I was upgraded from Economy to Business Class on the Air France flight from Paris to Prague, a nice surprise! As proof of our exalted status, we had metal utensils, small glass cups, cloth napkins and tiny individual sets of salt and pepper shakers with our midday meal (I don't know how the food differed from the plebe area, but it was delicious). The tiny amenities were as good as it got--the seats were no bigger than the base section. That said, Economy in the 747-500 on which I'd crossed the Atlantic wasn't bad at all, though of course it was impossible to sleep. People all around me were doing a good job of feigning unconsciousness (except for a group of American and Russian twenty-somethings, who were standing in front of the tail lavatories, drinking and talking), but though there was an empty aisle seat next to me (praise God! I wasn't squished like sandwich filling), no matter which way I turned, twisted or contorted myself, there was no getting into a position where I could drop off. The dinner (not the breakfast, which consisted of unidentifiable Dole plastic tub fruit) was superb, as one would expect from the French. Good champagne, decent wine to accompany salmon pasta. And the flight attendant, a tall, handsome African-heritage Frenchman, was nice enough to pretend to assume I spoke French, bless him, though my "je voudrais" probably sounded fresh off the hick farm.
When I got to Prague, I helped several middle-aged Americans who were struggling with the airport cash-change machine and then (having eventually remembered my own PIN number) headed to the public transport kiosk, where my having extra passport pictures came in handy when I paid for a month-long pass good on metro, trams and buses. And because I took public transport from the airport, I got that and the next month's worth of transport for less than the price of the one-way taxi ride (abt. $28, as opposed to $35). I love clean, efficient public transit!
There were a few hiccups: although I was able to take an elevator down into the metro, there wasn't one at the stop where I landed, and the escalator (which moved with typical Soviet breakneck speed--you have to be quick of step to avoid falling on either end!) only went part of the way up. So I was a sight, clunking my luggage from step to step up the last flight to leave the station (and did I mention my backpack was more than 25lbs?). And my friend Frederica lives ten minutes' walk from the metro, on the second (to Americans, the third) floor of an Art Nouveau building where (again, in characteristic Eastern European fashion) the elevator opens on the landings between the floors... Needless to say, between the length of the trip, the lack of sleep, and this final muscular effort, I was quite tired by the time I arrived (at 5pm Prague time), and could only force myself to stay awake until 8.
Frederica has a great apartment, with all the amenities, including the first dishwasher I've seen in Europe. The ceilings in the rooms are 15' tall, and the double-glassed windows make artificial illumination unnecessary all day. And the surrounding older city is beautiful. Prague shares with other European capitals the allure of classical architecture with its fantastic details of figures, flowers, frescos, mosaics and ironwork, besides the appeal (to Americans, at least) of antiquity which our home country cannot approach. It felt immediately familiar, given my past travels in the former Eastern Bloc, from the comforting tones of a Slavic language (some of it Russian--there are many tourists here, in addition to French, Germans, Japanese, Koreans, and tons of other Americans) to the lush damp greenness of the gardens and the crumbling bits of Soviet construction in the mid-century sections of town and in the metro. Prague is in better trim than St. Petersburg, for example, primarily because it wasn't bombed to rubble 70 years ago, and because in the last 25 years its central location has attracted tons of investment, enabling the Czechs to carefully remodel what the socialists had neglected, but not outright destroyed.
Frederica's flat is in the Vinohrady section of the city, across from a park. I asked her if there had been any vineyards (vinohrad/vinograd--Slavic for vineyard) in the area, and she said there was still one thereabouts. Her mostly-residential neighborhood is quiet, with cobblestone streets and sidewalks, and there is paid reserved parking, neatly observed (over the last couple of days, I've noticed that the Czechs seem to be quite law-abiding when it comes to traffic rules--not only do pedestrians almost religiously observe the crossing signals, cars stop at zebra walks and I have yet to hear a commuter blowing his or her horn). There are a lot of small shops and restaurants on the ground floor of the apartment buildings, which don't exceed 6 floors in most of the downtown area. There's a Vietnamese, two Indian and a Japanese restaurant within a two-block radius of Frederica's flat, not to mention an antique store. When I walked out of the metro yesterday evening, there was a Vietnamese culture festival in the square (alas, one of the few things I did not pack for this trip was the outfit Leah had custom-made for me when she went to Vietnam a decade ago!).
Today I plan to tour the castle--I hiked there via the Metronome in the Summer Garden yesterday, just to get the lay of the land (I also attempted to walk to the language school where I will be studying, but gave up after the fourth mile and got on the metro). This afternoon, we're taking a train to Tabor for a church retreat (an appropriate spot for Protestants, the town having been founded as a Hussite fortress). Monday morning, at 8:30 AM, my CELTA class begins, and all touristy activities will be on hold (except perhaps during weekends) for a month.