Monday, March 06, 2006

Prague Weekend

I thought it was a good time to take a weekend break and see some friends in Prague. To be fair, I have been lucky in life and apart from a few upsets, I have enjoyed a fairly full life. One thing I am always very grateful about is having had the privilige to travel and see different people and cultures. The Czech Republic was the 24th country I have visited in my life, how can I not be grateful when most of my previous generation relatives were lucky if they just visited another town or city in Iran?

The plane was delayed for an hour and I tried to catch up with some sleep in the waiting lounge. I was woken up by the announcement that the plane has arrived. In fact I could see it from the large windows in the waiting lounge. Suddenly I saw the letters CSA written on the plane. I closed my eyes again, "has this incompetent anti-children agency driven me to the point where I imagine things and keep seeing CSA? " I thought to myself. CSA was in fact the abbreviation from CzechoSlavak Airlines, a left over from when the two countries were one.

On the plane I grabbed a copy of the Prague Post to read. On the front page, there was a story about Muslims complaining about a Czech TV documentary, threatening to raise the tensions to a new high. The cause of their complaint was that the undercover filming showed how Muslims in the Czech Republic really felt . According to the article, one Muslim in the documentary compares Islamic suicide bombers to Jan Palach, the Czech student who committed suicide by setting himself on fire in protest of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Another says Islamic law should be implemented in the Czech Republic, including the death penalty for adultery. I didnt even know the Czech Republic had Muslims, and reading the paper it seemed that when it comes to Muslim extremists, Czechs have the same problems too.

Another interesting article was about the Sudeten Germans in the Czech lands during the war. It examined the facts and myths about their support for Hitler. Let me just quote you this part from the article:
"The Nazis were masters at staging events. Every Hitler speech was accompanied by a folk fest with music, food and giveaways. It wasn't difficult to draw the masses to give the impression of unreserved support."
Now does that ring a bell? Which present state in the world do we know who is also masters at this kind of staging events? The SS-lamic Republic?

My host lived in Berno, another Czech town, and couldn't see me until Sunday but had arranged for his in-law, who spoke perfect English, to meet me on arrival and spend some time with me. I was greeted and driven to my hotel. I quickly checked in and without even unpacking properly, I wanted to see the city which I had heard so much about.
The hotel was bang in the City Centre, Prague 1 area, and so I could see most of the attractions, walking on foot. First thing I noticed however was the airline offices right outside the hotel, with big letters CSA on them, I ignored that but I couldnt ignore the sheer number of beggars on the street. As well as the beggars, I had at least two people who come up to me asking me to give money to charities I knew nothing about and had no idea if they were genuine representatives or not. My guess was they were not. It reminded me however that I had no Czech money on me.
I looked up a few exchange rates, they all seemed about 40 CK to a pound. So I decided to change £100, expecting to get around 4000 crons. Instead I got 3200!
"whats this?, should be around 4000" I asked and showed the advertised exchange rate. "I just gave you £100".
The Czech guy sitting behind the counter, showed me another small print, where it said "For transactions over 40,000 Krons."
"Ok, I dont want to change it then. Give me my money back" I said.
"Can't! the transaction is done" He said casually, shrugging his shoulders.
"Well you better undo the transaction then, I didnt see that small print" I answered him.
"Well, if you cant read then you shouldn't walk around with money in your pocket" He said.
That was it, I don't like being cheated as it is, but this guy was being rude as well as cheating me. I lost it. My host couldn't believe it either and tried to talk to him in Czech, while I was shouting and raving over their conversation. But the guy behind the counter wasn't listening to my host either. I thought talking with this prick was enough, I am going to get him out of his protected little environment and show him that cheating and being rude can have grave consequences.

So I started doing what Roy Shaw is famous for, and started kicking the locked steel door he was hiding behind, but unlike Roy Shaw, I was getting nowhere. My host said to me quietly "have you got your passport with you?" while the exchange scum bag was threatening to call the police and I was saying "Good, call them now" and still kicking, I replied "No, I left it in the hotel, why?" I said, puzzled as to why he is asking me that in a situation like this.
"You need an ID card all the time here, if the police come and you have no ID with you, they can arrest you." he said.

I didnt want to stop kicking, but I quickly thought, I just got here, do I want to be arrested and spend the night in a cell with some of the characters I have just seen? I came back to the front of the exchange kiosk. Pointed my finger at the piece of shit behind the counter and shouted at him "You are a disgrace to your country".

I was still roasting and fuming however. The cheat had got away with it. I tried to put it behind me but it was still in the back of my mind. We walked towards the Charles Bridge. It was a beautiful bridge, but perhaps because of what had happened, I wasn't enjoying it as much as I should. I bought a nice wooden chess set for my son, and a Bavarian sausage and a Czech Budweiser for myself and my host. Now the draught Czech Budweiser, that was nice. No complaints there. My host then took me to where the astronomical clock was. The people had gathered in the square in front of the clock, just before the hour. Every hour, on the hour, the clock was supposed to do something fascinating, presumably worth waiting for. The tension was building up, every one was excited, heads all pointing up at the clock, and cameras were every where. When the hour came, a skeleton, shook a bell, and a few statues behind the clock rotated around. The heads were still pointing up, and the cameras were still rolling. Surely more was about to happen. But no, that was it! gradually one heard disappointed whispers of "was that it?", "whats the big deal?" from the English speaking crowd. The clock however summed up my own feelings. I had heard so much about Prague, and hyped it up so much for myself, but so far, except for the beer, Prague was a bit of a disappointment.

On the way back to the hotel, I passed the cursed Interchange Exchange kiosk again. Some people were just about to change some money. Quickly I ran up and before they were fooled into changing their money, I pointed out the small print to them, and told them they could get a better deal at the next kiosk. They thanked me and left. I looked at the cheating Czech, he looked annoyed, but this time I was smiling.

The Hotel had a fantastic gym and a workout in the gym is always helpful when I need to get rid of some aggression. I got talking to some Greek guy who was staying in the hotel on some business trip, he had arrived in Prague only that day too. We arranged to go to town and eat something later.

Now I was convinced there was some fantastic night life in Prague. This was a Saturday night, in the middle of the city centre, but apart from the occasional groups of English yobbos, there was hardly anyone any where. We decided to go and try some genuine Czech cuisine. There were three people in the restaurant. The meal was cheap, the beer was good, but not much else to shout about. We carried on walking towards the Charles Bridge, it was almost midnight and we could hear some music blaring out of some club called Lavka. Judging by the noise, we thought there should be a fair number of people and some life after all somewhere in Prague.

There were about a dozen sitting at the tables, and no one in the disco downstairs. A young girl, not totally naked, but wearing a skimpy bra and a very very short skirt, with knee length boots was dancing unenthusiastically while chewing a gum. Next to her was a big screen showing an Ice hockey match. The half dozen men seemed to be watching the ice hockey and the three pairs of what must have been dykes, were watching the dancing girl with their tongues hanging out.
I felt sorry for the girl, how humiliating it must be for her. Surely she could get a more useful challenging job.

Half the way through the "performance", one of the light bulbs above the dancing girl went out. She tried to tighten up the bulb while she was dancing but she didnt realise the bulb was still hot and burned her fingers. By now I had finished my drink and I had had enough. Rarely have I seen anything as unentertaining as that "entertainment". Prague on the first night was a big disappointment.

On Sunday, I met my friend and his wife by the statue in Venceslav Sq. First thing he said, was "I am sorry you had a bad experience changing your money yesterday". I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "don't worry, there is good and bad everywhere."

Venceslav Square, is where some of the memorable scenes of the Velvet Revolution took place. My host, a young student at the time, walked me up and down the square, re-living some of the moments he went through. He described how the secret police would mingle within the crowd, pretending they are protesters, and identify the main instigators, then pounce on them, pull them out, give them a good hiding beofre the soldiers and uniformed police took them away. I must say the place was an ideal place to hold protests. The street was wide and long, and all the shops and side streets were ideal for getting away. I was as excited as he was when he was reliving all those scenes for me. It reminded me of the scenes I witnessed during the "cultural revolution" of the mullahs in Iran.

The avenue outside the main Tehran university was also wide with lots of shops and side streets, but we also had the joobs. The old narrow canals that ran parallel to the side of the streets, carried the water to the houses in the old days. They acted like trenches to hide from the flying bullets. I remembered how I jumed into a joob when the shooting started, face down with my hands clenched above my head to give it slightly more protection. I remembered how I was trembling with fear lying in the joob. Hearing all that noise and not seeing what was going on made it more frightening, and then there was the moment of making the decision to get up and run. After what seemed like hours of being stuck in the joob, at some point I had to get out. When I did, I just ran like the Marathon Man. Didn't know where I was going but I just thought if I stop running, my life will also stop too. Another vivid image stuck in my memory, was when a young student was being carried away by his comrades on a makeshift stretcher. His right eye was almost hanging out of its socket with blood all over his face. He must have been hit with a stone. As they were carrying him past me, he was holding his hands high, clenched together, rather than thinking about his eye, he was shouting "etteha^d, moba^rezeh, piroozi" - unity, struggle, victory. Why couldn't I be as brave as him? All I was thinking about was getting out of that place, I didn't want to lose an eye or die or get arrested.

As I was reminiscing my own memories, my friend said "Lets have some lunch, afterwards if you like we go and see the History of Communism mueseum."

The mueseum is off the main street, up the stairs and next to a place with a sign saying "Casino". It has all the images, the statues, and the usual memorabilia you expect to see in a mueseum, from those repressive years, but right at the end they show a great video, well worth watching. Its a documentary following the struggle of the people since the Russian invasion of 1969 right to the victory of the revolution. There was one scene in the documentary, where a young teenage school boy is held by the police for questioning. His nose is bleeding and he keeps wiping the blood with his sleeve but can't stop the bleeding. Somehow his age, simplicity and his angst reminded me of myself.
The police ask him "what were you doing here?"
"Just wanted to see what was going on." School boy answers.
"So you were just standing and watching?"
"Thats all, honestly".
He is then asked what his name is, what school he goes to and what his grades are. The last question is what grade he has for his "behaviour", He answers "A" and at that point he looks a bit more optimistic.

I really wanted a copy of that video, I was sure the mueseum shop would gladly sell me a copy, but no they had never thought of it. The girl in the shop couldn't even tell me how to contact anyone else to purchase a copy.

Outside, my friend asked me "So what did you think of it? You looked very emotional at times. You see some parallels with Iran?"

"I do, but there is one important difference I see too. The world press was there in all those scenes. Then the world wanted to report what was going on. You see in the documentary a fearless German ARD cameraman, who shruggs off the secret police's attempts to stop him from filming. With Iran, the world isn't interested and those fearless journalists are not there to report."

Next we went to the castle and the Golden Lane. Its an interesting historic small street, dating back to 15th century, lined by 11 historic houses. One of the houses exhibits the armoury of the past, and for 50 CK you can try your hand at cross bow shooting. At the end of the Golden Lane, there are some magnificent views of Prague.

"So what do you want to do for the evening?" I was aked. We laughed about the entertainment I witnessed the night before. "You want to see something better?" He asked me.
"I dont think I can see anything worse." I chuckled.

We went to see a sixty minute performance of the best of Carmen Opera and Ballet in the Municipal House. I am not an opera connoisseur by any means but I do like the music in Carmen. That, Tosca and Aida being my favourites.

And so we spent the rest of the evening drinking Czech beer and talking. A better day altogether than the day before. Perhaps I should give Prague one more chance, in the spring or in the summer.


Alex Thompson said...

I'm afraid you may have seen Prague as it is rather than just the good or bad. You were at least spared the less desireable characters that roam prague's streets at night.

Azarmehr said...

So often its one impression from a place that sticks in your mind. To me it was the begars, the bogus charity workers that stop to ask you for money and the cheating money exchange kiosks. Not a very good impression I am afraid.

Anonymous said...

For me as a Czech it's pity that your experience with Prague is not so good. The more blogs about Prague I've seen, the more I think about Czech and our republic. As you said "There is good and bad everywhere" and I agree. But the bad grieve me. I think that our nation is still young, because more than 40 years of communistic binds made a gap between present time and our history.

I have to say that is really impressive to see similarities between our recent history and what is happening in your homeland.

Thanks for your article.

Azarmehr said...

Thanks Mirek. Of course I will never think all the Czechs are the same as that cheating scumbag in the Interchange Exchange kiosk in the city centre. After all my hosts wee Czechs and they are very decent people.

I am sure if you ever go to Tehran, you may also come across some similar unscrupulous characters

Anonymous said...

I like Prague, it is a beautiful city. Of course it has many sides - good and bad. But for me Prague has a lot of good sides. Nice architecture and many places to go.

Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to live in Prague for over three months in Spring-Summer '07 and overall, it was a highly positive experience. Maybe I was just fortunate not to have endured any negative experiences (I used the recognizable bank ATM's instead of the money exchange kiosks!) even though I extensively used the public transport system and ventured outside of the tourist area. Prague is an English-speaking friendly city for the most part and I found the people to be friendly and helpful. Just knowing a little bit of the local language pleasantries and always being aware of one's surroundings made me appreciate Prague in spite of some of the usual negative elements found in any large urban area (I am from Chicago). Reading travel sites and blogs can help one prepare to deal with some of these negatives. I enjoyed reading your perspective and comparisons.

Anonymous said...

I’ve been to Prague many times and I never get sick of it, in fact it’s always too sad to leave Prague, all that ritual…airport, check in, boarding. I always leave nostalgic. I love the small streets and the mystic environment, its like magnet to me. Walking from street to street, even if alone always makes me feel so small but at the same time so well connected to the city. I found the city very safe, as you can check in this link form the government. I never had a problem for being out until late and alone or ever saw any incident.
What I also enjoy in this city is the night life, the Prague music clubs are all so cozy and have such a nice environment and decoration and make you want to stay long. If you or any of your friends want to go there again I leave you here a nice site with good clubs to go. Incredible how beer can be so cheap!!