Designing Prague

I had a short trip to Prague last week. It was great to go back and revisit my favourite places. Little seems to have changed, but that is not surprising in city that generally looks like a fairy tale. I had a lot of homely Czech food (including some Radost FX vegetarian, and the Pivovarský dům microbrewery) and stayed in the fantastic Hotel Sax. The weather was biting but clear, and Prague looks great in Autumn (when it wasn’t raining anyway).

China Freeze

I’m cold. Very cold. For the past two weeks China has been experiencing the worst winter in fifty years. Much of the country has been covered in snow. Living in the relatively warmer climates of Southern China you would expect winter to be a mild affair. Last year it was, but this year the temperatures have dropped to around 4 degrees (daytime). Now this isn’t such a low number when compared to other parts of the country, but the important factor is that the South is completely unprepared for such weather. For example, the building I live in has absolutely no insulation, the windows have gaps along the edges, the door leading to the balcony is an interior door, and there is no heating of any kind. The building itself is made of concrete and this only seems to intensify the exterior temperature. I can safely say that this is the coldest winter I’ve ever experienced – cold, damp, and miserable. Prague seems balmy in comparison.

The weather has affected the country just before the main Chinese New Year holiday, and right at the time when millions of migrant workers want to return home. Apparently 500,000 of them were stranded at the main train station here in Guangzhou, due to cancelled trains elsewhere on the network. The situation is so bad that the army was called in to calm the situation. The estimated cost to the country is about 18 billion yuan. Ouch.

All I can say is roll on spring.

Europe and back again

My first post of 2007 will be spent talking about the last month of 2006. I realise that it’s been a shockingly long time since I wrote anything here (five months, to be exact), and also that I’ve been incredibly bad at keeping up with emails and comments (my apologies to anyone who has contacted me – I will get back to you).

I spent the whole of December in Europe. Two weeks of this was in Bratislava, Slovakia, and the rest with family for Christmas in England. After a year in Asia it was great to go back home and be able to go about my business without being a cause for curiosity. It would be very trite of me to say that nothing had changed. It would also be quite untrue. A lot of things have changed, and none more so than UK airports, which can now be summed up very succinctly: a royal nuisance. Long queues and over-zealous security made every journey an extreme test of patience. Even leaving the train at the airport’s train station was not simple, and security were unhappy that I’d thrown my ticket away between leaving the train and exiting the station.

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And there goes Autumn

HeadsAfter a long hiatus I am back in Prague, and it’s feeling good. Norway was a fantastic country to stay in. The countryside was, to use a ropey-old expression, drop-dead gorgeous. The people were very friendly, and I enjoyed myself a lot. Living in a hotel for so long did have its downsides, and I don’t miss that at all, but I succumbed to a reward scheme and have earned myself enough points to stay somewhere lovely.

My previous impressions of Oslo were more or less accurate, but I will update them here. The most important thing is that yes, Norway is indeed an expensive place. Even compared to London. When you look at simple items such as a stick of chewing gum or a can of coke, and find that they are up to five times more expensive, you start to take notice.

A curious fact is that even though the population of Norway is only 4,604,800 (half the population of London), they have two languages (and possibly more, but the distinction escapes me). Like most places I visited I managed to derive some amusement from words with dual meanings, and particularly enjoyed ‘spare bank’, ‘god parkering’, and ‘fartering’.

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Exploring Oslo

So I’ve had a few days experience of Oslo and my thoughts so far are:

  • It’s full of shiny new people and things
  • It’s very clean
  • Oslo has big traffic congestion problems
  • Norway has a lot of laws
  • The hotel has free wi-fi access in all rooms – nice!
  • It is expensive, but no more so than London
  • I’ve not seen a fish anywhere (although I think they are just hiding out of sight)
  • People get called Odd and Even
  • Most people have an almost perfect understanding of English, and can speak it with very little accent. I’ve been told that English is compulsory at schools from the age of 8 onwards. I suspect that the similarity in structure of English and Norwegian and Swedish may also be a contributing factor. Whatever the reason, I am in awe.
  • I met an old Odd guy who says his father tried to assassinate Trotsky when he was living here in Norway
  • I can once again buy goodies such as muffins and NME magazine. It really is a rock-star life-style I lead.

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Isolating bubble

It’s been a busy month and I’ve barely had time to sit down, let alone write anything here. To top it all, both my parents have been hospitalized in some manner: my Dad suffered a ruptured bowel and underwent an emergency operation, and my Mum broke her shoulder.

It’s at times like these that you really notice how complicated living in another country can be. Not only do you feel helpless and so very far away, but even trying to find information can be problematic. For example, in calling the hospital about my Dad, I had to prove that I was directly related to him. This is easy to do in person, but how can you do it over the phone? Beyond birth date (which I know for many people), there is little that both myself and the hospital would know.

After convincing the staff that I was a real son, I then discovered that the phones provided to patients are on a premium-rate line anyway. That’s right, to call someone in the hospital you need to pay through the nose.

This quite astounded me as it seems tantamount to blackmail – pay up or we won’t tell you how your relative is. If you don’t care then don’t bother, but if you do then give us your money. Is this what hospitals have come to? An opportunity to outsource and have a money-grabbing company leech off the sick?

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Czech food (and the effects of globalisation)

I’ve been introduced to a lot of Czech food recently, courtesy of some Czech friends, and it’s been a fun (if sometimes weird) experience. It’s also given me the opportunity of visiting real local-style places. I haven’t quite decided what the criteria for distinguishing a ‘local-style’ place is yet, but if it’s in anyway intimidating then it almost certainly counts.

The food I’ve been served reminds me a lot of the food I used to eat in England as a child: heavy, meaty, and simple. Popular foods here are dumplings (potato and bread varieties), meats and meat sauces, bread, cabbage, and cheese.

Fried food is far too popular, and a meal may consist simply of fried mushrooms, boiled potatoes, and some tartar sauce. Tasty, but not particularly healthy.

As an unconfirmed vegetarian it can be a frustrating experience, although there are some notable exceptions (the excellent Radost FX being one).

I’ve had some pretty unexpected surprises. For some reason, eating spinach with cream is very popular here. Now I love spinach on its own, but with cream? Using my basic understanding of Czech I ordered what I thought was a spinach pizza. The menu mentioned spinach (spenat) and cream (smetana), but I figured it was spinach, with some sort of sour cream in a small side dish. Alas not, it simply meant spinach and cream. It would actually have been alright if it hadn’t been for the raw egg placed gently on top. I missed that word entirely!

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Hot bugs

Prague is being subjected to a minor heat-wave at the moment, and towards the end of last week it managed to break records, reaching around 38 degrees. Pretty hot and coupled with a high humidity it makes for very unpleasant and sticky days. Sleeping at night can also be difficult, partly because of the temperatures, but also because you need to leave open windows, and so invite all sorts of outdoor noises and bugs.

The noises are a side-effect of living in a narrow street with tall buildings on both sides. Even relatively quiet sounds echo upwards, and in the dead of the night everything just seems louder anyway. Of particular note are three Terrier dogs (currently residing near the bottom of my least-favourite-dogs list) that like to make themselves vocal, and an owner that doesn’t seem to mind.

The bugs have been more of a nuisance though. Usually I’m pretty much immune to bugs. They seem to ignore me, for whatever reason (bad blood and bad taste maybe), but over the weekend something had a royal feast on my back. Currently, judging by the marks, I’m suspecting a giant bat. It really makes you wonder what exactly is going on at night when you’re sleeping.

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Planes, trains, and computer failure

My last post was June 6th, and today it’s June 21st. In the time since then my hard drive had a spasm of identity, and I went back to England for a short holiday. Actually, both happened at the same time, which has left my computer pretty much incapacitated until I got back to Prague. Now I have the fun task of restoring its former glory. And they say computers are designed to make our lives easier.

While most of my work and emails were backed up, I had 10’s of gigs of photos and videos that were not, and not all of them survived. It’s quite disheartening really, as some were the only copies I had.

What was more disturbing was that after re-installing Windows, and before I could download a firewall and update Windows from Windows Update, my computer was infected with four different viruses/trojans. Now that’s scary, and makes me wonder at the state of the vast majority of the computer population.

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Cleaning the stairs

So the old Czech lady who cleans the stairs accosted me today. Normally when we meet in the communal areas she nods and says a polite Dobry Den, and I do the same in return. This time she waved a piece of paper and planted a pen in my hand. I peered at the paper in the hope of picking out some recognizable words, but it seemed to be a table with different numbers and very little else.

Not knowing a whole lot of Czech I tried to tell her I didn’t know what this was… ne Česky, ne Česky! She spoke some more and I told her in English that I had no idea what she wanted me to do. She then laughed and I went to get my lunch.

I’ve been trying to decide if she wanted me to sponsor her, or if she wanted a contact number. Ignorance may be bliss but mostly it’s just not having a clue.