Writer Dale Bridges shares a pint of wisdom from an unlikely source.
Her name was Ana, but on the street they called her Rachel. At the time, the hit sitcom “Friends” was still a popular show in Prague, and there were dozens of Rachels, Monicas and Phoebes wandering the city at night, offering tourists sexual favors in exchange for money, their hair cut in scraggly Jennifer Aniston-type bobs. After the Cold War ended in the early ’90s, American media infiltrated Eastern Europe quickly, like a virus, and created a pop culture epidemic. The results were often disturbing and wonderful.
I was living in the Czech Republic illegally, working on a novel and learning how to drink properly. According to Ana, I drank “like baby on tit.” In other words, I sipped my beer judiciously instead of opening my throat and slurping it down like a dehydrated camel, which was how the Czechs did it.
I considered myself a good drinker at the time. For several years in grad school, I’d been on a strict alcohol regimen: Wake up. Drink a beer. Read Foucault. Go to class. Drink from a flask in the bathroom stall at the library. Curse Foucault. Go to the bar. Pass out. Wake up. Drink a beer.
After several years of this, I still didn’t know how to deconstruct Foucault, but I could deconstruct the hell out of any fermented beverage. My stomach lining was made of titanium. My liver could bench-press 200 pounds. I was a champion boozer and I could match mugs with anyone on the planet. Or so I thought.
I moved to Prague because I needed a cheap place to live while I worked on my book, and I thought Europe would give my prose the sense of culture and sophistication they were lacking. It didn’t. Instead, I discovered that a bad sentence written in an artsy café in the Czech Republic was just as cliché as a bad sentence written in my mom’s basement in Scottsbluff, Neb. The only differences were the cobblestone streets and the cost of living.
For $200 a month, I rented an amazing apartment in downtown Prague, just two blocks off of Wenceslas Square, where women from all over Eastern Europe lined the streets at night, smoking cigarettes in a sexy manner and offering lonely men their “company” for the reasonable price of about $50.
Right next to my apartment building, there was a filthy, nameless bar, where off-duty prostitutes would gather in the wee hours of the morning for libations and storytelling before heading home. Ana was the eldest and therefore the leader of the group. The first time I met her, I was sitting at the bar minding my own business when a middle-aged woman with thinning, brunette hair tapped my shoulder and said, “Sex? Yes?”
It was an odd question and I wasn’t sure how to answer. Did I want sex? Did I like sex? What was my sex? Was my name Sex?
I took the easy route and said, “Not right now, I’m drinking.”
Ana laughed—an act that sounded like the engine of a 1965 Studebaker struggling to turn over on a winter morning—and changed her request to, “Beer? Yes?” I agreed and bought her a pint.
The Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world. The city of Plzen literally invented pilsner and Ceské Budejovice (pronounced Budweis in German) created Budweiser several centuries before Anheuser-Busch adopted the name. When I was in Prague, everyone drank Pilsner Urquell. And when I say everyone, I mean just that. Octogenarians, preschoolers, lawyers, janitors, peasants, grandmothers, gynecologists; everyone.
Of course, there were other beers. The college-age hipsters were fond of a light, smooth brew called Velvet and there was a dark bastard named Kelt that seemed to grow popular around the holidays for some reason, but these were mere flirtations; Prague’s true love will always be Urquell.
“America ruined our beer,” Ana told me once. “Your pilsner is weak, like kitten. Pilsner should be strong, should taste like angel piss.”
Ana had a lot of advice about drinking. “Look woman in eye before drink or you will make bad love.” “Never drink with gypsy.” “Drink beer fast or it will get warm.”
But most importantly, Ana taught me how to drown my sorrows. The novel wasn’t going well. I’d wanted to be one of those serious American authors, like Hemingway or Bukowski, who wrote about gritty topics, such as war and poverty and violence. The only problem was that I didn’t have any experience with war and poverty and violence. I had experience with suburbia and college and watching television. Therefore, my writing came out fake and poser-ish.
“Who cares?” said Ana when I explained the problem. “You are alive, yes? You are in bar with pretty woman, yes? Let’s drink. Someday you’ll tell this story and then you will be good writer.”
So that’s what we did. •
Author and freelance journalist Dale Bridges lives in Boulder, Colo., where he’s currently writing a collection of short stories and a book of autobiographical essays. Follow him at dalebridges.org.