Joining fifty thousand others in the Old Town Square it occurred to me that I perhaps wasn’t the first fearless adventurer to discover Prague. Inexplicably there were however some free tables at an outdoor café in the middle of the square. I settled into a comfortable, shaded seat and ordered a beer. The famous pilseners of the Czech Republic are… I think the scientific term is ‘fucking amazing’… so I had three.
A large, well-dressed waiter with shiny fake hair materialised from nowhere at the exact moment I waved for the bill. “Certainly sir. That will be 27 Euros”.
“Sorry, um… what?”
“That’s right sir”, said the gentleman smugly.
I wished I hadn’t quite finished my beer, so I could have choked on it in astonishment, spraying a fine pilsener mist all over his face. This was a few years ago when a Euro was still worth something and Eastern Europe was still cheap(ish). I noticed then that the menus didn’t include prices. The availability of tables at this cafe may not have been entirely inexplicable after all.
Mr Smug as a Lug in a Rug took my money and wished me a good morning. I fought my way back through the crowd, past the 37 Bohemia Crystal stores and out of the square, into the narrow alleyways of old Prague.
Applying the sort of logic and reason that comes with a three-beer breakfast I decided to try my luck once more – this time in a proper Czech pub. Soon I found a quaint little pub with a quaint little beer garden which was, aside from me, devoid of tourists. Actually there were no customers at all and inside was thick with marijuana smoke. A very relaxed looking dude appeared behind the bar.
“Smells good in here,” I said in my friendliest, most approving tone.
The young bartender stiffened. He looked me up and down, paused thoughtfully for a second, then relaxed again and gestured that I sit at the bar. He asked where I was from and where I was going, as bartenders do. I told him I was an Australian living in Korea. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing more, and poured me a delicious Czech beer… for one Euro.
I told him about my 9-Euro pints. His eyes rolled slowly but in a sympathetic kind of way. We chatted a while. I finished my beer and he immediately replaced it, waving away my attempt to pay while casually sliding an old tobacco tin across the bar. It didn’t contain tobacco. Only he and I were enjoying this particular Tuesday morning in the little pub, and he gave me a reassuring look.
“Help yourself,” he said. So I did.
He asked me about myself some more while I carefully rolled a sticky cigarette, then offered his lighter across the bar. The morning had definitely taken a turn for the better. Then, as if an old and trusted friend, he told me to watch the bar for a few minutes while he ran an errand. The young man assured me that nobody would come in, probably, and that if they did I should just pour them a beer. Then he thanked me for my help and walked out.
So… on my first day in the Czech Republic I am entirely alone drinking a beer and smoking a joint in an abandoned pub somewhere in Prague.
‘What the fuck is going on?’ I sensibly asked myself. Was this some kind of set up? Surely not. Nobody who knew me knew where I was. Was I the unwitting star of some weird European, hidden-camera reality show? I mean, why the hell would a bartender give a perfect stranger free beers and a tin of weed, then leave? My first instinct was to run. I hadn’t finished my beer though, or my smoke, and decided to just sit there and see what the hell happened next.
Sure enough, nobody entered the bar, and ten minutes later my new friend casually strolled in and thanked me for my help. The lunchtime crowd began filling beer garden. He asked if I was hungry. I said I could probably eat. He shouted something in Czech and an attractive young woman appeared, nodded and disappeared. Another young man was now out in the beer garden, taking lunch orders and laughing heartily. The bar was still empty, more or less.
My new friend causally poured another two beers and again refused payment. He rolled another joint, gestured that I should do the same, then asked again about my earlier misfortune in the Old Town Square. I told him what I thought of that big wigged douchebag, and that I could only blame myself for falling for the tourist scam. He said price gouging was the norm in such places. I knew this. Then he opened another couple of beers and mumbled something about ‘following the rules’.
The young girl from the kitchen reappeared, smiled, placed a pizza on the bar in front of me, smiled again and left. I waited politely for my stoned friend to take a slice before taking one myself.
“No, I’ve eaten. This is for you,” he said. “But first, let me show you something”.
He led me out into the little beer garden, with its plants, water features, random pottery and shaded wooden tables. His energetic colleague was bounding from table to table, taking orders, laughing, joking and flirting with the customers. The beer garden was swelling with the lunchtime tourist crowd.
“What do you notice?” the bartender asked me.
It took me a few seconds. It was the lunchtime menu, painted in large happy letters on the wall of the beer garden. There were no prices. The bartender gave me a wink and we went back inside.
Old Town Square, Prague