NOTES ON READING FROM THE AUTHOR:
This essay is part of a collection centered on the intersection of geography and identity, an intersection no less central to the essay as an independent body of writing. I began unfolding “Island in the City” through thinking about my relationship with food and drink in Prague, Czechia, being someone who kept a consistent (but not strict) diet there, full of things I enjoyed. But to call this a “food essay” would detract from the aspect of food’s ability to bring people together—and, as I explore here, its ability to make them see the ways in which they might be alone.
WHERE’S YOUR FAVORITE AND/OR STRANGEST PLACE TO WRITE?
I write most comfortably around books. I can write at home, of course, because of the ready access to my own bookshelf—I also write productively in libraries and bookstore cafés, and I think that maybe something about being around books, whether the room is quiet or not, just helps me focus on filling a mental space with words because the physical space is filled with words. I suppose there’s nothing strange about that, but maybe it’s a pathological quirk for me.
Island in the City
ONE SUMMER WHEN I WAS IN PRAGUE, I visited Vaclavské naměstí, Wenceslas Square, almost every day for the Vaclavske klobasa: the Wenceslas sausage. It wasn't the average sausage found in Prague, which is typically served with a single slice of bread and a dipping portion of Czech mustard. Instead, this sausage was around eight or nine inches long, served up in a bun an inch or two shorter than the link. You could buy it from street vendors at any one of three or four stands on the square, ordering the Menu (meal #) 1 or by saying klobasa prosím, which gets you the sausage and a 20 oz. Coke for 85Kč, or about $4.50.
I visited one of these stands every day, but not just for the sausage. It was the Czech mustard, you see. Czech mustard is some kind of meticulous and mysterious blend of yellow and honey mustard, beautiful and impeccable proportions of both potency and sweetness hitting the palate at once; it's the best mustard I've ever had in my life.
I hope, someday, to bring some of this mustard back to the U.S. I hope to hoard it in my baggage and store it in my fridge and use it slowly, sparingly, until it's all gone.
At these stands you can also order a Pilsner Urquell, large or larger, to go with your sausage. And they have other Coke brands as well: Diet, Sprite, Fanta. If it isn't the sausage you want you can eat the bramboračky (potato pancakes) or the Czech favorite: fried cheese as a mozzarella patty, sometimes naked, sometimes on a bun. It's the Czechs' most popular food, in all its fried, stringy, artery-clogging eloquence.
A professor of mine at Charles University once told my class about the particulars of Czech dining—that sixty-five percent of the four to six million tourists who visit Prague every year say beer is their first motivation for visiting, that even the locals choose restaurants at which to dine based on beer price, and that, if you're a good Czech, you don't eat for the nutrition. You eat to enjoy the taste of the food and to get fat around the belly.
To enjoy a meal without counting its calories is to be a good Czech. To get fat around the belly means you've enjoyed a meal, and therefore life, and this also makes one a good Czech. “The fatter the better,” my professor would say, to give a meal its merits. And it wasn't that Czechs were just discounting nutrition or enjoying hedonistic life. They want a belly, he'd say, in order to be prepared for any future famine and despair.
IN PRAGUE ONE WINTER I found that many of the vendors on Vaclavské naměstí had closed for the season, making it impossible for me to get to the one or two regular vendors I visited for my klobasa the past summer. In the summer this was my most Czech ritual: visiting a vendor while being prepared to pay for food with little to no nutritional value, only because it's an easy and enjoyable meal. It was easy to buy the klobasa and Pilsner, then grab a bench and eat as I watched the pedestrian traffic pass by.
In winter, though, I can't lounge. The cold is too sharp here for that. There are little stands in the square for shelter, little silver towers with roofs overhead to guard from falling rain or snow, but they're unheated. I remove my gloves to hold the sausage, and it doesn't take much time for my fingers to begin to inch in movement or feel sharply cold. Because of this there's no time for beer, and I settle for a Fanta instead because at least I can put the cap back on the bottle when I'm finished eating, place it in my bag, and keep on walking, either to the Můstek station or to a bookstore on the square for some warmth.
In reality, is Prague any colder than Chicago in winter? Perhaps because it's farther from the Equator? Probably not, but something feels colder here. The air somehow pierces right through my clothes. I find myself blowing out more little bursts of air as a reaction to the cold. Or, perhaps, as a reaction to my imagination of the cold.
I AM ALSO ALONE HERE IN WINTER, and because I am alone I’m silent and wandering and all there is to think about is the state of my mind and my body, which feels like an island here. In winter, I'm not talking with a group of friends in the street or on the sidewalk as often. I'm bundled up and I therefore feel less free to move. I must huddle into comfort. Maybe the ability to move is the reason I'm more okay with visiting the square in the summer than in the winter—lounging when you're an island is an easier thing to do when the air isn't out to get you.
There's a place here called Ouky Douky, and I've come here every day during my winter visit. I first found it when I studied abroad here in college, stumbling onto it when I was exploring the Prague 7 neighborhood on foot and, just down the hill from the pension I lived in, I found what looked from the outside like a used bookstore. It's only half a bookstore, though—one room is dedicated to shelves full of Czech books (though one small section holds books in English), and the other room is a café for eating, drinking, smoking.
I like Ouky Douky because it's filled with young people and most of the music they play is in English—it’s popular American music I can recognize, although some of the artists are British or Swiss or from some other country whose pop music is sung in English. At its basic, this place feels like a home inside of Prague. It isn't known for harboring burgeoning intellectuals, like the Café Slavia or the Narodní třida (National Theatre), but it's filled with students doing homework and twenty-somethings on dates and groups of young people just smoking and drinking and talking. And it feels good to be around that. I'll read a book while drinking a large beer or order a ham sandwich and play around on the Internet. Sometimes, I'll use the place to get serious reading or writing done. It's a nice atmosphere to wind down in, or a nice place to bring a friend who hasn't seen it before.
Even this place, though, is a falling back on my Americanness. The servers, all young and attractive, speak English, and the menu is half in English and even some of the clientele speak English, and while this puts me at ease, it feels as if I'm just taking advantage of my American position. I smile lots here, tip better than is customary, and order in Czech when I know how, but I can't help but think every time I walk through the door that the servers are thinking the American is back again. I can’t help thinking they're a bit frustrated with my lack of Czech fluency or my sitting alone (which they might consider loitering), because I don't seem as pleasant to deal with, as a loiterer, as all the people who come in with their friends and lovers. I try not to let my paranoia show. I bring out my politest self when I enter the café, managing to grab a seat under the guise of my being welcome here. I need to have confidence in my ability to feel welcome.
DURING RECENT VISITS TO PRAGUE, I've been thinking about the way I've been eating, not just as an omnivore but as someone who often travels alone. Beginning with my omnivorism: Like most people, I assume, I'm trying to fill my plate with foods I’ll enjoy, because I'm no longer being fed by my mother and father and I don't have to worry about what they put on my plate.
I'm looking for something to change, though. Something on principle. Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer (in Eating Animals) or Roger Scruton (in “A Carnivore's Credo”) don't have me converting to vegetarianism, but they do get me thinking about my diet and how to turn it to one of a higher moral and ethical stance—one where I've considered the treatment of the food by all parties involved, and, in effect, the treatment of my body by the food itself. I've given up burgers from fast food restaurants, for instance, not because I don't enjoy their taste but because I want to believe I'm treating both myself and the cattle involved better by not giving those restaurants my money. I'll be happy to get locally-procured beef, or beef from a place that doesn't procure it from some factory farm where cattle are squished together in unimaginable distress. “The onus,” Roger Scruton writes, “lies on the carnivore to show that there is a way of incorporating meat into a life that does not shame the human race,” and I've been trying, for a while now, to be a little less shameful by way of my diet.
I've been doing this since the first time I studied in Prague, when a classmate told me that, for ideological reasons, he was only a vegetarian in the U.S., which I never questioned. Something clicked with me then, and ever since I've looked for clever and inexpensive ways to make me feel more virtuous about the way I choose my meats. I began eating more seafood. Buying veggie burgers. I tried to stop eating anything on four legs for a while, but failed at this, because I like pork. I learned that everything I attempted to quit cold turkey showed me what it was I wanted to keep in my diet.
On days I don't cheat (i.e., when I'm not drunk), I manage to cut my diet to one serving of meat per day. It makes me think, every morning, about which meal I'll want to include meat in and which meat I'll want to eat, and something about this choosiness is exciting. I'm reducing my meat consumption, contributing less to the meat industry, and adhering to a principle—one that sometimes feels an awful lot like riding a high horse.
As I begin to think about my eating habits here, I also begin to think about how often I eat alone. I know my solitary self very well, and I know how I act when I'm single: I fall into typical bachelor behavior, knowing I'm the only one I have to look out for. I eat inexpensive foods, cook nothing too fancy for myself, and overall I let myself be a far from picky eater.
Maybe this is why I run so often for the sausage in Prague. I think about my taste buds and nothing else, knowing that, because I'm not just single here but also alone, I can neglect thoughts of anything else. Eating is an act that feels so much different when you're alone—you get to think about taste over healthy choice, perhaps not just because you're only looking out for numero uno, but because you're trying, somehow with the tastiness of food and drink, to quell a sense of loneliness.
I've thought about the way I drink, too. While I waited until twenty-one to become a drinker, the few years following my birthday were anything but principled: Essentially, I got drunk on my twenty-second birthday, and I stayed drunk for half a decade. I grossly mistreated my friends and myself. I partied plenty, both with company and alone. I tested myself with science: I now know that my cut-off points are at either eleven beers, two bottles of red wine, or sixteen shots (I managed fourteen of vodka and two of whiskey one night). I've gotten in arguments that ended in wrestling. I once tried to back a friend’s car out of a parking lot and into a tree. I've fallen asleep on the city bus and woken up in the suburbs. I've fallen halfway into a manhole. I've taken multiple taxis home, thinking I was using public transit.
These moments can only be funny because I survived them. But when I look back at them I'm saddled with guilt, because of the possibility that any of these things could have gone frightfully wrong.
Now there’s no science, and there are no manholes, but I’ve still tried to be critically reflective about how I drink socially. My social anxiety had me over-drink for years, when I tried very hard to convince myself that more beer, more shots, or more wine would put me at ease, would make me less afraid to be around a body of others. But in truth, my anxiety came to show me I just wasn’t drinking around the right others.
I’ve come to enjoy a Belgian White or two, or a honey whiskey on the rocks after a meal, not just because they’re nice digestives but because they make time for slow conversation. I’ve learned to drink this way not just in the U.S. but in Prague, and I find myself surprised, in retrospect, by the fact that Prague’s cozy pub atmosphere never had its way with me when I was younger and looking for a way to settle myself into the city.
BEER CULTURE IS A SOURCE of immense pride for Czechs, my ex-professor, Petr, explained to me during a visit to his office. He explained that the collectivity of any nation depends in part on having something that they're the best at or can identify with, and for the Czechs, it's beer. He called their beer culture an “ambiguous culture,” like America's gun culture, in that “it might ruin some families and so on, but at the same time it has some positive issues.” I think that America's gun culture probably disrupts more lives than the Czechs' beer culture, but I agree with him on pride.
Czechs consume about 140 liters of beer per person per year, he told me. But “it's not just drinking,” he said. “It's also paintings on the wall in a pub which tells you that drinking beer is the best thing you can do in the world. It's the idea of a pub like your local home. Like something where you receive just positive things, OK. You come for a beer and they bring you a tasty beer. But the same thing, in contrast to a real home: they never put any unpleasant things or difficult, challenging things up in you, and so on. All of these local pubs, they're based on these home-like feelings—that these people sit at the same tables, the same chairs, day after day, and they are recognized by the waiters or waitresses as distinctive, unique individuals. Most of these regular-goers, each of them has a specific mug of a certain shape or a certain sticker attached on the mug, OK. And the waiter brings beer to the person in his or her mug. So you have these domestic-like qualities of these local pubs here, and, as I'm saying, in contrast to a real home, you don't have these negative feelings which exist in real homes.”
“What do you mean when you say 'real home'?” I asked, as if there could be such a thing as a fake home. Homes are constructed, I thought, and therefore always real to the people who build them.
“A pub is kind of pseudo-home, or virtual home,” Petr said. “But by 'real home' I mean the real apartment or the house you're living in, and the real family people, and so on. And this pub company is kind of fake family, OK. It's people whose histories and records you know, but in contrast to a real family, you can choose the topics you want to talk about, and so on.
“In a real family, you need to talk all the topics,” he said, “even unpleasant topics. You know, lack of money or infidelities or whatever. In a pub company, you're talking just the positive topics, or, if negative topics, it's again this kind of shared opinion, OK, that all people there, say, complain about the politics and all of them agree that politics is a big shit, OK. So it's just this kind of pleasant existence, and that's why, I guess, beer is such a big issue.”
I thought about the TV show Cheers. I thought about Euro-American kitsch, the kind found in chain cafés like Panera or at a Barnes and Noble, which have paintings all around showing off people from a beautiful era being beautiful and happy and perfect together. Even the image of this doesn't feel fake, though—it doesn't feel like an unbelievable thing in Prague to see pub families. When I'm here I'm even guilty of frequenting the same pubs and restaurants, where the staff may not know my name but they know my face, and they know what I want to drink because I order it over and over again. I wasn’t a regular anywhere when I lived in Chicago, and if I found myself at a bar alone to stare into space or at a wall, I didn't feel surrounded by family. Even a fake one.
I feel an obligation to build this “pub family” when I'm in Prague; maybe it would help me feel more welcome here. I feel like I should be talking to young strangers about new wonderful films they've seen or upcoming concerts or what the best items on the menu are—anything that isn't inhibited by a barrier of language. And I could build this pub family by using drink, because drink, like food, is often a communal experience, enjoyed in the space of guttural laughter and jovial conversation, and I never do enough here to join in communal experience. I'd be a bit more virtuous if I contributed to a pool of pleasantries established by camaraderie.
THERE WAS A YOUNG STREET VENDER standing in the cold at a food stand in Staroměstske náměstí, Old Town Square, on a night when I was looking for klobasa in a bun. A couple of the stands I'd visited in Vaclavské náměstí were closed for the winter season, but they mentioned “partner” stands that could be found in other parts of the city center. Perhaps I'd found one here, I thought. So I walked up to the man at the counter, and he grew a smug smile knowing he'd hooked me, the tourist or the student or whoever he thought I was because I was obviously not from around here. The hood on his black and gray winter jacket was tight over the rounds of his face, and when I looked at him I saw both youth and confidence.
He gave me a quick run-down of the menu: He had various sausages, all of which were in plain view on the grill in front of me, as well as desserts and beers in a mini-fridge, and hot plum wine in something that looked like a Crock-Pot. I told him I'd take a klobasa, pointed to the one that looked the tastiest and most familiar, and he smiled, nodded, and placed it in a bun, adding my mustard and serving it to me with his big grin. I said my thank you, then walked to a semi-heated table near the stand to eat and watch the tourists take pictures in the square, posing in front of buildings and in front of the fountain in the middle, and I remembered how it felt for the square to be that new to me.
The first time I came to Prague, my class had gone to the square, walking from Karlův most to Staroměstske náměstí, to see what I think was a Dalí exhibit. We were shown Prague's Astronomical Clock for the first time, and told about its beauty and precision, and the legend behind its maker's eyes being burned out with an iron so that he could never make another. We crossed the square, and though I'm sure there were tourists taking their pictures then, all I could do was keep looking back at the clock as I walked, knowing I'd never seen a clock so old in my life.
When I finished my sausage I went back to the stand for some wine. It was cold out, and not only did I want to feel a buzz, but I wanted the warmth that came from holding a hot drink in my hand as I walked. Plum wine would do.
The young man asked me what I was doing in Prague. I lied to him. I told him I was studying literature here and would leave at the end of spring, and I lied because I'd felt defeated by the smug smile that made it seem like he knew he got me, the American, to pay more for a klobasa in Staroměstske náměstí than I would have somewhere else in the city because I didn't know what I was doing here, and I'd pay for any novelty I saw.
It wasn't the young man's victory, I thought. It was mine, because I got my mustard and my wine and I tricked him into thinking I was new to this place by approaching him and then saying that, by virtue of studying here, I was better than the people who stood behind me taking pictures, and that I knew he didn't trick me into paying more for my klobasa.
But he did win. Because I did pay more. And I did it because I love that damn mustard—that mustard that is always so good and so new to me, new every time I taste it, because it's not what's in the States and because I'm enough of a glutton to take the bait every time.