I was recently in Prague to judge in a beer contest. Prague has a warm spot in my heart and I’ve been there many times, the last time being exactly ten years ago. The first time was over thirty years ago on a school trip and later I travelled here for Bier&cO (because we imported Pilsner Urquell). Me wandering through Prague, between the judging rounds, turned out to be a “trip down memory lane”. As Brian May put it so eloquently: “memories, my memories / how long will you stay / to haunt my days.”
Climbing the hill on which the imposing Prague Castle “Pražský Hrad” sits takes considerable physical effort and so my manager can be happy again. To my great joy “In the Black Bull” still exists and, better, it is unchanged. Here, thirty years ago, I drank with my schoolmates our first glasses of Pilsner Urquell, after visiting the beautiful monastery Loretta which is just beyond the castle complex. After having seen the “Prague Sun” (a monstrance decorated with thousands of diamonds that even we seventeen year olds found pretty impressive) we moved into the Bull: a more classic Prague beer bar is not to be found. Long wooden benches and tables, coats of arms on the wall, and the only things they sold was light or dark beer, sausage and vodka.
Occasionally a neighbor shuffled in with a jar that was filled on the spot, paid for and taken away: growlers are not a modern thing. It happened again now: the pub was filled with loudly smoking, drinking and laughing locals while a young woman pulled off a pitcher of beer. I ate a fried sausage with fries for less than two euros. The pint perfectly poured, farm-fresh Kozel cost me a euro seventeen. On the table opposite me an enchanting young couple were arguing in a way they thought no one realized it and so everyone followed it furtively. Locals came in and went, an empty place did not stay unoccupied long.
Three Asian tourists fluttered in, failed to connect with the staff and drifted out again. Someone fell off his chair. My glass was nearly empty so the waiter put a fresh, foaming tankard in front of me. I asked for another sausage. The quarreling couple ran out of cigarettes so several guests offered them a smoke. The glasses on the long tables that were almost empty were replaced without anyone ordering anything by the waiter, who then put a new mark on the coaster of the respective guest. The only way to stop this process is to place your coaster on top of your glass – otherwise each nearly empty glass is automatically replaced by a fresh, full one. Another man fell of his chair. My second sausage came, and I ate it. A fight threatened to break out at another table between two burly-looking guys who were incited by their table companions – the waiter ended it with two harsh words, after which the quarrelers forgave each other, kissed and made up. With one hand the waiter then served six fresh pints of foamy beer.
Two Italians came in and sat – partly – in the wrong place: if you see a glass without a clear owner, you can assume that he is urinating. Unceremoniously the returning local displaced the couple by simply falling in between them and his mates – thankfully they were slender Italians, so the whole party still fitted on the bench. The waiter came by with ten full glasses and put a mark on my coaster. The Italians asked for the menu and were presented with an unfried sausage after a minute – then the waiter pleased the crowd by performing some suggestive, if not obscene, tricks with it. The Italians declined the honor. The quarreling couple was offered new cigarettes: it seemed to come to a good end between them and the locals did their best to further facilitate it. There is so much misery in the world already, after all.
Then those same three Asians were back. Weird: when we were here in 1986, there were also Asians inside, but those were Vietnamese exchange students who knew the local mores by heart, and they had learned some pretty boozing, we quickly saw. As for us, we kept quiet: that’s because Dirk did not drink alcohol (he got water because The Bull had no cola) and Ingeborg sipped from her glass but she was more of a sweet, white wine type. Thus Bart, Makis and I were drinking for five. Water drinkers were not known in then Czechoslovakia then so we drank five glasses between the three of us. Which were promptly refilled, naturally. We felt great anyway, us high school students sitting in a local bar in a communist country, drinking at two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, while the rest was studying back home. Ingeborg – she had only adopted that name recently, before she simply was ‘Inge’ – incidentally, was heartbreakingly beautiful, with the same reddish hair like me, only she had it luxuriant – and not just her hair. Blue gray eyes that were always smiling and a rump like a cathedral. Classically, quietly and desperately in love I was, and so I did not complain of having to drink her beer – though it did not impress her, as she rather had Greek. And I dared not try to change her mind, buffoon I was.
For the umpteenth time the guy fell from his chair and by now the waiter had had enough. The Italian young lady had found a bag of Alitalia peanuts in her purse and, under grudgingly consent of the waiter, was nibbling away nut per nut. The quarrel on the other side of “The Black Bull” threatened to erupt again and without any more ado the waiter put the two men out. A woman wearing a shabby apron carried a fried sausage in which proved ordered by no-one – a misunderstanding with the ribald waiter – and she finally looked at me, quizzically, but I knew what had taken place with that sausage so I let pass this opportunity. Besides, I had already had two and moderation is my motto these days. The quarreling couple’s girl stood up and gestured that she was going to go to the toilet. A good listener saw that she was not going to come back after her pee. The young man, however, took a deep breath and one could see him make a rapid analysis of the situation, based on which he jumped to the wrong conclusion, because at a certain moment his face brightened and he began to – quite confidently – look around, obviously ready to start whistling a tune.
To their utter shock, the Italians got two fresh beers in front of them, and two stripes on their coasters. The waiter pretended he was mad while the two started to whisper just a little too loud with each other, trying to figure out how they could escape the new beers and coaster markings. Within minutes their marriage was about to come to a grinding stop – they were about to have a physical go at each other, as only Italians can, but thus came no closer to a solution to their problem. When they were just about to explode the Czech boy from the quarreling couple generously offered to take over their beers and coaster markings – his newly found self-confidence made him overconfident, but that he did not know yet. The Italians thanked him abundantly and after the waiter had carried out the necessary administrative actions with several beer coasters, they went their way.
Again a fresh mug of beer landed in front of me, and the waiter launched himself in a desperate conversation with the Asians which was mainly conducted in sign language. The Asians wanted to pay their bill of ninety-nine crowns but turned out to only have notes of five thousand, something for which the change of the Black Bull was apparently not prepared. All guests kept themselves dumb. I also let them muddle through for a while because I kind of enjoyed this distraction, but eventually put an end to everyone’s misery by exchanging the Asian’s banknote in smaller denominations which the waiter could handle. We must have been bowing as cutting knives to each other for at least two minutes and I do not know exactly where, but somewhere in the world, I now have three lifelong friends who are eager to help me out of trouble whenever I need it. The glass of the Czech boy was by now already half empty and his face slowly began to show a frown.
How would Ingeborg be today, I thought, as I put on my coat and paid my bill that amounted to five euros and seventy-nine cents (or thereabouts). Her eyes will definitely still be laughing constantly and she will never lose her shiny hair. And even if her rump today is only half as magnificent as it was then, she’d still make it into the Dutch rump top five easy. But did anyone pray at that altar, and if so, whom? The sun was still shining exuberantly when I stepped out and Google told me exactly what I wanted to know. I noticed I involuntarily wanted to walk back inside, back into the Black Bull and to the young man – who by now surely must have understood what his situation was in reality. I wanted to give him an encouraging pat on the back and then launch ourselves into an epic drinking session – damn those women! I managed to fight that inclination off and halfway through my walk, descending from the castle hill and towards the dozing Moldau river, I saw her sitting and crying on a stone. I quickened my pace.