Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Euro Train Dining Car

Or How to Avoid the Huddled Unwashed Masses in Style

Photo via Flickr by EURIST e.V.
I am one of those traveling fools who wants to have his seat and sit in it too.  But this is not so easy on the Euro trains.  Oh no. You need to book well in advance to get a good deal, then you need to reserve your seat.  Then they will assign you the wrong seat on the wrong train in a missing row of seats in a wagon that doesn't exist.  After they charge you extra, of course. Through the arguments with train conductors, conflicts with fellow passengers, standing in lines for refunds for botched seat assignments, I've learned one important lesson: skip the seat reservation.  Roll the dice.  You may as well, you get roulette-table odds on your seat reservations anyway. Best case scenario: there are empty seats on the train for you, for free. Worst case scenario: you don't buy the seat reservation, all seats are taken, and you get to sit in the dining car and spend that 10 bux on booze.

Your Seat or Your Cajones

I've made the train journey between Prague and Berlin at least 40 or 50 times for work (I'm a photographer, lucky me!) and no trip is ever the same.  On one crowded train, I had plunked my ass down in one of those ubiquitous Euro train compartments with the bench seats facing each other.  I didn't have a reservation on this particular trip, mainly because I was still bitter about how my last seat reservation had left me wandering the corridors aimlessly.  An older Spanish couple sat across from me, and from the get-go they were waving the arms and rolling the tongues.  I love Mediterranean types.  I gathered from my shitty high school Spanish and their body English (heh), that they were not sure of their seats.  The woman pointed to their tickets and their seats, and I understood that she was concerned about the reserved status of these particular seats.  I only heard the word 'cajones' and I completely reconstructed their entire conversation from the bottom up, as it were.

Photo via Flickr by fireboat895

"Husband, we are not in the right seats!


"If someone comes with a reservation, they will force us to leave!"

"They don't have the CAJONES!"

Enter: tall blond German man with square jaw and beady blue eyes, accompanied by a buxom blonde with Heidi braids, showing the couple his ticket for those exact seats.

"Entschuldigan sie, bitte, das is mein platz."


The Spanish couple left. No cajones were shown or compared, but if you have the winds of the Blitzkrieg and the Holocaust in your sails, this will suffice. So getten sie fick aus mein sitz, bitte.

Roll the Dice: Skip the Reservation

I used to buy the seat reservation.  But after receiving reservations for a wagon that didn't exist, a row of seats that didn't exist, and/or seats that crushed my knees into garbage cans, I gave up on the scam. It's even worse when there's an empty fucking train. All of your reservation money went straight down the train toilet boghole onto the tracks.

Don't buy the damn reservation.  Just take a chance. Between Prague and Berlin, it's 5 EUR per seat, per person, each direction.  For that price, I'd rather pour that money down my gullet by way of booze in the dining car. Avoid the huddled masses. Pass the rolling bistro on wheels pushed by a person waiting to be put out of their misery, step over the 600 metric fucktons of luggage and sprawling hippie backpackers, pass the toilets, and you will see the light: the dining car.  The most romantic part of the train.  They've got those little globe lights on the tables by the windows—even in broad daylight.

Big Sir's Tip o' the Morning

Czech Railways offers dining car happy hours with nice discounts on food and drink.  There's a long list of the hours and train numbers of each train offering the discount, but this is confusing as fuck.  Rule of thumb: if you are on the train and inside the Czech borders, you get a discount.  Once you leave Czechia, the prices double.  So if you are leaving Prague on a morning train, you'll have to start drinking early to save money.  Even if you don't need to save money, drink booze from morning til night anyway, in or out of the dining car. You're on a Euro train.  This is not only totally acceptable, it is mandatory.
Photo via Flickr by miroslav.volek

Monday, October 2, 2017

Tales From the Food Crypt

Wading Through Aisles of Expired Food in Prague

If you're just passing through Prague, you won't notice them. They're harmless looking grocery stores that you would easily pass in favor of supermarket chains like Albert, Tesco, Kaufland, or Lidl. You would be correct in your passing. But I'm here to tell you how the other half lives.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the levne potraviny, aka 'cheap groceries.' These places are just chock full of expired goods and bads from rich Western countries. And people shop there. And more of these stores open every year. People are too poor to care, so they shop, they buy, and they suck down more old sausages than a train station hooker.

Top 10 Least Successful Food Chains

I'll never forget one of Letterman's Top 10 Lists, which featured names of the least successful food chains. But I could only remember 'Food Crypt' and 'Risky's.' So I Googled the motherhumper:

Top 10 Least Popular Supermarket Chains - May 3, 1990

10. Pick 'n' Lick
9. Larva Town
8. Food Crypt
7. Risky's
6. Price Hiker
5. Rex Reed's Grocery Rodeo
4. The Expiration Date Grab Bag
3. I'm-Not-Wearing Pantry
2. Hitler's
1. Bag This!

Since Germany and Austria border Czechia, it's probably too soon to open a Hitler's. But The Expiration Date Grab Bag is open for business, and it's turning a brisk trade.

Prague Suburbs: Industrial Wastelands and Soviet Housing Blocks

It wasn't always this way. In Commie Times, Czechs huddled in their cozy concrete high rise flats with fizzling sparks of socialist joy warming their cold hearts. There were exactly two shops: the one where they bought all of the usual Czech sludge: goulash, dumplings and cabbage, and the one where they stood in line for hours to get oranges, bananas, or any other fruits from warm countries outside of the frozen Eastern Bloc.

I've lived in a few panelaky, or gray, Commie housing blocks. They crush the soul, truly they do. Now I live in an old 1900s, pre-Soviet building in an industrial suburb, as usual, not because I can't afford to live in the tourist-besieged Prague center, but because I like cheap rent. And quiet nights. I live in Praha-Liben, a downtrodden neighborhood that is slowly looking up. My Libenese neighbors are mostly poor working class folks living in a few old, crumbling buildings.

The sprawling O2 Arena and mall complex are at the end of our street, and in between us and mass consumerism are some newfangled apartments for a mish-mash of various nouveau-riche slobs from Slobovia, One street over, there's a few ubytovna buildings, or dorm housing for Ukie laborers. And there's your garden variety poor Czechs who pine away for the good old days of Communism in their absinthe dementia.

The Expiration Date Grab Bag

Czechia has long been a dumping ground for inferior goods from richer countries. What's worse, the exact same German brand of juice you buy in Germany for 1 EUR is 2 EUR here. And it's worse quality. And Czechs make half what the Germans make. But one thing is certain: they don't throw away their food here like in Western countries. They just drop the prices.

So we go to the Food Crypt or the Risky's. There are at least three in our neighborhood, which tells you all you need to know. I buy expired food and I'm not ashamed. It's radically reduced in price, and mostly familiar Western brands. So what if the box of Kellogg's Special K breakfast bars are a few months after the sell-by date? There are enough preservatives in those little chocolate bastards to embalm an elephant. And they cost a quarter per box, rather than 1 EUR. Now THAT's economy. I save money on both food and embalming.

Not all foods are expired. Some are past their 'best by' date, and some poor products are just victims of bad marketing or differences in consumer tastes. Central Europeans hate spicy things, so there is a dearth of spicy sauces, Cajun whatsits, South American marinades, and exotic BBQ sauces at discount prices. I buy them all. My wife thinks I'm mad. But no two BBQ sessions taste the same, I tell ya.

Shopping With Various Slobs From Slobovia

The Food Crypt is full of a fine cast of characters. We don't have Walmart. We have the Food Crypt. I can show up in my worst clothes, unwashed, hair sticking up, tartar sauce on the crotch of my trousers, and nobody bats an eye. The other day I entered the Crypt. A hunched homunculus with a walrus mustache, coke bottle glasses, greasy ball cap, and a fake gold chain crossed my path. He was wearing a faded t-shirt with English lettering (a perennial favorite here): Czech Made Man. It was almost like the cover of that Fat Boy Slim album. He and the usual assortment of gypsies, tramps and thieves were wandering the aisles. I don't know which of those categories I fall into, but I'm leaning toward the tramp.

Sucking Down More Klobasa Than a Train Station Hooker

I pick up a box of my favorite expired breakfast embalming bars, skip over the expired chips and dips, and head to the meat section. There is always a human clog in the meat section at all times. Not just because Czechs are big meat eaters (heh), but because there is an actual law the prevents the selling of expired meats in the EU. So there I head, looking for discount salamis thrown over from Germany. My favorite brand of smoked salami is Houdek, a Czech-sounding-yet-made-in-Germany brand. They're extra smokey and delicious. And the meat is of a higher quality than the usual tubes of lips and assholes you buy in Czechia.

Score! There, wedged in between the slab of greasy bacon and the hunk of unidentified meat! Houdek kabanos, with cheese! My favorite! Whoa, mama, I could hardly find these babies in Germany, they were so popular. There they were 2 EUR for a pack of two. Here they are only 75 cents per package. So I bought almost ALL OF THEM. Why not? They don't expire til the end of November, and I have a big freezer.

So I swaggered out of the Food Crypt with an armload of German salami and a 3-liter box of Italian wine. All for less than a tenner. I don't plan to live on this diet for too long. And if it keeps up, I probably won't. But I am a Wide Body Jetsetter living LARGE in Post-Communist Czechia. And a Czigga's gotta eat.

"Get Your Old School Cartoon Bombs Here!"