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James Scanlon - Prague

A Totally Inapt Look At Life In Prague - Pt1

A Totally Inapt Look At Life In Prague - Pt2

A Totally Inapt Look At Life In Prague - Pt3

Pani Na Uklid Socialnich Zarizeni



As I packed my bags for Prague last September I pondered over some remarks a concerned friend had made. 'Beware! Any altercations with the local authorities and you'll be thrown out of the highest available window.' If that wasn't enough, Czech cuisine was also questioned. 'Beware! You'll have to eat fried cheese and dumplings for the rest of your miserable life.'

As you can imagine, I departed the shores of my hometown Liverpool for the landlocked glory of Prague somewhat bamboozled not knowing what the hell to expect. However, upon my arrival the first thing I'm told is that the process of Defenestration had ended some four hundred years earlier, and fried cheese and dumplings can be quite palatable. 'Can I see your passport now, please sir?'

Prague is a city of many spires. Its unique, exquisite architecture of gothic, Baroque, renaissance and art nouveau lushness makes it the long lost jewel of Europe's backyard. Having broken free of the treacherous grip of communism following the Velvet Revolution of 1989, not only has Prague witnessed the emergence of iniquitous graffiti artists, it has also become a far more accessible tourist destination.

Dispensing of the local currency (crown) as if it was monopoly money tourists often irritate, but then again, at least they're providing a major boost to the economy so they can't be all that bad. 'But hey, get out the way!'

Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge

Most of these lovable tourists types head straight for the six hundred year old Charles Bridge (Karluv most, as we locals like to call it). Walking along the cobble stoned bridge which crosses the Vltava linking the Old Town (Stare Mesto) with Mala Strana you can sense the eyes of the thirty saintly statues watching your every move. Even when you've been 'stood up' on the bridge late at night in the freezing cold of winter there's never any reason to feel lonely - only trouble is they all seem reluctant to go and share a burger with you on Vaclavske namesti.

With its precariously wonky halo, the statue of St. John of Nepuluk is my favourite. Erected in 1683, superstitious tourists feel duty-bound to place their dirty mitts all over the bronze plate beneath in the hope that the martyr will make their lives all sweet and happy. There's also a dog in there somewhere, and one day it's going to bite back!

The Old Town Square
The Old Town Square

The Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) is nothing short of majestic. Not that I'm much of a church-going person these days, but it boasts some splendid buildings in the shape of the baroque church of St. Nicholas and Our Lady before Tyn. Also in the square is where you'll find the Old Town Hall with its world famous astronomical clock (orloj). Hundreds flock for the hourly bonging ritual which sees death ringing a bell, a turbaned Turk behaving like...a turbaned Turk and the apostles (bless 'em) showing off their form through two open shutters. It is said that the guy who designed the clock had his eyes gouged out to ensure he never made another. Hmm, nice work if you can get it.

Truth is, I'm bored with the clock now. Well, what do you expect? If I was to stop everytime it was about to go bong I'd be a real sad case, wouldn't I?

Over the next few months I'll be delving deeper into everyday life in Prague. Expect to hear about shopping trauma, toilet grandmas, and what to do when you hear the word,'Kontrola jizdenek' on the Metro. I'll even fill you in on all the gory details of my shoebox pad in Budejovicka. Until then, Na shledanou!

© 2001 James Scanlon

I've got a ticket to ride, and I'm going to use it - on the buses, on the trams and on the sacred metro. I love public transport - I just can't get enough of it. Fast, cheap, reliable it's the best way of getting around the Golden City. Most of Prague's busy citizens have passes (I have one too!), but tickets (jizdenky) can be bought from metro ticket machines, tabacconists, information offices and that guy who stands outside Ruzyne. Tickets must be stamped in a machine upon boarding a bus or a tram, or as soon as you enter the 'paid zone' of a metro station. The temptation to travel without a ticket, to 'ride in the black' as they say can be overwhelming at times, and it's all to do with not having to show your ticket to anyone, apart from the dreaded rivizori, but more of that later.

The first time I ventured out to use a local bus it was with all the sweet little innocence of Bambi. I asked the driver for a ticket, but not understanding a single word of English he just stared at me and drove on. Of course, as the bus jolted, I bolted landing on some poor unfortunate woman's knee. 'Nice day, isn't it?' She too didn't understand a single word of English and was, to say the very least, not amused. She just snarled at me venomously. I learnt a lot from that snarl. It got me thinking that, 'if I'm to survive here, I'm going to have to toughen-up, I'm going to have to learn to snarl just like that woman.' So, it was, whenever I found myself with a couple of minutes to spare in a god forsaken, graffiti-stained lift shaft, I practised the snarl. I soon realised, however, that there's a very fine line between looking hard and looking completely gormless.

venomous scowl
A venomous scowl

The Metro system is basically a smaller version of the Moscow metro. It consists of three lines: green, yellow and red, or if like me you have trouble distinguishing certain colours - A,B and C. Everytime you board a train you are greeted with the words, 'Ukoncete, prosim, vystup a nastup, dverese zaviraji,' which is sound advice considering it means, 'Finish, please, your getting on and off, the door is closing.'

squashed commuters

Most of the time the trains are choc-full of commuters going about their daily business, and it's always stupid me who ends up squashed like a sardine against the doors. My first ever trip was a short run from Andel to Narodni Trida on the B line, no sorry, the yellow line. At Andel I remember going down what seemed to be the longest escalator I had ever been on, going down deeper and deeper into this abyss, where the chances of bumping into the devil or the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu was incredibly high.

On the rare occasion I've managed to find a seat, there's then always that problem of having to contend with what's become known as 'The Prague Stare'. Sitting face to face with everyone it's virtually impossible to avoid eye contact, so they just stare. I always ask myself, 'Is it amour, or do they positively loathe me?' Observed like an x-ray, by the time I've reached my destination this demure specimen is usually a nervous wreck. I've tried snarling, but it doesn't work, neither does providing them with free copies of the thrill-a-minute Metro News.

Three lines also means that there are three transfer stations (prestup) at Museum, Mustek and Florenc, and these are the places where you're likely to find the revizori (inspectors) festering. They think they're god's chosen few, but really they're just plain clothed street urchins with naff red and yellow badges. If caught travelling 'in the black' they'll issue an on-the-spot fine, which makes them feel really happy, and you - well, you just feel like crying like a baby. Of course, I've never been caught. Whenever I hear, 'Kontrola juzdenek' (tickets please) I just laugh and tell them that I'm the Good Soldier Svejk out on a mission to save the world from sewer rats.

Pick-pockets are another bane, particularly in the summer months. They tend to head straight for the more central areas like Mustek, but thankfully they're easily identifiable from their dodgy looking beards and solidified body odour. Just snarl and they'll go away! As a real treat it's always worth hopping off, even skipping off at Hlavni Nadrazi (main station) if only to hear the voice of the station announcer say, 'Prosim, Pozor!' It's the end of the world, and he certainly doesn't feel fine. In fact, he's as miserable as sin, but that said, it's a delight just being there and getting sucked into his most pessimistic aura.


Last, but not least the trams are the favoured method of travel for most people, and a great, shaky way of seeing the sights. Beware though, sometimes it's hard to get a seat, what with all the pensioners pushing so you have to hang on for dear life. The route to the castle can be particularly perilous without a seat, and can only be described as riding a crazed stallion (ask top Czech jockey Jana Cizkova). The trams are a great invention though, the heated seats especially - they're an absolute godsend for the buttocks in Winter.

© 2001 James Scanlon

After a brief spell of hibernation under Madrid's sweaty sun, this mad dog of an Englishman finds himself back in Prague facing another glorious winter bereft of thermals. A few things have happened recently. Not only did my luggage go astray again (thankyou KLM), so too did my shopping after getting entangled in a metro train's doors. I've also been eaten by a dog. In my quest to become more Czech; to reach a level of Czech-ness, where I would no longer be considered a freak every time I asked a supermarket attendant for a bag, I recently decided to step outside my Bohemian safety net and venture eastwards for a short break in the never regions of Olomouc in Moravia. Here, everybody is subjected to 'horse-made law', and if you are unwilling to conform you have to answer to Moravia's King of the Canine's, Ronnie, too.


Through principle, as well as a past near-death experience I declined all offers to mount any of the local stallions. Ronnie showed me his teeth. I nervously muttered that I'd merely make a light snack, and that his owner would probably make a more substantial meal. He barked, 'Loser!' and ate me. For a couple of days I was carried around inside this constipated beast with nothing but a butcher's wig and some badly decomposed back issues of Spy and Blesk for company. Why couldn't I have been eaten by something more glamourous and sweet, like a llama for example? I suppose there's something very Kafka-esque about being a dog's body in the Czech Republic, or maybe it's just Scanlon-esque(?).

Back in Eastern Europe's most happening city, Prague, feeling depressed, paranoid and completely witless I pondered over other less stressful means of how to become more Czech. A trip down to Klub Ujzed in Mala Strana appeared to be the answer. Formerly known as Borat, it is one of the few venues in the centre of the city frequented by genuine Czech natives. With three smoke-filled floors of noise, ranging from hardcore Czech punk (check out H.N.F. and Tri Sestry) to softcore Czech...god know's what, the pivo and lemonade flows like there's no tomorrow, and everybody is under contract to have a damn good time - even me.

a damn good time
A damn good time

There's just one thing, they appear to have a policy of letting dogs in for free. Jezismarija! I got attacked by two of them while walking up the stairs. Who was it who said, 'Once bitten, eternally shy'? I think it was probably me.

Another typical Czech 'hang-out' is the Battalion with its 'I Want To Be A Tree' decor and louder than loud rock music, it's a good barometer for checking to see if Czech people really do like you.

Pivo, prosim!
Pivo, prosim!

Not so long ago, when the television didn't work at my luxourious pad in uptown Bohnice, alternative means of Czech entertainment had to be found with games such as 'Spin The Toothbrush' and 'Let's Not Disturb The Resident Priest' being particularly popular. I've since moved!

a good game
A good game

Of course, I didn't really get eaten by a dog-it was just a state of mind, just like the cold weather, which is why I'm just off to that new space-age shopping centre in Smichov to buy another ice-cream. This article is dedicated to all those people who don't understand my obsession with flies and loneliness.

© 2002 James Scanlon

Getting caught short can be quite disconcerting at the best of times, so it's comforting to know that here in Prague when Mother Nature Calls unexpectedly, there's usually a toilet grandma on hand to provide instant relief.


Scattered all over the Golden City, tucked snugly away in their lillywhite cabins mostly within the confines of Metro stations, the good work of the toilet grandma has been completely overshadowed by all the other far more glitzy events that have occured since 89's Velvet putsch. Things have got so bad that one toilet grandma recently collared me to say in very broken English, "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under." It was at this point I knew I had to do something about the plight of Prague's toilet grandmas. I therefore decided to go undercover so as to avoid any careless whispers, visiting as many public toilets as the boundaries of decency would allow.


In my effort to scratch beneath the surface and lift the lid on this very strange phenomenon, the first thing I noticed was that inflation and fiscal frivolity has little or no meaning in the world of the toilet grandma (or hajzl baba if you want to get familiar). It's 3kc or 5kc wherever you want to pee, unless you require relief near the Charles Bridge - that will set you back a hefty 10 kc. This may seem like highway robbery, but the sweet little, no sorry, sweet big hajzl baba there also provides a stirring array of accoutrements such as postcards, and this really does soften the blow. of course, you are then free to venture onto the bridge in relative comfort to listen to the woeful songs of the aging hurdy gurdy man as he begins his night shift.

As I proceeded further with my investigation I became increasingly aware of what makes the hajzl baba tick. They have, it seems, a natural understanding of how to best deal with the general public. Everybody, no matter what race or colour, or even sexual preference is openly embraced and offered little pieces of paper. It's almost like being invited to some kind of exotic banquet.

It has to be said that it's not the easiest profession to enter. No, no, no, it takes years of training and dedication to reach the standard required.

Training camp
Secret Training Camp

Every year a very select handful of potential hajzl babas are carted off to a top secret location somewhere in the Czech Republic. It may look to an innocent passer-by that they're merely on an Away Day, but from the early hours of the morning to late at night they are rigourously put through their paces. Blood, sweat and tears means getting off lightly.

Once they have settled into the daily routine of work, making sure the toilets are kept a sparkling white brownish colour and the plate for the coins is positively glowing, the hajzl baba can sit back, take a swig of her fizzy water and dream about the prospect of promotion.

A fully-fledged toilet grandma who has at least reached the age of seventy can expect to be handed the title of Pani na uklid socialnich zarizeni. All other toilet grandmas are simply called hajzl babas, but that's alright because it's cute, and it's sweet. Furthermore, you don't need a degree in Zoology to be able to tell them apart for the Pani is usually decorated with a bright flowery apron, whereas the hajzl just has to contend with a blander little number.

Simplicity is everything. Don't slam the toilet seat, wash your hands so you can touch the door handle. Bring people together. Let us know what we all have in common. Make us all sit on the same toilet seat or stand up in front of the same urinal. Don't forget also the fellowship at the mirror, a place where the public re-surface afresh ready to prove that we are all just as narcissistic as each other.

It's the dawning of an exciting new era for the toilet grandmas of Prague, and it's all thanks to me. So now, please doctor can you loosen the straps on my jacket and let me go free?

Mr. Scanlon, you will never be free.

© 2002 James Scanlon



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