Monthly Archives: October 2010

A Tale of Two Canteens

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I know it might seem like I’m obsessed with food, what with the rohlik buying, the Czech Come Dine with Me (Prostřeno!) watching and the long list of provisions received from the grandmas on the trips to the village, but the way to a nation’s heart is through its stomach. 

The picture above is a of a Czech canteen or jídelna. They are something of a dying breed but it’s still possible to find them if you hunt around. This one is on Stčpanská, around a five minute walk from Karlovo Námčstí.

First culture shock: don’t expect a seat.  Do expect to stand elbow to elbow with a beer-bellied man in overalls as you chomp on your meat and dumplings.

There’s no table service here of course, and no English menu either. Czechman tells me (given the prices and his guts of iron he’s something of a regular) that he has heard the staff translating the options for the odd foreigner who has bravely strayed off the tourist trail of nearby Wenceslas Square in search of bargain grub.  In fact, perhaps the only place in Prague where no-one speaks English is the Foreign Police, the government department responsible for processing the visas and residence permits and therefore come into daily contact with and are required to communicate with as part of their job – guess who?  Foreigners.

That rant almost gave me indigestion. Forgive me. Anyway, here’s a taster (if you’ll pardon the pun) of those menu options: 

On my visit I opted for beef, spinach and potato dumplings. I’ll leave the detailed dining reviewing to those with more of a taste for it (and the bad puns just keep coming) but  as the saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s a visual image I’m sure some of you will never forget.

For those of you not accustomed to Czech food, this is pretty typical fare. Once having been used to mop up the thick gravy, the dumplings sink into your stomach like lead weights. They then sit there for the rest of the afternoon while your digestive system struggles to carry out the complex chemical reactions required to break them down.  Washing them down with a beer or two aids this process. 

They are comforting though, especially in winter. The quality I thought was no worse than you’d find in the average Czech pub although I’d rather pay that extra 20kc for the luxury of sitting down while eating.

This is a canteen (or should that be acanteen?) in Chelmsford, Essex. Like its Czech equivalent, there is a choice of soups on offer every lunchtime. Unlike its Czech counterpart, it also has salads along with a range of locally sourced organic fruit juices. And seats.  In case you find yourself missing the draft Gambrinus or men in overalls you can console yourself with a large mochachinolattinos and a huge piece of cake while leafing through a copy of the Guardian. 

Here’s a picture I took of the interior on my last visit:

The menu options are still written up on a board behind the counter and you still need to queue up but there the similarity with the typical canteen ends.  You see, this is a po-mo, retro dining experience.  Just check out those authentically rustic tables and chairs. That’s why you pay the same price for a coffee here as I did for my meat and dumplings on Stěpanská. 

Both places have their unique charms and before I get verbally assaulted in the comments sections, I certainly wouldn’t dare to suggest that one were ‘better’ than the other.  Just like England and Czechland.

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Czechs and style: some thoughts

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– I wish I’d never agreed to this.

– What do you mean?

– Saying I’d write a post about Czechs and their sense of style and posting that silly picture of myself wearing stripy pink socks with sandals.

– What’s the problem?  Let’s face it, with all the style crimes being committed here in Czechland on a daily basis you should have no shortage of material. Double denim – in shades that don’t match. Dodgy dyed or permed hair – or worse still, dyed and permed. Ponchos.

– Hey, I like ponchos.  I was actually thinking of knitting one.

 -No!  You can’t do fashion irony here.  That’s why vintage or retro will never really take off – because Czech grannies actually dress like grannies, not in Reebok tracksuits.  In a country where net curtains and kitsch china ornaments still proliferate, people just wouldn’t understand that you’re wearing your 1950’s floral print dress in a postmodern way.

– So what am I going to talk about?  I thought I might go out on the streets of Prague and take some photos of fashion criminals as evidence but I was afraid I might get smacked in the face.

-My main impression is that everyone looks a bit, well, scruffy, compared to back in England.

-I know!  I’ve noticed the same thing – and I always feel guilty when the thought crosses my mind, like I’m little Ms Spoilt and Western looking down on her poor Eastern European cousins.

-But they do look scruffier, don’t they?

-Yes, it’s undeniable.  Unless they’re off to the theatre for the evening and then unlike back home, jeans definitely won’t do.

-Or if they do look a bit smarter they’re wearing a ton of designer labels in a really showy way.

-They’re the Russians. Best not to mention them.

-Perhaps the best way of characterizing Czech style would be “sporty”. 

-You mean like this woman here?

-I thought you said you weren’t going to take any pictures?

-I didn’t. This woman has been singled out for praise by the style gurus at Prag Moon magazine.

-Oh God, are you serious?

-I know.  Their only real criticism is that she should wear a plain T-shirt instead of a stripey one.

-I think that’s the least of her worries.  What a mullet!  In certain parts of East London that hairstyle would be the height of hip.

-Perhaps we should stop this now.  I’m afraid I’ll be tracked down and stoned to death by thousands of stale housky.

-But I haven’t said anything about all those secondhand clothes shops where they sell the tired looking castoffs of spoilt and western English folk and where the things on display in the window never look ironed! Nor have I speculated on the reasons for the Czech indifference to fashion: namely the lack of choice and the fact that clothes are more expensive than in England despite the fact salaries are lower. I also didn’t get a chance to tell everyone about the time that I was complaining about the price of clothes here and Czechman’s sister suggested that I “try the Vietnamese”.  Not a shop, or a brand, you understand but a race.

-I think you should also confess that despite being a self-appointed style guru, as you write this you’re wearing a pair of graying tracksuit bottoms and an oversized T-shirt you won in a pub quiz.

-No.

-Go on, put in a photo of yourself, it’s only fair.

-No. I might scare people.

 

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