No. 5 An Inadvertent Lunch Disaster: Prague

“You’d think that silence would be peaceful. but really, it’s painful.”
~ David Levithan
Snapshot No. 5 Not A Place For Vegetarians
What I’ve learned about Czech food:
1. It consists of meat + potatoes + beer
2. Salad? Nope. Unless it’s pickled cabbage.
3. Pivnice (pronounced Piv-neetz-chay) means that the restaurant is also a brewery, which in the eyes of a Czech makes it a worthwhile restaurant.
4. Beer is its own food group. No meal is complete without it.
5. Vegetarianism means that one simply eliminates meat from the typical meal; therefore, vegetarian meal = potatoes.
   After the walking tour, I made a mistake. Our guide was a very tall dark-humoured Czech guy with a big sense of Czech nationalist pride. “This,” he said, pointing at a metal sign on the side of the Round Tower in the Old Town Square, “is my great, great, great, great, great-grandfather’s name.” The sign was a commemoration of the 27 people who had died (horrible, brutal, bloody deaths that involved throwing out of windows onto spikes below, later decapitations, and viewings on the St. Charles Bridge. I did warn you that Prague has a dark history, right?) in that square due to a religious confrontation.
    “This means I am Czech through and through, and my family has been Czech for many, many centuries,” our guide continued, banging his fist on his chest, “I am proud to be Czech. I love this city.” We walked on. It seemed that in most of the places, our guide liked to tell us the most violent version of the story as possible. “It’s too early for this,” a friend I’d made on the walking tour said to me. I thought so too – a fascination with the macabre only went so far.
   When the tour was over, our guide mentioned a good restaurant nearby serving traditional Czech food, and I asked him about it, thinking that I’d go there later on my own or with the friends I’d made from the walking tour (USC students studying abroad in London, who bailed on me halfway through the tour. “We’re going to take a nap,” they said, “We’ll meet up with you later at the Old Town Square!”). “I’ll show you,” he said, “we’ll go after this.” I hadn’t realized that he usually took his tour groups there after the tour to have lunch together. He hadn’t realized that the people in our group were less keen on lunch and all split after the tour, save for one lovely French couple, who were studying in Paris and traveling on their spring vacation. We crossed the street and walked to a hidden restaurant, the entrance a stairway down to the basement where the restaurant was located. The place was dimly lit, cozy, with a bar to the left-hand side and a smattering of large wooden tables and stools all around. “Normally there are a lot of people here,” our guide pointed out, “usually the whole tour group comes.” By this time, I had realized my mistake, but it was too late to bail.
  “Ok, here are the options,” said our guide, after ordering us all much beer to start off with. The French girl declined the beer. “You don’t like beer?” our guide was incredulous. “You like wine?” She shook her head. “Soda? Water?” our guide was determined. “I’m alright,” she answered in a thick French accent, her “r’s” lilting and hidden, “No, I don’t drink.” “Ok,” our guide shrugged. “More for me. By the way, love that French accent in your English,” he said, smiling. Aaaarrrggghhhh. The awkwardness.
“My girlfriend and I are thinking of visiting Paris next month,” our guide attempted at small talk. The French man, who was so kind, nodded and smiled. Not much can be said past that, I suppose. Good for you? I like it there? Paris is lovely in the spring? Do you speak French? No? Well, then.
    “You study here?” the kind French man asked me. “No, in Denmark,” I said, “I’m there for a semester.”
    “Sorry to interrupt,” went our guide, putting his hand out, “but for food, here is what we have.” He counted off on his fingers, “roast pork, roast duck, roast chicken, lamb shoulder, pork cutlets, chicken soup.”
   A very timid me, who had scooted to the end of the bench at this point, lest there be any confusion about my understanding of the girlfriend, managed a nervous, “Is there anything for a vegetarian? Or perhaps anything with fish?”
    “You don’t eat meat?” our guide was once again floored. He was probably wondering how on earth he had gotten stuck with a lunch group where one person didn’t eat meat and another didn’t drink beer. How do they live? He was probably wondering. What do they eat?
   The French couple waited uncomfortably. I considered my escape options. I could “use the restroom,” but Prague was small enough that I was bound to run into the tour guide again at some point, regaling a tour group with gory stories of years past. Or I could feign an important meeting that I’d forgotten about, “Oh! I completely forgot! I’m meeting so-and-so at such-and-such, and never mind, I have to go!” with a mad dash to the door.
“Well….,” our tour guide dragged the word out, “there’s, um, a potato pancake with cheese, called Bramburra. It’s potato,” he repeated, looking at me warily as if waiting to confirm that I also did not eat this other essential staple of the Czech cuisine. “No, no that’s perfect!” I let out in one breath, “That sounds great. I’ll have that.” The French couple also released their breaths, and we all plastered on a tentative smile at the guide who looked like he needed another beer, though for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why. Maybe he gets stressed easily.
And so the pancake arrived, and thus began my two-day love-hate relationship with traditional Czech food: potatoes and more potatoes.

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