Prague : The Musical City – In from the Cold
Part One: My first impressions of arriving in Prague on a cold Christmas eve.
I’d always believed I was hardened to the winter. The biting sea-fret of the North sea was home and, although for the moment I found myself in the cosy surroundings of a Brussels Airport bar, I was Ill prepared for what Prague had in store. I was handed, of all things, a ‘beer’ menu in a silent, polite exchange. This was continental Europe. You waited to be served. You tipped. You didn’t march up to the bar bellowing orders like a mad bull. I sat perched atop an already sky-high stool around an even higher table with unsteady legs and expensive but delicious looking complimentary salty/spicy snacks of some description laid out before me. The ‘beer’ menu was equivalent to to a wine list back home, and presented me with an unfathomable choice of various strengths, types and colours.
I decided I’d start at the top…..
After an age of sitting patiently I made out my order in an oversized heavy glass, more of a jug really, being filled with an over-ornamented pump of brass and ivory. The barmaid made no attempt to halt the foamy explosion and seemed un-moved by the mess, which was dealt with by a deft swipe of some unusual knife implement she expertly drew from her apron like a swordsman. You didn’t get this in North Shields. I’d already discovered food nirvana in India a few years earlier, but right now I was about to reach the holy grail of beer.
Disregarding past bravado, there’d always been a slight gag-reflex on at least the first few sips of chemical-infested lager back home, that uncomfortable feeling of taking your medicine, that it was doing you good, although it didn’t taste nice. As I began to quaff my first pint of Pilsner Urquell though, there was none of that, in fact the edge had been taken right off, like a pint of shandy but without a hint of lemonade. This was easy, pleasurable drinking, at twice the strength, and no additives. Perfect. Expensive, but perfect. As I jumped aboard the Thunderbirds-style walkway-come-escalator towards the departure gate, I was fully lubricated, travelling light both physically and emotionally.
The first contact with anything Czech related was of course the Czech Airlines flight from Brussels to Prague. Looking around at the red-faced, sheepish looks of most adult males in the cabin confirmed the rumours. For some reason the Czech air-hostesses all resembled catwalk models. Not in a natural way, more in a slightly sinister Stepford wives sort of way, as though they were forced into it. The same probably goes for the men, but I can’t vouch for that. After one last perfectly-manicured plastic-fake ‘Enjoy you stay!” I was open to the elements as though my naked body had been through into a bucket of ice.
I’ve never experienced cold like it, permeating my clothes as though they weren’t there and right through to chilling my bones and even my very soul. My teeth chattered like a demented fairground clown as I fought my natural urge to double over. Mingling with the crowds helped as we eventually reached the sanctuary of the comfortingly familiar baggage return carousel.
Prague airport itself was just like any other, devoid of any unique features to remember it by, until I found myself outside waiting for a taxi. Over the road opposite was my first sight of, I suppose, residential Prague, an eastern block of grey and quiet misery. As the taxi made progress towards the city, this cold-war era hell revealed itself further. Huge high-rise council flats with tiny windows, devoid of colour, of love, of life. Solemnly neglected children’s playgrounds evoked images of Chernobyl as empty swings caught the chilling wind and merry-go-rounds spun to their own tune. Signs of crushed rebellion and oppression etched out in Graffiti. No children playing today.
I lay guiltily, almost reclined in the back of the warm comfortable taxi. The driver played the glossy well-honed sounds of a recent, local Sting concert proudly to me, oblivious to the obvious poverty and suffering around us. I couldn’t bring myself to ask him the obvious questions I had flying around my head like alarm bells. It didn’t seem a topic to discuss. I didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it. He had his own world of cushy, comfortable, middle of the road, European average, just like safe, soulless music he listened to and the Skoda Octavia he drove. Was he part of the problem? Had he found a way out? I’d never know.
As night fell, the taboo of Prague’s past fell into the forgotten shadows once again as the bright decadent lights of the big city loomed into focus against the backdrop of the session musician brass section jazz. But like an inquisitive child told to leave well alone, I wanted to learn more. I wanted to learn more about Prague’s rise out of Nazi occupation and communism. At this moment I knew nothing. I didn’t have to. I could feel it all around.