By Paul Scraton:
On the banks of the river we take a last look downstream, towards the Charles Bridge and the castle on the hill, before we retreat from the cold into the warm embrace of the Cafe Slavia. A chalkboard tells us we will be more comfortable, and they will be better able to serve us, if we leave our jackets with the friendly cloakroom attendant, who passes us a numbered raffle ticket in exchange for 5Kc and our things. The main room of the cafe is packed, as waiters in starched, white shirts and black bowties move between the occupied tables, the air filled with conversation, the hiss of the coffee machine, and a thick fug of cigarette smoke. The Cafe Slavia has been a meeting point opposite the National Theatre for over 130 years and today appears to be no different, and with no play on tonight across the street, no-one is in a hurry to leave.
We retreat to the room next-door, smoke-free and thus emptier. We find a table and order beers. Soon we will have placed in front of us plates of food – rabbit with thyme and cream, poached chicken, breaded schnitzel – that have probably been on the menu for thirteen decades. But like the waiters’ uniform and the cloakroom, if it has worked for all this time it still works now, so why change? We relax amidst the pot-plants and the polished wood, art nouveau theatre posters and black and white photography. The only nods to modernity are the wi-fi signals linking the laptops of 21st century poets to the outside world and a flat-screen television, hanging above the bar. But although it is tuned to music television the sound is down, and main thing we can hear is the low-level conversations at the next tables.
Two men are talking in Czech, and because of the place and the fact that I cannot understand them, I like to imagine them as the next in a long line of literary visitors to the Slavia, discussing their work or the politics of the streets outside. There is of course every chance that they are talking about the Macklemore video now being silently screened above the whiskey bottles behind the bar but linguistic ignorance allows me to pretend they are a modern-day Kafka and Rilke, with Havel looking approvingly on… although the reality is, they would probably be next-door in the main room, filled with life and smoke. Where the action is.
At another table a mother and daughter cast their eyes over the menu – recommended side dishes NOT included – as a large beer (mum) and a diet coke (daughter) are delivered to the table. The napkins that stand in a rack between them, next to the cutlery, proclaim a Cafe Slavia since 1881, although the internet claims 1884. No matter, it is long enough, and I think of the different Pragues that have existed beyond the high windows and the awnings that frame the view. The Habsburgs and the Czech national revival. Independence as Czechoslavakia with Prague as its capital. Nazi Germany and Communism. The Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution. NATO. EU. Schengen. And what next… I could ask the young men at the next table but they have already gone, collected their coats and stepped out into the Prague night. Time, then, for another beer. We can spend a little while longer in this cafe by the river.