The Quest for Chlebíčky

I love routine. It’s a family thing, too. One of those things you get from your parents that you don’t realize you got from them until it’s just too late and it’s an ingrained part of your personality.

The only thing more fun that working one’s way through a routine (and the euphoric joy of ticking off a segment of a routine) is writing it out the night before and talking about it to anyone who happens to be nearby after you’ve created your schedule and before you’ve put it into action. In most cases, this is Burke. She sighs a lot nowadays.

By far the best routine that my household enjoys is our Friday morning routine. After living like a monk for 5 days, we get up early and go shopping at the grocery store up the road. When we have everything, Burke pays and I walk across the street to the deli and get a box of chlebiky. If you have never been to the Czech Republic, chlebíčky is like heaven on a slice of bread. There are several varieties – ham, egg, diced ham. Otherwise they have potato salad and butter and cream and sorts of other things you need in your life that your doctor advises against.

The chlebíčky lady knows me. When I come in she says “Eight?” and I say “Yes.” And she reaches for the box with no judgment, or at least she hides the judgment behind her mask. I really don’t care if she’s judging me. I have taken it upon myself to confuse local shop people as to the healthiness of my lifestyle and habits. The nice man in the little shop across the street never knows what I’m going to buy when I go in there as my last five visits have procured the followings items:

  1. A bottle of Tullemore Dew, two bottles of wine (white and pink), and a bag of kitty litter
  2. Four boxes of cookies and a grapefruit
  3. Cheese (4 varieties)  
  4. Socks, a pack of gum, and four beers
  5. Six lemons and a shoehorn

Three weeks ago the chlebíčky were so good that Burke and I seriously discussed buying a flat in the neighborhood. Two weeks ago, flying high on my Friday pre-Cheat Day buzz, I ventured to tell the woman that her chlebíčky were the best in town. I was feeling good – almost cocky – about our relationship and about the permanence of this level of chlebíčky in my life. She cocked an eyebrow at me. An act which conveyed volumes of body language. Namely, “Man, you should have known better.” She shook her head.

Last week a sign on the door informed me that their chlebíčky vendor was changing. The woman said “Eight?” and I said “Yeah.” But we both knew our relationship was changing. Perhaps inherently, I enjoyed my chlebíčky more that day.

This Friday, the chlebíčky was totally different. The bread was different and the toppings were different. I tried to remain hopeful and the woman overcompensated by speaking with a new heretofore unheard level of excitement (let’s say a 2.8 on a scale of 1-38). Despite (or perhaps due to) her mood-based bells and whistles, I knew that the chlebíčky had dropped in quality. I was right.  

A peculiarly Czech phenomenon seems to be that if something works well or is liked by customers, then it must be changed. In the past, stumbling across a brand of hash browns or a brownie-cookie hybrid have garnered similar results. Once the shops and retailers realize that people like them, they stop selling them. A tube of hummus that is sold at Billa for 9 koruna was raised to 24 koruna once they became popular and the clock is running out on when they’re just going to discontinue them. The Czech motto, at times, seems to be “if it ain’t broke, break it.” Thus it is with our chlebíčky. Of course there are any number of reasons why the deli changed their chlebíčky vendor. Maybe the vendor went out of business or raised their prices an absurd degree. Who knows? But when these things happen, I can’t help but find them, without hyperbole, to be a personal slight of all Czech retailers against me. Which it is.

Other historical tragedies such as the Great Depression and D-Day have taught us that if things don’t work out, you improvise, you adapt, and you overcome. But whoever coined that phrase has never lost their chlebíčky connection. We ate with a muted enthusiasm. Like biting into a hotdog to find that it’s a chicken dog – technically, it’s OK, there are lips and there are assholes, but it’s not the lips and assholes you wanted.

Saturday we went for a walk. We walked to a deli on the main road and tried their chlebíčky. They were fine. Fine. We walked to another bakery in the afternoon and tried their chlebíčky. We got a coffee as well, just to convince ourselves that we weren’t only taste testing chlebikcy all around our neighborhood, when that is exactly what we were doing. We sat on a bench near a playground and ate our chlebíčky and drank our coffee. Burke took out her phone and we looked at a map of all delis and bakeries within a two-mile radius. We also looked for a part of town with a good deli in it and, possibly unrelated, flats available to buy nearby.

Next week we will try two other new places before deciding if we should simply pretend we are a deli and order straight from the vendor. Stay tuned for next week’s Quest for Chlebíčky.  

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