Friday, March 16, 2018

Smells Like Czech Spirit

There must be at least one metric fuckton of internet advice for cheap travel and how to do the whole Eurothang on a tight budget. They all talk about cheap hotels, cheap flights, etc. But then they neglect the obvious. What if you move to another country and stay there? What the hell do you do when you run out of money and get that nervous twitch that screams GIMME BOOZE?

I'm not an alcoholic, but I played one on TV. As your Wide Body Russian general, I command you to drink vodka if you happen to be stuck in Russia. You'll need it. That Putin is a scary fuck. Especially when he's shirtless on horseback. But if you happen to be stuck in Prague, as many of us are, take my advice: drink the local spirit. Find out what it is, drink it, live it and love it.

The Beer Spirit

But Big Sir, ain't beer the Czech local spirit? No. Beer is not a spirit, Junior, but it most definitely is the most popular beverage in Czechia, the one which earns them the dubious honor of being the country with the most per capita beer consumption in the world. Per capita is pig latin for dividing the total beer sales with the total population, every man, woman, child and baby, to get a number that sounds very impressive. It's lazy math. Most of the babies here don't drink beer, and if they do, they can't handle it at all. And nobody is willing to go door to door to survey the beer consumption of the common peeps.

Proof that per capita stats are bullshit: Germany held the title of being the biggest beer drinkers in the world for at least an eon. It's true. Some of them are HUGE. That's why they invented bucket pants. But the Artist Formerly Known As Czechoslovakia had a velvet divorce, the husband kept the beer, the Bohemia, and the tourism, and that poor bitch Slovakia kept their wine drinking and the velvet Elvis paintings. Now Bohemia was suddenly promoted to the King of Beer Drinking simply due to long division and lazy bullshit numbers.

One thing is true though. Czech beer drinking is legendary. They first started brewing beer in Bohemia in 993 at the Břevnov Monastery in Prague. You can still go there today and drink beer. Fuck yeah. Euro-monks started beer, perfected beer and made it holy. WBJ beer rules: if a bottle of beer has a monk or a goat on the label, I drink it in the name of the father, the son, and the holy goat. Beer brewing during medieval times was a healthy alternative to getting dysentery from drinking the Gothic water. That's when children started to drink beer proper. So maybe the whole per capita thing started then as well.

Drunk as a monk

Sage Advice From the Godfather of Expat Alcoholics

One year I decided to leave the brisk Prague winter for the warmer climes of Cyprus. It was easy math: I wasn't making any money over winter, I was spending all my time in the Tiki Taky bar pining for the sun while drowning my sorrows in sunny beach drinks. A friend lived in Cyprus at the time and invited me to drive around Cyprus in his caravan. I was immediately worried. The flights were cheap enough, and crashing on the floor of his van would cost me gas and beer. But Czech beer was about a buck. Everywhere else in the world it was 5 bucks.

“Wherever you go, learn to drink the local spirit,” said the drunken expat sage. I later discovered that in southern Cyprus, Zivania was the cheap local spirit of choice. Zivania is a cheap brandy distilled from grape skins or something like that. When faced with five dollar beers, my friend and I chose to spend that same five bux to buy a bottle of 'Nirvana' as we called it. On brief forays into North Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriots smiled and shared their raki with me.

The Prague Spirit: Gargle and Swallow

Of course they have local spirits in Czechia, and it is my duty as your attorney to inform you that they are all cheap and disgusting. But if you are faced with sudden twitches from debilitating alcoholism or the fear of gluten in the beer, you may need to suck it up, buttercup. After you choose to stay here and your travel money runs out, you are faced with some very harsh choices:

  1. Teach English
  2. Work in a call center
  3. Pimp your juicy booty out to pay the rent
  4. Learn to cut your booze budget

I've tried all the above except the sales of my juicy booty. I'm saving that for marriage. I've tried all of the local Czech spirits, for medicinal purposes y'understand. The most popular ones are (in no particular order) Becherovka, Fernet, Slivovice, and the Mother of All Hooch: Absinthe. While each spirit varies in its ability to gag you, tie you up and torture you til you vomit and/or shit your guts out, they're all cheap enough to fuck your ass up on a budget. The bad news: most of these spirits taste like either mouthwash or cough syrup. The good news: if you are the kind of ninja who has rifled through their medicine cabinet at home looking to get an after-hours fix from your Robitussin or Scope, you would be perfectly at home in Prague.


This is often described as either herbal, aperitif or digestif. That means they want to sell it to hippies who drink it both before and after each meal. It is made in Karlovy Vary, aka Karlsbad, home of a major film festival and a more major Russian mafia presence. It's the only town in the Czech Republic where I've seen more Russian newspapers than Czech ones. To prepare for the Becher experience, imagine throwing a shot of mouthwash at your throat. Gargle, rinse, repeat. Unless you are desperate. Then swallow that swill.

Aparently, Becher's got a bunch of herbs n shit, so it's supposed to be a healthier way to get you blotto. I once knew an American expat who was addicted to Becherovka. At the end he was seen curled up in a fetal position clutching an empty Becher bottle, gently rocking back and forth and staring at the bottle with red eyes. They had to ship him back Stateside in a basket, but his breath was minty fresh.


Shoe polish?

The choice of the proletariat. It's normally about a buck a shot, compared to 3-to-5 bucks a shot for anything remotely drinkable. This shit is 40% alcohol and 100% cheap at a buck a shot. If you're in the average working class Czech pub (and you should be, what are you, a bistro bitch?) and you see a Czech man with a beer and a shot, chances are it's a Fernet. Unless it's his birthday. Then it might be a shot of Slivovice.


You'll find Slivovice (plum brandy) in two types: the respectable kind sold in normal Czech bars with pictures of plums on the label, and the homemade variety, offered willy-nilly at someone's birthday party. Domaci slivo is most likely made in the bathtub of an unemployed truck driver. Sure, the booze may kill all bacteria in the bathtub, but who wants to drink dodgy chunky style booze unless they are constipated and in dire need of a super colon blow cure? ExLax ain't got nothing on this shit.


Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.

Absinthe is one of those rare liquors that get banned by the Powers That Be. Too many people were getting fucked up on a major hallucinogenic level and too many artists were getting inspiration. While this type of behavior flew in France for la bohème, the Prague commies forbade it in Bohemia. Maybe it was banned due to its association with wormwood, hallucinations and rebellion in general. I can't be certain, but maybe lighting a match under a spoonful of absinthe and a sugar cube was too much like a heroin ritual to be allowed to permeate the general masses with impunity.


Gentle reader, I sure hope my medicinal advice finds you well. As your Wide Body Jet Setter, your Personal Jesus, and your attorney, I advise you to enjoy life with a pinch of salt, a shot of the local spirit and a liberal application of the liquor arts.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Libeň La Vida Loca!

Life in a Grungy Industrial Prague Suburb

The corridor from Prague Libeň through Prague Holešovice has a reputation as being an ugly, dodgy section of Prague best avoided (say 'Palmovka' to a local and watch their face twist). This is mainly due to the dearth of abandoned factories, plants, manufacturers, and other industrial-age relics left behind when Soviet communism died a vodka-soaked death in the Eastern Bloc. These areas are now mostly inhabited by the poor. You can still see the tall, round brick smokestacks left behind in empty dirt lots, like phallic totems of the mighty proletariat.

I moved to Praha-Libeň quite by accident. I've lived in many areas in Prague over the years, including Strašnice, Bubeneč, Smíchov, Žižkov, Nové Město, Zahradní Město, Stodůlky, Řepy, and Letňany. A lot of expats prefer to live in more central, popular areas like Staré Město (Old Town), Vinohrady, Malá Strana or Žižkov. I prefer not to give the landlord parasites most of my earnings, so I live slightly further afield.  It also means I can live in cheap neighborhoods completely devoid of pretentious expat douchebags, which is its own reward.

Libeň la Vida Loca: a Micro-brewery and a Mexican Food Store

Even though I tend to live in unpopular areas relegated to the poor, unwashed masses (like me), I have a truffle-pig snout when it comes to rooting out the good shit in every area I've lived.  I used to take trams and buses to poor, punk, working class Žižkov all the time just for a drink, but many of my favorite bars there shut down. After moving to Libeň, I was very surprised to learn that there are some decent digs for food and beer right in my own dreary working class suburb.

I never thought a taco-teased, burrito-bombed California dude like me would find a place for real Mexican products in Prague. Then I stumbled down a narrow passage one day after a fried cheese binge and found Mexicali Mercado. There I found:

- Restaurant quality tortilla chips.
- Real corn tortillas in several sizes, from enchilada to street taco.
- Refried black beans, chipotles in adobo sauce, enchilada sauce, and mucho, mucho mas.
- A fresh food kitchen in the back. Admittedly, I skip this as I prefer to make massive amounts of comida Mexicana en me casa. Plus they once put red cabbage on my taco. Fuj.

Sadly, that once-mas-fina Mexican joint has succumbed to all the usual greed, incompetence and rudeness famous in Prague. I watched many of my favorite products double in price overnight, got bitched at when I questioned the padded bill, and mucho attitudo in general.  Chingala! I guess I'll have get my vida loca elsewhere. Fortunately, the Albert store in the nearby Harfa mall stocks the same tortilla chips for only five crowns more, plus half-price jalapeños.

In my day, they called small, non-industrial breweries 'micro-breweries.'  Now the term seems to be 'craft beer breweries.'  The difference is simple: micro-breweries make their own beer in many varieties and serve it to discriminating beer consumers for reasonable prices.  Craft breweries make their own beer in many varieties and serve it to fucking hipsters for twice the price.  Yes, I can say that because I am a discriminating beer consumer.

I like to walk along the path by the creek from the park and approach Kolčavka Pivovar from the back. I'm sneaky like that, plus I love the sound of burbling creeks to whet my appetite for beer. Kolčavka brews dark beer, strong dark beer, light beer, strong light beer, IPA, summer ales, winter ales, Irish red ales, bitters, bittersweets, seasonal beer, super strong beer and a partridge in a pear tree.

Libeň: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are still signs of the usual poverty associated with cheaper and uglier areas.  I'm lucky enough to live on a nice street surrounded by older buildings with fancy facades that remind me a bit of the Old West towns in the States. Adjacent streets have ubytovny (boarding houses for imported Eastern European laborers), gypsy slums and service warehouses.

Once I took a long walk on a dodgy trail on a hill overlooking Libeň, prodded along by my wife, who is allegedly concerned with my health, yet likes to prod my ass up dodgy trails to slippery precipices at every opportunity. I was just looking down to my left to avoid sliding down the hill, when she said 'watch out for needles! Junkie camps ahead. Junkie camps? What ever happened to your garden variety homeless camps?  I paused mid stride to evaluate my chances of either trodding on an HIV needle or sliding down a hill onto cold steel train tracks below, and I looked up. The sun was just setting over Libeň. I could see the train tracks below, and old warehouses and buildings with plants growing through their roofs. I couldn't see our flat, but I could easily see the O2 Arena, where I once heard Ennio Morricone conduct an orchestra playing his greatest movie hits of all time.

Several other islands of goodness are scattered across the landscape. A Chinese joint on Sokolovská offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet (11 am – 3 pm) for 109 crowns. My favorite local Czech pub, Kovářská, has the best fried cheese in Libeň. This area also features a high concentration of Vietnamese grocers and discount food outlets (aka Food Crypts), if you're into that sort of thing.

Libeň and the Winter of My Content

Once I took a Sunday stroll for a Sunday smažák. Zero degrees celsius with cold winds nipping at my nose and Jack Frost chewing on my ass.  I like cold, but Jack needs a muzzle.

Visions of dark beer and fried cheese dancing in my head; no dark beer today.  I've always enjoyed a dark beer on a cold day ever since my London/Dublin daze.  In Czech, you have to get used to things running out at any given time.  Kolčavka always rotates the beer stock, and offering Summer Ale in December seems like a perfectly Czech thing to do. So I ordered an IPA. They were not out of fried cheese. Those lucky bastards got to live another day.

This Californian has seen many snowy winters in Europe, and I still thrill at the first snow. Leaving Kolčavka that night, the previous wind chill was replaced by the pin pricks of ice crystals in the face.  I grinned and let them melt on my teeth. There were a few days in the last weeks where it only threatened to snow; barely-visible flecks of white dancing on the wind but never sticking to the ground. That shit doesn't count.  This was a right proper snow with white powder on the ground and  black footprints breaking through to the pavement. Along my path home, winter boot heels left their mark with tiny dog paw prints alongside. I could see the history of the snow dog's walk, his tiny feet breaking stride with his master to leave the path and mark a bush, or to bolt 90 degrees opposite to greet an oncoming human.

I walked by my favorite creek-side path passing under the fractured columns of the broken bridge, its blackened surfaces standing in stark contrast to the tiny snowflakes and brownish-black evening sky. The creek burbled and sang along with the thumping boot tempo of my bustling feet.