By Rosie Daniels
Illustration by Klára Sedlo
I hate people who make plans between two and four in the afternoon. It’s unreasonable, it’s short-sighted, and, quite frankly, I’m not going to stand for it anymore. These are the thoughts going through my mind as I stand at the tram stop in the blistering heat, waiting for the number 16 to rock up. It’s ten to three, I’m going to meet a friend in a café in Malá Strana, and I’m not happy about it. The next time someone suggests doing something at three p.m., I’m going to politely eject them from my life and dedicate my weekends to people with more respect for my lifestyle.
Maybe it’s not even a question of lifestyle, but rather of chemistry; by now I’m sure that my blood is one part coffee to one part ethanol. My life is split cleanly into two fractions – I spend half of my time sipping flat whites in Vinohrady’s most pretentious espresso bars, and when night falls I retreat underground on the hunt for craft beer places that won’t bankrupt me. Whenever a friend asks if I want to hang out, I reply, “Coffee or pint?” There’s something wonderful about the ritual experience around getting a drink together, especially when that drink gives you a little buzz.
I board the tram, deeply chagrined. Three o’clock – what kind of time is that? It’s too late for coffee; by now I’ve learned that coffee after midday will leave me lying awake, wide-eyed and heart thumping, way past my bedtime. Czechs might not sniff at the idea of clinking glasses midafternoon, but a voice in my head that sounds like my mother’s resounds: “Wait until six…” In British culture, there’s something distasteful about drinking steadily all day. We much prefer to wait until a socially acceptable time and get absolutely sauced in half an hour flat.
Czechs might drink more, but they still seem to drink better than my compatriots. I’ve rarely seen Czechs get so drunk they act up, whereas British town centres on Friday evenings are a dubious tableau of angst and vomit. Spookily, just as this thought crosses my mind, the tram glides past Karlovo náměstí, and I catch sight of a group of lads on a stag do in the grass by the entrance to the metro, some reclining, some sprawling. It’s clearly been a heavy one – I get a sympathy headache just by looking at them. It seems like – socially, if not medically – drinking a lot of quality lager over the week is much more wholesome than binging cheap cider at the weekend.
Still, all of this interesting cultural comparison doesn’t answer the pressing question: what am I going to drink? I’m fundamentally opposed to Birell and decaf on a moral level, so even the watered-down versions of my favourite drinks are off the table. Non-alcoholic beer and decaffeinated coffee are deeply unsettling to me, no matter how much they might claim to taste just like the real thing. I once asked a friend why he was putting himself through the ordeal of a nealko Bakalář and he responded with the most Czech sentence I’ve ever heard: “Any beer is better than no beer.” Well, každému svůj, mate.
I’m in the café by now, and the waitress is standing in front of me, pen in hand. It’s crunch time: will I face the imaginary disapproval of my absent mother, or will I commit myself to a sleepless night? I’m still wavering. Both options feel like failure.
I try to buy myself some time with ill-fated weather chat, “Dobrý den, nu takové vedro dneska, jo? Ha ha ha… Er, no, já bych si dala, prosím vás…” And then it hits me – the answer to the whole sorry mess, a single word that untangles the entire conundrum –
And there it is, the perfect midafternoon drink. Non-alcoholic by design, caffeine-free, not as sugary as a Coke. I’m so pleased with my decision I forget to brace myself for the corollary onslaught of flavours – since, in Prague, no “lemonade” is just “lemon”. The first time I had a cucumber lemonade, the sheer nonsense of the drink’s name nearly made my head explode. The waitress draws herself up and says, “Máme citronovou, závzorovou, malinovou, okurkovou, heřmánkovou, borůvkovou, levandulou, bezovou, jahodov-”
My brain, thoroughly saturated with flavours, melts into a puddle and, shame-faced, I resort to English,
“Er, yeah, the first one, please.”