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Visit to the "Old World" Brings New Surprises

Jan Chait

November 25, 2008

Ya gotta love a place where a swing band serendipitously belts out "Back Home Again in Indiana" (lyrics here) on your first foray out around town. On this night, however, the moonlight was shining not on the Wabash, but on the Vltava, the river that separates the east and west sides of Prague.

The whole joint was jumping. And on a Monday night, yet! Turns out there was a reason.

We arrived in Prague on November 17. Just another day — or so I thought when I made the hotel reservations. As it happened, November 17 was the 19th anniversary of the student-led demonstration against the communist government that led to the “Velvet Revolution” and the end of communist rule in the Czech Republic.

It’s an old city, dating back more than 1,100 years. Before going there, I will admit to having had more than a little concern about my ability to get around in a mobility scooter. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded, although it took a bit of creative planning and a willingness to be flexible both on my part and from the people I interacted with there.

Much of Prague’s charm — the winding, cobblestone streets that are more alleys than thoroughfares, and the ancient buildings that were erected long before any thought was given to accessibility — could have been a deterrent. I thought of these elements more as an adventure. (Attitude helps a lot!)

Curb cuts were present, but not exactly…um…planned. Or even existent in all cases. The curb cut on one side might be at the crossing, while the one to get back on the sidewalk on the other side of the street is at the opposite end of the block. My favorite had to be the block with only one curb cut: You could get up onto the sidewalk, but could only get back down to street level where you began.

With my history of people being “unable” to see you when you are on a scooter fresh in my mind, I had some qualms about drivers having the same blind spot as I bu-bu-bu-bumped my way along cobblestone streets to get to the next accessible spot. Since I’m still here, my feelings of impending doom were unwarranted.

Come to think of it, even pedestrians were more observant than I’ve found in my native country: Not one person tripped over me, ran into me, or all but did a double flip to get out of my way at the last minute. The ability to see what is around you is a wonderful thing. Why don’t we have that in the United States?

Shops and restaurants tended to be up a step, down four steps, or otherwise inaccessible in that you couldn’t just move in and out. In terms of my ability to eat or shop, however, the places were anything but impossible to enjoy. What happened in those cases is something that truly amazes me. I had shop owners and salespeople bring a tray of whatever I was interested in out to the sidewalk for me to peruse. If I did park outside and enter the shop, they produced a chair for me to sit on while merchandise was presented to me. (Have I ever told you I like to shop?)

One restaurateur, whose dining room was about 10 steps down from the entrance, had me park my scooter in front of a window, and then sat us where we could keep an eye on it. (The only “problem” I had was that two little boys curiously — and thoroughly — explored the scooter while we watched from our table.)

At another restaurant, the workers lifted my scooter inside and parked it in an out-of-the-way place, then lifted it back down to the sidewalk when we were ready to leave.

On the advice of the shopkeepers and restaurateurs, we did, of course, take the key and any items we had with us when we left the scooter unattended outside.

Our hotel’s buffet breakfast featured something I’ve never seen here: A basket of gluten-free goodies in the breads and cereals area. (If you’re ever in Prague, I have no problem highly recommending the President Hotel.)

I had more than a few giggles, too. The most memorable was at one restaurant recommended by a tour guide we booked to show us around the Jewish Quarter and the old city square area, where we escaped a chilly outdoors to warm ourselves at a table by a roaring fire. While my companions opted for fancier fare (I’ll just say that it included foie gras), I wanted a good ol’ traditional Bohemian meal: meat, dumplings, and cabbage. While it wasn’t on the menu, the kitchen accommodated my request.

Seemed to me that a peasant meal deserved a fitting drink, so I asked for a glass of traditional Bohemian beer to wash down the food. I got what they call “BOOD-vizer.” We spell it “Budweiser.” (This Bood’s for EU?)

The other on my list of “most memorable” giggles happened on my flight from Germany to the United States and came from a flight attendant.

“Would you like a drink?” she asked.

Diet Sprite? Don’t like it. Diet Coke? Don’t like that, either.

“How about a can of bloody mary mix?” I asked, spying a can of Mr. and Mrs. T’s on the cart. Tomato juice is good for you, and I like spicy foods, so it seemed like a winning combination.

“Nope,” she responded, picking up the can and scanning the nutrition information. “That has way too much sodium for an eight-hour flight. How about some seltzer? Would you like lime with that?”

We had a bit of a running joke about that, concluding with me sneaking a can toward the end of the flight and asking if I could have some now.

“I’ve had people get up the next morning and not be able to get their shoes on,” she explained. “Hello-o-o-o-o!”

Rather than being offended, I looked on it as a guardian angel watching over me. And I got my shoes on just fine in the morning.

I haven’t mentioned diabetes in connection with food, but food is food the world over. If you keep to simple things, you should be able to handle eating just about anywhere. I also tend to look up recipes for common foods that are native to an area before I go so I’ll have some idea of what to expect when I’m feeling adventurous — which is frequently.

I’d go back to Prague in a heartbeat. Frankly, I’ve had worse experiences in the “politically correct” United States. Frequently.

The trip also took away any qualms I have about visiting unknown areas, and I do like to explore new places. If it taught me any lessons, it was to keep an open mind, maintain your sense of humor, and expect the best from others. Don’t let disabilities or any other of life’s inconveniences (special dietary needs, for example) get in your way. You might be pleasantly surprised.



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