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Posts Tagged ‘Slivovitz’

Serendipity puts us in Vienna, Austria on July 1, 1993 where we pluck the name of Prague out of thin air and decide we will go there to see the newly “freed” country of Czechoslovakia which is surviving the split with Communist Russia. Our waiter at the café where we are breakfasting has said with a sneer “The peasants in Czechoslovakia are overjoyed at the new government who will give them prosperity, cars, clothes, and food. They are deceiving themselves for sure.” My husband I glance at each other, at the café with glass cases of rich pastries, and ask my sister Josie, “Shall we go there?”

We have been treated to many lyrical, romantic descriptions of Prague by George Mraz, a scientist, who defected from the Czech Communist Party while working at the Lawrence Lab in Berkeley. He constantly claimed that “Prague is the most beautiful and cultured city in the world” as he rhapsodized about his home country. Should we go there and see if they are celebrating? Is there celebration? Or is there a frozen public who are cautious and fearful of embracing anything new?  Josie says “ Let’s go!”

It is a short train ride, we have a Eurail pass, an unplanned day or two, and adventurous Josie, who is traveling with us to Sweden where my son is marrying a Swedish woman. The proverbial three country mice visiting the glittering Continent. It is hard not to be intimidated. While Vienna is opulent,  cosmopolitan, and expensive, it is too rich, too chic, and Josie wants to see the stone castles and churches of old Prague.

On to the train we go and soon reach the border where we present our passports and transfer to another local train.  This train is shockingly shabby and dusty with hard seats, dirty windows, and no dining car or other amenities. It rattles, it creaks, and we all gaze at the countryside which is rural and green; very similar to the country side in California where we grew up on farms surrounded by work waiting for us to do it.

Arriving in Prague, we inquire about a hotel, check our dwindling funds, and note that the sun is setting. The station master hands us a brochure, points to a picture of a modern 1950’s style concrete building, and summons a taxi to take us there. They do not speak English and we speak nothing but English forcing us to communicate by nods and waving hands.

It is twilight and there are no twinkling lights to brighten the streets.  The taxi bumps over roads made out of cobblestones which are in poor condition. Cobbles that are missing yield deep holes that the tires struggle to bounce out of with jerks.  This is a rough ride indeed.

Prague by Mary P William

Prague by Mary P Williams

The feeling in Prague is dark and melancholy.  Out of the dusk the croaks of many frogs booms forth; a country sound in the city. Our hotel appears and we check in.  Luckily for us the hotel clerk speaks excellent English.  He is from England, recently hired we guess, as he does not seem to be totally in control of the paperwork. He is an attractive, well dressed, thin, young, man with spiky hair and bright, knowing eyes.  As he registers us he informs us that we have come at a time when all is in change. “The country is now two new, divided states … Czech Republic and Slovakia as of Jan 1,1993.  In 1992 Havel was elected leader and helped divide the country into two countries.” He tells us he is here because there is great opportunity when events such as this occur.

He looks at us thoughtfully and remarks  “You will see many students from Europe here because it is so cheap to live here, there are lots of jobs with so much work to repair all the buildings which fell into disrepair during the rule of the Communists. Many are living on the streets out of their backpacks to save money. Do not be distressed as they are not beggars but respectable students. Everything is shabby here and we all have to work hard to gain a measure of prosperity.”  He concludes his remarks by giving us a hand drawn map of the streets around the hotel with a restaurant marked on it and the advice to go there as it is the only place open.

As he mentions “restaurant” hunger grips us and off we go with our little map.  It is so dark with no street lights and we are slightly apprehensive. Three blocks from the hotel there is a faint glimmer of light from what looks like a storefront, yet there is no sign, no indication that it is a public place, but we have our map. Without light we cannot read it so we timidly go to the door and it is opened by a tall, black-coated man who gazes at us sorrowfully.  Are we in the wrong place ? Gradually he inches the door open and we step into a dim, pleasantly warm room with six tables graced with white tablecloths. Ah! We have found the restaurant.

He stiffly walks ahead of us and bows us to a table.  We are the only customers it seems.  Our quandary continues as we do not know how to order.  He gestures imperiously to a curtain and a young boy slides from behind the curtain and asks us “Food? “ We nod. “Alcohol?” We nod.  He disappears.  Reappearing with three thimble-sized glasses he pours a colorless liquid into the glasses and vanishes. It is Slivovitz … like drinking turpentine … D.L. and I  try not to sputter and spit it out and Josie knock hers back with a gasp.

“Remember when George Mraz was so thrilled by the shelves and shelves of booze in the Berkeley liquor store that he almost cried?” Josie asks as she drinks D.L.s left-overs.  George became a friend and we grouped together to teach him English, buy him some clothes, and teach him to drive Josie’s Volvo at three am when there were no other cars on the streets of Berkeley. He never learned to drive in Prague, was barely surviving, and we were rich Americans in his eyes. Funny, we did not feel rich as we had the usual debts … mortgage, car payments, children in college.  He recalled the beauty of Prague and got drunk on Slivovitz.

Our original waiter stands at attention near, but not too near, our table.  The boy reappears and asks “Music?” We all nod and an old, old man with a violin steps from another room and begins a lovely, lilting melody.  He nods to us, we nod to him, and the waiter approaches and holds out his hand. We look blankly at each other until comprehension floods across us … he is to be paid. How much? In what currency? Doyle takes out French, U.S. and Italian money. The waiter delicately picks out from the assembled money what is necessary and hands the rest back.

Dinner arrives with a first course of borscht soup.  Borscht made of beets, carrots, cabbage, onions and dill weed. It is a big, delicious bowl of soup served with crusty bread.  Both the boy and the waiter watch intensely every bite we take and once the boy licks his lips. The music plays, we eat, the waiter and the boy stand at attention and then with no ceremony the waiter comes to our table and gestures for money again.

Suddenly I realize that this is all the food they have, dinner is over, and we have eaten their dinner. I am truly horrified … the boy is so thin … the man is so thin … the musician is so thin.  What have we done? Shame fills us as we fill the hands of the waiter with as much cash money as we have on us. We  try to apologize but the waiter lifts his head, again imperiously, and gestures to the door.

We stumble out into the quiet, dark street and hurry back to the hotel.  I rush up to the clerk, who speaks English, and babble “Why didn’t you tell us they have so little food? We ate their little bit of food!”  Without a blink he smoothly says “They need your U.S. dollars and tomorrow they will go to the country and have the money to buy lots more food.  Everyone in this country has spent years being hungry and learning to deny their stomachs. Do not worry. They are happy with the money and will eat tomorrow.”  The three of us look at each other doubtfully as we remember going to bed without supper in our long ago childhood.

We go to Josie’s room to huddle and see what money we have left.  The decision to train around Europe while attending the wedding was based on each of us having a credit card with enough credit left on it to allow us to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip and return home with the dreaded “debt” word scrolling over our heads. Now we have given our cash to the restaurant and credit cards don’t work well here. Tomorrow we will have to approach the desk clerk with a request for funds … but now, too weary to care, we carry our distress for the hungry family and our distress for our lack of cash to bed with us. George’s longing for beautiful, civilized, Prague lies in the distant past.

We thought we were visiting the Czechoslovakia George described but in reality we were visiting the Czech Republic, a small, broken country recovering from decades of deprivation.

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