Five lesser-known reasons to visit (and fall in love with) Prague

5. Their currency is seriously cool.

Although Prague is generally less expensive than other big-name European capital cities, it’s almost a shame to spend any money at all, unless it means discovering a banknote you haven’t yet seen!

The bills feature important figures in Czech history and culture.  At the time, I didn’t have the 5000 or 2000 notes, but they show, respectively, TG Masaryk, an incredible politician who, among many other accomplishments, defended a Jew in the Czech equivalent of the Dreyfus Affair, and Emma Destinova, one of the greatest opera singers of all time (and a woman…imagine!).  On the notes in the picture are a politician-historian; one of the most beloved Czech author(esse)s, Bozena Nemcova; a teacher, scientist, all-around smart guy; and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and the guy who gave Prague its most famous landmarks.

Finally, instead of stamping their coins with the floating heads of random presidents (seriously, Dwight Eisenhower?), Czech coins show awesome things like this:

4. The street musicians are actually really talented.

Based on a sample size of two (my research methods professor told me that’s sufficient), Prague street musicians are better than the average subway station accordionist.  I walked across the Charles Bridge on two different days and saw two great bands.  One was kind of jazzy, a sax, clarinet, trumpet deal.  The other was a little more honkytonk (wonder how you say that in Czech?) and featured a tuba, washboard, and vocalist, plus these superstars:

And yes, that is a cigarette in the trumpet player’s left hand.  So, maybe try to get to Prague before this guy’s lung capacity drops too low.

3. Prague looks good, even in the rain, or covered in graffiti, or drizzled with bechamel sauce (probably).

Some cities just can’t stand up to bad weather or the slightest bit of dirt.  Prague has all the beauty of Paris, but you don’t feel like you’ve seen it all before in a movie or on a postcard.  Passing from the historical sections of Prague into places like the bustling, commercial Wenceslas Square, I noticed the increased use of neon signs and a few more McDonalds, but the buildings were still more charming than the average high-rise in an American city.  Plus, when in doubt, just paint it in a pastel shade of green, pink, or yellow.

2. SmetanaMANIA

Anyone who’s known me for awhile knows that several coincidences led me to start rooting for the Green Bay Packers back in the third grade.  In the same way, in the 8th grade, Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Moldau’ became the first piece of classical music I ever bought on CD.  And though I knew Smetana was from Bohemia, I wasn’t expecting the widespread worship he still receives in Prague and probably in the Czech Republic in general.

As I said, it was coincidence that led me to this particular piece of music; I haven’t been listening to Beethoven’s piano concertos since I was eight or anything like that.  Smetana is (I think) not as well-known in the US as his compatriot, Antonin Dvorak.  In Prague, he’s hailed as the father of Czech music,and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.

This is from the Prague Municipal House, or city hall, famous for its Art Nouveau styling. Smetana and Dvorak are the farthest to the right.

1. It’s good to be reminded how hard some peoples have fought for their cultural identity.

Excuse me while I go all polisci major for a sec, but it was inspiring to see how proud Czechs are of their culture and history.  Now, I’m regrettably ill-versed in Central and Eastern European history, but even I picked up on the pride Czechs have in their country and their capital city after years of fighting and protesting to claim their own identity.  It would be hard not to notice–you see it in their currency, their municipal buildings, their street names.

This open, yet somehow unassuming pride is really refreshing.  While I don’t believe the stereotype that all French people are snobs, I do sometimes think they consider it a foregone conclusion–to the extent that it’s not worth reiterating–that French philosophers, artists, and writers have been indispensable to the development of Western culture.  Americans are stereotyped as not letting you forget their country’s more recent role in this development.  Maybe both groups are right, but the sincerity with which Czechs celebrate their own heroes is distinct and, for lack of a better word, totally cool.

Savines-le-lac: Tap water’s fine, thanks

Yesterday, my roommate Emily and I took a half-hour bus ride to see Lac du Serre-Ponçon, a beautiful lake to the east of Gap surrounded by mountains. We got off the bus at Savines-le-lac, a small village that’s probably much quieter now than it usually would be; we’re about a month late for the tourist season here. Savines is cute, but besides its unexpectedly modern church (I later read the town as you see it today was envisioned by an architect named Achille de Panaskhet…ring any bells?) it seems like a quiet summer destination.

After a quick stroll through the very small town center, we found a public beach. Besides the complete lack of sand in favor of a concrete block, it was really charming thanks to the views of the lake and surrounding mountains. After making do with some natural privacy screens (a tree, a closed-for-the-season refreshment stand), we carried our bags over our heads and walked into the slightly cold water to a dock floating a couple yards from the beach. Cue sunbathing, ‘swimming’ (wading), and picture-taking.

Several hours later, about 3pm, we had still not had lunch. So we ventured back to the main drag to see if we could find anything (really, anything). We thought we’d gotten lucky with a bar-pizzeria and sat down. The waiter asked what we’d like to drink, and I said I’d be fine with some tap water. When he returned with this and Emily’s OJ, he deposited the check on the table. After timidly asking whether we’d be able to order a pizza—no, you can’t order a pizza until this evening—I was mortified to learn that I had ordered (free of charge) tap water at what would be, until several hours later, a café. Well, good thing Emily actually ordered something he could charge us for. I left a generous pour boire (kind of a drinking tip for cafés) and tried to get out of the poor waiter’s sight ASAP!

That’s all for now, but just to prove I’m actually here:

"Une cousine, grosse mais gentille…"

It is officially spring in Aix. It’s sunny and warm and the Aixois who were reluctant to come out in the harsh, bitter cold of February (=40 degrees), fill the streets, cafés, and parks. And so do tourists, which is both amusing and painful to see. I’m at least an extended-stay tourist, which I tell myself is more respectable. It’s interesting to see American tourists at their most stereotypical–comfy clothes, sneakers, et cetera–and, after being here for two months, understand why the French sometimes just don’t get us crazy Americans.

I’ve already enjoyed complaining about tourists like a true Aixoise. Now, I’ve never needed an excuse to be bitter about minor inconveniences in everyday life. But my hostmom is the champion. Marie-Do has done some top-notch complaining, guilt-tripping, and nagging that would be hard, even for me, to replicate. Marie-Do is a good host mom. She’s very interested in my experience here, she doesn’t make foods I don’t like, and she does my laundry. So it’s important to know, I wouldn’t write about her if I didn’t find humor in her antics and if I didn’t think my observations could give a little insight into the French mentality.

Marie-Do can talk forever about her health. The first time I met her she told me her glands were swollen. Recently it’s her right eye (it’s ‘pulling,’ she says, which I don’t quite understand). She’s a hypochondriac, as my program director says many French people are. The French are also more pessimistic than Americans. I didn’t really think of Americans as being optimistic, but Marie-Do has made an optimist out of me. When I came back from Nice and Monaco and was describing the Bataille des Fleurs, she said “Oh! It’s too bad you didn’t go to Venice for their carnival.” Same thing with Spain “Oh! It’s too bad you didn’t stay until Sunday.” The number of times I’ve heard Oh! C’est dommage que….

I’ve gotten used to having the same conversations over and over with Marie-Do, because it’s a courtesy, from what I’ve learned, to avoid silence or gaps in conversation. I think that goes for things like car rides, watching the news, and other times when Americans wouldn’t necessarily be uneasy with an extended silence. Marie-Do is constantly asking–a more positive characterization than ‘nagging’ that I use for my own sanity–about my class schedule, my social life, what I’m doing this weekend, even though I told her yesterday, or often earlier that day.

When I say Marie-Do guilt-trips, I know it sounds bad. But maybe it’s considered more polite to be passive-aggressive here. Okay, that doesn’t sound any better. It’s just something I’ve noticed, with Marie-Do and, to an extent, my host mom in Nantes, Roselyne. Maybe it’s a French mom thing. Anyway, our upstairs neighbor, when he’s home, constantly wears his shoes, which we can hear clicking on the floor. Marie-Do always says she’s going to bring it up with him but that he’s really very nice and she’ll just ‘mention it’ or ‘slip it in’ by kindly suggesting that he wear slippers around the house. I won’t recount the exact circumstances that led her to use this sneaky tactic to me, but it was artfully done, I must say. And, again, it wasn’t as affronting as it sounds; I just laughed it off after.

I’ll leave you with one amusing Marie-Do moment that happened just last night. Her ex-boyfriend took her out to dinner, but he came up to the apartment first to sit and talk a bit. This was the first I’d heard of him. This is not the ex-husband and father of her son, this guy was later. All I know is he is “very, very rich”. So Marie-Do is babbling at him about everything going on in her life, her health problems, her efforts at home decorating, and her recent trip to Corsica. She’s showing pictures of her extended family in Corsica, I couldn’t see them but I was in the room. She gets to one of her and someone else and says “C’est ma cousine, grosse mais gentille.” Translation: That’s my cousin, fat but nice. I couldn’t help but laughing, and neither could the very, very rich man.

That’s it for now. I have an idea, though. If anyone is curious about some part of French culture or language I haven’t written about, leave a comment. I’m no expert, but being in France means I can find an expert (okay, so maybe just Marie-Do) on whatever you might be interested in. So, comment!
A plus,
Maggie B.