In the Footsteps of Charles IV

At the weekend I went walking In the Footsteps of Charles IV. Yes, the Charles IV of Holy Roman Emperor fame, Charlie-Boy. C-Bomb Number 4. No? Basically, I was apparently walking in the footsteps of a 14th century Czech king.

In the Footsteps of Charles IV is an organised public walk outside of Prague to Karlstejn that’s put on every year for anyone who wants to do it. The full route is 50 kilometres but it’s possible to do 10, 15, 20 kilometres or whatever you can be bothered to do. As a group of occasional walkers and hardcore gulash eaters, we did 15 kilometres.

By some miracle of human perseverance I pulled myself out of my comfortable, under-used bed at 8am and with my flatmate met a gaggle of similarly hungover looking people at Prague’s Main Station. From there we took a short train journey out of Prague to some random, ramshackle place called Černošice where we would start our walk. After an almost uninterrupted five months of bleak weather that made going out into the Czech countryside less appealing than a weekend in Chernobyl, this weekend was the first tempting chance leave the urban sprawl of Prague and get in touch with mother nature. Or something.

The Czechs love the outdoors and, one thing I’ve learned from my students is that they are always out in the nature (as the endearingly incorrect Czechism goes). Inevitably out on the walk we met hundreds of families, dog-walkers and couples sampling the beautiful spring sunshine and we even passed a women’s football game. Possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long while.

The walk was pleasant as the route snaked through Czech villages that were pretty and Czech villages that were under construction, past colourful meadows and through forests, ending at Karlstejn Castle – a touristy but charming little town which sits under an imposing Gothic castle. To be honest, the scenery was charming but not spectacular and the pace and elevation were never quite taxing enough yet it was just the ticket to brush off the winter cobwebs and dissipating hangover.

Somehow, for the second time this month, I managed to finish the day with a bright red forehead and a rosy neck, so at this rate, the year’s going to be filled with peeling skin and a head permanently coloured like a tomato. Interestingly enough, with a forest continually to the right of me and open space to the left of me, it was only my right which turned red and so I ended up with a ridiculous kind of football strip of skin.

Probably the highlight of the day was the finish where we received a diploma to mark the momentous occasion of finished a 15 kilometre walk in the mammoth time of five hours (thanks to much sitting and eating) – on green card with my name written in felt tip pen. I felt as happy as a small child and now it’s up on my wall just next to my Nobel Peace Prize and Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

6 Reviews from the Febiofest Film Festival

Febiofest is a medium-sized film festival that takes place in Prague every March and showcases many independent films and snapshots of World Cinema. I can’t give a review of the whole thing because I wasn’t at a lot of it – it was the first warm week for six months and my pasty legs were not going to miss that – but I did see some worthy (and a few dodgy) movies that would be great to catch if they make an appearance at a film festival or even cinema near you.

Play (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)

What’s it about?

This low-budget Swedish effort is a dramatisation of the complex strategies used by one set of real-life bullies in the Gothenburg area over a three year period. What made these bullies so special were the intricate psychological games that they played that seemed way beyond their years. They were played the bad cop/good cop routines, amongst other tactics, and got the goods without the use of violence.

Worth hunting down?

It certainly is. The film is much more interesting and important than the premise may suggest. Watching these subtle, psychological games unfold really keep you glued to your seat and there’s always a feeling of tension that makes you squirm. The characters – much different to the usual clichéd Hollywood types – are all excellent and acted with subtlety and believability by a young cast and Ruben Östlund keeps the viewer detached with plenty of shots taken from a distance. The only downside to this admirable movie is the slightly ridiculous climax.

Rating: 8/10

Full review

As If I Am Not There (Ireland)

What’s it about?

This was shown as part of Febiofest’s Balkans section and it certainly wasn’t the first to be based on the Bosnian War of the Nineties. It was the first actually made by an Irish Director but I’m not sure if you get any points for that though. As If Am Not There is a harrowing tale of a modern schoolteacher who lived through the horrific brutality of the war after she was transported to a woman’s labour camp and sexually abused by the soldiers stationed there. It’s an unflinching tale of abuse and the struggle to live through it by any means.

Worth hunting down?

Juanita Wilson does very well to give us a balanced character to follow (excellently played by Natasa Petrovic), the right amount of horrific on-screen violence whilst not not showing so much that it ends up desensitising the viewer, and an engaging plot and substance to go with the message. Not an easy movie to watch but well worth it and an excellent alternative to Angelina Jolie’s publicity snowball Land of Blood and Honey.

Rating: 8/10

Full review

Up There (UK)

What’s it about?

Zam Salim’s film follows Martin (Gorman) who walks the earth in the afterlife after being knocked down and killed. He works as a carer, welcoming the newly deceased, and after being paired with the talkative Rash (Hamdouchi) he loses one of his charges. The pair then face a race against time to get the runner back before a big meeting that could decide Martin’s future.

Worth hunting down?

I loved this movie because it’s such a good demonstration to the world of British humour. Up There is deliciously dead-pan, sarcastic and dark, which is what the British are at their funniest. Droll humour, slapstick and the little touches – like the males using their invisibility to follow their instincts and the characters not being able to touch anything – sit comfortably side by side with a surprising amount of dramatic and poignant moments. Try to see it, if you can.

Rating: 8/10

Full review

Wuthering Heights (UK)

What’s it about?

Wuthering Heights – or Wuthering Heights Part One as it should be known – is based on a little bit of the novel by Emily Bronte. Heathcliff (Howson) is a ‘gypsy’ boy found and the streets and taken to live with the Earnshaw family in the bleak Yorkshire countryside. He falls in love with his adopted sister Cathy (Beer and Scodelario) and spends the first half pining for her before running away and then coming back years later to make trouble.

Worth hunting down?

Replacing the original gypsy character for a black man was, I suppose, an attempt to make this period piece more relevant but watching this in Prague – not the most tolerant place for the gypsy population – they actually succeeded in distancing the audience a little. At least they avoided avalanches of popcorn being aimed at the screen. One more thing that really put me off were the accents. I’m from Yorkshire – where this is set and the Bronte sisters lived – and it offended my ears. Without the visuals this could have been from a council estate anywhere in Leeds or the Jeremy Kyle show for that matter. Just my snobby opinion, that’s all. Not terrible but there are better Bronte adaptations to watch.

Rating: 5/10

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale (Taiwan)

What’s it about?

When the Chinese conceded Taiwan to Japan at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Japanese set about conquering the island and subjugating the tribal people. They did this with relative ease but many of the tribes were never fully dominated and in 1930 they rose up in one final, bloody rebellion.  Warriors of the Rainbow is a blow-by-blow account of the Seediq Bale clan’s heroic fight against the vastly superior numbers and technology of the Japanese occupiers and the consequent fightback.

Worth hunting down?

Warriors of the Rainbow is a fast-paced, fun war film that excellently combines the aspects of modern warfare with the traditional kind. The battle scenes are expertly done and this certainly wouldn’t look out of place in Hollywood. Te-Sheng Wei does manage to keep the Hollywood-style romanticisation of the tribes to a minimum though as we are shown the flaws and positive sides of both cultures. The problem is that it’s just too long and the final battle scene, which should be the stunning climax of the story, begins to drag as every single character seems to die in the most heroic and lengthy way possible.

Rating: 7/10

Full review

If the Seed Doesn’t Die (Serbia, Austria, Romania)

What’s it about?

If the Seed Doesn’t Die is a Balkan road movie featuring two very different journeys by fathers searching for their kids. The story of a Romanian father’s daughter who is sold into prostitution in Kosovo is told in parallel to the (comparatively) lighter tale of a Serbian father trying the find the body of a son killed in a car crash in Romania. The narrative is punctuated atmospherically throughout by a 200-year-old legend of a boat slowly being moved across great distances to a village in Romania which reminded me a lot of the style of Herzog’s early films, particularly Nosferatu.

Worth Hunting Down?

Sinisa Dragin’s dramedy is at its best when it’s being ridiculous with very amusing scenes coming thick and fast early on. The Serbia-to-Romania strand offers some very memorable characters and crazy, funny scenes whereas the father trying to find his daughter is more about the dark side to the region.  If the Seed Doesn’t Die is a little too inconsistent as we are treated to a comedy drama for most of the film only for it to get very heavy towards the end and unfortunately these are two aspects which sit uncomfortably next to each other.

Rating: 7/10

The Prague Half Marathon – Destroying Pavel Nedved

Left hand side in the blue and black - that's me

Ever since waddling through my chubby teenage years, running has been my thing. With poor portion control and a love of everything savoury, it’s also going to be only way of avoiding heart-disease and obesity until my knees inevitably give way in my late-Twenties. Over the last nine years I’ve competed in half marathons in Newcastle, Glasgow, Prague (in 2008) and Leeds and slowly trundled through a full one in Pisa and now I proudly have a trophy cabinet (box under the bed) full of medals. Yes, these medals are all for merely taking part but that’s the best sporting achievement I’m ever likely to obtain.

The Prague Half Marathon on Saturday was my first decent-sized run of a busy running season and it crept up on me and arrived a few weeks too soon. A life-shortening weekend in Wroclaw coupled with a disproportionate cheese-to-everything-else diet and a couple of weeks of icy conditions not suited to running, left me in a perilous position only a month or so before the run. I did my best to get myself in shape but I felt like I left it too late so I had to dig into my arsenal for my two main weapons. First, was pride, I had to beat a friend who had recently excelled in his first half marathon and the second was my classic Yorkshire cheapness – I was not going to spend €50 on a race and not get a PB.

On the greyest day outside of a Soviet-era soap opera, 11,000 people took to the streets of Prague to do one of the most attractive urban runs in Europe. The first five kilometres alongside the river was a giant mess of people and so I had to use my third and final attribute – my pigmy size – to pick my way through. Afterwards, the congestion eased and everybody spread out and I could run at my own pace as I tried to put my foot down to alleviate constant feeling of self-doubt (an annoying lack of clocks) and a bladder that felt like it was going to explode from the start. I traditionally try to sprint the last two kilometres and this time it nearly killed me, especially as the organisers tantilisingly count down every one hundred metres with a kilometre to go.

In the end, I finished with a really pleasing PB of 1 hour 30 minutes, 30 minutes behind the clichéd group of front-running Kenyans but a whole 17 minutes quicker than Czech football legend Pavel Nedved. Always said he was over-rated.

Little amusing things always happen in a run that help you get through with an occasional smile punctuating the almost ever-present grimace/sex face. Like at one point, the course loops round so you double back on yourself and run past people a fair way behind you. Here, I met the 11,000th-place runner loping along very slowly being followed a few feet behind by an ambulance crawling along presumably waiting to scoop her expired body up off the pavement. It was like watching a zebra caught in the eyeline of a waiting lion.

Other delights include a woman I passed twice, who I can only guess spent the entire race singing the Rocky theme tune (not Survivor, but you know, the other one) over and over again…on her own to no-one in-particular.  There was world’s laziest spectator who was not only sitting down but using wooden clappers to take the effort out of slapping two hands together. Oh and there was my Mum who failed to respond to the shout of “MUM!” both times I passed her. That embarrassing moment when you know everyone has seen you fail and you just have to pretend you weren’t waving but scratching your head and sprint away from the scene of the crime.

In two weeks it’s the Pardubice Wine Half Marathon – not entirely sure what that consists of but I’m looking forward to a mid-point tipple of wine and cheeseboard. Then in June it’s the Gorlitz Marathon which I am not looking forward to at all.

Derby Day in Prague – Sunburn and a Scoredraw

Ever since being teargassed at a bad-tempered Prague derby in 2008 I’ve been hooked on watching football in Europe. It’s much less sanitised – for better or worse – than England and always offers something interesting, if not always on the pitch. I’ve experienced the electric atmosphere of the San Siro in Milan, Hertha Berlin at the impressive Olympicstadion and the rustic charm of Artmedia Bratislava in a cowshed in Slovakia and I hope to see a lot more football action in the future.

On Saturday, it was again the Prague derby of the city’s main rivals, Slavia and Sparta. This year’s contest didn’t really look like it was going to be a classic with Slavia underperforming after some crippling financial difficulties and Sparta sitting pretty on top of the league. And, in the end, it wasn’t, as the two teams played out a spirited but rather toothless one-all draw but it was still a really nice day at the shiny Synot Tip Arena topped off with a much-needed bout of sunburn.

Slavia took a surprise lead after a beautifully delivered corner found Martin Latka’s head and the underdogs could have had a few more. Then after forcing Slavia ‘keeper Martin Berkovec into a couple of stunning saves, Sparta eventually scored through Tomáš Přikryl (just try saying that) before the game petered out a bit and the off-field antics became a lot more interesting.

Three of us were sat right next to the Slavia Ultras – a set of hardcore fans who seemingly model themselves on the British fans of the Eighties (even down to their use of British flags and terms like ‘The Slavia Gentlemen’). These guys never sit down and certainly never shut up – even down to the children’s match at half time as the fans went crazy when a seven year old Slavia lad scored and then wheeled away with a classic airplane celebration. I’d definitely recommend that you try to sit by them but maybe not in amongst them though as you might find yourself out of your depth as they don’t take too kindly to tourists.

There seemed to be quite a few measures in place to placate the Ultras and to avoid any violence. For one, only non-alcoholic beer was served, which scuppered our plans of drinking in the glorious sunshine, but could be understood. Secondly, their every whim was catered for. Whenever they wanted to unfurl banners across the section, set off a couple of flares or cart in a tonne of flags, the officials were happy acquiesce, stand by and watch and do the occasional bit of firefighting. Overall, they whipped up and raucous yet non-violent atmosphere and a fun, awesome spectacle.

Cooped in the opposite corner the Sparta Ultras were obviously jealous of this attention, threw their toys out of the pram and kicked off in the second half. It started with what looked like a toilet seat being thrown onto the pitch. Then came a series of plastic seats that had been ripped up and flares were then let off in the middle of the mass of fans. The firefighters’ unenviable job was to get amongst them and to put the flares out whilst the police went in and arrested the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, kind of behaviour is virtually institutionalised in football in Central and Eastern Europe now which leads to families staying away and for a pretty intense, unwelcoming atmosphere. Add to that a generally poor standard of football and a game in these parts shouldn’t be a great prospect but somehow it is. Tickets are cheap, beer is normally plentiful and if you choose the right section in which to sit and the right game (derbies, historic rivalries and top-of-the-table clashes are always best) then the entertainment should be there. It’s an experience that I don’t think should be missed especially as almost every city in Europe has at least one decent team, each has a unique atmosphere and it’s a chance to see the locals at their best and their worst

8 of the Best Times to Visit Prague

March is a busy month in Prague – there’s two film festivals, a half marathon and a football derby between the city’s fiercest rivals. It’s always great to match a sightseeing visit to a city with an event, special season or a festival so, here is a list of eight of the best times to visit Prague.

1)      Prague Museum Night – June

Once a year Prague hosts a nocturnal festival of free museums throughout the city. A diverse range of museums, including the National Museum, the Jewish Museum and some exhibitions at Prague Castle, are all open for free from the early evening into the small hours. A complimentary bus service is also in place to shuttle you around the city and there are many musical events at the various attractions to liven things up. This night is a great way to learn about the history and culture of Prague without spending a fortune and getting them all out the way in one night lets you spend the daytime exploring.

2)      Witches Night – April 30

On the April 30 the Czechs gather in parks throughout the country to burn effigies of witches on bonfires to signal the end of winter (makes more sense than the UK’s Guy Fawkes night). So, find a park in Prague (you may have to go out into one of the suburbs) or go local and travel to one outside of the city, and you will find plenty of lively entertainment, crowds of locals in an excitable mood and lots of fire.

3)      Burčák Season – Autumn

Burčák is a (literally) explosive wine that comes to fruition in autumn and grips the drinkers of Prague. It’s a sweet wine that hasn’t quite finished fermenting so it can be pretty dangerous as the process keeps going when bottled and even when in your stomach which can lead to messy consequences if the pressure valve is not released or your consume too much. This brightly coloured beverage basically tastes like a mix between lemonade, fruit juice and wine and can be tasty and pretty strong (the quality and strength varies from batch to batch). With its arrival also come a number of markets and little festivals that sprout up around the city as they bring the usual accompaniments of sausage and Prague ham. A nice way to see out the warmer months.

4)      Prague Marathon, Half Marathon & 10k – March, May and September respectively

Surprisingly, this is probably the most stress-free way of seeing the Old Town. The streets are closed off to traffic and, more importantly, pedestrians and you have the freedom of the streets. Sure, it’s crowded but the steady torrent of runners always keeps going at an acceptable pace and rarely do you get stuck in a frustrating bottle-neck. These three runs are some of the most beautiful urban runs going and depending on how hardcore you are, you can jog along the historical streets of Prague over 13 miles at the end of March, 26 miles in May or a more feasible 10 kilometres at night in September.

5)      Easter and Christmas Markets – the run up to Easter and Christmas

Although the squares of Prague always look pretty, the markets of Easter and Christmas give them a little bit more personality. Hundreds of market stalls cluster round the monuments selling handicrafts, Czech specialities and hot and cold alcoholic beverages to suit the season. At Christmas there’s usually an ice rink to try out your ice skating skills and keep an eye out for carp tanks on the pavements selling live fish to be cooked later for the Czech’s Christmas dinners. Easter offers more of the same with another slightly odd tradition making the difference. You’ll come across many colourful wicker sticks that, as tradition dictates, are used by guys, mainly outside of Prague, to playfully spank their ladies. Probably best not to try it out yourself though.

6)      Sparta vs Slavia Prague – twice annually between August and May

The derby can sometimes get out of hand

See the locals at their passionate best (and worst) at this inevitably heated football game. Until recently Sparta and Slavia Prague were the two best teams in Czech football but Slavia’s fall from grace has not taken away from the intensity of this bi-annual match that gets the raucous fans out in numbers. The atmosphere in the always sold out stadium is normally electric and far out-weights the below-average quality football on show. The two teams normally play twice a year at either Sparta’s AXA Stadium in Letna, which is the easier to get to from the centre, or Slavia’s Synot Tip Arena Stadium, which boasts better facilities but is out in Prague-Vršovice.

7)      United Islands Festival – late June

Throughout the spring and summer Prague hosts many little outdoor music festivals and events and United Islands is one of the most hyped and impressively-attended of these. Set in fantastic island surroundings, right in the middle of Prague within viewing distance of Charles Bridge and Narodni Divadlo (the national theatre), there’s no better place to relax and soak up the friendly atmosphere and variable-quality of music. With no entrance fee and a central location you are free to come and go as much as you like so this doesn’t have to be the be-all-and-end-all of your trip if it isn’t to your taste.

8)      Jeden Svět and Febiofest Film Festivals – March

March is movie festival month as there are two distinctly different small-to-medium sized ones to choose from. Jeden Svět is a collection of human rights themed documentaries that will both entertain and, at times, depress and Febiofest concerns itself with mainstream and independent efforts from throughout the world. Neither are on the scale of Berlin, Cannes or nearby Karlovy Vary but they boast an unpretentious and lively atmosphere and give you a chance to sample some below-the-radar films that usually only come to this final outpost many months after the rest of the world.

The Winter Cometh: Time for a Minus 14 Degree Run With Santa Claus

Not me but I think it sums up the spirit of the run

After an incredibly mild winter, the winter has arrived in Prague (and the rest of Europe) with a vengeance. Personally or otherwise, for too long, have I been the victim of mockery from across the Channel by the entire population of a temperate country who are getting more snow than me. Thanks to Facebook, whenever one snowflake falls in the UK, it is inevitable that the world will hear of it through a blanket social media coverage that makes it sound like the coming of the apocalypse. This year is no different as we are treated to thousands of unique pictures that say ‘look, no matter how bad you’ve got it, it’s much worse here’ and people initially getting snow-giddiness and then snow-moaniness. At least I don’t have to watch the UK news reports with its cries of ‘Britain is literally going to sink under the weight of 2 inches of snow. God help us all.’

One of the draws of the Czech Republic was the perverse desire to live through a really cold winter with lots of snow and eventually I have got a fraction of my wish. Over the last ten days the temperature has relented and hit minus 20 degrees Celsius and has been generally hovering around the minus 10-15 mark. This is an incredible 10 degrees colder than I think I have ever experienced before but only yesterday did the snow fall and it was a pretty poor effort that’s predominantly melted away so far.

I’m a big running enthusiast (they call me the Usain Bolt of Yorkshire) and the height of foolhardy stupidity came on Saturday morning when I joined the 2 Miles with a Smile race around Stramovka, one of Prague’s charming inner-city parks. This monthly event, organised by transcendental keep-fit fanatic Buddhists ( or some such, is a great way to pit you against yourself and others as you can rack up personal bests, which get updated on their website, as well as racing against others.

This Saturday, dressed in my girlfriend’s thermal leggings, I was joined by about a hundred other shivering fools, loitering around the start line aching merely to get started. By the end of the opening straight I was struggling to feel my lips, fingers and, more worryingly, my toes. In contrast, I could feel really intense pain in my forehead and, weirdly, the inside of my nose, and I just wasn’t warming up at all. I’m pretty sure that if my inner thoughts were projected outwards they would have sounded something like ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagggggggghhhhhh’. For the best part of the run I gravitated towards two other guys running at a similar pace and we created a small heat-retaining pack. At one point, because of a feeling of camaraderie and self preservation, I had to fight a sub-conscious urge to bear hug them both.

One thing the cold is good for is a personal best as you want just want to get to the end in the quickest way possible at any cost. I shaved a whole 5 seconds of my previous best – which means I can hope for a flat 12 minutes by April 2014. At the end of the run you get what is at that point the best food and drink imaginable – a pancake and a hot tea – before scarpering home to be back in bed by 10am. All for just 20 crown (less than a pound).

I’ve met a Czenglish woman who’s helped me decipher the Czech running calendar and is willing to take me into the wilderness to compete in cross countries. I’ve done two so far when the season starts again in March I will happily be there running up right-angled hills at 9am in the middle of nowhere. I was in a strangely proactive mood last night and ended up signing up for the Pardubice Wine Half Marathon (which places a large emphasis on post-race food and drink) and the Gorlitz Marathon (a historical town on the German-Polish border) to go alongside my existing registration for the Prague Half Marathon in March.  Whether that was foolish remains to be seen but it means I should lay off the goulash and dust off the grey Rocky tracksuit once more.

If anyone in Prague is interested in joining me one Saturday morning for a pleasant 2 mile run just send me a message or look me up on Twitter (@johnguzdek).

An Englishman in Prague – Castles, Hairy Backs and Lenin in Budapest

This weekend was my second visit to Budapest. I had been before when I went interrailling about four years ago but this visit showed me how poorly I had done it the first time round. Last time, the weather was horrible, my travelling buddy began to smell slightly funky after his showers became less frequent, bars were a real mission to find and we didn’t really do anything. That was except for one of the weirdest tourist attractions in Europe – Memento Park. This crazy spectacle is basically a field outside of Budapest where they dumped a load of statues of random Communist leaders for posterity. To be dwarfed by surrounding giant stone replicas of Lenin and heroic workers wrestling with evil Nazis is a surreal experience.

The coach tickets were a present from my girlfriend and there was a twinge of ‘couldn’t you have chosen a different city?’ But I’m glad we went as now I know what a great city it can be.

Budapest and Prague are close on the map but seven hours apart on a coach. We went by Student Agency who are a much better version of Eurolines for travelling around Central Europe, if only because you get free hot drinks and movies to keep you occupied. They’re normally better than the trains too because they’re much cheaper and in this part of Europe they tend to build railway lines in concentric circles that eventually bring you to your destination.

Sometimes the aggressive form of customer service that was the inspiration for Guantanamo Bay really annoys me but occasionally the lack of political correctness, health and safety and not caring about offending anyone is strangely refreshing. Take the unusual choice of movies on my coach journey which included a kids movie, a film about grieving and incest and ended with Venus, a hugely disturbing Brit-flick following a pensioner’s attempts to get into the pants of a teenager, casually showing boobs and dropping C-bombs to at least ten kids on the bus. I used to work for a travel company in the UK and that would have resulted in a lawsuit, nationwide housewife boycott and a televised apology by the Queen.

The first thing you notice about Budapest when you arrive is that the language is very. very confusing, making it the most westerly country in Europe where you feel totally out of your depth. I always try and at least mumble incorrect foreign at people but this time I didn’t even try, it was a lost cause. First stop, McDonalds. Don’t judge me.

The second thing you notice is that their underground system is not exactly aesthetically pleasing. The blue trains – or in the words of the American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, more of a dirty blue – turn up looking like they made it all the way through the Communist era only to end up in a drag race. However, these little stallions did their job pretty efficiently alongside the excellent, and less depressing, tram system.

The highlight of our trip – as any guidebook will tell you – was the thermal baths (an impossible phrase for someone who can’t say their ths). We stumped up for the Szechenyi Baths which are one of the more expensive ones but amongst the elite for getting your sweat on. This really was a pleasant Sunday morning experience as on a freezing cold day we uniquely got to sweat out the Hungarian wine in an boiling hot outdoor swimming pool. We also made use of the indoor thermal pools and saunas and got to see more hairy backs and middle-aged women who shouldn’t be wearing two-piece bikinis than you can shake a stick at.

After regaling you (four readers) with the inanities of a bus journey and the Budapest transport network, I should probably at least mention the sightseeing attractions of this predominantly (the new town is pretty seedy and has more stripclubs that I could visit in a night) beautiful city. Castle Hill and the Matthais Church are really impressive, peaceful places to spent a few hours and the happy snappers will have a ball. Buda, on the West of the Danube, is where most of the sights are at and from here you can get great views of Pest and the pretty remarkable parliament building that puts London’s to shame.

Budapest isn’t the kind of place you’d travel from far and wide to go for a wild night out. The bars in the centre are a little sparse but there are a few decent efforts if you stumble down the right roads near the Oktogon. There are some unpretentious bars that are very welcoming and sell Hungarian wine (no idea if it’s good wine but it’s generally cheaper than beer so had my attention), like Szimpla (on Kertész utca), which was packed with locals to listening to a weirdly eclectic mix of music and having a good chat. We also stumbled upon a bar themed entirely on the 1953 6-3 humbling of the English football team by the Lions of Hungary which reinforces the view that Hungary have not exactly been a sporting powerhouse since then.

Like in most cities we ended the nights with a kebab – not, don’t judge me again, Hungarian goulash. There are a lot to choose from here as the Turkish influence is pretty huge and I wasn’t complaining as mixing the sophistication of wine and the dirt of a kebab brings the night out to a nice, neat zero balance. This again reminded me of my interrailing days when, from the overwhelming Greek Feta Kebabs of Brussels to the near perfect Durum Kebabs of Germany, we accidentally embarked on a kebab tour of Europe. Now I can tick the Hungary box.

An Englishman in Prague – Teaching English to the Capitalist Classes

Looking up at the whiteboard, in an office-turned-classroom covered, with the four Conditionals – the relativity theory of English grammar – prettily annotated with timelines and in a way that my student actually understood made me just a touch proud of how far I’ve come as an English teacher. I’m not deceiving myself by thinking that I’m a good teacher, as a lack of confidence, serious application and decent chat hinder elevating myself to that plain, but I’m certainly better than the rookie of March 2011.

When I started my TEFL course in Prague alongside twenty-two other scared and confused potential teachers of the world’s most lucrative language, I was shocked by how little grammar I knew. In fact, it was the Dutch contingent, learning vocabulary from terrible English-language films and grammar at school, who had the jump on us. A pronoun and a verb were as far as I could go whereas vital grammatical terms like the Past Perfect Continuous or the Gerund (which, to be honest, still perplexes me) just sounded like complicated nonsense.

By trial and error I now know enough to get by in most situations until an advanced English speaker calls me up on it and inevitably embarrasses me. Being a grammar Nazi is definitely a curse as you hear mistakes from native and non-native speakers outside of the classroom and the smartarse part of your brain wants to point them out but you know you will always sound like an obnoxious know-it-all, so you can’t. There are also the depressingly geeky arguments to be had with friends; ‘Is stupider a word?’, British English versus American English, and so on. And not forgetting a Scrabble war but the less said about that the better.

I work full-time for a school who use their client database to give me lessons with adult learners either in businesses or public courses in their premises. Like with any job, teaching English has good points and bad. For one thing, it’s an incredibly disjointed affair as a typical day involves four hour-long lessons spread over twelve hours with the gaps usually filled in with lesson planning and travelling to far flung areas of Prague. Since Capitalism began steamrolling through the country post-1989, multinational corporations have been popping up in every spare space in their glass fortresses. So, this forces me to regularly travel from one end of the Metro line to the other then to Narnia and finally to the Centre of the Earth, with a good book as an essential anti-zombie device.

On the other hand, the pay is pretty decent. It’s nowhere near the standards of the gold mines of South Korea and the Middle East where they pay you in Swarovski diamonds and unicorn dust but I earn enough to live in a flat in the most beautiful area of Prague next to the Old Town Square and eat out and casually drink more than I could ever afford to in the UK. This is subsistence living though as I’m very unlikely to ever save for as much as a pair of jeans. What’s more, I often have long days but I don’t work long hours. Not many other jobs would give me the time and flexibility to lounge around a park all afternoon when it’s hot, watch a Tuesday morning Sopranos marathon in my boxer shots or write this blog in the middle of the day (fully clothed).

The differences in language and culture allow for many humorous moments to collect and share. Take the following disturbing exchange from my first ever private lesson whilst still in training.

“So Katja, what are your interests?”

“I like my dogs.”

“Okay, what else?”

“I like baking cakes.”


“And I like handjobs.”

“… I’m sorry?”


“Hmmm how do you mean?”

“Sewing, knitting…”

Once I had worked out that she meant handicrafts, my heart retreated back down my windpipe. After all, Katja is certainly not a beautiful, blond Czech nineteen year old but a housewife in her sixties who likes knitting jumpers and baking chocolate sponges.

There are also many other small instances that brighten up an average day spent with frequently dry businessmen, like a student repeatedly referring to the outcome of a project as ‘the final solution’ and my own accidental ability to make my drawings of the United Kingdom look like incredibly detailed penises (or is that peni?).

You also learn a lot about a country. For instance, the Czech Republic as a whole is pretty tolerant but is a tad racist towards certain groups. A shameful tried and tested method amongst English teachers to fill any dead space at the end of a lesson is to merely utter the word gypsy. This incendiary term is like saying immigration to a closed-minded Brit or like a drop of blood to a shark. Inevitably, the incredibly racist person begins with the ominous stock phrase of ‘I’m not a racist but’ and lurch into a fifteen minute tirade about the gypsy evil.

At the end of the day, it’s a job that lets you live in some pretty cool places and all you need is your mother tongue. Looking towards the summer when I will most probably move on from Prague – the world is my oyster.

An Englishman in Prague – Affordable Skiing for Incompetents

The average Czech person loves the outdoors nearly as much as their beer. When asked about the weekend, nearly every one of my students – except one group whose extra-curricular activities are harder to get out of them than secrets out of a dead person – will inevitably answer (wrongly but endearingly) ‘we were in the nature’ – a stock Czenglish phrase which is the equivalent of the Germans ‘making a party’.

The extent to which the Czech’s love their outdoor sports is evident no more obviously than on the ski slopes and ice skating rinks. As the visibly English skaters lurch around the ice rink with the smoothness of Frankenstein’s monster or precariously wind their way down the slopes there are inevitably hundreds of six year old kids doing figure-of-eights around them making these despondent figures feel as small as possible.

Skiing in the Czech Republic is very cheap, especially when done as a daytrip like my first one that I joined on Sunday. For the same price as my hastily-bought, modest ski trousers (about £40) I got return travel from Prague to the ski resort of Herlikovice, one-day ski hire, a lift pass, two meals and two beers. Herlikovice is one of many fairly small resorts in the popular Krkonoše Mountains on the border with Poland and boasts just four major slopes – one for beginners and a couple of intermediates – and a few minor expert runs. This is ample for those that only have a day to spare or those that want a gentle reintroduction to skiing, like a ‘once every five year’ skier like me. The main complaints from the Czechs is that the ski resorts can get quite busy which is why many of them choose to travel to the Austrian Alps instead.

The only way in which I can be classed as a real man is that I really can’t multitask. This is especially true when it comes to any mechanical or technical things like driving, typing and skiing. Behind the wheel, when I am concentrating on the physical act of driving I lose all sense of direction and my conversational skills are even worse than usual. This one-track mind really came into effect when I was skiing on Sunday. The skiing itself went okay – no injuries, a minimum of wipeouts and a gradual curve of improvement – but walking without falling over, standing still and carrying skis all became tasks that I couldn’t competently juggle with the responsibility of not killing myself on the slopes. Really, I felt like a childlike walking disaster when in the presence of the other members of the group.

The day began in ignominy as I failed to master even the simple manual ski lift. Sitting on the horizontal bar rather than letting it drag me, I soon came tumbling off in front of a bumper audience surely mocking me under their collective breath. I gathered up my scattered equipment and tumbled down the slope Bambi-like to rejoin the queue. The embarrassment didn’t stop there as, when I tried traversing the rather simple turnstile for the second time in ten minutes, I managed to somehow get caught straddling the barrier with one leg and ski on one side and a leg and a ski on the other with the metal hurdle stuck on ‘do not pass’. A new crowd formed behind me as I struggled like a cow stuck on barbed wire and I had to awkwardly take the skis off and regroup on the other side with people again taking sniggering side glances in my direction. Eventually I got to the summit of the beginner slope by showing the kind of concentration reserved for a tennis player in a grand slam final or a surgeon performing major surgery on the Pope.

The remainder of the day passed off relatively trouble free except for a pivot that ended in the splits right before a group of teenage girls who shouted some kind of abuse aimed at my permanently damaged genitals. The weather was really good for skiing as the snow pleasantly fell throughout the day and the slopes stayed largely ice-free. Due to my cowardly temperament I never fully enjoy skiing as my mind always stays finely balanced between terror and self preservation and excitement so I believe I always hold back a little and never truly let myself go kamikaze-style.

The main thing I learned from this experience is that you can’t become a professional ski master with one day of skiing every five years.