When you are parachuted into a strange city, armed with a working credit card but without guidebooks, an itinerary, or 100 megabytes of Internet research results, it is useful to rehearse the frayed scraps of knowledge that may remain from an expensive liberal arts education.
I happened to be in Prague. What did I know about Prague? Next to nothing, it turned out. Dvořák and Smetana lived here. Mozart hung out here, too: Being popular in Prague was the late-18th-century equivalent of being Big in Japan.
Kafka. Therefore, a castle, bureaucratic offices, and labyrinthine streets.
Václav Havel isn’t president anymore, is he? Anyway, he really liked Frank Zappa.
Rents used to be really cheap but aren’t anymore, which is why all the 23-year-old American expats live someplace else now.
So when I fly into the city, check into a hotel a few steps below the castle, and short out the power for the entire floor when I attempt to recharge my cell phone, I have relatively few preconceptions, save a stubborn belief that all Czechs look like Motörhead roadies. (They don’t, by the way. They look like graduate students with subscriptions to Vogue, and they look better in vintage topcoats than you do in Prada.)
A half hour later, by the time I get to the Charles Bridge, the 14th-century span connecting the right and left banks of the Vltava, I have come to see in Prague all the marks of a louche European capital: well-loved remnants of a prosperity nobody quite remembers, glistening streets, and a disturbed young man who drinks rainwater from a worn loafer. The streets in Staré Město (Old Town) twist and wind around one another, lined with bars advertising schnitzel and roast pork knee in five or six different languages.
For all of its beauty, Old Town is not unlike the drunk district of many midsize European cities—a jumble of exquisitely restored baroque buildings, an abundance of bars, the smell of old grease, rousing choruses of drinking songs in German and English. But it has a different edginess to it, not soccer adrenaline or drunken-rave bonhomie, but something darker, with a dash of nihilism just beneath the surface. I finally find my way to a jazz club where a Facebook acquaintance is playing one of his weekly sets of Chicago blues. On this rainy night, the basement bar is half filled with couples who speak half a dozen languages, sitting close, holding hands, and smoking—my God, do they smoke—as Rene Trossman leads his band through a scraggly set. I’ve just arrived here, and even I want to kill the drummer.
The band takes a break. Trossman puts down his guitar and goes outside to catch his breath. Business is slow, the bar owner is not happy, and Trossman’s regular bassist and keyboard player have been replaced for the evening by subs. He pulls out a pack of smokes. His lighter is wet. The soggy cigarette refuses to catch. A kid walking down the narrow street, just a random kid, swerves to punch him hard in the face, then skitters off into the rain without waiting to see the reaction. Trossman groans. He lightly touches his face where the blow landed; his skin has already started to purple. He staggers downstairs to fetch a bucket of ice.
“It’s one of those nights,” he says.
The club owner winces and turns away to go count the take.
And then you start to think: What’s Trossman’s problem? Might not this be as good as it gets, playing Bill Withers songs to a basement full of plump tourists and Wanderjahr postgrads? Would Trossman even be able to live his blues life in his hometown of Chicago? Is not the shiny bohemianism (oh, the irony) of Prague preferable to the real thing, the way that Milan Kundera’s Beat-flavored novels are better than Kerouac, and Czech models are more stunning than the American supermodels they supplanted? Zappa was plenty subversive, but the Zappa-inspired Plastic People of the Universe, Havel’s favorite band, helped bring down a government.
After the show, I pick my way back through the tangle of Old Town. I am offered a pretty girl, hashish, a pretty girl, a taste of coke, and a pretty girl again. Or maybe it’s the same pretty girl. It’s dark and I’ve been drinking. I am thirsty again.
At its heart, Prague has a series of vast plazas, or rather empty boulevards closed to traffic, some of which you may dimly remember from news reports of the government’s fall 20 years ago. There is also a largely under-utilized culinary infrastructure that would make even Parisians envious—dozens of centuries-old beer halls, art nouveau cafés in impeccable shape, gorgeous rooms, all dark wood, cut glass, and gleaming metal. They would be the equals of Bofinger or Le Dôme if they didn’t all have identical menus of goulash, schnitzel, and roast pork with caraway and heavy dumplings.
I end up on a tiny street thronged with youth hostel guys doing youth hostel guy things. I squeeze past a couple of backpackers into a crowded bar, its windows fogged with steam. This is Lokál, a narrow tunnel of a room that stretches at least a couple hundred yards, tables on each side flanking a long central aisle. Lokál is in one of the oldest quarters of Prague, near the famous Jewish cemetery. Lined with what looks like fake wood onto which slogans have been scratched, this place is Communist chic. Give the barroom a rake and a couple of scrims and you’ve got an opera set.
A waiter brings me a menu. I order a kind of beer called mliko and am promptly brought a hefty stein filled completely with foam. Mliko is apparently one of the approved stages of beer pours in the Czech Republic. The others are snyt, which means half-foam, and cochtan, which comes with no foam at all. The waiter picks up on my confusion, shrugs, and brings me hladinka, which has a creamy, Guinness-thick head. You do not always have much choice of beer here—Pilsner Urquell seems to be a utility in Prague, like electricity or natural gas—but you can have it drawn from the tank whichever way you like. The waiter confiscates my menu. I will not sin again.
But I am hungry. I attempt to translate the short list of dishes printed on the beer coaster. I ask for what I will soon come to understand is a portion of “homemade.” The waiter takes pity on me and stabs a fat finger toward a description of parky, a sausage I dimly remember from a ’50s-era Joseph Wechsberg story in Gourmet. Parky turns out to be hot dogs on a plate. I cut into one and a spurt of hot juice arcs across the aisle. It is the best hot dog I have ever had. I sneak the soggy coaster from the table into a coat pocket—and take it home for a round with Google Translate. Projects give travel meaning.
The next evening, I cross another bridge and find myself at the National Theatre, as grand as the Garnier opera house in Paris, well lit, towering by the river. It has just turned cold. It is almost curtain time. I fall into the line and buy a ticket for what I assume, from the posters outside, is a multimedia opera about the life of Casanova. I settle into my seat next to a woman I swear I’ve seen in perfume ads.
There is dancing, or a kind of dancing, around a man who lip-synchs French cabaret songs, the kind with accordions in them. Off goes his shirt; on goes his shirt. Shirt off again, then on again, then flapping open, puddled on the ground, then suggestively draped over a chair. I catch the woman next to me gaping at his bare chest, and why shouldn’t she? David Hasselhoff is better at keeping his shirt on than this guy.
At intermission, I buy a program and discover that, rather than an opera about Casanova, I’m at a dance salute to Jacques Brel. This does not make me happy—Jacques Brel is what college girlfriends used to put on the stereo right before they broke up with you—but it does explain the recorded accordion music.
I cut my losses and go back to Lokál for a plate of creamed beef lungs and a glass of foam.