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Czech your manners at the door

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Seventeen-year Prague resident Eva Munk’s a regular on the stools of the city’s hospodas, but she wasn’t always a Czech pub natural. Here, Munk recalls the evening her fiancé threw her to the wolves.

Seconds after I walked into a hospoda—a Czech pub—for the first time, I walked right back out.

It wasn’t because the place hadn’t been aired out since Lenin had curls, but because as I stood at the door waiting to be seated, I was blindsided by the mug-laden headwaiter.

“Heads up!” he barked as he disappeared into the haze without even bothering to ask how many were in my party. I turned on my heel and left.

“You sure showed him,” Lubos, my pub-dwelling fiancé, remarked. “Your problem,” he continued, “is that you have girly expectations.”

“I do not have girly expectations,” I rejoined.

“OK,” he said, “answer me this: Have you ever, in a pub, ordered a Diet Coke?” I shut my mouth mid-retort.

“It was on the menu,” I admitted, pushing the waiter’s ill-concealed sneer to the back of my mind.

“So was salad, I’m sure, but you wouldn’t think of ordering that in a pub, would you? Would you?”

I shrugged: “He drew the line at dressing on the side.”

“Oh my God,” Lubos groaned. This is how I got a crash course in hospoda etiquette.

“Keep in mind,” Lubos lectured, “that guys go to a hospoda for two things: beer and women.”

“Baloney,” said I. “Hospodas are smoky, loud, overcrowded and the service is surly. No right-thinking woman would set foot in there.”

“Precisely,” Lubos said. “Plus, the beer is so good even Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright couldn’t resist it.”

“She’s a woman,” I pointed out.

“We make exceptions for Secretaries of State,” he said grandly. “But generally, Czech guys go to pubs to drink beer with other guys.”

“So what you’re saying is that, as a woman, I have no place in a pub?” I riled.

“Don’t get in a kerfuffle,” he said. “Go, but follow guy rules.”

“Like getting decked by the waiter at the door?”

“That was your first mistake,” he said, lifting a finger, “hovering by the door, waiting to be seated. Nobody cares where you sit.”

“What if I really can’t find a table?”

“Can’t happen,” Lubos said. “We guys share tables. Just step up and ask: ‘Hello, is this seat taken?’ You’ll get an affirmative grunt. But don’t assume that sharing a table with a guy means he wants to talk to you. Try saying ‘na zdravi’ when your beer comes, but if all you get in response is another grunt, let it be.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,“ I said.

Lubos sighed. “Ordering,” he said. “You always screw it up. The instant you open your mouth, you lock horns with the waiter.”

“Enlighten me, please,” I said, trying hard to sound sarcastic. But in my heart of hearts, I knew he spoke true.

“Once you’re seated, the waiter will give you a menu. When he comes back, you must be ready to order. And don’t dither over side dishes: He’s got enough problems of his own, and he’ll just bring you whatever’s on the menu anyway.”

“So just point and hope?” I asked.

“Exactly,” Lubos said. “After all, food is but an anchor for the fundamental—”

“Beer,” I said.

“Beer,” he agreed. “When you sit down, the waiter will bring you a mug of it, and continue to do so whenever the level drops below one inch, ad infinitum.”

“Can he be stopped?” I asked.

“Tricky,” he said. “You have to be faster: Ask for the check before he brings you another beer. And tip while paying. Leaving money on the table earns you a frown from the headwaiter.”

“What won’t?” I wondered.

“Nah, they’re good guys,” Lubos said. “I saw one grin once…”

“Anything else?” I asked.

Lubos considered: “One day you may be invited to join the stamtish, the table of regulars. Do not take this lightly. Be humble, follow the rules and, in time, you might even get away with ordering girly stuff.”

I took his advice and, years later, having earned my seat at the stamtish of our village hospoda, I took the ultimate risk.

Looking the headwaiter levelly in the eye, I said, “Diet Coke, please.”

The table went silent as, cocking an eyebrow, he said, “Of course.”

Two tense minutes later he was back, bearing high a tray with a regular Coke, a glass and a bottle of club soda. Ceremoniously, he placed the glass in front of me, filled it half full of Coke and topped it off with club soda.

“Diet Coke for Madame,” he said, and the room exhaled. Very, very deep in his eyes, I caught a glimpse of a grin.  •

Eva Munk is a freelance journalist living in Prague. She has contributed to the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Prague Post and more.

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