Friday, February 16, 2018

Libeň La Vida Loca!

Life in a Grungy Industrial Prague Suburb

The corridor from Prague Libeň through Prague Holešovice has a reputation as being an ugly, dodgy section of Prague best avoided (say 'Palmovka' to a local and watch their face twist). This is mainly due to the dearth of abandoned factories, plants, manufacturers, and other industrial-age relics left behind when Soviet communism died a vodka-soaked death in the Eastern Bloc. These areas are now mostly inhabited by the poor. You can still see the tall, round brick smokestacks left behind in empty dirt lots, like phallic totems of the mighty proletariat.

I moved to Praha-Libeň quite by accident. I've lived in many areas in Prague over the years, including Strašnice, Bubeneč, Smíchov, Žižkov, Nové Město, Zahradní Město, Stodůlky, Řepy, and Letňany. A lot of expats prefer to live in more central, popular areas like Staré Město (Old Town), Vinohrady, Malá Strana or Žižkov. I prefer not to give the landlord parasites most of my earnings, so I live slightly further afield.  It also means I can live in cheap neighborhoods completely devoid of pretentious expat douchebags, which is its own reward.

Libeň la Vida Loca: a Micro-brewery and a Mexican Food Store

Even though I tend to live in unpopular areas relegated to the poor, unwashed masses (like me), I have a truffle-pig snout when it comes to rooting out the good shit in every area I've lived.  I used to take trams and buses to poor, punk, working class Žižkov all the time just for a drink, but many of my favorite bars there shut down. After moving to Libeň, I was very surprised to learn that there are some decent digs for food and beer right in my own dreary working class suburb.

I never thought a taco-teased, burrito-bombed California dude like me would find a place for real Mexican products in Prague. Then I stumbled down a narrow passage one day after a fried cheese binge and found Mexicali Mercado. There I found:

- Restaurant quality tortilla chips.
- Real corn tortillas in several sizes, from enchilada to street taco.
- Refried black beans, chipotles in adobo sauce, enchilada sauce, and mucho, mucho mas.
- A fresh food kitchen in the back. Admittedly, I skip this as I prefer to make massive amounts of comida Mexicana en me casa. Plus they once put red cabbage on my taco. Fuj.

Sadly, that once-mas-fina Mexican joint has succumbed to all the usual greed, incompetence and rudeness famous in Prague. I watched many of my favorite products double in price overnight, got bitched at when I questioned the padded bill, and mucho attitudo in general.  Chingala! I guess I'll have get my vida loca elsewhere. Fortunately, the Albert store in the nearby Harfa mall stocks the same tortilla chips for only five crowns more, plus half-price jalapeños.

In my day, they called small, non-industrial breweries 'micro-breweries.'  Now the term seems to be 'craft beer breweries.'  The difference is simple: micro-breweries make their own beer in many varieties and serve it to discriminating beer consumers for reasonable prices.  Craft breweries make their own beer in many varieties and serve it to fucking hipsters for twice the price.  Yes, I can say that because I am a discriminating beer consumer.

I like to walk along the path by the creek from the park and approach Kolčavka Pivovar from the back. I'm sneaky like that, plus I love the sound of burbling creeks to whet my appetite for beer. Kolčavka brews dark beer, strong dark beer, light beer, strong light beer, IPA, summer ales, winter ales, Irish red ales, bitters, bittersweets, seasonal beer, super strong beer, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Libeň: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are still signs of the usual poverty associated with cheaper and uglier areas.  I'm lucky enough to live on a nice street surrounded by older buildings with fancy facades that remind me a bit of the Old West towns in the States. Adjacent streets have ubytovny (boarding houses for imported Eastern European laborers), gypsy slums, and service warehouses.

Once I took a long walk on a dodgy trail on a hill overlooking Libeň, prodded along by my wife, who is allegedly concerned with my health, yet likes to prod my ass up dodgy trails to slippery precipices at every opportunity. I was just looking down to my left to avoid sliding down the hill, when she said 'watch out for needles! Junkie camps ahead. Junkie camps? What ever happened to your garden variety homeless camps?  I paused mid stride to evaluate my chances of either trodding on an HIV needle or sliding down a hill onto cold steel train tracks below, and I looked up. The sun was just setting over Libeň. I could see the train tracks below, and old warehouses and buildings with plants growing through their roofs. I couldn't see our flat, but I could easily see the O2 Arena, where I once heard Ennio Morricone conduct an orchestra playing his greatest movie hits of all time.

Several other islands of goodness are scattered across the landscape. A Chinese joint on Sokolovská offers an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet (11 am – 3 pm) for 109 crowns. My favorite local Czech pub, Kovářská, has the best fried cheese in Libeň. This area also features a high concentration of Vietnamese grocers and discount food outlets (aka Food Crypts), if you're into that sort of thing.

Libeň and the Winter of My Content

Once I took a Sunday stroll for a Sunday smažák. Zero degrees celsius with cold winds nipping at my nose and Jack Frost chewing on my ass.  I like cold, but Jack needs a muzzle.

Visions of dark beer and fried cheese dancing in my head; no dark beer today.  I've always enjoyed a dark beer on a cold day ever since my London/Dublin daze.  In Czech, you have to get used to things running out at any given time.  Kolčavka always rotates the beer stock, and offering Summer Ale in December seems like a perfectly Czech thing to do. So I ordered an IPA. They were not out of fried cheese. Those lucky bastards got to live another day.

This Californian has seen many snowy winters in Europe, and I still thrill at the first snow. Leaving Kolčavka that night, the previous wind chill was replaced by the pin pricks of ice crystals in the face.  I grinned and let them melt on my teeth. There were a few days in the last weeks where it only threatened to snow; barely-visible flecks of white dancing on the wind but never sticking to the ground. That shit doesn't count.  This was a right proper snow with white powder on the ground and  black footprints breaking through to the pavement. Along my path home, winter boot heels left their mark with tiny dog paw prints alongside. I could see the history of the snow dog's walk, his tiny feet breaking stride with his master to leave the path and mark a bush, or to bolt 90 degrees opposite to greet an oncoming human.

I walked by my favorite creek-side path passing under the fractured columns of the broken bridge, its blackened surfaces standing in stark contrast to the tiny snowflakes and brownish-black evening sky. The creek burbled and sang along with the thumping boot tempo of my bustling feet.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Full Kafka Jacket

A Virtual Metamorphosis in Prague

As mentioned before in previous posts, the wifey likes to drag my ass out of the house, kicking and screaming. She does most of the dragging and kicking, I do the screaming. In the summer, it's mostly about prodding me up slippery rocks to a near death experience on a precipice. With selfies.

In the winter, I get a brief reprieve from nature walks with the Black Widow in the form of cultural outings. Sure, as a wide body I much prefer to stay ensconced in my comfy black office chair while marinating in coffee for the entire winter. But eventually the chair's genuine Corinthian pleather seats need a breath of fresh air, and its creaking wheels need a goddamn break.

Enter: Goethe. He creeps up all stealthy-like, that dead German poet. He's got an entire institute by the river, dedicated to the language and culture of Deutschland. I'd never been there before, but last night marked a very unusual affair: a Kafkaesque exhibition, featuring a virtual reality experience wherein you become a giant bug.

Hot damn! What a great idea! It's like leaving the comfortable cyber-womb of home, riding the Metro, and being jacked back in to a 3D cyberworld! (Inner geek-child screams WAA-HOOOOO!!!!)

The quintessential Kafka story (read: my personal favorite) Metamorphosis is, was, and always will be the finest metaphor for insignificance and alienation ever written. Kafka published the book in 1915. He was clearly disenfranchised with the drudgery of selling his soul as an insurance office clerk in a faceless, Capitalist machine. Too bad he didn't live through the Czech communist period. Oh, the alienation he would have felt then. Can you imagine the novels?

Stir Fried Bugs and White Wine

Kafka was born in Prague in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since he wrote in German, he was naturally embraced by the Goethe Institute. I'm assuming. I like to do that. It doesn't matter. There was a waiting list to enter the virtual world. Just enough time to horse down a half dozen glasses of free wine.

Of course they put up several roadblocks to the obvious free wine pillager. Corridors clogged with people unable or unwilling to get the fuck out of my way. And a hippie stir frying actual (not virtual) bugs. Worms, roaches, and other creepy crawlies. Right in front of the corridor leading to das wein. Dafuq?

I'll never understand hippies. First, they're vegetarian. Then vegan. Then raw. There's nowhere to go from there but back up the damn food chain: bugs. “They're very rich in protein,” proclaimed the hippie chef. I knew it! Thought I, These vegan bastards are gagging for protein. And there is no better way to gag on your protein than to feel the crispy legs of a crusty cockroach clawing at your craw. The hippie chef informed my wife not to chew on the roach, but to chop it in half and suck the guts out. Fuck that freak (the hippie, not my wife). I skipped the creepy crawlies and proceeded directly to the free wine.

I didn't see any bottles, just glasses filled with white wine. I guzzled the first one to wash the imaginary taste of roach guts out of my mouth. There was a tingling behind my teeth and the front of my tongue (roachy?), and my experienced art palate told me that this fine bubbling sensation smacks of a fine Gewurztraminer. Or heavy sulfites. I can't possibly be sure, as my wine snobbery is limited to guzzling free wine at various art gallery openings around the world, from ghetto boxed wine to high end vintages way too fancy for my rock and roll lifestyle. This particular number turned out to be a very nice Riesling. I knew it had to be something German.

These people were taking the whole bug thing too far. It made me almost retch up my lunch nachos. The wife had no problem eating the bugs. I'd already seen her eat bugs at a fair in the mountains when we were in the States a few years back. But I've always assumed that mountain folk ate bugs. And tourists. But still. How in the holy hell do you eat a bug?

Gettin' Buggy With It (photo by Gabriela Sarževská) 

Half empty plates of bug carcasses lay pell-mell around the exhibition hall. Half torsos and thoraxes oozing goo, legs awash in soy sauce and red peppers. Gag me with a spoonful of bugs. I swaggered through the crowd, trying not to think about the bugs. I found cold comfort in a Berlin photography book in the bibliothek. Thank fuck for squats and riots in the 90s.

The Alienation Tent

I finally got buggy up in that beeyawtch. I donned slippers with plastic doodads digging into my feet, then the gloves and the magic helmet of doom. It was incredible. I've done the VR thing before, but this one takes the roach cake. My outstretched hands were now segmented, insectoid arms feebly fumbling for door handles. I had to find a key and unlock the virtual door.

An incredible view of Old Town Prague out of the virtual window, a small room with desks, drawers, and the mirror. The mirror! Spoiler alert! Look in the mirror! It was taking the video game world to a frightening level. I'm probably way behind the curve on this one, and there are probably already many modern video game dens full of pimply-faced geek-children with virtual realities strapped onto their socially-awkward actual realities.

After minutes of searching amid knocks at the door and calls for Gregor the Bug Man, I finally found the key, placed it in the keyhole, and turned the doorknob. What would be on the other side? Would the landlady whack me with a virtual broom and chuck an apple into my soft, white underbelly?

Find out for yourself in this ongoing exhibition, which runs now through March 31. Last night was the opening of the show, so you probably won't get to drink any free wine or eat any bugs. Unless that gawdawful hippie has nowhere better to go and nothing better to cook.