Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Tourist's Guide to Trams

With a nickname like “the city of 1000 spires,” a city like Prague does not deserve to be ignored. Any trip, whether for only a few days or a few months, must take advantage of the visual masterpiece that lies in the heart of Europe—that means tours, guidebooks and a good pair of walking shoes. But what happens when after a day or two of stomping around the cobbled streets of Old Town your feet are exhausted by all the walking? You take to the trams, of course.

With over 270 kilometers of track, 951 tramcars, and 35 lines, the tram system in Prague is the perfect way to explore or navigate the city. It offers consistent views of architecture, people and whatever else happens to be outside your window. One handy aspect of this is the ability to people-watch, which offers an alternative option for getting to know both the city and its inhabitants. For example, you may have heard rumors of the amorous nature of young Czech adults; make note of how many examples of PDA occur at tram stops along your route and you’ll finally have some proof.

Besides looking outside your window, turning your focus to your fellow passengers can be even more enlightening. As a visitor to a foreign location, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the customs and courtesies of the culture. While you may not have the opportunity to talk with a Czech person firsthand, you can learn a lot by observing typical behavior on trams and other modes of public transportation.

Tip #1: Be quiet.

Aside from big game days for local sports teams like Sparta and Slavia, the volume level on trams is akin to that of a sacred place of worship. The whispery state of public conduct in Prague points back to the age of Communism, which plastered stolid expressions and tight lips on the faces of Czechs. A couple decades after democracy reinstated itself, remnants of that lifestyle persist in such places as tramcars.

I learned so much when, on my first Monday morning in the city, I was the recipient of cherubic glares from a neat row of children riding the tram to school. They occupied one whole length of the car, and defied what would be conventional in the States by keeping their morning banter at a whisper-quiet level. Besides the historical background that explains this, being mindful of your chatter and chuckles is just a matter of being polite, so take a page from the kiddies and avoid alienation by your hosts.

Trams also provide a cheaper and more reliable mode of transportation than a taxi does—corrupt cabbies have been known to charge naïve tourists up to four times the honest price for a trip! For a single trip, adult tickets cost less than a dollar (20 CZK), whether you need to transfer lines or not. Tickets are available at certain tram stops, metro stations and even convenience stores called “tabaks”. Beware: as easy as it is to get a ticket, it’s even easier to be caught without one.

A turnstile doesn’t regulate entrance on trams, nor will the conductor ask to see your ticket when you board. Rather, you time-stamp your ticket on board and hold on to it for the duration of your ride—classic use of the honor system. Ticket inspectors make unannounced rounds and when they flash their badge you must produce your valid ticket. Duncan Minshull, a student from England on holiday in Prague, learned this the hard way after innocently assuming the trams were a free ride. “You never knew who to pay or whether you had to pay at all… nothing seemed very clear,” he said. Penalties for an invalid or absent ticket are steep: around $45 (950 CZK), which is reduced to around $25 (500 CZK) in case of an on-the-spot payment. If the numbers don’t scare you, the ticket inspectors themselves might do the trick.

On a late night return trip from a bar in Old Town, a friend and I sat sleepily on two seats in the middle of a mostly empty car. Soon after crossing the Vltava River into Prague 7, a man walked up to us, stood uncomfortably close, and displayed a small toy-looking badge in his hand—no words, just action. Never having been checked for a ticket before, my initial reaction was to guard my bag from a potential robber. Neither of us moved, so he shoved the badge right in our faces and stated something in Czech. Finally registering his identity as an employee of the city, I took out my wallet and showed my 3-month pass, still holding my bag tight just in case the badge really was a toy.

While such an occurrence would only jar a foreigner, other aspects of the night trams are universally irksome. To be fair to the public transportation system, the trams do run 24-hours a day, with 24 day lines and 9 night lines that run from midnight to 5:00 or 6:00 AM. But despite that convenience, they usually frustrate more than they accommodate. Slowed intervals of stops (40 minutes before another tram rolls around), the common need to transfer to another line, and crowding due to fewer lines are just a few of the reasons why you may want to shell out some cash for a cab—just make sure to ask how much it will cost before getting in to avoid swindling.

While some of this may make the trams sound like a terror, they really aren’t. In fact, they can be quite enchanting. Take for example the Nostalgic Tram no. 91, a historic tram that runs on weekends and holidays from the end of March through mid-November. While a little pricier than regular fares (around $1.20, or 25 CZK for an adult), the trip includes passage on an antique tramcar as well as a special route from Vozovna Střešovice through the city center. Another photo-op packed journey is that along regular routes 22 or 23, considered to be the city’s most scenic. For even more exciting sights, a trip to the Public Transport Museum gives visitors a view into the past, with discontinued antique tramcars and other transportation items on display. And with the recent introduction of the Škoda 14 T, it looks like Prague might have a few more trams to add to the museum.

According to the Škoda website, “the vehicle will conform to the requirements of us both in the classic urban public transport systems and on the lines of high-speed streetcars.” More importantly, by providing a middle low-floor section of the car, the new additions will also make travel easier for passengers with limited mobility or baby carriages. And in case you’re stuck on a night tram, crowding probably won’t be an issue since there are five sections per car, as opposed to the two sections on older models. Practicality like that is key, but there’s something to be said about the new tramcars’ look—with a coat of shiny red and silver paint and a futuristic aerodynamic design, they’re definitely an aesthetic step up from their predecessors.
While the new cars excite some, they also confuse others. “From what I know about the Czech budget crisis, I don’t see why the city needs new tramcars when the old ones work fine,” said Rebecca Houston, an American studying in Prague. “Plus, the old 5-trams are kind of quaint,” she added. Minshull echoed similar sentiments, saying that older models add to the charm of such an old city.

Whether you manage to hop an old-school fiver or find yourself on a Škoda 14 T, make sure to use your eyes and ears when cruising to your destination. Czech is not only a hard language conversationally, it’s also equally hard to read. Hence, keep your eyes on the route list (usually near the front of the car) and listen to the announcer—a combination of the two will ensure that you don’t miss your stop.

If you follow these tips, rules and lessons, riding the trams will be no problem. While they once might have seemed like just another way to get around the city, Prague’s trams will surely add a scenic and enjoyable touch to your visit.

Monday, March 5, 2007

A Night With the Spartans

There are a couple things I’ve learned as a fan and player of many sports. One is that regardless of age, sex or maturity, any spectator melts into a childish form of himself when captured on the jumbotron. Back in ’99 I saw my friend’s dad jump to his feet, throw his hands in the air and gyrate to Ricky Martin’s “Shake Your Bon Bon,” after realizing that his 15 seconds of fame had commenced. Aside from disturbing male choreography, I’ve also learned that sports are sports. The sounds, the skills, the strategy—they all fall under an umbrella of likeness regardless of what group of people is playing. What changes though, and can make or break the entire viewing experience, is the fandom.

I was well aware of the Czech Republic’s beloved hockey history before coming to Prague for a semester abroad. The nation breeds stars, many of whom do their own time abroad in the United States playing for teams in the NHL. At home, their national team is a fixture in world championship tournaments, garnering the title of 2nd best team in the world only to Sweden. They might not be top notch in the books, but the Czech puck handlers do know how to bring out the best in their fans.

I got my first impression of the HC Sparta Praha hockey team when chatting with a Czech peer. Crinkling his nose and bringing his chin to his shoulder in a look of sheer disgust, he said, “Sparta? Why do you want to go to Sparta game?” This caught me off guard, so I prodded him to explain his distaste. Sparta is notorious for having the rowdiest fans, and lest you want to be caught in the mayhem of no class, drunken debauchery you ought to go across town and check out an HC Slavia game. Never one to take the safe road, I grabbed my planner and penciled in the Sparta play-off game on Sunday, March 4.

The #15 tram to Vystaviste was full of the usual commuters when I boarded it three stops from the T-Mobile arena in Prague 7— some metal kids toting Iron Maiden backpacks and a bunch of old folks with used and reused shopping bags from Albert. At the second stop the tram’s doors opened like an accordion and in poured the music of Sparta’s choir of hockey fans—they may be atheists, but they still sing the good gospel of national legend Jaromir Jagr.

The mostly male addition to the tramcar proceeded to break the ultimate public conduct rule: holding their beer bottles in one hand and the railings above them for balance with the other, they carried out boisterous banter well above the acceptable whisper. Beyond the tram windows, a steady stream of pedestrians followed, Sparta flags in hand and battle cries on their lips. With daylight fading and graffiti-covered walls prevailing, it looked as though these Czechs were en route to a street fight instead of a sporting event.

As I surveyed the seating chart in front of the ticket booth, a gangly man in black knocked on my language barrier. I apologized for my lack of comprehension, saying “English,” and turned away. He persisted though, and pointed at the chart: “Ah, yes, ticket. One for you? I have here,” he said, aiming the ticket at a section on the map containing the first 20 rows up from one of the curves in the rink. “For you, 200 crown!” Frugal as I am, I nodded to the 20 crown discount and snapped open my wallet. It was only after he said “good luck” that I realized I had just made a transaction with a Czech scalper. The ticket looked legitimate, so I walked up to the doors mulling over whether his benediction was meant for the team I was supporting, or for my entrance to the arena.

Access granted.

Dodging full-sized flags emblazoned with a bold red “S” and kicking soiled hotdog trays out of my path, I meandered around the perimeter of the rink. After making eye contact with yet another leering drunkard, it dawned on me that I was in the minority here, and it had nothing to do with nationality. Where were the dainty ladies adorned with the cutest player’s jersey? And more astonishingly, where was the mile-long line outside the women’s bathroom? Bewilderment struck as I paused to reflect on this, but I was interrupted by a pack of rampaging guys racing for their seats as the closing notes of the Czech national anthem fell over the din of the stadium.

Taking my place in the red stands, section 214, row 19, I looked to my immediate left and smirked. The next section over was the designated standing-room-only section for the most unruly of the HC Hame Zlin fans, located directly behind one of the goals. I was neighbors with the inevitable losers section, as any Sparta fan would assure you that he was holding the team scarf of the “best in all country” (after all, Sparta did champion the Extraliga last year).

Before the puck was even dropped, a different battle had ensued: chants from the Sparta superfan section ricocheted off those from the Zlin fanatics. Translations aside, the fervency fueling them colored faces red in fits of passion, spit flying alongside screams from the mouths of vehement fans. Images of Spartan soldiers flashed on the jumbotron as the puck hit the ice.

The first period was accompanied by a barrage of native cheers, but the occasional “Let’s go!” boomed from the speakers to urge fans on. In the waning moments, a Sparta defender held the puck in his offensive third. He danced with it to the tune of a deafening collective whistle, something completely novel and equally painful to my ears. He fired the puck across the ice to a waiting stick that slapped the puck directly into the goalie’s glove, ending the piercing noise and the period.

The lines at the beer stands snaked menacingly throughout the venue. I learned from one of the sturdy policemen, clad in riot gear with a helmet and club, that fanaticism, alcohol and men are the keys to the hooliganism here. I had spotted a toddler earlier, propped up on a table by his keepers, spitting back the “HEY!” to the classic Sparta call-and-response cheer—clearly they get them young. And, of course, beer is nothing new to sporting events. But without women to temper the testosterone, you can only imagine the atmosphere.

Regardless, not one fight broke out in the stands during the match. Was it their deep absorption with the game at hand? Not quite. The same policeman pointed outside, to the parking lots open for cigarette breaks between periods. “They fight there,” he said, before and after, but not during the game. The sixty minutes of play were reserved for the warm up—the incubation of wrath only unleashed once the open air sparked fuming tempers.

The game proved worthy of inciting such behavior. The play held close through the first two periods, with scuffles on the ice quickly quelled by the four referees. Fans brandished flags like swords each time an unfavorable call was made or a player was sent to the penalty box. When their team was on the offense, supporters would execute three quick claps and raise their arms in a “V” above their head, concurrently yelling the appropriate team name. Despite the driving cheers from the stands, it wasn’t until the first thirty seconds of the third period that the scoring began.

Sparta put three away in a matter of ten minutes, followed by a later rally of two goals from Zlin. After each one, horns were blown and drums beaten while their owners jumped up and down, marking the only time fans in the seated sections took to their feet. The last minute and a half was the pinnacle. The whole of the approximately 10,000 spectators rose from the benches and held a solid clap, the outnumbered but optimistic Zlin fans begging for a tying goal. The seconds ticked out, the buzzers rang, and Sparta reigned victorious.

In my preoccupation to witness a brawl outside I nearly missed the preemptive police strike within the stadium walls. The area of the concourse through which Zlin superfans exited their section was closed off with barricade gates. A group of riot police, helmets on and plastic face guards down, shuffled the fans out one at a time. Each had to take off their Zlin jerseys, remove any yellow clown wigs, and roll up their team’s flags. There were no exceptions and there would be no conspicuous targets for awaiting Sparta ruffians.

I walked out into the parking lot, dejected at best since realizing it was unlikely that I would witness any epic clashes outside. The litter lining the sidewalks seemed acceptable, Prague 7 bustling for the first time since I’d gotten here. Approaching the tram stop, I was crowded and jostled by buzzing groups of comrades, all enthused by the big win. I joined the triple clap-arms up cheer, marking another of the unwritten laws of fandom: when without a team of your own, it’s always safer to cheer with the winners.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Not knowing the customs and courtesies of a city you have just touched down in is similar to being in a state of ignorant bliss. Spewing a consistent stream of exclamations about your new surroundings while cruising the trams, laughing and smiling with your companions all the while—you wouldn’t think anything of it. But Czech people do. And what’s worse, 5-year-olds do too. The taciturn state of public conduct in Prague points back to the age of Communism, which plastered stolid expressions and tight lips on the faces of the Czechs. A couple decades after democracy reinstated itself, remnants of that lifestyle persist in the youngsters reared by those who were forced to put their conviviality on hold. I learned so much when, on my first Monday morning in the city, I was the recipient of cherubic glares from a neat row of children riding the tram to school. They occupied one whole length of the car, and defied what would be conventional in the States by keeping their morning banter at a whisper-quiet level. It wasn’t until I listened intently at my Czech culture lecture that I learned of my misstep; quiet is valued in this country where, not too long ago, keeping one’s business his own was a matter of avoiding arrest (or worse) by the hand of the Communist government. Wanting to fit in with my new neighbors, I made sure to take that rule to heart... and fast.

It's funny now though, as it's been a little over a month since I got to Prague and I still find myself letting a giggle slip out of mouth (or worse, a chuckle on some late night rides home) every once in a while. Admittedly, I'm quick to stifle myself, but I still feel like my transgressions kick me to the back of the discreet-expat wannabe line. Regardless, I consider myself an upstanding assimilation artist and find stern looks creeping onto my own face when a rowdy group of shameless Italian kids waiting for the metro starts bellowing dramatic love songs to the heavens. I guess I'll never be a full-fledged customs abiding citizen though, because I can't help but at least hum along with the tourists, even if it's only in my head.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Forget the ACE/JMZ/NQRW/123/456...

The metro system in Prague is almost too easy. Three lines-- red, yellow, green-- and two directions for each one. It's laid out in a triangle formation, with each line snaking away from Prague 1 (the center of the city), over the Vltava River and out into the city's various neighborhoods. Transferring within the metro stations is easily done, as following the colored signs could be accomplished by a 5-year-old. Once above ground, you can walk to your destination or hop a tram and speed up the journey. The trams are a bit trickier, but I'm sure that'll get easier soon enough... plus, it's all a matter of knowing the schedule and timing your plans right. Time underground is well-managed, with clocks counting down the minutes until the next train rolls through. And the trains... oh the trains! Metro cars are treated with great respect-- no food or mess allowed, bright lighting, and everything electric (you even have to press a button on the door to get off or on at your stop). And then there are the platforms. Again, immaculate. Besides spotless floors, the walls along the tunnel are decorated with these neat concave circle things, using different color families (I'm quite partial to the blues).

Another neat transportation-type thing is this elevator I rode in the Lucerna building in Wenceslas Square. A little backstory: Wenceslas Square is a big shopping and social center in Prague 1, and the Lucerna building is a buidling that houses everything from offices to cafes to shops and a famous theater-- Cinema Lucerna is the oldest cinema that's still in use in all of Europe! Lucerna was built and owned by Vaclav Havel's grandfather (Vaclav is the former president of the country), and drew a higher class clientele back in the day. These days it's evened out, and you can find one of the cafes crowded with local students chatting it up over an expansive menu of coffee, tea, and even Latin American hot chocolate (it's literally like drinking a cup of a melted chocolate bar). Anyway, on the way up to the offices of the Music on Film Film on Music documentary festival (my internship, check it out, I was faced with these old-school elevators, of which only a few remain in the city--take a gander below. In a nutshell, there are two shafts next to each other and a continual stream of cars circulates, one side goes up, the other down. Two key points here: the cars DO NOT stop and there are no doors. You actually have to hop on and off without hesitation, and hope it works out. It was one of the most exciting and awe-inspiring sights/experiences yet, and I'm not sure I'll ever be so satisfied with an elevator again.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Don't Trust the Sunshine.

So on Sunday we trekked to the wondrous castle high atop a hill overlooking the city. En route to Tram 22 (aka the Pickpocket Express), the weirdest weather fell upon us... at first a drizzle amidst sparkling sunshine, and then fierce winds and a hail-ish mixture as we boarded the tram. I had eyed my umbrella before walking out the door, but decided against toting along since the sun had been beaming all morning. And thus I realized you can't trust the weather, in New England OR in Prague. Luckily, the inclement weather subsided, leaving us with a frigidly sunny day.

The castle grounds tour was led by the same guide that showed us around Old Town. She's a peppy lady and very mom-like, always asking if we're too cold to go on. Cold we were, but we trooped through it. My ballet flats were a less-than-genius idea for the event, even with leg warmers tucked into them, and retrospectively I don't know how I overlooked my diesel Uggs when getting dressed. Anyway, the architecture was stunning. People remark about how Prague is so beautifully preserved (note the fact that it was one of few cities not bombed in WWII), but besides the obvious, what's even more impressive is that people were able to build these cathedrals and castles without the modern technology we have today. We learned that wooden scaffolding, buttresses, and strict scheduling were some of the elements that allowed for the labor to pay off.

While we walked through one of the squares we picked up some hot mulled wine-- definitely a little different, and seeing as to how I'm not such a wine fan, it wasn't the most delicious beverage. BUT the tongue burn and warmed throat was nothing to argue with when I could barely feel my face.

We stopped for some dinner on the way home, and on this I have to comment. First of all, the amount of restaurants in Prague is so great that I'm sure you can sit down and be the only patron for the entirety of your meal. What does this mean? Why, speedy service and a calming ambience. This particular joint was down a small alley and offered the most delectable dish I've had since touching down in the Czech Republic. Potatoes, onions, mushrooms and bacon prepared to a stewy consistency. Coupled with an amazing batch of freshly baked baguettes, it was to die for.

And another thing about eating establishments... you're allowed to bring dogs in with you! Dogs are ridiculously well-behaved here, to the point that most people walk them sans leash. At that restaurant, and a few other casual cafes I've eaten in, there have been dogs lying under owners' chairs, patiently and silently awaiting for the meal to end and the walk to begin. Amazing.

That night (Sunday), our dorm hosted one of Prague's most popular jazz bands in our basement. It was packed with kids from all three dorms, and the sweet sound of a good band and impressive female singer swirled about.

Free apple juice, among other beverages, was served, and the night was a relaxing hit. The band, Badfinger, further cemented my interest in jazz... I think I can confidently say I like the genre.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Clutching your Clutch...

We've been warned by everyone from tour guides to RA's to parents and professors... the gypsies (aka Roma) in Prague are notorious for their pickpocketing craft. We've been holding onto bags and eyeing suspicious characters, eager to witness a theft firsthand, but even standing at the Astronomical clock at noon (crowds like heaven for a slick dude/ette) proved fruitless. They must be THAT good.

Meanwhile, the storm of all European history rocked Prague a couple nights ago. The winds were out of control, dust and debris flying in any unprotected eyes (I was a mess) and then possibly the most intense rain storm I have ever witnessed. Needless to say, Thursday was deemed a "recovery" night, but the weather's been agreeable since. Still, we have our travel insurance just in case we need to get airlifted out of here. Wouldn't that make for a good entry....

Yesterday was the last day of intensive survival Czech class, so to celebrate, our great teacher brought a bottle of chilled Becherovka liqour to class.

Besides spilling it all over my desk (I swore I hadn't snuck some before class) it was... kinda gross. Could it have been the fact that we were taking swigs at 11 AM? Probably. But anyway, something like that had to be documented (visual aid above). After that, we went to lunch at a nice restaurant by Wenceslas Square with our teacher and a colonel of the US army who works at the embassy here. The most useful tip we learned from them was that the daily specials, written only in Czech, are geared towards the locals who might not want to drop the equivalent of $20 on lunch. Jason and I got meals and drinks, tax and tip included, for $10. That's what I'm talking about... and now that we can decode Czech food words, you can bet we'll be making that move a lot.

We went to the opera last night, which was a first for me. Culture abounds in Praha, and unlike my time in New York I actually plan on taking full advantage of it. We saw Carmen at the Statni Opera House and it was enlightening. You see, the only subtitles were in Czech and the actual script was in French, so I was reduced to appreciating the voices, sets, costumes, and orchestra, all of which were great by my standards. I managed to sneak a picture during one of the acts, so you can enjoy that here:

We're venturing into Old Town tonight to check out an American expat-owned club... more on that later.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

So I Was Thinking... I scrolled through my pictures and saw all the random people that are in them. Like, people who are just aimlessly walking through the background of the shot and BOOM they're on your iPhoto. I know it's possibly the least original thought, but it's worth thinking about how many random pictures you've been in. And to think of how bad you must look mid-stride/sneeze/laugh/etc. [note: see the randoms standing in front of the Astronomical Clock. All I wanted was a clear shot.]