For me, travel is an immersive experience. It is one thing to sip a cold beer at a ski resort overlooking the mountains, slopes and lifts and quite another to feel like you are being immersed in another culture, another people. A recent trip to Prague with some friends was definitely an example of the latter. At first, when we touched down at the airport and started taking the subway to our hostel, I was already mildly excited. Unlike many other places, the late-night subway train was not full of English-speaking tourists coming from the airport. Rather, we were quietly travelling in the cold Czech night, surrounded solely by what I believed were Czechs. From my knowledge of Polish, I could vaguely make out what some were saying (thus, it felt like a home away from home), but it felt like we were being transposed to another world, where everything just had a different feel to it. A fascinating experience indeed.
The most immersive, and thus most memorable, episode of the trip to Prague, however, came in the shape of a pub the name of which I found in an old tourist guide. When we entered the slightly dim basement of this so-called ‘pub’, we were greeted with the smell of cigarette smoke; rather surprising for the three of us who grew up with the smoking ban in British pubs. The pub, however, was filled almost exclusively with Czechs, a promising sign for good, authentic Czech food. As the waiter came up, I immediately order “dwa piwa,” which, in Polish, is two beers. The other friend ordered a coke, which is an order so incredibly difficult to misunderstand I would have been very impressed if his wishes were misconstrued. As the beer kegs were placed on the table, I was pleasantly surprised that our linguistic differences did not seem to set us apart that much.
Despite my best efforts to decipher the menu in Czech and thinking that guessing something and ordering it might be a good adventure, my friends managed to get hold of an English menu, which quite frankly was a heresy for the adventurously ‘immersive’ traveller. Of course, none of the tall and rather intimidating waiters understood any English but, with much finger pointing at the menu, we managed to order food. Sipping on our drinks, we looked around the pub. It was filled with loud, mostly middle-aged Czech men with immense beer bellies with many emptied beer kegs beside them. And any pub that seems like a favourite place of beer-loving locals must be good. Even the toilets seemed rather interesting, having a caricature of a peeing boy rather than a male stick figure on the door. Considering whether or not to take a photo of this door, we decided not to, which was a great choice, because immediately after a rather large (both horizontally and vertically) Czech bloke exited the men’s room and it would have been rather awkward had he caught us, camera in hand, taking a picture of him.
The food arrived soon afterwards. Good, traditional Eastern European food. We promptly ate it, ordered more beers, since I was now much more confident of my ability to use Polish to command the bidding of Czech waiters, and soon asked for the bill as well. Surprisingly, however, the bill came in the form of a three-digit number written on a piece of paper. Confident in the mathematical capabilities of Eastern Europeans, I called over one of the waiters, who by now seemed tipsy from all the Czech beer (yet another testament to how good it is). Unfortunately, they did not seem to understand the word for “pay separately” in Polish. Trying to say it very slowly as well as in German or in English seemed to bear little effect, but they talked to each other in Czech and one of them, disgruntled, took out a calculator, split the three digit number on the piece of paper by three, crossed the old number out and wrote the new one and passed the paper back to us. We gave up and each one of us paid equally. For some reason, this was probably the most interesting experience of the whole trip. We got to chill with locals, see how life’s worries are drunk away in Prague, and I absolutely fell in love with the city. And I learned a valuable lesson: if you cannot explain how to split a bill, it just adds to the fun of being immersed into another society when travelling.