Tough translation in words AND numbers


Not knowing words in a foreign country is tough — but not knowing the metric system is worse. Take today, for instance.

Simple project: I was out of garbage bags for the little can in the kitchen and the even smaller container in the bathroom. No sweat. Tesco, of course. But….

Finding the bags wasn’t hard— and I KNEW they were garbage bags because some packaging — though not all — had pictures. But they were labelled by number of liters — 40 x 20L and such. That wasn’t too helpful. For the 35L bags, my iPhone converter app says that’s 36.98408 quarts, but I had a hard time picturing how much milk my garbage can hold…. If the packages just gave me height, that might be better, but of course it would be in centimeters so that probably wouldn’t solve the problem either.

Bottom line: I chose the smallest ones, and, although a little flimsy, they seem to work. There should be some way to indicate how strong they are. Denier? No, that was the problem I had with buying tights. Just plain black tights — how hard could that be? But every package looked like sheer pantyhose, even though they were all labeled “Tights.” And some WERE sheer and some were not. What denier is a regular pair of tights? But I digress…

For the garbage bags, I considered the 60L x 26, but I knew 63 quarts of milk would overflow that little garbage can, even if that size WAS on sale ($1.02 instead of $1.31). It pays to be a careful shopper, whether you’re dealing with dollars or koruna, liters or gallons. Or even denier.

Avoiding tourists IS possible

Prague has a problem on weekends — tourists. Friday afternoon they pour into the city, their luggage rollers bouncing over the cobblestones, eager for an exciting weekend of cheap beer and lots of night life. Even if they aren’t into the party scene, they’re clogging Charles Bridge and overflowing Old Town Square.

Thus the best thing to do is listen to Lonely Planet‘s suggestion and take the neighborhood Hradčany walk, a stroll through areas near Prague castle while almost entirely missing the tour groups and selifie sticks.

The suggested length — one hour — was far less than what it took my son, stepson and me to wander and photograph our way though about 2 miles of ups and downs, a castle, monastery, library, brewery and lookout tower.


The superstructure of the first floor and unique roof of Queen Anne’s Summer Palace were built by Hans Tirol and Bonifaz Wohlmut in the mid 1500s.

After a quick two stops on Metro A, we were in a residential neighborhood and then past Pisek Gate, Cubist houses, across the tram tracks and to King Ferdinand I’s Royal Summer Palace for his queen. Built in the mid-1500s by Italian architect Paolo della Stella, it’s surrounded by gardens, a “singing fountain” — and very few tourists.

Below is the moat, still outlined with bricks but now holding about 25 large fig plants.

Beyond the gardens, Ball-Game Hall, once used for games similar to badminton and later as a riding school and stable, has only been open to the public since 1989. That and the Powder Bridge are on the route to the north entrance to Hradčany Square, and it’s easy to go quickly out the front,  past the Church of St. John Nepomuk, built in 1729, and away from the crowds again.

Winding streets lead from there up to the Strahov Monastery, in operation since 1143, even during the time the Soviet era. One of its most notable attractions is the library, with its Philosophical and Theological halls and overwhelming ceiling frescoes. I should have paid the extra 50 ‎Kč to be able to take photos, though no one can enter the rooms and must look — or shoot — from the doorway.

Though not a beer-drinker, I did think the St. Norbert special beer (with cherry juice) was not so bad. (photo by Jeff Bowen)

Though not a beer-drinker, I did think the St. Norbert special beer (with cherry juice) was not so bad. (photo by Jeff Bowen)

The monastery was also known for its brewery, dating back to the 13th century, and Klášterní Pivovar Strahov operates again on the grounds, opened in 2000 and serving St. Norbert Beer.

From the monastery to the lookout tower on Petřín Hill was the most rigorous part of the trip. Although normally accessible by funicular, that’s now out of commission for six months for repairs, but our route was fairly gradual. Still, climbing the stairs to the observation deck of the  378-meter cast iron tower (taller than the Eiffel Tower, and looking much like it), seemed a bit more than we wanted at the end of our day away from the crowds.

An outlet mall is an outlet mall … almost


(Fair warning: If you’re expecting photos of Baroque churches, ornate castles or even tasty food, this isn’t the blog post for you. This is the real world.)

When the skies are gray and the wind is blowing and the streets of Old Town are clogged with tourists, what’s a good Sunday afternoon adventure?

Why, how about a trip to the outlet mall? Yes, Prague has one, though, for me to get there took a three-block hike to the Metro, a harrowing ride down the steepest and fastest escalator I’ve even ridden,* and a 20-minute ride on a packed train — at least packed for part of the trip.

By the end — and this is the last stop on this Metro line —, I was beginning to wonder if the stores would have any customers at all, as only one gray-haired woman who slept through the last four stops remain in my car. But I found plenty more about 100 meters further, waiting to pack the free shuttle that runs from the Metro to the Fashion Outlet.

BusThey piled onto the bus when it pulled up five minutes later, standing room only, as we headed off for the 10-minute trip to the stores. This is NOT the scenic part of the city, filled as it is with concrete and rusted metal factories and commercial building that look like they’re straight from the Soviet era.

WalkingInWhen the bus stopped, everyone piled off and headed to a mall that could have ALMOST come straight out of middle America. Ninety-four stores, including Nike’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Columbia, Claire’s and Levi’s, formed roughly a triangle around a huge parking lot. (Apparently not everyone came the way I did…)

So I was good on the stores I knew. The challenge became assessing places like Timeout and Lui Jo and Tom Tailor. That took checking out the clientele. Who was coming out of each store?  If the jeans on the females had more holes and tears than material, I skipped that store. If the shoppers carried purses that were large and clearly made of leather, I looked closer, but if it had lots of sparkles, I didn’t go further.

Music was another key — how loud, how new, how American? And displays were a clue. Tom Tailor seems like a cross between Tommy Hilfiger and Polo, and the distressed brick columns behind the check-out desk and stained oak shelves added to that feel.

In about an hour and a half, I had found trouser socks to go with my new boots (39 Kč = $1.63??!!) and sample-sized Estee Lauder moisturizer, a good deal but not that good, at the Cosmetics Comany Store. But I learned the shoes I’d come to find — Rieker and super comfortable but too large in the downtown store — were also too large at the outlet mall. And the Nike store (even without John, I had to go check) was sadly lacking in an Air Max with more than about two inches of “air” pockets, though those pictured at the top are selling for $84.

So I took my two small purchases and left on the packed bus, retracing my steps and heading back to a city that was colder and windier than when I had left three hours before. Hmmmm. That Columbia down coat I tried on might not be such a bad investment after all. Maybe I’ll have to come back….


*Yes, worse than D.C.-Woodley Park-Zoo on the Red Line. And the Metro escalator I rode — Staroměstská — isn’t as bad as another in Prague. Náměstí Míru is 53 meters below the surface and Woodley Park is just a shade less that 47 meters, or 154 feet. And, yes, stats for Prague came from Wikipedia….

A little closer to heaven

Prague has almost 100 churches in the historical city center alone, their spires contributing to a skyline that seems to reach for the heavens. Inside are richly decorated sculptures that seem to come alive with their pain and ecstasy, paintings, gold details, dramatic lighting.

And many of these churches are also used for something more than religious services — classical concerts are almost nightly. Walk across Charles Bridge, through Old Town and down the winding streets and someone is sure to thrust a glossy playbill in your hand. Come hear Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” Bach, Mozart and definitely Antonín Dvořák.

I must admit, a string ensemble in a Baroque setting has been on my Prague bucket list, so tonight I made it happen.

Actually, I bought the ticket for the Saturday concert at St. Giles two days ago and was then able to stand in the narthex to take photos through the iron gates. At other times, no photos are allowed.

Tonight’s performance was by the Czech String Chamber Ensemble and the “Great Organ,” one of the largest in Prague with 3,500 pipes. Of course the acoustics with that frescoed ceiling allowed the music to fill every bit of the sanctuary. The strings, led by Jakub Jánský, sounded like an entire orchestra, not simply two violins, a viola and a cello. From the short “Ave Maria” to the amazing depth of Ravel’s “Bolero”

— which showed the skills of the whole quartet — they led the audience through a gamut of emotions. And the organ’s Bach “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” did not sound like the protestant church organ in Des Moines. It’s clear why Milos Forman used this church for the filming of the movie “Amadeus.” (And, yes, I bought a CD because St. Giles is part of the Monastery of the Dominican order next door and gets the proceeds from the sales, though this snippet was from the actual concert.)

For less than $15, there’s probably few ways to feel that close to heaven.


This little piggy went to market


Actually, LOTS of little piggies go to market in Prague — and they show up as Pražská šunka (Prague ham) or as a wide variety of sausages browning on grills or ready to go home for dinner.

But plenty of other items are for sale in farmers’ markets here, though this is a fairly new concept to the city. According to writer David Creighton, they weren’t around before 2010.

“The first market was held on 20 March 2010 in Dejvice, Prague 6. Around 15,000 people visited the market, highlighting the great demand in the capital for a farmers´ market,” he reported a year later in “Farmers’ Markets in Prague: goes shopping for local food & drink.”

By 2015, at least six different markets have ready information on the Web. The closest and easiest to find for me was Náměstí Republiky, right by a main metro, in the shadow of the ornate and beautiful Obecní Dům (municipal building). It’s a large open area, not packed as tight with tourists as Old Town Square and easy to get to from there or from Wenceslas Square.

But as an authentic farmers’ market, it has some issues. Those should be places with stands run by folks with a little dirt under their fingernails and lots of healthy produce and fresh-looking baked goods. The yellow-jackets swarming on the koláče and limited number of food vendors didn’t feel right. The one ear of sweet corn I bought — admittedly without peeling back husks to check it out  — was tough and the kernels dented and a little dry when I took it home and cooked it.

The market hours — Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. — also seem curious. Shouldn’t the stall owners be hoeing and raking and baking until the weekend?

IronsmithThe blacksmith was intriguing, though a wrought-iron hook with no other ornamentation didn’t seem worth about $15, even if watching him form another piece was entertaining.

I took my corn, a mum plant and my koláče — without a yellow-jack —  and went home.

The nexy day — Saturday —  I hiked a little farther and found the real thing. About 75 stands lined the Vlatava River for the Náplavka market, offering everything from cheese and milk from David Kolman’s  goat farm in Krasolesí, to bread and koláče — without yellow jackets — from Jan Marsek family bakery near Liberec, about an hour northeast of Prague.

This is more like it. Music was at one end and a flea market at the other. In between were

  • “bio” food — healthy, organic, GMO-free, though a friend here warns me that’s not much more reliable than some of the packaging in the States.
  • burcak  — a “young” wine available only at the beginning of the grape harvest and something the same friend says I should try. (But one website warns it tastes and looks like fruit juice and thus can sneak up on you!)
  • fish so fresh one man tosses them out of a tank in the back of a truck to a smaller container when his partner whacks them on the head with a wooden stick — and then cleans them for the waiting customer.
  • handmade soap in a variety of scents. I chose echinacea to take home as a gift. I considered the cannabis but wondered about drug-sniffing dogs when I land at O’Hare…
  • made-while-you-wait crepes, a fascinating process, though one of the options was to fill it with Nutella — ugh.

So I headed home with a bunch of carrots (far too many, but they only come in bunches), bread, koláče (I threw out yesterday’s yellow-jacket version, which I still hadn’t eaten, and felt much safer with this one), a huge bunch of basil (no, I’m not sure how to use it either, but it smelled sooo good), a small zucchini, several red potatoes, a little goat cheese and leek pie  and the soap. My biggest challenge, as with all shopping — had I chosen too much to carry on the walk home? Almost.

Now next week, Friday and Saturday, there’s a “celebration of honey” at the Jiřího z Poděbrad farmers’ market. That’s a 45-minute walk…or it could be my chance to try the subway. Let’s see — fifth stop from Staroměstská on the green line. Sure. I can do this.


Street food: Options are everywhere

When the customer is ready, so is the ham.

When the customer is ready, so is the ham.

While I’ve been stressing over yogurt vs. sour cream and carrying home freshly baked bread for sandwiches, thousands of other visitors to Prague are getting their nourishment from food stands. Just how healthy and tasty is that?

Anyone familiar with my eating habits knows one food group visible everywhere in eastern European isn’t going to be something I’d line up to buy: meat. “Nejím maso.” No thanks. I just don’t eat anything with feet. That eliminates lots of street food here: sausages, ham, potatoes WITH sausages or ham, and this list continues.

The hams rotate slowing over a wood fire.

The hams rotate slowing over a wood fire.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not interesting to watch these cooking. After rounding the corner into Old Town Square, first in a line of meant-to-look-rustic stands was one with with three Prague hams — pražská šunka — on a spit over an open fire. OK, I’ll admit it — the smoky smell was actually almost appealing. When the burly “chef” in red-checked apron and heavy gloves sliced off a chunk for a waiting customer, the juices left a trail from rotisserie to counter. Served with rye bread and mustard, this was a meal by itself for those who stood nearby, balancing their paper plates and tearing off pieces of the moist meat.

A common choice is potato gnocchi, sauerkraut and ham. Next to that is always the klobásy, the sausages continuously turning.

A common choice is potato gnocchi potato, sauerkraut and ham. Next to that is always the klobásy, the sausages continuously turning.

Next stand down the row had sausages and some sort of potato dish. One cook took frequent jabs at the black cast-iron skillet heaped with potato gnocchi, sauerkraut and ham, moving it around the pan. Next to him were the constantly turning rows of sausages or klobásy. Complaints on some tourist websites point to the length of time these are slowly cooking — which can lead them to be dry and tasteless, but the crowds around the stands seemed satisfied.

Trdelník (as one website explains — pronounced a little like Turtleneck “with an eastern European flair”) is hands down the local sweet treat available everywhere. Although there’s some disagreement about the origin — some say it came from Hungary, others from Slovkia or Transylvania  — it’s basically dough wrapped around a “trdl” and browned, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar. (See the process in photos below)

When Prague radio did a story on these in 2014, first the reporter asked people on the street where these came from. Not surprisingly, they had no clue. The next part of his story, which he later admits he made up, claims it all started with a Bohemian king in 1387 and his future bride Princess Brambora — which means “potato,” the first clue this isn’t real…

But he does talk to Ladislav Provaan, head of the Gastronomy Museum, and his take: “Trdelník is primarily an incredible marketing success. It has appeared overnight. I really cannot remember seeing Trdelník at all when I was young – it didn’t exist. In the last few years, it has really skyrocketed. It is everywhere and tourists love it, but I feel bad about that because people aren’t really getting the full information on what this food is all about.”

So I smiled today when I walked by a stand with a large sign, proudly proclaiming, “OId Bohemian Tradition.”

Ice cream and gelato don’t have to pretend to be some historic, authentic treat. Although the flavors are as varied as the many stands — every kind of fruit, pistachio, tiramisu, salted caramel, coffee, “Snickers”  and more — at 30 Kč a scoop, it’s a pretty cheap treat, too.

Macarons, delicately baked with an almost too-sweet filling, come in a variety of flavors: Tonight only coconut, while chocolate and pear are left.

Macarons, delicately baked with an almost too-sweet filling, come in a variety of flavors: Tonight only coconut, white chocolate and pear are left.

But my favorite of all by far is the macaron. Not even claiming to be Czech, this tiny, light French “cake” is delicately crusty on the outside and filled with a fluffy frosting inside. Is it still street food when I have to take two steps off the cobblestones into the open front of the shop to purchase mine? I think so. For 50 Kč — about $2 — I can choose two from a variety of colors and flavors (I almost always choose a mango and a “forest berry”) and walk back into the crowd with my treats wrapped in red and white waxed paper.

Now to answer my first question — healthy? Hmmm. Probably not. Except for a very few stands that sell fresh fruit — most options either have a whopping big fat gram count or are loaded with sugar. But from the expressions on the faces of those nibbling the trdelníky and biting off a mouthful of klobásy, they have found plenty that tastes good when it comes to Prague street food.


Food adventures continue

Bakeshop1Though Tesco was a major find — the Target of Prague and a place to get everything from shampoo to laundry detergent to cheese– the Bakeshop was better in oh-so-many heartwarming ways.

Actually, what I stumbled across was the Bakeshop Little Bakery, referred to as the little sister of the larger one in Old Town, and this one’s right on my way home from the university. Walk out the back door of AAU, through the quiet, green park, and there it is.

After yesterday’s fiasco with the sour-cream-instead-of-yogurt for breakfast, it was time for some pleasant gastronomic surprises. The bread I chose — that hefty loaf right on the corner of his bowl — has a crusty outside and a very tender, moist, rosemary-sprinkled inside. (Two slices of that with cheese was a perfect lunch when I got back home.)

Although the croissants, pies and fruit-filled kolaczki were tempting and so was the aroma of the chocolate-orange brownies right in front of me while I paid, I settled for only two more things: a raisin oatmeal cookie (upper left of the photos)  and a spinach quiche (lower right). Those will be the dinner I’m planning to take to the park tonight.

Don’t worry — I’ll be back to this place…for more photos and of course more goodies to try. I’m afraid maybe the bigger sister might offer simply too many choices!


And the label says…


Any veteran label-reader — and I count myself one of those —  usually finds grocery shopping in another country more than a little challenging.

After a week of almost daily visits to the store, I now feel comfortable enough when checking out to politely say, “Ne,” when the cashier asks if I have a Tesco card. I can watch the amount flash on the register display and dig in my purse without too much trouble telling the coins apart. I can stuff my cheese and rolls and yogurt into my bag with the best of them.

It’s when I’m in the aisles that things get difficult. Take yogurt, for instance, plain non-fat yogurt, no gelatin, no vanilla. Certainly none of that syrupy cherry stuff. Stonyfield Plain Organic would be just perfect. But Tesco appears to have shelves and shelves of things packaged like yogurt, but much of it doesn’t SAY yogurt — or even jogurt. There’s Mi-gurt, Yogobella and Dobra Mama. Others look the same but I think are rice pudding — something to do with rice — rýžový something or other.

Yesterday, I bet on Selský Jogurt bílý. Google translate has no idea about the first word, so I decided it was the brand. Pictures on it were daisies and a metal milk jug. I figured out složení means what it’s made of — and then I was stumped. I did read “GMO-free” and “toku 3,5%” — that’s “fat” so I think I blew it as far as fat-free goes! But I don’t see anything like “želatina,” so I did avoid the gelatin. More important, it tasted great this morning with granola and strawberries. (I recognized what those were.)

And recently I found a great expat website, “10 tips for healthier grocery shopping in Prague.” That might be tonight’s bedtime reading.

But it’s not just food item packaging that gets me. bag3My attempt at getting a small roll of something akin to Saran Wrap to keep my cheese from drying out was tougher than it would seem. The picture on the box looks OK, but the bag appears to be open at both ends and 3 meters long. So, to wrap the cheese, I had to cut it and put “ties” on both ends. NOW I think it’s supposed to be something for cooking chicken or roast so it doesn’t splatter in the oven. But it works fine for cheese.

I passed up some capers today because, even though I was SURE that’s what they were, they seemed too large I hated to risk it.

Someday I’ll have an aHA moment when I’m reading a label, everything will make sense– and I’ll know it’s time to get my Tesco card.

(My apologies for using the same grocery aisle picture I used in a previous post, though horizontal and not vertical. You see, I realized today there’s a “take no photos” sign in Tesco, and I sure don’t want to lose my shopping privileges!)



Conquering (some) public transportation


Lack of public transportation never seemed like a problem in Kent, Ohio — no buses run from our house to the Giant Eagle and even the campus is not on a bus run I could use to go to work. Still, that didn’t seem so bad. I have a car.

But when the students from Anglo-American University (where I am teaching this semester) came to visit us in winter 2014, I became acutely aware of our lack. Bus or train between Kent and Cleveland? Hmmmm. Not really. The latest bus Sunday runs at 7:30 p.m., and it’s not anywhere near the Greyhound Bus Depot for someone coming in from far away. Maybe just to Akron? Yes, some, but getting info about when they run and where is a challenge.

So, although I lived a while in Washington, D.C. and rode the Metro, even that wasn’t daily. Thus Prague’s public transportation loomed huge in my mind. How do I get a tram card? Does the same card work if I want to ride the metro? Do I need to present or swipe something, like I have in San Francisco? Scan on the way in and the way out, like D.C.? Or just get on and be ready to prove I have a pass if asked?

First google gave me the Dopravní podnik hl. m. Prahy (DPP) — the public transportation folks — and that mentioned places to get cards, the monthly rate and some off-hand remark about senior discounts. So I headed Friday to the metro station near Wenceslas Square. My half-Czech, half — OK, more than half-English conversation with the young man behind the window went well. Can I get a pass for a month? 670 CZK or about $28 — not bad. Are there senior rates? Yes. — those are free. Free??!! But you need a photo. My blank stare translated the same in Czech and English. “Over there,” he pointed, and I was on it.


The machine ate one 50 CZK piece, but even at that it was a bargain.

It was one of those typical photo booths, except directions were only in Czech. OK.  How hard can it be? First the seat didn’t swivel and my eyes were well below the line shown on the glass so…I braced myself and hovered over the bench at the appropriate height. (Does that explain the slight grimace on my face in that photo?)


For 100 CZK, I got five lovely pics with a forced smile — the card was then free.






But it worked, and after he took his lunch break, he came back and affixed it to the waiting car. Success.

The next step was to use it. By figuring out what the tram stop name is that’s a block from my apartment, I plotted the route to the Prague Ice Cream Festival. Trams ran every 15 minutes. I didn’t count on no air conditioning — though I should have — and no windows open and the outside temp 93.

But, hey, like the ice cream, I was a little melted by the time I made it there and back and now have only to figure out the subway. That’s another day.



The first big adventure: food


A pretty uneventful trip, as overseas flights go. But with a small dinner of vegetarian Indian curry and then missing breakfast when it arrived while I was inserting contacts during some air turbulence, my stomach was pretty empty by 3 p.m. Prague time, when I had finally finished unpacking.

Two adventure options: find a likely looking cafe or restaurant and challenge my menu-reading skills or find a grocery store and plan for more than just one meal. I chose the latter.

And it couldn’t be one of those mini-marts like the one across the narrow road from my apartment. I wanted choices. So I headed for the Tesco a half a mile away, according to the Google map. The grocery store is HUGE — and only the basement of the four-story building has food. The rest of it might be a Macy’s with a bakery and Starbuck’s tucked in the first floor.

Cheese was the first thing that caught my eye — sliced Swiss — that’s easy to recognize, and when the woman in front of me ordered that, I could indicate to the deli worker I wanted just the same. “Děkuji,” I mumbled, thanking her. On to the tomatoes on sale, the green grapes (hmmm, later to discover they have seeds — did the sign say that?), a bagel of sorts and a kaiser roll.

Three things left on my mental list: bottled water, and not so heavy I can’t carry it home, butter and maybe some puopon mustard. (I may have been hungry, but I have standards.) Success on all fronts, including a small package somewhat like a baby cottage cheese container that seemed to have the same words on it as the large glass jars of the fancy mustard — horčica. And, yes, it proved to be just what I wanted in a much more appropriate size.

Going through check-out is tough enough sometimes in an unknown US grocery, but when a sales clerk indicated I should do the self-checkout I hesitated. “Nerosumim.” (I don’t understand.) “It’s OK,” she said, and hustled me to the scanner. Now mind that she did it all and I would be no closer to doing it myself the next time, but it did work. Maybe that was enough grocery store adventure for a jet-lagged first day. And all it cost me was 395 , which, if my rusty currency exchange skills serve me right, should be about $16. When was the last time I got out of Giant Eagle for only $16?!

(At least I think it was $16 — it could have been $1.60 or $160, but I’ll work on currency tomorrow.)