My Prague – Justin Quinn
Poet, novelist and translator Justin Quinn has called Prague home since 1992. A professor of English at Charles University and the University of West Bohemia in Plzeň, the Irishman has lived in contrasting parts of the Czech capital, from Malá Strana (which we’ll visit later) to the concrete jungle of Jižní Město. But our tour of Justin Quinn’s Prague begins at another old ‘hood of his, Nusle – specifically at the foot of the Nuselské schody, or Nusle Steps. Why there?
“It’s a fantastic place and it always struck me as a kind of magical place, from when I first encountered them. They’re off the beaten track, not on the tourist trail.
“And there’s quite a lot of them. They go right up the hill from Nusle, which is much more down to earth, to Vinohrady, which is an altogether more elevated neighbourhood.
“And you can’t actually see the top of the steps. It curls around to the left as you’re looking up.”
Frankly it’s been so many years since I’ve been here that I forget how far up it is. But we can see in front of us I guess around 100 metres. How much further does it go?
“I know how many steps there are but I don’t know how many metres it goes. It’s 200 steps. Because I used to come here quite frequently with my son, bringing him up to school.
“We made the bad choice of putting him in a školka [kindergarten] which is up these steps. It seemed very romantic at the start. And then when I did it three times a day it got less romantic.”
You weren’t carrying a buggy or anything up these 200 steps?
“No, thank God. But I sometimes had to drag my son or put him on my shoulders.”
Also I guess you know there’s a run that takes place here, which I learned today in my extensive research began in the First Republic – the Nusle Steps Run.
“Well today’s a special day also because we can see somebody training for this run, right here. He’s got his device on his arm to measure I supposes his heart rate. He looks like a very serious customer.
“I’ve never done the run, but I’ve had to run up sometimes, to get my boy out of school. But that was about the height of it.”
You used to live here – was that your first home in Prague?
“My first home in Prague was out in Jižní Město, out in the South Town, up on top of a panelák [prefab apartment block]. Which was a real shock for the system, coming from a leafy suburb of Dublin. This was actually I think our third place.”
How would you characterize this area, Nusle? I always feel because it’s down the hill that it’s kind of gloomy. It’s a place I haven’t lived – and wouldn’t like to because it seems so low-lying and just kind of depressingly “down”.
“I really got to like the grunge when I was here. But in among the grunge there’s all kinds of other stuff going on as well.
“At the bottom of the steps here we can see a very small chapel which seems to be just for graffiti artists and junkies to shoot up behind and dogs to do their business at.
“But I remember walking back here one Christmas, a few days before Christmas, a very dark evening, and the doors were open and they had it all lit on the inside with candles and there were people kind of spilling outside.
“And it was this, I thought at the time, a kind of secret sect. It did have a sense of conspiracy to it.
“It turned out later that this was the old Catholic church, actually quite new, they broke off in the 19th century. So you’ve got grunge but you’ve also got this.
“Then on the left, as we’re looking up, you have a roubenka. I don’t know what that is in English, but it’s an old-style medieval country house…”
A timber-lined house?
“That sounds pretty good. But it’s right in the middle of industrial Nusle…”
It looks like some place from the country – a kind of mountain chalet or something.
“It’s as though Scotty beamed it down into the middle of Nusle, with trains going by and everything.
“So you have all this collision of different things going on in the place, which I became very affectionate towards.”
You didn’t mind the trains running past all the time, as they are now?
“Well I remember one of the first nights we were in our apartment we had a Czech poet around for a drink. He heard the trains going by and he said, I’ve always dreamed to live beside trains going by. So I thought that was a kind of stamp of approval.”
Did he say why?
“He just stared off into the distance of the night in this kind of poetic way so I wasn’t going to interrogate him on it.”
“[Laughs] Well I didn’t interrogate him on it.”
The second stop on our tour of Justin Quinn’s Prague is a beautiful old house on Šporkova, a quiet corner of Malá Strana. The poet’s wife Tereza Límanová spent her childhood in the building and the couple lived there from the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
“It was a house that was a fascinating place to live in, because it had been rebuilt so many times and there were many architectural features we just couldn’t work out.
“Even when I asked my father-in-law, an architect, what this or that feature was, he just was baffled by it.
“It used originally to be a pavlač, a courtyard with small apartments in it, that was covered in, I know that much. But we couldn’t even trace back when the foundations were set. Sometime in the mists of the 17th century – that’s all we could get.”
Do you know anything about the history of the house – who owned it before your wife’s family?
“Yes, we went to the cadastral office and looked up the previous owners. My wife’s grandfather bought it in the early ‘60s and before that it was owned by a woman for a few decades.
“It was in that family since the early 20th century. Seemingly she had bought it as a source of a pension, the people renting.
“There was an old photograph, which now unfortunately is faded, of all the tenants standing outside. You know, it’s a generous sized family house, but there were about 14 or 15 people here in about six apartments in the building originally.”
Is there a view of the Castle from the back? From here we can’t see.
“No. But what you do get to hear is all the gossip from the neighbours’ apartments because there’s a kind of echo chamber around here.
“You also occasionally hear the trumpets for the changing of the guard up at the Castle.
“There was one particular couple and we would always only hear the man. He would shout rather loudly when he came home from work and it would bounce of the walls. He would just say, don’t shout at me! But we would never hear his wife actually shouting.”
You left here over a decade ago. Has Malá Strana changed in that time?
“I think it’s picked up a lot. The renovations are really fantastic. When we left this house the quantity surveyors said after surveying the house that they did not know how it was standing up.
“They had scaffolding inside it. When we saw the girders and the roof beams afterwards when they were taken out you could put your finger through them. They were like dust – they turned to dust in your hands.
“Somebody really needed to put a lot of money into it, which the people now have done, thankfully. And I think that’s happened a lot in Malá Strana in general.”
Malá Strana is beautiful but it’s also a very touristy area. What were the practicalities of living here?
“Horrid. Horrid. Going with a small child in one hand and shopping bags in your other hand, it was very difficult to get through a crowd of about 13 very noisy Italian teenage tourists. The frustration level was really quite high, I have to say.”
Do you know what these buildings are around us here? For example opposite us there’s, is it Humilatis…?
“Yes. That belongs to the Borromeo nuns. I know that because my wife’s grandfather worked closely with them in the hospital around the corner, Pod Petřínem.
“It used to be a home for the blind which had a weird title in Czech and translated into English as Home for People with Only Bits of Sight – se zbytky zraku.”
There are a lot of hotels here, embassies. Do many regular people still live here, do you think?
“Definitely. The house opposite us here, U Kameníka, is smaller apartments and my wife is still in contact with some of the people there.
“She was researching a memoir and in order to that that she went and talked to them about what they remembered about this house where my wife grew up, and more generally about the characters in the neighbourhood. So there are still the real Malostraňáci here.”
From Šporkova it’s a metaphorical hop, skip and jump to the final stop on our trip around Justin Quinn’s Prague, the Dobrá Trafika newsagents and café on Karmelitská. It is a sunny evening so we take a table in the small but very pleasant garden in the back.
“It’s kind of the café against which I measure all other cafés in the entire world. It’s put together in a higgledy-piggeldy kind of way. The garden where we’re sitting now is just a deck with a few bamboos around it and a few potted plants.
“Inside they seem to have got the furniture from the four corners of the earth. The waitresses are always friendly. The beer is one of the best in the country.
“And especially on summer evenings… until 10 o’clock, when you’re ushered inside, because the neighbours are sleeping above us and it’s only fair.
“But while it lasts, while you can sit out here, you can buy a cigar from the front, drink the Primator. I must sound like I have shares in the place, but I don’t.”
How did you first discover it?
“It’s actually quite hard, because it looks like a newsagents in front, and a kind of bookstore as well.”
And the name means Good Newsagents.
“Exactly. I cannot remember. It is lost in the mists of time. Appropriately.”
But you would have to be brought here I think. I would never have guessed that in this part of town, where there are a lot of tourists, that there’s a regular place, with regular prices, where regular people go, slightly hidden but not very hidden.
“Well, that’s the thing about these cool little cafés in Prague – they are hidden away from the tourist trade.
“Even in the Old Town you have Literární kavárna [Literary Café] on Týnská. I think you have to squint your eyes very hard to see the name of the café.
“It’s as if they are deliberately keeping out the tourists. It’s a kind of apartheid that I understand – that the city has to survive and keep its social life going, without a huge influx of tourists.”
I find it slightly strange coming from Ireland that they have cafés with names like Literary Café. Isn’t that a bit kind of bald or simple or intellectually pretentious?
“I similarly found it very bizarre until I was meeting one Czech poet. We were talking about translations I was working on of his work and he said, let’s meet at the Literary Café.
“And I thought, OK, so it does exist. It’s like nomem omen – it is what it says it is.
“Happily the owner of the café when he saw us there talking, going at it hammer and tongs about the translations, he brought over two shots of very fine slivovice for the poet and his translator. So respect was shown.”
Apart from Dobrá Trafika where do you like to go for a drink or for a coffee?
“One of the places I discovered recently, through a friend, is Bonvivant's on Bartolomějská. It’s a cocktail bar.
“The guy who makes the cocktails used to run the Czech London cocktail mafia and has come back to raise the cocktail level in the city. And Eduard, I think is his name, is a pure magician of cocktails.”
You say the beer here is among the best in the city. Where else would you go for a jar?
“Oh, the classic places. Zlý časy, in Nusle, which brings us back to Nuselské schody. They have about 32 beers on draught. They get the pick of the crop.
“One leaves rather at an angle to normal life, a little dizzy. But always there’s a soft landing from an evening out in Zlý časy.”