Thursday, October 22, 2009

Wegetarian Food

I’m not a vegetarian, but I might be a wegetarian:

“V” becomes “w” on some tongues and the linguistic twist makes new words.

In Prague, Wegetarians beeline for Lekha Hlava, or Clear Head, the mecca of wegetables and wegan delights.

Clear Head Restaurant

There is no goulash in sight.

If you’re a spiritual leader, you eat for free. If not, the check is delivered in a neat wooden box at the end of the meal, like a gift.

When Premysl and I finally met for lunch, I suggested Clear Head as a possibility.

“I don’t eat vegetarian,” he said. He pronounced the “v” carefully in his precise English. An odd assertion, but I went along with it, and we ate in the decidedly anti-vegetarian duck restaurant behind Charles University.

Goulash was plentiful and the dumplings stay with you for hours afterwards, possibly decades. I punctuated my visits to Clear Head with stops at traditional Czech eateries so I wouldn’t forget where I was.

Friday, October 16, 2009

All the Czech I Need to Know I Learned at the Convenience Store

“Odpouštím ti.”

This was my new favorite phrase in Czech. It meant, “I forgive you.” I discovered this on the wall of the contemporary art museum. Also at the museum, I found, “Na zázraky,” which meant, “I believe in miracles.” I collected these phrases though I could barely pronounce them.

I still gravitated towards the English bookstores in town,

not quite ready to browse the Czech titles at the main bookstores.

Without the language in Prague, I lacked a bridge to understanding.

If I spoke Czech, I could ask why this statue had a strange plasticine head over a metal body…

Or why the streets often wandered in the wrong directions…

…so that I ended up lost and surrounded by strange people.

I’d gone to the first week of Survival Czech, and learned how to say “I don’t know how to speak Czech,” but mostly I picked up words from reading signs and labels, often at the nonstop convenience store near the Hotel Pyramida, where many items were kept behind the counter.

I knew that “white” was “bílý” because I saw the word on my yogurt. Also, neperlivá was “still” in reference to water—another word learned at the convenience store. Banán was another convenience store word.

Most of the Czech I learned was in reference to food. While I ate my way through Prague, I picked up a few Czech words too…between bites.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hana at the Opera

On warm days, Hana opened the windows of our classroom, letting in the damp stone smell of the courtyard, where below I could see women taking a break from their work at the dry cleaner’s on the ground floor.

Hana told us a story of her own experience of culture shock in the US.

One night in New York, Hana Ullmanova dressed up to go to the Opera.

First, it was hard to picture her dressed up:


didn’t compute.

At the same time, it had the quality of an animal flip book with frog feet and a chicken head, so I liked the incongruous aspect. Dressed to the nines, she appeared at the Metropolitan Opera house on a rainy night. She checked her raincoat at the coat check and slipped into the audience in anticipation.

To either side of her were two people still clad in dripping raincoats. This would never be allowed at the Czech National Opera, where formal dress is expected and all coats are left outside. Hana sat miserably sandwiched between the soaking spectators, and endured her way through the first act.

During intermission, she went in search of champagne. When the bartender handed her a plastic cup of champagne as if passing out Dixie cups of juice at recess, Hana almost refused. Plastic cups for champagne? This would never happen in Prague. In the US, wingnuts using wine glasses as weapons ruined it for the rest of us. Now, for security reasons, there is no longer glass. Yet no one blinks an eye because of the informal atmosphere overall.

We export our relaxed attitude overseas, too. Tourists sometimes turn up at the Czech National Opera in jeans and baseball caps.

At the Met, Hana found herself in the reverse situation. With dripping raincoats, jeans, and plastic cups around her, she stuck out in her formal dress. As someone who was used to standing out—an “elephant” in her hometown—she must have handled the scene with grace. Still, she was not prepared for these strange customs of the US Opera.

Again, Hana was an elephant, even miles away from her hometown.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Words of Others

While in search of non-goulash food alternatives, I continued to bask in the “I know nothing” world of Bret Lott and the unsmiling light of Hana Ullmanova.

Now and then, Bret would pause in class and say with mock seriousness, “Now this is a dynamite book,” and pick up his own memoir on writing. He filled our heads with the words of others, though: John Berger, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Valerie Martin.

We read a short story, "1/3, 1/3, 1/3" by Richard Brautigan that was terse but resonant and included a line that encapsulated a character in one sentence:

"The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks, and cars with bad transmissions."

This could also describe many people I passed on the streets in Prague.

Bret gave us a section of Jerome Stern’s book Making Shapely Fiction, which includes mock examples of what NOT to do. Stern lists bad last lines such as

"And then I woke up."


"It's not a bad place to live--warm, dry, and nice padded walls."

He also talks about bad story ideas like the “Weird Harold Story,” in which the character is quirky for the sake of being quirky and no other reason.

Of course with every bad example, I could think of one that had worked.

There’s the “Hobos in Space” story, about two characters isolated from ordinary society, that he warns against yet is almost an exact description of one of my favorite plays, “True West,” by Sam Shepard.

Every rule presented had been at one time or another successfully broken. In the end, Stern says to throw out the rules.

In the morning, we tried to crack open each workshop story, to find the way to best break the rules to fit what the writer was trying to say. In the afternoon, I studied the rule-breakers of early American literature with Hana.

Meet Tomas

When it rains in Prague, the streets become a mosaic of umbrellas.

I played email tag with Premysl, bouncing notes back and forth. We tried to find a common time to meet, but obstacles popped up at every turn.

Cindy met a British guy, Nick, who promised to take us out and show us the seamy underside of Prague, the places where tourists didn’t go in their Charles Bridge-Prague Castle-Old Town Square trifecta.

One night, I set off in search of Cindy and Nick through the clusters of buildings in Prague 1.

I was as likely to get lost as I was to find them. I had the free map from the hotel and scribbled directions about subway stops and neighborhoods. In truth, though, I had no idea where I was going.

I took the metro to a strange neighborhood just east of Prague 1 and by some combination of luck and intuition, found Cindy and company. We found the night spot Nick knew, a multi-room maze of a bar filled with smoke, glass shelves of bottles and mostly men.

Shortly after we settled in and ordered Becharovka-and-tonics, which tasted like iced chai with a twist of citrus and a strigent gin-like after-taste, a medium-height man with dark hair and glasses swiveled around from the bar holding drinks and looking around for his friends and a place to sit. He spotted two empty chairs at our table and asked permission to sit there in Czech. I had a sense of what he was saying from his gesture and lost expression, so I nudged the chairs out, offering him the seats.

My knowledge of Czech had now expanded to “Thank you,” though I didn’t quite know how to pronounce it and often offended shopkeepers by saying the informal version. He knew English well, though, so we resorted to our common language.

Meet Tomas.

My second official Czech friend in Prague. He taught me the shorthand for Becharovka-and-tonic, “Beton,” and the secret of mixing dark beer with light.

Beer is the orange juice of Prague. People practically have it for breakfast. That night I stayed clear of the beer, though that seemed to be the drink of choice at most tables.

Tomas and I talked into the wee hours when Nick shuttled us across the Charles bridge to take the night tram. Tomas walked with us for part of the way and we shyly traded emails by the tram stop, an act that made me feel vaulted back to junior high. Cindy and Shara waited off to the side, pretending like they were caught up in a vital conversation at 2 a.m. by the tram stop.

As soon as Tomas left, we swarmed back together and traded stories of our nights. The tram never showed, in true Prague fashion, so we walked home up the narrow cobble-stone streets, the shortcut from Prague 1 to Prague 6.

Being good tourists, we stopped to snap a picture on the way up.

I felt better back with my friends who spoke the same language and shared similar landscapes and cultural references. Though Tomas and I both spoke English, we were worlds away from real communication.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Prague Food Part Two: Check, please

Most of my miscommunications in Prague took place in restaurants. Luka Lu’s “birthday” night was only the beginning. In one lunch place, I ordered a side of broccoli and the waitress returned with peas, carrots, and corn, the kind that come in frozen packets. She explained that they had no broccoli, but rather than ask me if I wanted something else, she brought what they had. Her offering seemed more like an admonishment: What we have isn’t good enough for you?

One day, in search of a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for the literature seminar, I found instead an Indian restaurant. Newly opened, the staff was unusually friendly. The smell of Indian spices filled the square near Anagrams bookshop, surrounding the restaurant’s outdoor tables. The tables faced a botanical shop where I later found lavender oil and baskets full of herbs.

A few nights after my discovery, Cindy, Shara and I went to Old Town Square for a jazz concert and I brought them back to the square with the Indian restaurant, Anagrams, and the botanical shop. There were other restaurants too, but that night a short elderly man from the Indian restaurant was out recruiting diners. Anyone who crossed his path, he tried to herd into the outdoor seating area and lure them with the promise of dinner specials.

We only wanted a quick meal before returning to the concert, but the phrase “quick meal” doesn’t translate into Czech. The translation of “quick meal” is “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” The translation of “quick meal” in a regular restaurant is “meal with no end” or “meal where your waiter quits his job mid-meal and never returns.” Translation is tricky in the Czech language. There are all those ever-changing endings to words.

We ordered a variety of things including papadum, which take approximately two seconds to cook. Our meal didn’t arrive for over an hour and the papadum came last. At first we just enjoyed the atmosphere, sitting out on the square:

After a while, though, we started to lose patience. At least could we have the papadum? After our meal finally arrived and we’d finished, it took another lifetime to get the check. The waiter appeared with the check, pointing vigorously at the tip line on the receipt, waiting for me to fill it in. I shook my head, explaining very plainly that we didn’t plan to tip. We went back and forth until he gave up. Though in Prague, the adage goes that “the customer is always wrong,” in the end, tipping is up to you.

After our meal, the jazz concert was over. We went to Pariscka Street for Becharovka and tonics. Parizska Street is a block of designer stores that is supposed to be like Paris, Prague-style.

A note on window designers in Prague. They did not go to the same school of design as New York or Paris where a paper bag can look sexy and transform into an object of desire. Window design in Prague involves dropping a handbag in front of the window where it sits plainly saying, I’m a handbag. Do you want to spend your hard-earned money on me? There is nothing Parisian about Parizska Street.

The bar where we went had a swarm of insects inhabiting the light fixture over our seats. When one dropped into my drink and I asked for a refresher, the waiter looked at me like, what? It’s free protein! He did replace my drink, but only after grumbling and consulting with two other waiters and a manager. Six hours later, the new drink arrived and we were ready to leave. By the time we got the bill, I was ready to change into my pajamas.

“Quick drink” has the same translation as “quick meal” in Prague. There is no such thing. If you want a quick meal, you should fly to New York and go for sushi. If you want a quick drink, buy a bottle at the non-stop. If you decide to go out in Prague, just bring a sleeping bag and the complete works of Shakespeare. You’re in for a long wait.