This is a nonfiction sketch/essay I wrote while at a cafe in Old Town on Monday afternoon. Just some more coherent, stylized thoughts on my time here thus far.
“Coffee Heaven,” off of Old Town Square in Praha 1.
It is Starbucks-ey, down to the “Frostitos,” a Czech version of the Frappuccino. Everything is in English.
I order my 53kč brewed coffee with milk, “Americano s mlekum,” in Czech, and the barista doesn’t reply to me in English. This is not the norm in Czech establishments, I have learned while offering my botched Český to numerous clerks and cashiers in the past few weeks. She asks if I would like a pečivo or sendvič, and I recognize enough to comprehend and stutter a ne. I do know a fair amount of Czech, but when put on the spot, all of it vanishes besides prosím, díky, ano, ne, and whatever is printed on the menu in front of me. Hloupá Američanka. My receipt is in English.
I add a dollop of honey to my Americano and pick a wooden chair at a small table with four in the mostly-empty back room. Its interior is all chestnut and cherry and plush white pleather chairs. The coffee may have been expensive, but it pleases me – tastes like good old watered-down, American coffee. Tastes like home. But unfortunately, despite their best efforts, nothing else in the place reminds me of anything I miss from home. Music is playing that sounds like Paul Simon, but I don’t think it is. There are cliché English quotes on one wall from Wordsworth, Bernard Shaw, Gandhi, “Ralph Waldo.” I am the only American here right now, and am surrounded by snippets of German and French and Czech conversation.
This isn’t a place I’d like to frequent. (Now, Frank Sinatra echoes throughout the calm, carpeted room.) But it will do for my first day of school, a caffeine pick-me-up, and a place to start reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am still waiting for my café, the seedy, hole-in-the-wall place, the type of place I frequented in Pittsburgh, somewhere I can sit reading for hours on one cup of coffee with endless refills and I don’t get the hairy eyeball from the baristas. A place that doesn’t feel distinctly American, overly American.
It is interesting how many places in Praha try to be American, over-using English, over-doing the American style and image, over-playing “American” music. I’ve noticed it most at cafes, like here and Bohemia Bagel. They have English names, American-ized interiors that attempt to make us expats (even temporary ones) feel at home. Even the prices are inflated, by Czech standards, to remind us of the culture we left.
On one hand, many Czechs despise us for coming here, being rich and privileged, able to drop 53kč on a cup of coffee. But on the other hand, our tourism, our still-strong dollar, our 53kč coffees keep their economy ticking. And on another hand still, all the young people here speak English, buy into the American culture, work at places like this, outfit themselves at stores like H&M and The New Yorker.
It often feels as if this country doesn’t really have an identity of its own right now; it doesn’t even have a proper name, really – “The Czech Republic” is quite a mouthful, even in the native language. But this country, this region, hasn’t had its own identity since the 1500s, really, when the Habsburgs came to the throne. Since then, it has been a series of occupations, Habsburgs, Nazis, Communists, with a nationalistic lull here or there; a Velvet democracy and hope for a positive Czechoslovak future in 1989, then the Slovak break-off in 1993, throwing Czech-specific identity back into the air again. They drink a lot of beer, and they have some pretty old buildings.
During the communist occupation, Czechoslovakia was all but sealed off from Western culture; American music wasn’t allowed, nor books, and TV broadcasts were produced by the government. This has led to a pervading sense of “we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.” It feels like people want to make sure they didn’t miss out on anything that happened during 1969-1989, so they are currently reliving and rehashing the 20 years of oft-terrible music and pop culture they missed while Red Russia was driving through Wenceslas Square in tanks. Evidence of this haste-to-catch-up is particularly everywhere the young people are – clubs, bars, cafes, shops, malls.
A multiple edged sword, Western culture is, for this post-communist Eastern European metropolis.
The Davy Crockett theme song now plays in the back room at Coffee Heaven. Somehow, that “king of the wild frontier” line just doesn’t echo here like it does at home.