Beer Mystic Burp #3: Pivo is Czech for Beer

Pivo Is Czech for Beer But Also An Alter-Ego

From a Czech cookbook of cooking-with-beer recipes

In 1993, you could live like a bastard prince in Prague – if you had dollars to spend – on a pauper’s wages. Beer was 15 US cents – and we would repeat the names … Pilsner Urquell, Krušovice, Budvar from České Budějovice, Velkopopovický Kozel, Zlatý Bažant, Staropramen, Gambrinus, Braník, like exotic mantras. In my old Prague journals, I kept coming across the phrase “and more beer.” An entire restaurant meal for 2 with innumerable beers could be had for under $6. This made the fact that I was spending money I didn’t have and the other fact that Nina as a Prague school teacher was earning local wages [$100/mo] only a little easier to drink to.

On our way to the the landmark Café Nouveau [which closed in 1995-ish after a major bribery scandal], tour guidova Nina took me past the Loretto with its bearded woman on a crucifix and another monument to a martyr who cut off her breasts for god. We stopped in front of the Hotel Adria to stare at her favorite sign – ever – which stated quite simply in unadorned typography: Plausible Prices. Yes! Sinisterly reasonable, superficially pleasing, possibly worthy of belief.

To avoid the tourist crowds shuffling through the Café Nouveau, snapping pics of the chandeliers, carrying their guidebooks imploring them all to visit the Café Nouveau – no purchase necessary! – we headed with our generous steins of pilsner to the Whiskey Bar upstairs and their wonderful gallery seats, a place most did not dare or know to venture. Is that elitism? So be it then. But it is also discretion; here we could snuggle and grope safely with no chance that any of her students who have been known to come here to treat themselves to a kava or a nealkoholický nápoj [soft drink] passing by might spot us.

Slouched in our sense of luxury, we observe people below gliding in across the floor to sit down at the grand piano and begin playing as the bartender rushes to turn off the sound system. First a nerdy kid, then an older man in a cardigan, followed by a teen girl waiting patiently along the wall who then plays Satie quite exquisitely …

In the Whiskey Bar gallery you could idle away an entire afternoon, with your steins of beer and our plum-based Slivovica brandy poured furtively from the handy hip flask, a present from Deborah Pintonelli, into empty beer glasses … How strange to be making out to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker in Prague’s grandest café.

And suddenly it dawned on me: I so much loved the Czech word for beer [pivo] that I vowed it would eventually become the name of the Beer Mystic – and, indeed, Furman Pivo was rechristened there in those gallery seats.

The flask, I must add, was absolutely – ergonomically, aesthetically and pragmatically – a delight to hold and behold but at some point in our amorous tumbles it disappeared with out a sigh or thud, falling from my pocket, lost forever there in the café. A loss of a thing that hit me surprisingly hard. [I must have returned to the Nouveau half a dozen times to ask if anyone had found it – well, yea, somebody found it alright, they just didn’t bother to turn it in. I looked everywhere: among the seats, behind the trash bins, in the bathroom where I was suddenly distracted by the the sign – MIMOZ PROVOZ / OUT OF ORDER – above the urinal, immediately noting how beautiful like the name of an exotic flower or cocktail “out of order” sounded.

In Nina’s foreign workers dům [dorm], if we weren’t busy being harassed by the “other” American, Rick, a guy with a chip on his shoulder accentuated by a case of Tourettes – did he really once grab me by the shirt collar, pull me up into his face and threaten me with a certain kind of creative death [perhaps the very Czech method of defenestration?] if I ever used his frying pan again – we liked reading and I particularly like reading the literature of the place I’m staying in. I read Too Much A Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal [and have read it twice since] and realize Hrabel [or his character Hanta] is probably a quaffing forefather of the BEER MYSTIC because as he notes:

“I loathe drunkards, I drink to make me think better, to go to the heart of what I read, I … Drink so that what I read will prevent me from falling into everlasting sleep…”

In other words, with aid of beer and literature we gain insight, vision, clarity…

With Czech versions of “Mack the Knife,” “Sloop John B,” Donovan’s “Jennifer Juniper” and Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” on state radio I read how Hanta has spent 35 years working for a Prague compactor, recylcing books and waste paper. In the process, he has managed to save some 3 tons of Czechoslovakian banned books with which he has lined his apartment. Over time, he has drunk “so much beer … that it could fill an Olympic pool, an entire fish hatchery.” In his earlier days he fell for a gypsy girl who charmingly refills his 5-liter beer mug – until she is sent to a concentration camp.

Hanta not only saves these books but in the process absorbs them or, rather, he is absorbed by them, entering into another world of imagination, philosophical discussion and inebriation, verily sipping words “like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in him like alcohol, infusing brain and hear,” with the consumption of beer in proper measure further enhancing enlightenment.

He shares his cramped living and working space with the masters of art, thought and literature, wrapping art reproductions around the bales of waste paper, sometimes with a prized book in its heart like a diamond inside a piece of coal: trash as art as revenge. He is the genius who manages to conceal what he knows, acting the buffoon, as he transforms inebriation into illumination.

Yes, Hanta is most certainly a distant relative of the Beer Mystic because Hrabel manages to fold speculation, philosophy, inebriation and words into one another enabling Hanta to manufacture a life worth living in an eviscerated and gloomy society.

but, in the end, Hanta decides to join his doomed pearls of wisdom, one last time by actually entering the compactor to be even closer to his beloved philosophers Kant, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus… until he literally merges with the words, the text, the paper, producing a wonderful book full of strong beer and even stronger, very dark humor.

By the end of Nina’s tenure in Prague, the trustafarian litocracy, the Americans sent abroad to find the selves they weren’t sure they wanted to find, were already grumbling about the Czechs and the gentrification of Prague – they had discovered paradise and now businessmen were dealing fast to win contracts to put in a parking lot, and, in the process, Disney-fying Prague’s architecture so that tourists can safely consume exactly what it is they have paid for. Anyway, the American hipster scribes nursing their kavas in the Globe were already packing their bags and I heard one say to another “This place is fucked. Ho Chi Minh City is the next Prague.”

It is because of its relation to beer – having invented pils! – and the many rambunctious and inebriated wanderings into reverie in “old,” pre-amusement-park Prague that I wanted to be sure to include a host site located in Prague and found the eminently accommodating Grasp, a site dedicated to bilingual lit and aesthetics. Here you will find BEER MYSTIC exc. 8.

“I down so much beer to see the future… It’s my only defense against a beautiful misery.”
• Bohumel Hrabel

See more at BEER MYSTIC Pub Crawl or  BEER MYSTIC.

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6 thoughts on “Beer Mystic Burp #3: Pivo is Czech for Beer

  1. Bart – nice piece. I was in Prague for a much too short two weeks in the fall of ’91 (when pivo was a scant 10 cents a glass, I’ll have you know). Great beer, great taverns, you drink that stuff all night and not get a hangover. Great looking people too, really did what they could with not very much. You knew the place was changing, fast, and even with my limited Chezch, gleaned from a commie era phrasebook with almost monty python-like mistranslations, I got the sense from the people I met in the city that they were glad the commies were gone, yes, but they weren’t sure they liked what was moving in too much better . .. .

    Anyway, thanks for taking me back. LIke so many places, it was charming in transition but couldn’t last . . .I wonder if Ho Chi Minh City ever got on the map. On to the Beer Mystics . . .


  2. thanx, i agree about cz & praha. we met a lot of interesting people involved in arts and activism and yes there was a sense of trepidation and, indeed, the czechs being well-educated, knew what to call the invasion of western capita = a rapid deployment of branding and colonization… it was an interesting time.

  3. Bart,

    ‘rapid deployment of branding and colonization’ Perfect! The commies were dolts compared to the West who knew how to use much more sophisticated methods. Funny, even in 91, the expat community was mostly coming in looking for ways to make a buck. Maybe I wasn’t there long enough, but didn’t meet any expat artists at all, which surprised me at the time. I guess I was half-expecting 20’s Paris or something. But the Czecks were cool, reminded me a lot of Montrealers in the mid-80’s. or so. I wonder how it is now, how much they charge for a pivo in that tavern off the main square I used to go to with the sawdust on the floor.


  4. I like , bookmarked for future reference

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  5. Unfortunately, i didn’t make it to prague until about three yrs ago and found it exactly that, a disney-fied theme park, beautiful buildings and high end clothing with scant remnants of its former charm and culture. In other words a czech version of SOHO. It made me sad.

    1. bonny, its the way of commerce. some cities resist or survive these kinds of yuppifications better than others. what is needed is strong local govt to prevent house gouging. to make sure that all parts of the city are a mix of poor and rich and diversity. amsterdam tries this – social housing etc – but capital has its magical ways of setting the demographic agendas. yea, like soho, LES, chelsea, you name it all pioneered by intrepid people/artists and that is where money wants to be near to purchase its way into lifestyle – like use art/artists as the backdrop to their cellphone movies. and in no time there are no artists living there … you know the rest.

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