Illuminated faces by a golden or amber liquid, spume hung to the lips. Tongue clearing the whole thing. Behind the counter, this is an endless and sped-up video of the day, in a paradoxical slow-motion: steins get filled, two different taps, one for the foam, the other one for the golden brown liquid. Like a frappé they melt in a grading of colors behind the glass’s thickness where a too generous froth drips but soon will harden.
This could be anywhere. Yet this is in Prague. “Praha” in original version, from prah, threshold.
At its threshold, there is the beer, the national cliché: Czech people like to drink beer and quite a lot. It’s true, it’s here, the loosening of tongues at 5 pm, pint after pint, remaking the world. To “brew life like they brew beer” as journalists like to depict Bohumil Hrabal’s work, the famous Bohemian writer who used to get his materials right at the counter.
And often the visitor will stay at this door-step, foam disappearing on his lips. He came to Prague, the romantic bohemian capital, to the sound of Smetana’s Vltava, ate goulash and drunk beer. Far away from Prague’s guts, Apollinaire’s Czech songs or Michal Avjaz’s Other city, what he experiences is rather indigestion.
The queasy mumble of mixed ambient sounds, stew where the bread of our human skins absorb this soup, heavy on the body. Steins filled with the precious liquid, foam overflowing and waiters as rear-wipers wiping off our thirsts. The bawling and gaudy ad from TVs throwing at us sensational images in shreds, broken by the coming and going of visitors gliding between facades, bell towers and cobbled stones on this new locomotion mode—the Segway—hooking the consumer’s look up at his expense.
Conversations slide unbridled, hurtling down. The outside noise is on the doorstep of inner emotions, hitting its walls dangerously turned porous. “I just got the impression that it was another city, that it was Porto”, says someone in the tumult. Standardization of spaces grow up : same souvenirs (postcards, t-shirt, mugs), same activities (cartoons, hot wine, wax museum and other torture, beer and ghosts museums), same food (Mc Do, KFC, Starbucks). Prague is like any other.
One tries to lure us into a restaurant where traditional dishes cost three times the usual price. “Ce n’est pas une bonne question,” says an old man in French around a turn—he owns the antiquarian shop behind him— “il faut juste regarder si ça vous plaît et entrer.” He is half-right. But nothing attracts us here where ATM are more frequent than trees, glued to shops – the aim and the mean.
When you go just a bit further though—a train trip, a walk in the mountains, a walk to the supermarket—when you pass this threshold, you’ll see different images, maybe clichés too, but abandoned in the shade of golden beers and bright castles. Clichés of an everyday life. More than monuments, these mere objects or habits are the one that weave and inhabit the country and its people.
Here follows then a little clichés’ gallery:
Taking different shapes, the most popular one—the rohlík—has an oblong body, cream and golden brown on its surface, white inside and the same spiral of dough as a croissant. It is usually bought in big quantities (10, 20, 30!) and transported to home in transparent plastic bags.
Czech are so lazy that they don’t bother cutting the little bread in half to make a sandwich: they spread directly on its bottom (the flat surface) butter, cheese and other hams or pâtés.
But it is also this simple and banal bread that is transformed into a great dish of chlebíčky or amuses-bouche, small rounds pieces of bread spread with different pomazánky or longer slices with pieces of vegetables and meat, like small sculptures waiting to be swallowed.
Another curved shape, not to be eaten. In wood, metal or plastic, it is always here, somewhere, hidden behind a door or by a window. It doesn’t have anything special at all, it is just convenient. A convenience that we forgot in some other places where it does not exist. Hooking up coats and scarves anywhere: train, bar, theater, school, restaurant. Shell or silhouette of people, coats have here a place to stay too.
Again, a curved shape. A surprising one this time. A small loop at its base and no line across the vertical line as we are used to. Only to be seen and maybe felt, on paper. But not in books, just in the hands of a student, a tourist writing postcards, a doctor doing a prescription, a teacher teaching the alphabet. The same Latin alphabet, with the souvenir of some Old German’s font, making the letters more foreign, more attractive maybe.
This one has a straight shape, no curve at all except for the one of the trails it encounters. The name suggests some discovery, visit or consumption. This one only allows a specific kind of consumption—and a rather frequent one in Czech Republic- the one of mountains. Helping to relieve high hills‘ pain for the hiker and go further…Perhaps…Actually the object sometimes looks more like a dress code than anything efficient: all Czech seem to wear technical hiking clothes and poles when they go outdoor such as they all wear a dress or a tie when they attend a theater show. Hiking is there a popular activity and has its own codes, including clothes and accessories.
No shape at all for this last piece of everyday life. No shape because it has no existence. The soft sound repeating itself against your hear. Endless. Endless until you press the red button. There are no answering machine on Czech phones. The ringtone loses itself in the expectation. Why not. He, you, they will call back.
He might be at the pub, drinking a beer or two…