The other week, the powers that be decided to close various metro stations for repairs. Being relatively new to this city, I was unaware that this translated to ‘avoid trams at all costs’. The many passengers who would ordinarily be happily spread out along a long metro train were now forced to squash into small, outdated trams. And me? Well, I wasn’t going to walk, so I bravely pushed into the mass of passengers and found a relatively open spot near the window. I have to say, trams were definitely one of the strangest experiences for me as I adjusted to Prague. Buses, I understand. Trains also. But trams? They are an odd combination of the two, belonging both to the road and the rail. They create another line of traffic in the center of an already multilane road. Many trams here in Prague are small and older, with diminutive windows, single rows of seating along the outside of the passenger area, and tall holding rails down the center of the tram. During rush hour, the only limit on the number of passengers is whether or not any newcomers can cram themselves in. Can’t reach a holding strap or rail? It is impossible to fall anyway when you are mashed against the person next to you. In a nation of outdoor enthusiasts who value the wide open spaces of the countryside, this has led many to perfect the ‘Tram Stare’, a sort of blank expression of suspended presence. This is the look of one caught in a windy rainstorm, who has hunkered down as far as possible into their jacket and is busily imagining themselves on a beach somewhere else. Even when not riding a tram, one is still painfully aware of them. Many moments spent pondering the gorgeous late afternoon sky over Prague Castle have been interrupted by the agonized squeal of a tram negotiating a tight corner. The older trams can be recognized by the higher pitch and longer length of their screeches, a sound which carries even through windows into flats near the trams lines (such as mine). The newest trams,however, contain three elongated sections of seating, with wide aisles, highly polished wooden seats, and tall tinted windows. These trams have larger electronic boards to clearly announce the next stop. Also contained in the board is a large clock which states exactly how late you currently are to your appointment. Drab gray and faded upholstery have been replaced by polished chrome and tastefully muted shades of red. These larger trams glide nearly noiselessly along the tram lines, allowing one to easily say goodbye to a friend at the tram stop without having to shout over the squeak of the arriving tram. Last week, I had the rare experience of riding one of these newer models. It was awful. I missed the antiquated seats. I missed the crazy quirkiness of the windows that may or may not open and steep steps down to the doors. I even missed the tortured screech around corners. It was as if a well-loved teddy bear, with curmudgeonly face, missing button eye, and worn fuzziness, had suddenly been replaced by a packaged barbie doll. Oh, I’ll eventually get used to the new trams. I may even come to like them. But I will always miss the inimitable character of those older trams. They are simply unforgettable.
It’s been an eventful weekend here in Prague. I had a run-in with Czech bureaucracy and the local supermarket ran out of our favorite brand of beer. I’m not surprised though. Any weekend which begins with me giving Shakespearean advice to our cat is bound to turn out to be an odd weekend in the end. For the record, she didn’t seem inclined to heed the advice, but then, she is a cat. More than that, a cat prone to avidly chasing her own tail. So, I’m not holding my breath. Regarding the beer, I think we will be able to subsist on another brand for a day or two. Andrew decided to cope with this phenomenon by trying out Kofola, the Czech version of Coca-Cola. Let’s just say this was a failed experiment. Those who say Dr. Pepper tastes mildly like a mixture of Coke and cough syrup have never tried the concoction known as Kofola. I will call it an acquired taste. In the meantime, I am making a trip downtown to stock up on our chosen brand of beer. I have found that a bottle of Czech beer is the perfect way to relax after a long day of teaching or dealing with bureaucracy (frequently my days include both). In my first weeks here, I frequently heard the phrase ‘Czech bureaucracy’, usually uttered just before a tortuously long story involving the many steps necessary to fulfill a relatively simple matter such as renewing an Opencard transportation pass. I assigned these stories to my ‘urban myth’ category, little knowing that I would eventually build my own repertoire of these crazy stories. These legends? There are not myths. If anything, I had heard the abridged versions of them. Take the standard maxim of customer service in the US, namely The Customer Is Always Right. In Prague, in the private sector, this maxim is usually changed to The Customer is Usually Misguided and/or a Nuisance. This can vary a bit based on whether the clerk or waiter happens to be having a good day, whether you can speak or at least attempt to speak Czech, and simply the luck of the draw. I have received glares and a lugubrious sigh when entering a small shop, as if I had disturbed the quiet of the store by barging in. Then again, I should add that I have received great recipes for the vegetables I buy at the local corner store, so there is obviously a wide range of what constitutes customer service. In the government sector, this maxim becomes The Customer is Always Wrong, and It Is Our Duty to Educate Them. Each office has their own rule, regulations, and traditions. These regulations are viewed with the same hallowed reverence as one might attach to a the traditions of the English monarchy. As such, it is the job of each agency to take bewildered expats and indoctrinate them in the ways of bureaucracy. Ask an agency to do something that is not tradition, and they will be instantly put-out and offended at the mere mention of such a thing. This usually necessitates either a long lecture in Czech to your accompanying translator (which is then translated as ‘they can’t do it that way’) or, to an unaccompanied expat, a sigh and a short lecture involving written dates, a website with a translation, or waving of hands toward another official. Act flexible and slightly less-than-bright, and they will enthusiastically take you under their wing, introducing you with zeal and fervor to The Way Things Are Done Here. This approach can net you all sorts of freebies in the private sector as well, from waived bank fees to extra helpful information that will save you time. I have to say that my experiences here have made me long with misty-eyed nostalgia for those long waits at the local DMV in the US. Yes, they are grouchy there too. But they have potted plants. And chairs. Lots of chairs. On second thought, I should get a few extra bottles of beer. Just in case. I might need them the next time I have to renew my Opencard.
As I enter the bistro, the squeak and rumble of the passing trams is replaced by the muted clink of glasses and the hum of conversation. A bartender stands at the long counter, expertly pouring multiple glasses of beer and wine. Waitresses step quickly between tables, bringing steaming bowls of soup or plates heaped with beef bourgignon to each table. After a full morning of teaching two individual and two group classes, I am famished. I grab the last seat at the bar, motion to the bartender, and request the creamed pea soup with mint and one of the lunch options. Since discovering this small restaurant across the street from my last class of the morning, I have become a regular patron here, and come at least three times a week. Many restaurants throughout Prague, including this one, serve lunch menus, often with two to four lunch options and a soup of the day, priced within the range of the stravenky (lunch coupons) that many businesses offer their employees. I’ve found that I can easily get a delicious lunch in the hour or so between classes, and the warm soups are an excellent antidote to the freezing winds that have recently become a part of the daily weather.
The pea cream soup is thick and rich, and I eagerly tear up a few chunks of bread to dip into the broth as well. As I savor the flavor of mint melded into this creamy bisque, I realize how much of my adaption to Prague has come through the medium of food. Wandering through farmers markets, tasting knedlik (dumplings) for the first time, learning how to cook roasted pumpkin soup: all these have been stepping stones in the cultural adjustment of living in a European city. When it is bitter and cold outside, I brew a strong cup of rooibos tea, inhaling the strong and vibrant aroma. Last week, when the sky turned wintry and gray, I promptly bought a sturdy pumpkin to chop and roast with spices. Weekend mornings are often marked with breakfasts of Czech bacon and Dutch pancakes, a recipe that I brought from home. When I need comfort food, I roast a chicken and relish the way the scent follows me into the study, reminding me just how hungry I am. For me, food is more than a daily chore or delight, it is a way to make sense of a new culture and rhythm. It quantifies, defines, measures and calculates the pattern of the days and weeks. In learning the specialties or comfort foods of a new city, I understand the culture that much more.
In the eleven months that I have lived in Prague, so many new things have gradually become a normal part of my day. Catching a tram in the morning to get to work. Learning to order coffee in Czech, or how to ask the grocery store clerk on which aisle I can find the flour. Learning to turn on a gas heater, to lock a door with European locks, or cross a street with both car and tram lanes. Waking up each morning to a view five stories up, riding an elevator that speaks to me in Czech, and walking on cobblestones when I step outside my apartment building. Finding my way in a medieval city with few straight roads and even less street signs. Learning that ‘no’ is actually Czech for ‘yes’. Walking to church every week through the perfectly manicured Senate gardens, with the towers of Prague Castle lit by the morning sun. Developing a sense for arriving at a tram stop just in time for the next tram, knowing which small streets will lead to hole-in-the-wall restaurants with fabulous food, and knowing how to navigate back to the nearest metro stop. Learning how to pick a good potraviny to frequent (the ones where they give they tell you a great recipe to cook the vegetables you just bought). Learning that if you didn’t really want the straight, unvarnished truth, you shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place. Knowing when to reveal that you are an American and when to stay silent and see what happens.
I know the streets of this city much more than when I first arrived here. There is the flower stand that always has the best hyacinths. The bakery where I first discovered babovka. The coffee shop where I meet with friends and talk. I still miss the foods of home- old-fashioned doughnuts, Theo’s chocolate, and my mom’s raspberry mousse. But I have acquired new comfort foods, such as chocolate croissants or creamy pumpkin soup. And this weekend? I’m going to brave the cold winds, search out the best vegetables at my favorite potraviny, and cook a hearty pot of soup. I’ve learned how to navigate, shop, communicate, and live in this city. I’ve learned to make friends, to make a home here. God brought me here, and I see that it is good.