Friday, July 11, 2003

Watty's been travelling:

Well, that was a strange day. On the face of it, get up early, travel to meeting, have successful meeting, have lunch, go for short walk, travel home again sounds pretty mundane. However, yesterday, the meeting was in Prague. A short travelogue is in order, then:

The best thing about being up at 5 in the morning is that Christmas Day-like lack of traffic. Even late in the evening there is still a reasonable weight of traffic, but at that time in the morning, I can make it to Heathrow in half an hour. Cheerfully taking the wrong turning (hey, I'm not awake yet) I have to do a half circuit of the perimiter road to get to the car park. This affords me the opportunity to hear the 'Radio 4 UK Theme', which is played at 0530 every day, apparently. A lushly scored, sub-Percy Grainger amalgamation of Rule Britannia, Men of Harlech, Londonderry Air and so on, it caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, the English tunes are Greensleeves and What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?; and secondly, I don't hear a Scottish element. Later in the day, however, I find myself humming 'Scotland the Brave', so presumably I just missed it whilst avoiding a bus. Parking at Heathrow takes forever, of course, and I'm only just in time for the check in. Fortunately, travelling 'hand luggage only' is pretty much painless, and I am checked in for the return flight at the same time - which just might come in very handy at the other end of the day.

I have flown Czech Airlines before, and they are perfectly pleasant, but clearly without the muscle of BA. We don't seem to be late in boarding, but have to wait half an hour before pushing back. Slots are at a premium at that time in the morning, and something tells me that the planes with the Union Jack on the tail get priority. Intriguingly, Iain Duncan Smith is going to Prague today, too - I bet he's on BA, though. Once airborne, am struck by the fact that I was reading the night before about flying Spitfires over this same part of Kent; I try to imagine what is must have been like - visibility probably not much better that you get through the perspex window of a 737, but a sight colder. We hurtle on towards central Europe, fortified by an airline breakfast. The scenery below changes so gradually that I scarcely notice it, and it's not until we are letting down into Prague that it's obvious. The heavily wooded ravines, red pantiles and round churches are just so Bohemian. Although I was here for only a few days 5 years ago, it's oddly good to be back. Everything is going well, if a little late, until we reach Passport Control.

The exiting passengers are faced with a long blue wall, set into which are a number of doors. Behind these doors sit uniformed Police officers, doing the dullest job in the world, and comensating for the boredom by looking fierce and occasionally interrogating someone for an unreasonable amount of time. Something like 6 flights have all arrived at around the same time, so there are about 600 people to process, and - naturally - not enough doors. We form into unruly queues, but some of the queues are tucked around the corner, and so are not obvious when you first arrive. Therefore everyone piles into the first three queues - one which is not moving at all, and two which are inching forward painfully slowly. To improve the entertainment factor, one of the flights appears to be an entire Scottish football team and their supporters, who are well-behaved, but very obviously in a big gang together. After an hour - I'm not making this up - my queue has reached the line at the front. I stand there, passport poised, hoping that my lift hasn't given up and gone home, when they shut the doors. Lunchtime, apparently. We merge politely with the queue next to us, ignoring the choice Scottish insults being lobbed at us - I pretend to be Italian, but I doubt it fools anyone.

Eventually, passport scowled at, I emerge, blinking into the Prague daylight. My lift has not given up, although he's quite tricky to track down, and we head off in to town. The Ferrero Cz offices are in Wenceslas Square, which is better than some faceless industrial park, but does not lend itself to rapid transport. Very quickly, we come upon the most obvious sign of change in the past 5 years - a traffic jam. Solid, M25-like traffic as far as the eye can see. We detour heroically, and I get to see all sorts of intriguing Prague suburbs. Some of them look quite smart and modern; some of them look distinctly Cold War era. Eventually, we reach the centre and, after a few more amusing minutes spent in search of parking, we troop into a wonderfully typical Prague building, festooned with pillars and intricate stonework. Inside, we negotiate the concierge, and find ourselves in a wonderful central European stairwell, complete with Soviet lift, all Cyrillic lettering, and distinctly ropy mechanism. We use the lift on the way up, but I notice that we walk back down.

I shall spare you the meeting - sufficient to say that it was more than satisfactory - and proceed straight to a rather late lunch. We walked past the National Gallery (next time...) and into a cavernous, and very typically Czech-looking restaurant. Almost every place I have eaten in Prague has been underground, and this is no exception. Thankfully, there are more steps at the back, and we come up into a very pleasant beer garden, where I am made to drink my daily ration of pivo ("Every Czech, from babies to grandmothers, drinks three beers a day"), and I volunteer to be fed typical Czech cuisine. Grandmother's potato soup is wonderful, and the duck is pretty good, although could possibly have done with fewer dumplings. At least I was going to sleep on the way home. After a debate about whether strudel is actually a Czech dish, and much amusements at my attempts to say 'Thank You' (I got it, but I needed to see it written down. Oh the shame - and me a linguist, too), it was proposed that I might like a stroll round Wenceslas Square, which I accept happily.

It hasn't changed much, really - possibly there are even more tourists than before, but the bookshops are still there, and the ridiculously cheap tat they want to sell me ("Oh, Prague is very expensive; you should come out into the country") I buy T shirts for the boys, and get change from 500 Crowns, and we soak up the sunshine and avoid the travelling Hare Krishna band on our way back to the traffic. As we sit in more jams, dodging trams, I reflect on how odd it is, for someone of my generation, to be able to come to Prague for the day, and buy software. There is still a big part of me which doesn't accept that there is no Iron Curtain any more, and that the Czech Republic is full of Audis and BMWs, advertising and Western goods; the airport is full of Boeings; and all these young people with green passports are Czechs on their way somewhere, not tourists on their way in. But one day, I'm going to go there, and really see the city.

No comments: