American Express

The American Sector

The American Sector

Maria and I saunter up to the bar and take a seat. I don’t normally sit at the bar in pubs or restaurants anymore, as it’s very much against Czech custom. So this is a bit of a novelty; but it’s a novelty befitting the pub itself.

We are in a hamburger joint in Vinohrady, so in effect we’re in an American place in little America. Burger joints are a major American influence on Czech gastronomy and Vinohrady is a section of Prague jokingly referred to as the “American Sector” since it’s home to so many American expats.

The staff all speak fluent English and the menu features not only burgers, but a variety of cocktails not normally encountered in Czech pubs.

We might as well have stumbled into a burger place in Maple Point, New Jersey.

The American accent is ubiquitous here, flying around the room like flak. Maria gives me a flat look and instantly “does her American.”

Maria is one of those people with language skills that are at once amazing and enviable. She is completely fluent in so many languages that she could run a meeting at the UN with nothing more than an egg-timer and a cup of coffee. In addition, she is something of an accent chameleon, with an unusual propensity for acquiring and mimicking them.

Having tended bar in the “American sector,” she is all too familiar with the American accent and so she launches into an impression. This one is the twenty-one year old American girl who is in Prague for the first time. It’s disturbingly spot-on.

“Oh m-God! It’s, like, so cultural here, there’s, like, so much history. It’s, like, so old and there’s, like, so many places to, like, see. I’m really, like, finding myself here because it’s, like, so cultural and so, like, free.”

I laugh through the tears.

The bartender is swamped, buried beneath drink slips.

This bar scenario – bartender trudging through a book’s worth of drink slips – is another very American one. Anyone who has visited a fair-sized bar in the U.S. has seen it. A bartender moving at the speed of light, sweating, trying to handle the needs of the bar patrons while coping with a continuous supply of drink slips from tables. And in the U.S., these drink slips are usually not just beer, they are often a variety of cocktails with minor individual tweaks seemingly chosen to punish the bartender for some crime against humanity.

Czech pubs are very different. In the first place, people usually don’t sit at the bar, so a Czech bartender doesn’t have to entertain guests, make small talk, or take drink and food orders from a bunch of people facing him from three feet away. Secondly, while Czech pubs get really busy, they are usually busy with people drinking beer. In fact, if a customer ordered a margarita or a Long Island Iced Tea in a Czech pub, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were told no. And I would be stupefied if they weren’t the subject of extreme mockery between the waiters.

But that’s a Czech pub. This pub is kind of between a Czech one and an American one.

In an American restaurant customers can essentially get whatever they want, and indeed people routinely order tailor-made drinks. They modify a meal until its only resemblance to the menu item it’s based on is that they both consist of the same kind of meat. Sometimes not even that.

This doesn’t make Americans bad, snobby, or even persnickety, it’s just what we’re used to. I have seen Czechs apologize to the waiter who refused to change their food order because they had put the order into the computer four nanoseconds beforehand. It’s just what they’re used to. As a matter of fact, some of those same Czechs have spent time in America and come back with the same expectations Americans often have. I want what I want.

At times, however, this is manifested in a series of very very specific questions. About inconceivably random shit. Aimed at people who often have no idea.

In this case the focal point of these questions is the bartender, who is also clearly the busiest person in the entire room. But for the thirty minutes Maria and I sip beers and watch the bartender get barraged by question after question, some of which she couldn’t possibly know the answers to. Things which, due to today’s gastro-climate, make the experience more exasperating for her and more hilarious for us.

Excuse me, is the bun on this burger gluten free? You don’t know? Hm…how about this one?

Do you have a vegetarian version of this burger? (pointing to a menu item)

Is that vegan-friendly orange juice?

Is that kosher sea salt in the shakers (points to a table)?

Are these burgers from free range cows?

Can we have that table in the corner? (pointing across a room packed with people) It says reserved, but we can eat fast.

Are these burgers from beef that came from cows who loved their mothers? (possibly apocryphal)

Maria breaks into “her American” about twelve more times. I laugh and wince because she could very well have been doing an impression of me in the past. I was very guilty of these infractions. It’s only after eleven years in the Czech Republic I have had this effectively beaten out of me. I am just one of millions of Americans who have moved away and been forced to get used to something else.

Now instead of I want what I want, I just sort of accept that I’ll get what I get.

In any event, we head to a Mexican place. I need a margarita.

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