Friday, 3 June 2011

Beer, Dumplings and Jewish Metamorphosisms

I'm stood dripping at the top end of Prague's most famous square, beneath the statue that provides its name. Good King Wenceslas looks down on the beast of Steven, a pink, sweaty freak with luminous eyebrows that make me look like a reverse Alistair Darling. Prague is hot today, but I've reached the Czech Republic's temporary Open University office at last. I hang about for a bit to cool down but I'm still a mess by the time I present myself. Jana and Lucka (whose name may be missing one or more of the Czech language's millions of diacritical marks, in which case, sorry) don't seem to mind and revive me with coffee and water. It's all change at OU Prague. They're moving from this small office to much bigger premises out of the centre soon. We have a nice chat and agree to meet the next day for a beer.

Mmm, beer. I may have mentioned this before but beer in outrageously cheap in the Czech Republic. In Prague, if you avoid the obvious tourist-milking outlets, a pint is one tenth of the price it is in Paris. And it's great beer too. It's not the fizzy pap you usually get fobbed off with in the UK now that the lager-producing monopolies are in power. But that's only one of the reasons why I love Prague. If Berlin is the city I want to live in, Prague is the one I want to visit as often as possible while I'm living there. The place is amazing to look at, with architecture covering eight centuries, and beautiful statues lying about all over the place. And from my random sample of four people I met here in Prague, it's full of great people too.

I met fellow Northerner Jamie on my first evening at a blues gig just around the corner from Charles Bridge. He's lived in Prague for seven years and is a friend of The Lovely Nina's sister, who suggested we should meet. I'm glad she did. Stan the Man, a Prague legend, was playing his electric blues that night. The club is little bigger than a single car garage but the atmosphere was rocking. Jamie is a guitar hero himself. I met him again on Wednesday night at the same venue to watch him play his own, more laid back, thoughtful acoustic blues. Watching Jamie is a mixture of pleasure and pain - pleasure because of the sound he makes with seemingly effortless fingerwork and rugged but note-perfect singing, and pain because I know I'll never be able to make a sound like that. I've played guitar for nearly fifteen years and I'm still utterly shite. I have the manual dexterity of Abu Hamza. If you're ever in Prague, Jamie has regular gigs at U Maleho Glena. Go and see him - you'll like it. You can also catch him at

After the show I got talking to a teenage guitarist from Ukraine who was about to begin studying in Prague, although he didn't have any idea what subject that might be. He looked like a cross between Brian May and my fifteen year old nephew, Jordan. Since you almost certainly don't know who Jordan is, that comparison is totally pointless but the next time I'm back in the Isle of Man I'll force him to wear one of my old comedy frightwigs so that I can recreate the look for you. Anyway, I told Brian Mayski my plan to cycle to Kiev and he laughed at me like I was a dick. The roads aren't great apparently, although he was proud to tell me that Kiev had been the centre of a massive empire in the 10th century. I asked him if they'd updated the roads since then. He laughed again, but he didn't say yes. Oh well. That's a problem for another year.

On Tuesday I caught up with Prague-born OU student Sasha, over here to see her parents. She took me to the National Museum where I learned some Czech history and was then given a tour of the places she loves in Prague, including a very popular ice cream parlour just off Wenceslas Square and the quiet, peacock-filled Valdstejnská garden. While enjoying the ice cream, we were accosted by a young American who wanted signatures to petition for the planting of a million trees in Prague. I asked him how many he'd planted so far and he replied, "Five." Well, it's a start. When I asked him what sort of trees he wanted to plant, he thought for a second and said, "Y'know, leafy ones". Ah, thanks for that. Sasha and I finished off in a restaurant she knew quite a way from the centre of town where I had the most massive and the most delicious pile of pork, cabbage and dumplings yet. Good King Wenceslas wasn't looking down this time but this really was the feast of Steven*. Sasha's tour wasn't from any guide book. To be able to see Prague through the eyes of someone who knows it as well as she does was very special.

The beer with the OUettes turned into three beers and a plateful of bacon dumplings. If I lived here I'd be the size of, well, the size I was a few years ago when I lived in Austria. Jana and Lucka are both extremely entertaining. It's their capable hands that will guide the OU in the Czech Republic. As university prices rise in the UK, dragging the OU with it, their job gets harder and through no fault of their own. The effects of Nick Clegg's deceit travel farther than the UK. I had a great time in the pub with them. Both of them were very funny with tons of stories to tell.

As well as meeting great people, I've fulfilled the tourist checklist of things to see: the people-stuffed Charles Bridge, the castle on the hill along with its cathedral, Wenceslas Square and the John Lennon Wall. And I got a chance to practise my fledgling Czech, which only got started late when I switched from Polish to Czech at the last minute. It's another bugger of a language. Sasha explained that there's a sound in Czech - the 'r' in Dvorak - that's impossible to make correctly if your tongue isn't perfectly formed. If this is the case, as it was with her brother, you need to have the skin beneath your tongue sliced away. "Didn't he mind that?" I asked. "He didn't complain," she replied. Well, he wouldn't really be able to, would he?

My Nina Challenge was another graveyard-flavoured one. I love cemeteries. Being surrounded by so much death reminds me to keep making the most of being alive. Her challenge was in two parts: to find and photograph the grave of Franz Kafka, one of my favourite authors, and, in honour of his most famous short story, to photograph a metamorphosis. Everything fell nicely into place. Because he's buried in the New Jewish Cemetery, to enter the graveyard I had to wear a yarmulke, which they hand out at the entrance. To capture my first skullcap-wearing experience I took an aerial view of myself. Suddenly I'd morphed from someone who's thinning on top to a much younger man with a luxuriantly full head of hair. Is it possible to convert to Judaism? It might seem like a lot of effort to cover a budding bald patch but I've already priced up what it will cost to install two sinks in the kitchen. Shalom!

Not everything in Prague worked out so conveniently. I woke up on Wednesday morning, a full 36 hours after erecting the tent, to discover a tent pole had snapped again, this time in situ, in the middle of the night. This tent has had more breaks than Steve Davis. I've now had breakages as soon as I've put the tent up, just as I have been taking it down and now after being left alone for over a day. I can now repair a cracked pole in a matter of seconds, but if things keeps up at this rate I won't have any spare pieces by July and then I'm buggered. And the tent is not the only equipment malfunction.

Cycling out of Prague this morning was a little hairy. The main roads through town were all triple-laned with no cycle paths. It was like being on a motorway without a hard shoulder. And as I got to the outskirts of the city and beyond, the edges of the Czech roads were getting a bit lumpy. The Carradice panniers have a clasp mechanism to keep the bags fastened to the rack, but these are working themselves loose while I'm riding with no obvious way to retighten them. Speeding down a busy hill I hit a tarmac divet that sent the right-hand pannier flying clean off the bike and on to the road behind. It was only the quick reactions of the driver following me that prevented by stove, gas canisters and bike tools from being crushed flat. It's looks like another botch job is required.

So, tent and panniers aside, Prague was wonderful, the city and its people. Thank you Jamie, Jana, Lucka and Sasha - my new Czechmates - for making my three days in Prague so fantastic and for making Prague the next city I'd like to live in if Berlin won't let me in for having stupid eyebrows.

* Joke copyright 2011 The Lovely Nina

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