James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Eating BLTs in Prague

For decades, travel writers advised Americans heading abroad to leave their bluejeans at home. Jeans quickly mark you, even at a distance, as an American, they said, and that makes you a target for hustlers.

Now it's really easy to identify Americans in Europe.

We're the only travelers not wearing jeans.

Hustlers don't care whether you're American or Japanese, anyway, of course.

It's true that in some cases you can tell the Europeans and Asians from Americans even should one of us actually wear that universal blue garment. European jeans tend to have subtle or not-so-subtle vertical stripes in their fabric, and some worn by the young have really odd dye jobs such as phony, highly contrasting “fade” patches on each cheek and at the knees, or maybe perfect ovals just on the front of the thighs.

You can't count on that for identification, though. During a recent three weeks in central Europe, I also saw Teutonic hordes and what might have been the entire populations of certain Milanese neighborhoods wearing Levis.

If you're going to Europe and want to avoid quick identification as a citizen of the United States – a rational desire – wear your American jeans as well as your Canadian flag pin.

That way it might take the average native of the places you go as much as 30 seconds to identify your country of origin.

They ain't stupid.

So, yes. My wife and I just spent some time in Budapest and Vienna and considerably longer in Prague, riding trains between cities. Sometimes we wore jeans, more often not.

One result of this broadening experience is that I will never be able to look another dish of goulash in the face.

Mention your trip to Hungary or the Czech Republic and everybody asks: Did you eat some goulash?

Well...Did you ever eat a hamburger in the United States?

It's barely possible but highly unlikely that you can go to any of those cities and avoid a confrontation with a plate of goulash.

By the end of our first week, we were carefully checking out the outside-posted menus of restaurants and entering only those that offered substantial lists of dishes other than goulash.

Fact: Goulash in the region in which it originated is different from the garbage -- uh, I mean the hotdish with noodles and hamburger --that is called goulash in small towns along the Mississippi and in church basements in Fridley and Fresno. It's also pretty darned good, in all its seemingly infinite but subtle variety.

I saw a restaurant in Prague that advertised five types of goulash. As a real down-home staple in central Europe, it tends to be different in every household. It generally includes substantial hunks of tender beef in some sort of sauce, generally one that is heavy on cream. No noodles.

As I said, it's usually good. But enough is enough already.

I could almost hear my arteries clogging, and I wanted to save the honor of providing the final clot for some of the superb pastry that one finds in coffee shops and bakeries all over that part of the world.

Probably the saddest, most disappointing day of our trip ended with a quick meal in a bar-restaurant in Vienna, however, and had nothing to do with goulash. We had eaten a late lunch, and didn't want a big dinner, so I ordered a common pub-type Viennese snack – two slender foot-long wieners with sauerkraut and a few small boiled potatoes.

It is my sad, not to say disgusting, duty to inform you that Oscar Meyer has it right.

The Viennese wiener is bland, with a revoltingly smooth texture that makes you suspect it contains mainly finely ground gristle and intestines. It tastes and feels exactly like the wieners that Oscar Meyer pitches to children because no sensate adult can choke them down.

Other than that miserable excuse for a sausage, it is difficult to get a light lunch in central Europe. Luncheon menus and dinner menus vary little, if at all -- unless you go to Burger King, which has far more outlets than MacDonald's in most the the region's cities. We generally aren't interested in their offerings here, so we weren't going to encourage their existence in Europe.

Imagine our pleasure, therefore, when we discovered that our hotel in Prague, a Clarion, probably owned at least partially by an American company, served BLTs in its bar during the lunch hours. We weren't often at the hotel at that time, but we did get a couple of BLTs, and they were excellent, with crisp bacon, crisp lettuce and good tomatoes.

The hotel's dining room wouldn't serve the things, however. So the bartender in the generally almost empty bar had to trot across the lobby (which involved climbing some steps) to the dining room kitchen to put in the order and again to retrieve the sandwiches. He was not happy about the arrangement.

Tough. He got more than the usual European tip of 10 percent from us. Bacon and all, I probably avoided 2,000 calories and one blocked artery by having two BLT lunches. Hungarians, Austrians and Czechs do love cream and butter. Their cooking is delicious but deadly.

Now an encouraging note about central Europe: Lawyers obviously do not hold total sway over the region.

We could tell that from the hotel bathtubs.

They are high. They have slippery surfaces, and non-slip rubber pads are not provided. Each shower or bath is equal to a sky dive in danger and thrills. Each and every dismount should be scored.

I'm in unusually good shape and am unusually flexible for one of my advanced age, but I found the act of getting out of the tub after a shower an intimidating task. Standing on the floor of the bathroom in all three of the hotels we occupied, the top of the tub was level with my upper thigh, just below the butt.

The fact that I avoided injury for three weeks while bathing daily provided me with a source of considerable pride and sense of accomplishment.

You've bungee jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge? Big deal. Have you ever climbed wet out of a Czech bath tub?

A sad revelation: Good King Wenceslas is a fraud.

Born in 907, the man existed, but he was only a duke.

He was a pretty good guy, though, as 10th century aristocrats went, if you don't mind a few brutal murders and a bit of torture on behalf of Catholicism. He's still much admired in the vicinity of Prague, where he was born, though they find the English Christmas carol rather silly and do not sing it.

And speaking of murder: Bohemian noblemen (a questionable word in any country) had an interesting game involving royals who didn't treat them and their property with what they regarded as a reasonable degree of respect. It's called defenestration.

The word means the act of throwing something out a window.

In the case of the Bohemians, the favorite something for throwing was a prince or a king, and the windows generally were several stories up in some portion of the immense Prague castle. Landing spots tended to be paved with stone.

Several royals lost the game over the centuries. Another one, who later became a saint, wasn't technically a player in defenestration, since he was tossed off a bridge, which was later named after him, but the result was pretty much the same. Splat.

How high are the windows in the Oval Office?

Sorry, I digress. Just a stray thought.

The Bohemian nobles blew it once, which probably robbed the sport of much of its zest and contributed to its eventual demise. They tossed three people out the windows of a castle conference room (yes, sadly, they had conference rooms in the Middle Ages) but failed to scout the ground below beforehand. It was a garden, only about three stories down, and all of the tossees survived and escaped to cause additional problems for the period's equivalent of our corporate executives.

A folk tale: The old city square in Prague has a squat Gothic tower built in 1308. In the tower is one of the scientific wonders of that age and, in fact, a wonder that keeps folks gawking in awe today. It is an astronomical clock built in 1407 by one brilliant man whose name escapes me and which you wouldn't recognize anyway.

The clock shows phases of the sun and moon, the month, day, year, etc., etc. Also the time of day. And at each hour's chiming, the Twelve Apostles parade past a couple of windows and the figure of death does a little jig and some other charming events take place. The thing has always worked, requiring only some maintenance and rare minor repair, since it was built. All of this is true.

But a popular story has it that the town fathers rewarded the genius who created the thing by having his eyes poked out so that he couldn't build another such marvel for another town.

Turns out it's not true, though the threat of blinding may have been real.

Those 15th century municipal bigwigs were full of fun, just like the guys up in the castle across the river (and over the bridge from whence the to-be saint was launched).

Just one more stray observation:

Hungarian and Czech history is loaded with saints – very big deals – whose names are unknown in this country and, I gather, in western Europe. Also, both countries, have produced droves of superb painters and sculptors whose names we'd never heard and whose works we'd never seen.

My wife and I wandered through a couple of major art museums and were shocked at the high quality work by people obviously held in great reverence in their native lands but unknown to us. (The shock came from our own ignorance of the artists, not the high quality of the work.)

About the time we left one of the museums the answer dawned on me. If you're a Czech artist, even a brilliant artist, and you have a typical Czech name, you'd better get yourself a good western-sounding handle or give up any hope of fame in the wider world.

A couple of the guys whose work we saw for the first time were active in France in the 19th century, going in the same directions as other Impressionists and well known and accepted by them as equals.

But who in England, France or America will take the time to learn the names of Jana Hladikova-Bernkopfova or Zdenek Nemastil?

They're not all that difficult, of course, but we're notoriously lazy about names that sound “foreign” to us, and the Brits are even worse.

There is one exception: The worldwide king of art neuvou, Alfons Mucha, who turned commercial art on its ear in the late 19th century, and brought it at least close to the level of fine art. Of course, his name is easy enough to remember, and westerners altered his first name, spelling it Alphonse.

Such is fame.

I came home from this European jaunt happy and lighthearted – having quickly realized that CNN in Europe is even more stupid and caters even more heavily than it did just a couple of years ago to self-proud American and British business people. It is even worse than the version we see in America. I stopped watching and regained serenity.

It took little more than 24 hours after clearing U.S. Customs to lose much of the joy that seemed so natural over there.

More of that in the following piece.