Stood in my work clothes next to a pair of Czech junkies in what seemed to be an abandoned shopping centre, I guess I did feel slightly out of place. I was beginning to wonder whether I’d taken a wrong turn, and was about to risk being robbed of my budget phone to call a friend, when I noticed the name of the pub scrawled in tiny lettering next to a doorbell. Eager to leave the crackheads behind; I pressed the buzzer. “Ahoj!” came a voice from inside the machine. I panicked. Was there something I was meant to say? A password, perhaps? Some kind of codeword that pledged my allegiance to whatever was going on behind those doors? I apologized several times over, and after a baffled silence over at the other end, I regained my wits and stammered the name of the place; “Èítárna“, or “The Reading Room”.
The door opened and I walked into an empty, dark hallway in what looked to be one of those apartment blocks with art decor banisters and winding staircases. There were no signs, but I presumed I was supposed to walk up the stairs until some other little clue presented itself. 5 flights up and I’d approached this massive rusty iron grill, like the ones you’d imagine they have in places Notorious BIG visits when he’s not busy writing poetry. I walked tentatively through and into the foyer of an apartment that also had a bar, and which looked like it hadn’t had a makeover since communism ended. And, aside from the handful of typically pierced and stoned students with Czasta’s – (that’s Czech rastas, for those of you unacquainted with the Czun, or Czech pun) – the same could be said of its guests (the makeover, or Czakeover. not the Czun.) who seemed to be championing the fashion of the 70s. (By the way, If you’re finding this difficult to follow, that’s because I’m being deliberately Kafkaesque. Did you notice the door motif, the mysterious passageways and the disembodied voice? I was this close to describing my new exoskeleton, but thought that may have been a bit of a giveaway).
“Èítárna“, as it turned out, is a coffeehouse/pub that holds small lectures and jazz music events. The establishment also collects magazines and books, and is home to a very large and lonely fish who spends his days watching the comings and goings of Prague’s self-proclaimed intellectual crowd. Some say, in his salad days, he’d chat to Rilke about life in a fish tank, and inspired the Prague born German poet to write “Der Panther”. I walked past a poster of “Plastic People of the Universe” (the Czech rock n’ roll band partly responsible for the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia) and one of Frank Zappa (a famous Czech dissident during, and political figure after the Velvet Revolution, who, incidently also sang the classic; “Don’t you eat that Yellow Snow”), and ordered a drink at the bar. That’s when I spotted a young Jarvis Cocker lookalike, who peaked timidly over the top of his book and tactically moved it closer to me so that I could notice he was reading Wittgenstein. Sure, that kid seemed a bit of a, well, what Salinger (RIP, brother) would refer to as a phoney. But the place in itself seemed pretty authentic. I have to admit, I was pretty czuffed with myself for finding what seemed to be a secret ex-dissident hangout. I wanted to find out more about its history.
I got talking to a guy who looked like he’d been sitting on that mangy beige couch, pondering deep and meaningful things and blowing smoke rings since the Prague Spring. “Oh yes, this place is where all the Czech intellectuals (Czintellectuals?) have been coming to discuss politics, literature, and philosophy for decades. It had to be kept secret back then, of course, because the government were watching” he said proudly, stroking his ponytail and blinking behind his massive lenses. How exciting! “Really!” I exclaimed “Like who? Vaclav Havel?”, I peered eagerly around the room of chin-stroking fogies and detendu students brandishing gaulois cigarettes. “Oh, well, maybe not him, I don’t think. But others”. “Milan Kundera?” He shook his head. “Bohumil Hrabal? Vladimir Holan? Jan Beneš?” “Well. I don’t know. But this is where intellectuals have come to escape and discuss things for years!” Gesturing to his group of friends, he continued; “We’re here all the time, we don’t like to leave. Out there, people have got stupid.” His friends nodded. When asked why they thought that to be the case; each had his or her own opinion. One cried “globalization!”, the other “modern technology!”, another “Food!” (perhaps I misheard the last one. The Czech is still a bit ropey). My ponytailed friend finished; “Our society is stupid. But in this country, there is a revolution every 20 years. So we’ll just sit here and wait for the next one”.
After a tram ride home that involved a drunk and disorderly skinhead football hooligan getting thrown out of the carriage by a driver who may as well apply for a role in the next Rocky, I had my own little ponder about deep and meaningful things. I then typed in the name of the pub into google. Not much came up; no star studded frequenters or any indication that it was once a hot spot for political dissent. In fact, it only opened a couple of years ago.