Frankfurt My guides, Michal, Karel, and Frank, wanted to show me some different sides of Prague that were part of their experiences, rather than the cardboard cutouts for industrial tourism. Frank had retired not long before from working for the Metro assigned to the Vltavska station in the sleek, modern subway system of the city.
The big event for Prague, and Frank’s Katrina, I might say, was the 2002 flooding of the Vltava River, which also flooded his station. What made this so improbable was that the subway tunnels were built to huge depth and in fact during the Cold War had been designed as fallout shelters in case someone, probably the USA, dropped the big one. Surprisingly, Frank still had totally access to all parts of the metro system with his electronic identification card. He was also allowed to ride forever without payment! So away we went underground without so much as a howdy-do…workers would pass us by in the tunnels and simply nod in a matter of fact manner, as if this was normal procedure, even though Frank told me at point as we looked at some of the old security doors to the fallout areas that he wasn’t sure that another American had been down in this area, except a general on inspection at some point years ago. Surprisingly we entered one large room where there were a number of tables against the wall where the workers played table tennis on breaks. Frank remembered once playing for a bit with a transportation minister in one of the governments. Having been around quite a bit of flooding, it was interesting to me how good a job they had done putting the station back in operation and raising the wiring. In several places I thought I could smell mildew, but perhaps that was just part of the underground world here. It would have seemed wild and crazy coming back into the station through another passkey next to the tracks if there had been any security or anyone anywhere who even thought anything we were doing odd in the least. Prague underground seemed now to be a relaxed world unimaginable in post-9/11 America.
My guides also showed me something few probably noticed right near the central squares teeming with tourists: a petitioning station. Under a sturdy, semi-permanent looking tent with tables inside piled with literature and apples, I believe, were several petitions citizens could sign and notices of all manner of demonstrations and actions upcoming. There were chairs under the tent where people could sit and talk about the issues or simply rest from petitioning. While we were there the station was being manned by an elderly man and woman, all quite friendly. It was hard to tell if this was an accommodation from the government or an effort to co-opt petitioners, but it seemed institutionalized at this point. Driving to the airport we passed by a lean-to tent shield a table with two people that was a petitioning station set up on the outskirts of Prague. Heck, why not?
I stayed in Praha District 3, a working class apartment area. Charlie had retired recently at 60 (in the Czech Republic, workers can retire with partial benefits at 60 and full benefits at 63), and graciously had offered the fold out couch at his place to me. The apartment was fascinating in both its small simplicity and efficiency. There were two rooms and one was the kitchen with a curtain shielding a sink and shower under a loft that had been build for storage and sleeping. The other room was the living room, where the couch was located and a computer setup was nestled in the corner. There was another pull down set of stairs Charley slept, somehow, since he had given up the rest of the space to us. The bathroom was outside, literally. You walked past the landing at the top of the flight of stairs, through a door outside, turned left and walked to the end of a balcony which overlooked the parking area for an office next door. A key opened the door on the right (there was also one on the left) and that was the 3 by 3 designated area. The light rain while I was in Prague was typical of fall’s coming, so none of this posed a problem, but the design had something in common with an outhouse that was inside…sorta.
Just as I was introduced to a whole different side of Rome only days before, I felt like I was being given a entirely different and personal view of Prague now as well, and I was the richer for it.