completely different on the other side of the city without really knowing which direction you just travelled in.

But slowly, over time and incident, it acquires order.

A few friends and I are drinking on a hill in Smichov. It’s dusk and the view of the river is quite pretty – even with the multi-laned highway in front of it – and the temperature is comfortable enough to sit with our jackets open.
“So that’s…the Vyšehrad castle then…” I ask, cautiously.
“Um, yeah. It is.”
“And that’s Vyšehrad the suburb?”
“Yeah. Must be.”

And there it is. Smíchov is across the river from Vyšehrad. Of course. It makes complete sense. Two more suburbs dangling loosely on the end of metro lines are fixed together in solid terrain.

And so, gradually, the city is patched together. That night took place in that pub, which is in that suburb close to that other pub. I saw a flat on that street, which is just up the road from where I live now. That metro sign refers to that place, which I know, so I should turn left here and go up that escalator. The streets finally become less of a faceless repetition of cobblestones and tram tracks and acquire names and positions relative to other named streets. Easy. I know this place. I can get home from here. Easy.

– Zoe Barron


RHUM Column the Fourth: On Learning Czech

Find it here.

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