Children and Alcohol: Together At Last

[Note: this post was originally written for another Mission-oriented blog, hence the direct references to San Francisco audience]

Raising a child is a breeze in Berlin thanks to the wide availability of kid-friendly beer gardens. (Note: a ‘child’ is a small human who has not yet achieved adult stature— I was a little unclear on this concept myself until I left the Mission.) Take, for example, Prater Garten on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauerberg: the space looks like about eight Zeitgeists stitched together, only without the whole ‘mistaking rudeness for authenticity’ issue that’s been haunting Zeitgeist for years.

Then, in the back, is a fully-equipped playground where you can semi-neglect your daughter or son while you enjoy sophisticated adult beverages nearby. Kids, in my observation, seem to eat this place up: first, they get to enjoy running around in the kid-sanctioned area… but then there’s also the illicit thrill of venturing out into the ‘dark side’, where grownups are presented in various states of alcohol-amplified enthusiasm.

Finally… you know you’re in a land of lessened litigation-culture when there’s a disused diving tower in the back of your local beer garden:

My friend tells the story of being at a kid birthday party at Prater when one of the children suddenly materialized on top of the diving stand. That’ll sober you up in a hurry.

Misadventures In Self Publishing

My friend, it turns out, has three or four manuscripts of his own unpublished fiction kicking around. Now, I know this sounds boring… but before you head over to What I Had For Breakfast, consider the following:

  1. One of the manuscripts is titled Vomiting Across America and is based on personal experience
  2. A second is about his misadventures in Prague. Half the action is set in legendary local dive bar The Blind Eye. But the author had the literary wherewithal to create a fictionalized version of this bar called ‘The Other Cheek’. Now, that’s good– you’ve gotta admit.
  3. A third includes accounts of the sexual exploits of a grandmother deranged from senility.

On balance, the only tiresome aspect of my friend’s writing persona is the fact that he maintains the whole predictable reluctanct-to-talk-about-or-share-his-work posture that all my friends who aspire to write fiction invariably pull. When clearly the only goal of this stunt is to entice interest in their writing and general persona while allowing them to appear aloof and above the fray. Yawn. That’s why it was nice to finally meet one guy on my vacation in Poland who would freely talk about the manuscript he had just finished with anyone who was willing to listen. What a relief.

Anyway, my friend sent me the second manuscript discussed above– the one about Prague– which I read and found totally enthralling in trashy, Bukowski-esque way. One thing is that he has a great ear for accents and the way that people speak, which allows you to express more about, say, Czech people and how Czech people really are than I can manage in blog post after post of tedious sociological generalizations. Another thing is that it’s just riotously funny. I mean, c’mon: ‘The Other Cheek’.

This manuscript has also added an enjoyable and enduring physical presence to our household. I received the digital files from my friend and printed out the whole 400 or so pages on my office printer… then, once I was done with it, I discarded the whole spent husk into a pile of scrap paper that we use at home for grocery lists and the like. This has the unintended effect of really livening up mundane household tasks. The other day, I was getting a list of groceries that my wife had written down and turned the sheet over to find the following passage:

Lift it up, full and steaming and… what the fuck?! Jesus! JESUS FUCKING FUCK! The Head! The fucking head. The dead eyes open, the mouth too, in an eternal, silent, scream and there’s soup inside the mouth, there’s a pea and a bit of carrot swimming around in there

(In fact, what’s funny is that when I searched my hard drive right now to find this passage again, I did a search for ‘Jesus fucking fuck’ and the only results that appeared were all four parts of his manuscript).

I honestly think these writings could achieve a certain dubious mass popularity if they were published, and find myself at times struggling to think of a way to facilitate this (the publisher for whom I design the book covers is, I think, a bit too self-respecting).

My friend once sent one of his short stories off to a literary blog that was sponsoring some kind of young writers contest. The story was posted on the blog– it’s about braining somebody to death with a soda can and contains 13 instances of the word ‘fuck’ in a 600 word story. Anyway, my friend recounts that he once went for the second round of a job interview process and was confronted with the actual story– his would-be employer had googled him, found the story, printed out a copy and asked him to explain what it was all about. Safe to say that the Obama administration won’t be tapping him for a position anytime soon.

Prague’s Most Desolate Bars

Seeing as I’m leaving Prague in a few weeks (maybe permanently… more likely just for six months), I thought I should do justice to some of Prague’s most shudderingly bleak bar spots. Now, there’s a lot to choose from, and everyone who’s lived here as his or her own personal nominations. My friend always talks about a neighborhood bar he ventured into only to kill time one afternoon when he’d locked himself out of his apartment…. only to discover that Tuesdays are ‘Topless Barmaid Night’ there… and ‘Topless Night’ also extends to include afternoons… and the barmaid on duty at the time was old enough to be someone’s grandmother.

I promise no such NSFW delights here, but focused on a few places that I’ve noticed while walking around or that are (cough, cough) familiar to me from personal experience:

1. 777 Bar, Vršovice

If your idea of a good time is a window-less octagonal bunker settled in a totally residential, out-of-the-way neighborhood, then you’re in luck:

You might reasonably assume that this bar is simply closed for the afternoon and will later throw open its shuttered windows to take on a more welcoming persona. You’d be wrong, though:

The signage on the far left side of this picture indicates that it is ‘Nonstop’ (Czech parlance for ‘open 24 hours’… and also a notable teenybopper anthem). Indeed, the open door reveals that this place is in fact as open for business as it will ever be at the ripe hour of 3pm on a Sunday. I must admit that I was legitimately frightened to venture inside, but did take a peek– it looks like the indoor portion of Zeitgeist, except pitch black and with no customers.

It’s common knowledge in these parts that a lot of the more improbable bars around (especially the ‘Herna bars’– i.e., ones that advertising gambling) are just money-laundering operations for the mafia (the adjective ‘Russian’ is usually thrown into this equation as well, but I have no way of evaluating how widely this assumption applies). But, then, the stubborn question persists: why stay open all day and night if your bar is simply a ruse? Sadly, braver souls than me will have to venture inside to investigate the truth…

From a design perspective, I love how the ‘777’ theme is suggested mainly through ‘bang’ graphics on the shuttered windows… but then is also reiterated on the weird banana crescent sign hanging over the door.

2. Hostinec U Starejch Hadru, Vršovice

OK, this place is (regrettably) familiar to me, since it’s open late and in the neighborhood:

I think this means ‘Tavern of the Old Rags’, although I could be wrong about the ‘rags’ part. One thing that is certain is that the distended Scooby Doo-style haunted-house lettering creates an accurate premonition of the terrors that await you in this local speed metal bar.

The thing that really sets this establishment apart is the fact that it’s encased in a metal cage and the bartender has to actually personally emerge from behind the bar to let you in with his key (no buzzer). It’s essentially like checking into prison for an evening:

Once inside, you’re free to gaze at the exit and dream longingly of freedom…

… but to get out, you need to ask the bartender, who is apt to momentarily disappear behind these two regulars:

Once back on the outside, I didn’t know how to adjust to the real world again (as lamented by so many reformers of the criminal justice system) and immediately committed a petty crime in order to get back in.

3. Ventilation Duct, Hlavni Nadraži

On the way to investigate Wolf Prefa (see below), I passed this place, which at first glance looks just like the sister bar of 777 Bar:

As it turns out, however, this structure exists only to release air in and out of the underground metro system that runs right nearby. Interesting, right?

4. Wolf Prefa, Holešovice

Also not a bar, as it turns out. Bear with me here:

If you take an international train into Prague, you will arrive at one of two stations. If you come into the more obscure station of the two, Nadraži Holešovice, one of the first things you spot from the platform is the fantastically forbidding structure:

Without really thinking about it, I’d half-consciously assumed that this must be some disused nightspot– the homespun lettering is something I can only associate with nightclub, rather than a legitimate business. Obviously, I was forgetting the fact that, during Communist times, homespun lettering was A-OK. Anyway, upon closer research, this turns out to be the headquarters of a semi-disused cement factory.

One more bleak view, for the road:

Statler and Waldorf

Around the corner from the studio where I work is a comfy old man bar called Trafika 67. Often, we’ll head over there after a long day of so-called visual communication. There was one thing missing a few nights ago, though:

See that empty table in the back? 9 out of every 10 times I’ve been there, there are two old regulars holding court there, whom we refer to as ‘The Mayors of Trafika’, or just ‘Statler and Waldorf’. On the rare occasion that they aren’t ensconced there, there’s a ‘Reserved’ sign sitting on the table. Sometimes, they forget to put up the ‘Reserved’ sign– it’s sort of a rite of passage when you first start going to Trafika to grab this nicely-situated empty table, only to be confronted by a displaced Statler or Waldorf a few minutes later bearing an expression of UTMOST DISDAIN.

Statler and Waldorf are on friendly terms with the barmaids there, and with a few other oldster regulars (Fozzie Bear and Bunsen, let’s say), but otherwise keep their own counsel.* What they mainly do is a consume VERY LARGE quantities of alcohol very slowly and methodically, with no visible change to their manner at all. Once, I accidently got a fascinating glimpse into what the rest of their day is like: Trafika, like all good bars, opens shortly after noon… one day I was heading to the office and decided to peek in the window to see what transpires there in the afternoon hours. There were Statler and Waldorf in an otherwise-empty bar, drinking espressos and reading newspapers… but sitting at separate tables. I can only guess that this is a kind of routine for them: hang out at separate tables during the day, then ‘meet up for a drink’ at their primary table in the evening.

The truth is that many bars in Prague have their own version of Statler and Waldorf. There is another oldster place right nearby Trafika where my wife and I used to go for lunch sometimes (‘bar’ and ‘restaurant’ often sort of overlap here, so its not uncommon to have some guys getting totally wasted next to you while you’re eating lunch). In the corner of the lunch place were two Statler and Waldorf-like regulars… once, I noticed that there were actually two framed photos of these guys on the wall right over their seats. Wow! That’s better than having your initials stitched into a bar stool. I can only assume that when those two guys eventually die, they’ll be stuffed and mounted over their customary seats like prize bucks.

Anyway, on the night when that photo was taken, I actually got it from the bartender that Statler and Waldorf would not be coming… and we were cleared to sit at their table! It’s truly a comfortable perch, situated in the corner against the wood-paneled walls and commanding a view of the door and other tables. The chairs seemed conspicuously creakier and more worn in than other chairs. A vague odor of B.O. lingered in the corner… but not too bad. For one night, I could lay claim to being the Mayor (Mayer) of Trafika 67.

* Unfortunately, they don’t act like the real Statler and Waldorf and sit around saying things like ‘That fried cheese was what you call ‘medium’: it wasn’t rare and it certainly wasn’t well done… HA HA HA HA!” That would be great.

Discotheque Esperanto

Spotted this ad for Music Club Zlatý Strom (Golden Tree) on the metro recently while heading to the train station and, subsequently, to Berlin:

In this case, I have to say that the blurriness of the photo is only partly attributable to rush (it was a packed metro car, so I only had a moment of unmolested empty space between stops in which to snap it) and largely due to a spasm of self-conscious embarrassment I experienced while snapping it that some onlooker might think I was legitimately wowed by the looks of the place. What actually attracted me was the peculiar gigantism of the sales pitch (’60 different types of vodka! 70 different types of tequila! 40 different types of rum!), and the weird half-baked visual language of ‘cool, sexy times being had’: hazy, indistinct purple field, generic sexy woman silhouettes*, disco balls. Only the incongruity of the golden tree seal sets this apart from any number of other cheesy clubs, I would guess.

Indeed, as soon as I arrived in Berlin, I passed Club Matrix, which exhibits the same, lame purple-clad associations:

What is it with purple, anyway? I guess the thinking is that sheer black would be too dull, and red would look too hellish and infernal. There’s a sort of international visual esperanto of cheeseball Euro-disco-trashiness emerging here.

* Although it should be noted that this ad is incredibly chaste compared to the web site and online advertising for the Zlaty Strom, which I looked up as soon as I got back to Prague. All vague, atmospheric promises are tossed aside in favor of a much more graphic and concrete approach suggesting an outright brothel.

John Meat-John

• Sorry for the extended writing outages lately. On top of general busyness and assorted crapulence, I’m also trying to write a short article for Smashing Magazine these days, so my spare ions of free time and writing inclination have been mostly sucked up in that task. The article concerns typography and is the very epitome of font-nerdishness. I’ll let you know if and when it goes live.

One of the great campaigns of disinformation that I’ve ever personally mounted has been trying to convince friends that the society of typography is actually a seething cesspool of loose morals and sexual adventuring, a la the stereotypes about Renaissance fair enthusiasts. Back in 2003, when I went to a three day typography conference, I had fun lying and persuading people that every conference was a veritable orgy waiting to erupt.

Little could be farther from the truth. With the notable exception of Eric Gill (devout Catholic and brilliant artist who, to everyone’s shock, was discovered decades after his death to have had sexual relations with everyone in his family including the family dog), type designers seem like the restrained bunch that you would expect. The one binding trait between them seems to be a tendency to wear bowties:

• Lately, I’ve been watching Breaking Bad with my wife. A few nights ago, we were watching an episode from season one where the teenage Walter Jr. is briefly shown in the liquor store parking with friends trying to get strangers to buy booze for them. Suddenly, I realized that I needed to pause the video to explain to my wife what was going on here– being Czech, she had no context by which to understand the American teenage rite of passage that is standing around asking random people to buy liquor for you. I even wound up getting into the time in high school that my buddy and I asked two winos to do the deed for us and they tried to run off with the money but weren’t very fast (being beat-up old winos), which set up an awkward confrontation once we ran them down in about two seconds, especially when one of the guys complainingly revealed that he’d somehow peed his pants during the run down (again, surely owing to general unhealthiness, not out of any sense of fear of the two high school kids bearing down on him).

• By a great coincidence, two of the more strangely named friends I’ve ever had have both recently made belated entrances to the Facebook community. First, there’s my colleague Jan Fleischhans, which means – in a munge of German and Czech – ‘John Meat-John’. Then, there are the two Hamburger brothers, Joel and Manny. Joel once told me  that there was even an Abraham Hamburger at some point in the family lineage. Two bad he lived before the era of trendy name-shortenings, or he could be, concisely, AbraHamburger.

This Week In Sports

1) I can never pass up a good defenestration story: it seems that an NFL player was hanging out with his girlfriend, a 19-year old cheerleader for his team, when things went somewhat awry.  Given that she was only 19, it’s not all that surprising that the two of them were in the TV room of her parents’ house — but what is surprising is that one of her jilted admirers broke into the house with a plastic bag over his head and started chasing them around the room and pistol-whipping them, yelling things like, “I can’t believe you’re with that guy” and even some witty action-movie repartee.  The NFL player escaped out the second-story window, suffering minor bruises, while the girl ran downstairs, got a gun, and exchanged fire with the intruder!  Fortunately, neither of them had very good aim.

Here’s a link to the full story, with some other details such as that the intruder also took a few swipes at the family dog, and that the team in question — the Jacksonville Jaguars — refuses to admit or deny whether the girl is actually their cheerleader (although she plainly is, or at least was).  As always, you can count on Florida to provide the weirdest stories.

2) For those who don’t know him already, Chad Ochocinco is a very talented NFL wide receiver.  He is also extremely outspoken, may have a personality disorder, and is famous for getting fined for his over-the-top celebrations after scoring a touchdown.  His name used to be Chad Johnson, but he went by the name “Ochocinco” because his jersey number is 85 (I know, I know, that’s not even how you say 85 in Spanish), and when the NFL wouldn’t let him put “Ochocinco” on his jersey , he legally changed his last name to Ochocinco!  That is dedication.

Anyhow, Chad appears in this edition of “This Week in Sports” because of an unfortunate mishap with a new line of cereal he is promoting for charity called, natch, “Ochocincos.”  Take it away,

“Charity-minded callers are getting intercepted by a sex phone line because of a misprint on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco‘s namesake cereal boxes.  The phone number is supposed to connect callers to Feed the Children, which benefits from sales of ‘Ochocinco’s.’ But because the box has the wrong toll-free prefix, they get a seductive-sounding woman who makes risque suggestions and then asks for a credit card number.”

The lucky sleaze merchant whose earnings just went up ten-fold had better make a big donation to Feed the Children.

3)  Finally — yet another Tour De France winner tests positive for a banned substance, leading to the inevitable question, “What is the point of a sporting event if the winner cheats every single year?”  This year’s cheater gets style points for his creative explanation: the “false” positive was due to some contaminated meat that he ate.

Good Times, 1660s Style

I offer this painting as a response to Dan’s recent “Good Times” post, to suggest that not a lot of progress has been made in invoking dissolute good times in the last 350 years. Here’s a blurb I found describing this painting by the Dutch painter Jan Steen, “The Dissolute Household.” The best part is that Steen used himself, his wife, his sons, and even his mother as the models for the figures.

This painting depicts a “Jan Steen household,” a standard by which all later family dysfunction may be measured. The lady of the house tramples a Bible while having her wineglass refilled. Her husband and the maid join hands in a gesture suggesting service beyond the call of duty. The boy in blue fends off a beggar at the door, thus recalling the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), in which the more fortunate figure goes to hell. Fate hangs over the family’s head in the form of a basket holding a sword and switch (signifying justice and punishment), a crutch and can (forecasting poverty), and a wooden clapper (used by lepers and the plague-stricken). In this (sixteen-) sixties sitcom, Steen himself stars as the father, his wife Margriet van Goyen as mom, and their sons Thaddeus and (next to grandma) Cornelis as themselves.

Top that, Cointreau ad agency!

Good times

Around the corner from the studio where I work, there’s a nondescript pizza/pasta place where I go sometimes to pick up take-away food for lunch. The owner, an nice Albanian guy, used to make valiant attempts to engage me in conversation while I waited for my food, but we had nothing in common other than the fact that we both had iPhones before you could buy them in Czech, so we would have the same conversation every time where he would ask me if I had upgraded to some new operating system or bought some new app and I would always say, no, I haven’t. Luckily, he’s since delegated counter service to a crew of Czechs who don’t bother to make conversation, so lately I’ve been free to stare at the walls, which are covered in those framed booze ads that are the default decor of restaurants that can’t be bothered to establish any particular kind of atmosphere.

This is how I’ve come to develop a weird begrudging fascination with the Cointreau poster shown above (sorry the photo is so terrible, but I can’t find the image online and I can’t exactly ask to borrow a step ladder to photograph their poster). Sure, on a conceptual level, it’s completely hackneyed and predictable. But, the execution: it’s so…….. good.  How convincingly the principals seem to be Having A Good Time. How many hundreds of shots must have been taken that afternoon to get this one photo. How rung out the three models must have been at the end.

Since it’s really hard to see what’s going on in this photo, I’ll describe it for you: the woman on the left winks and smiles and holds a drink out to you invitingly, all at the same time. The woman on the right howls in hedonistic delight. Meanwhile, the guy in the middle is pure caddishness unpunished. His hand dangles irresponsibly as his expression says Don’t hate me because I’m feckless. The insouciant atmosphere is ratcheted up another notch by the evidence that its clearly daytime, and by the ingeniously cheesy tag-line: ‘Voulez-vous Cointreau avec moi?’.

I don’t even know what Cointreau is, and yet there’s a tiny part of me that wants to drop everything and join these three for a quick bender in Montmarte. At least, until my pizza shows up and I tear myself away from their seductive invitations. Well done, Cointreau.

Drinking with Czechs

Last night, I went for beers with colleagues from my first, bad job in Prague (an agency that spat out an endless supply of banner ads and sitelets for Vodafone– my co-workers were really nice, but the work was shallow and boring). When I started this first job, I was naturally curious about the drinking habits of my Slavic colleagues, and especially about a certain workplace convention– previously unknown to me– called ‘shots in the office’. Back in the US, I worked at a few places that contrivedly attempted to let their hair down on Fridays and have would beers in the office as the weekend approached, but hard liquor was another story altogether. At this first Czech job, in contrast, I’d be intently hunched over my computer attempting to meet an end-of-day deadline for some inane Vodafone thing when I’d feel a discreet tap on my shoulder, turn around and see Jirka or Lenka or Pavel making the international ‘let’s have a shot’ motion. A bunch of us would scurry into the conference room, where somebody would produce a bottle of slivovice (plum schnapps). Everyone would toast and down a small shot, then busily run back to their battle stations to resume working. Lest this sound too primitive and iron-curtain-ish, I should add that these co-workers were distinctly up-and-coming-professional types– hardly anyone in the office smoked cigarettes, and the general office atmosphere was very trendy and hip in manner of ad agencies everywhere.

Last night, we met at a bar called U Zlatého Tygru (‘At the Golden Tiger’) that’s one of the most representative classic old fashioned Czech bars. The moment I walked in, I thought, “I wonder if this is the bar that Václav Havel famously took Bill Clinton to?”. Soon enough, I was informed that it in fact was the very bar. I would tell you more about the place, but it was hard to see with water gushing out of my eyes from the 50 cartons of cigarette smoke floating around in the air. Rest assured that I was having as good a time as Bill is enjoying in the photo above. I wonder who the guy on the left is– trusted Havel advisor, or random barfly? I wonder what kind of Czech bar food they ate (probably something hideous, given the year). I wonder if Bill remembered to order some wiener schnitzel to go for Monica (heh heh).

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before here and here, Czechs sure do love their old fashioned bars. There are few places where anyone feels inclined to try to look or act cool– generally, a kind of relaxed slobbery prevails. As evidence, I present this handsome specimen whom I photographed a few years ago at the spot around the corner from my current job (on a Friday evening, no less– one can only assume that this was his special ‘going out’ outfit):