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Sunday, Feb. 28, 1999

JAPAN LITE

Fairy tales come to life amid the magic of Prague


I woke up this morning and opened the curtains expecting to see the usual view from my house of the Seto Inland Sea. Imagine how surprised I was to find instead, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. It was like a fairy tale: Prague Castle up on the hill overlooking pastel-colored baroque buildings in the city below.

Then it all came back to me. My husband and I had arrived in the Czech Republic by train late last night. We walked through the dark streets until we finally reached the flat in the city center where we had arranged to rent a room.

Again, I looked out the window and admired the beauty of Prague. Then I looked at my watch. It was noon! I hadn't overslept since high school.

That's when I realized I was under a spell. Prague is a magic city. The first clue is that it's so quiet you can oversleep! Oversleeping is impossible in my country, where living in an apartment means that at 5 a.m. you are awakened as the building begins to shake and you hear a loud rumbling sound. No, it's not an earthquake -- it's the Dumpster Men. I'm referring to a method of trash removal. All around America, people who live in apartments are rumbled awake by the Dumpster Men who come in the wee hours of the morning in behemoth vehicles to empty the country's garbage cans -- the largest garbage cans in the world -- which are full of everything from old clothes to ex-mothers in law.

Dumpsters, the name given to these immense trash receptacles, must have been invented by the same person who invented the "Magic Fingers." Magic Fingers were machines installed in rooms at roadside motels across America which, when fed quarters, made the bed vibrate. Nowadays, the Dumpster Men provide Magic Fingers, and you don't even need to feed them quarters.

The next clue that you are in a magic city is that the Czech people rarely raise their voices. One day, my husband and I followed some locals into a restaurant for lunch. At first we thought that perhaps we had made a mistake because everyone was lined up with plastic bowls in front of what looked like a soup kitchen for the homeless. The food was being doled out from large silver vats: soup, goulash, pork, etc. But it was just a simple restaurant serving great Czech food. The restaurant was packed with Czechs -- everyone completely silent as they ate their meals.

Another time we were drinking 20 yen beers and watching "The Simpsons" in a local bar, which was apparently a favorite meeting place for the locals. As streams of Czechs poured in and met their friends, I noticed that the greeting rituals were different from my country. The Czechs greeted their friends from across the room by smiling, waving their hands, and gesturing fanatically, but they never raised their voices. In the United States, entry into such a bar would require an announcement from across the room, such as "HEY DUDES, I'M HERE!" If the entrants were male, this statement would possibly be followed by a belch for bonding purposes.

The next clue that I was in a magic city was the international atmosphere of Prague. Classical, blues, jazz and rock n' roll music flows out of stores and Internet cafes, authentic Czech food as well as international food is readily available in pubs and restaurants, and the streets are lined with food stalls that serve food until late in the night. The sports clothing stores are so big that I spent half the time looking for my spouse. The city is tourist friendly--people stand on the streets handing out flyers informing the day's cultural events: opera, symphony, theater and concerts. Prague reflects the genius of Franz Kafka, a native son, and Mozart, who reportedly spent much time there.

During my week in Prague, I experienced only one minor inconvenience. One morning I went to the drugstore with a list of about 20 things to buy. I returned to our flat with a load of articles in my arms, each item carefully balanced upon the other -- the toilet paper on the bottom and the lip balm teetering on top. When my husband looked at me perplexed, I explained, "I was supposed to bring my own bag."

E-mail your comments and questions to: amychavez@mailexcite.com


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