Travel Essay: Kenny’s Island

Late on a Monday night in a basement reggae bar, the lounging crowd is mostly from the same place, their old home in Western Africa. A balding man with deep wrinkles calls the bartender his “young brother” and drinks too many beers at the corner of the bar. He offers his joint to strangers and introduces everyone to the bartender, Kenny, in slurred English.

Kenny was the first black man I met in Prague. He owns the underground bar with cheap, sweet beer and walls covered in graffiti about Jah and Emperor Selassie. Middle-aged and quietly friendly, Kenny spends every night behind the bar, taking drink orders and selling weed. Grungy locals nimbly roll long spliffs and giggling international students shove the sticky clumps into pockets and purses. Kenny smiles and nods as he surveys the room. He has been happy here since he left Nigeria ten years ago.

“But that’s in the past,” Kenny said. “And I don’t talk about that now.”

In the midst of today’s vast refugee crisis, Kenny has a different story. His Africa is not one of war, impoverished villages or oppressive regimes that people give their lives to escape. Poverty and poor water access are problems in some parts of Nigeria, but Kenny had nothing to run from. The home he left in Lagos, a bustling port city with one of the strongest economies on the continent, was filled with fond memories. He doesn’t break his rule against dwelling on the past, but the warmth and vibrancy of Nigerian culture is alive in his bar and his new life in Prague.

Although he still visits Nigeria often, even just last month to see his family, Prague is Kenny’s home. He is proudly optimistic about the ex-Communist city that many find beautiful but bitter. To him, the atmosphere is friendly and tolerant. Kenny’s bar attracts tourists and foreign students, but it also welcomes adopted locals from the Nigerian immigrant community. Racism can be painfully common for Kenny and his African friends, but they focus on the positives of their city, hopeful that progress will come.

“There are people from all over the globe in Prague,” said Kenny. “Eventually they’ll come around.”

In between shaking hands and pouring pints of Staropramen, Kenny tells me the best parts about being Nigerian.  A thick silver chain thumps against his athletic chest as he laughs about the country’s eccentric film industry. Adored throughout Africa, Nollywood produces even more feature films per year than Hollywood and is famous for its low-budget productions with hilariously original story lines. “Beyonce versus Rihanna” is one of Kenny’s favorites, and he tells me to watch it on YouTube. Then we talked about literature, and Kenny swelled with pride for Chinua Achebe while yelling about his work over a DMX song.

“He’s a great writer, the greatest writer in all of Africa,” Kenny said with a wide smile. “He has a way of telling people’s stories, and telling the truth.”

These are the pieces of Nigeria that Kenny wants people to know. He often plays Nigerian and other African music in between reggae remixes to get drinkers and smokers onto the dancefloor. He’s convinced that the best parties in the world happen at Nigerian weddings, where everyone is welcome and lucky guests can collect fistfuls of the money showered on brides, wives and dancers. Friday and Saturday nights in Prague aren’t quite the same, but Kenny also knows how to throw a good party, complete with dance hall music and colorful lights strung on the walls. Sometimes his Nigerian friends take over the dance floor, he confessed. But anyone was welcome to come try and keep up with them. The best way Kenny knows how to bring his openness and acceptance to Prague is with good music.

“Bring all of your friends,” he told me. “Tell everyone they can come anytime. We can all dance together.”

 

Travel Essay: “Luka Lu Made in YU”

Шалим се, лепа. Cyrillic was scribbled on the inside of the styrofoam to-go box from the best dinner we’d had in months. “Just kidding, beautiful,” it said. “I knew he was a Serb, I knew it! I saw it in his eyes,” Jovana exclaimed with with an eye roll and a laugh. The young waiter had pretended to be confused when she spoke Serbian to him and insisted he was from Prague. The flirty joke reminded her of home. We declared the restaurant our new place and promised to go back to find out what town the Serbian waiter was from.  

Luka Lu is small bright restaurant in Malá Strana, an escape to a place that no longer exists. The Serbian and Bosnian waiters serve dishes from Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. But Luka Lu is proudly labeled only as Yugoslavian in celebration of the country that broke up almost 30 years ago.

Unlike the collective silence surrounding the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution and break from Russian communism, the memory of Yugoslavia is kept with pride and nostalgia. Czechs fight to forget a time in history when farmers were declared enemies of the state and the decades of food shortages and endless bread lines. Curious children who ask parents and grandparents about life under communism are often ignored. But in Luka Lu, fond memories of  a prospering Yugoslavia are kept through an abundance of traditional recipes. While the Czechs ate to work, relying on thick layers of butter and oily cured meats to stay full and warm, the Yugoslavians ate to relax and enjoy.

The patterned walls and colorfully mismatched table settings immediately distinguish Luka Lu from rustic but often bland Czech taverns. The menu is also a welcome break from the local beer, meat and potatoes standard. First, rakija is ordered before anything else. The homemade liquer is simultaneously fruity and strong, and the small glass is slowly enjoyed throughout the meal. For Serbians, it is not only an apertif, but a memory from childhood when it was used to clean scrapes and soothe sore throats. Then, thick, fluffy bread is served with spicy ayvar and creamy kajmak. The shopska salad is cool and crunchy, generously topped with shredded sirene cheese and the barbecued meats are warmly seasoned with fragrant spices. Each dish is a small piece of home, and the vibrant variety celebrates each country from Yugoslavia.  The bloody stains of the Balkan wars are temporarily overlooked – it’s what Yugoslavia used to be that counts in Luka Lu.

“Yugoslavia was the best country in the world,” a waiter named Bane said. “It’s never going to happen again.”

Bane is from a small town in Serbia, one stop away from Belgrade on the bus. He left 23 years ago and only returns for visits. For him, the Czech Republic is a better place to work, but it lacks the friendliness and openness that the ex-Yugoslavian countries have. One of the most important parts of Yugoslavian culture is teasing and making fun of each other, he said. But in the Czech Republic, these jokes are never understood.

“Everyone takes everything personally,” Bane said with a shrug. “Sometimes I think am crazy here, but when I go home I know I am OK.”

In Luka Lu, Bane and his coworkers can continue their tradition of playful hospitality. Talkative guests are offered extra glasses of rakija and short notes or smiley faces are written on to-go boxes. A Serbian girl celebrating her 21st birthday away from home was given a heaping piece of kremšnita while an old-time radio version of “Happy Birthday” played over the restaurant speakers. On the way out, sometimes the bartender will pour one last glass of bitter, herb-scented pelinkovac to wipe the taste buds clean.

Even after the kitchen is closed, no one is turned away or rushed. Lingering guests can enjoy their last sips of Macedonian house wine while the traditional Balkan music gets louder. The waiters and waitresses join the restaurant owner for a playful dance and forget about cleaning for a few minutes.

Eager to hear more about Serbia and Yugoslavia, I asked Bane question after question. He brought me another basket of bread, which I immediately slathered with the last remnants of ayvar. While my mouth was full of warm bread crust, I tried to ask a provocative question about tension and war after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Bane stopped my incoherent mumbling with a smile. “Take your food, and then we can talk about it,” he said.

Travel Essay: ANTIKVARIAT

The shelves in U Zlaté Číše are filled with snug rows of spines that overflow into piles on the floor. There are huge, dusty copies of the Old Testament, German story books and a collection of Goethe Werke. A colorful Czech alphabet book was almost falling apart, probably loved by too many children. There are photos of Bon Jovi, an antique atlas section and a French biography of Steve Jobs. The English section has Star Trek paperbacks, a guidebook to Ethiopia and Eritrea and posters of Elvis Presley. Kept under an elaborate crystal chandelier, the Czech section includes translations of the Koran, William Faulkner and an encyclopedia of Moravian fruits.

The alluring bookstore is an attraction to both visitors and locals. On a Thursday afternoon, two young American tourists stopped in and pointed at a framed Pilsner Urquell calendar.

“I want to get that for my Dad,” one said. “That’d be so dope.”

After they purchased a black and white postcard of Prague, a local man walked in, warmly greeting co-owner Jitka Karasová in Czech. His black wool beret and scruffy salt and pepper beard made him look like an off-duty philosophy professor. He quickly made himself at home among the antique photographs of anonymous couples dressed in furs and trench coats. They mindlessly flipped through the piles together, exchanging small talk and comparing photos. The man spies one on the top shelf, and Jitka climbs on top of a pile of books to reach it, but eventually resigns to a creaky ladder on wheels. They were briefly interrupted when a British woman came in, attracted by some of the antique prints of nude portraits in the store window. Jitka quickly pulled out a box of prints for her to sort through, but the woman insisted she was in a rush to meet friends for dinner. Like a classic Czech businesswoman, Jitka reminded the British tourist that these prints were “the most beautiful of their kind and sold only here for a good price.” The woman earnestly promised to return tomorrow.

Forty years ago, Jitka Karasová sold her books in secret. She hid banned books under the counter of the Socialist magazine shop where she worked, and sold them to special customers at great risk of punishment. Even 27 years after the fall of communism and the end of censorship, Jitka still has a noticeable fear in her eyes when she begs not to answer too many questions about her past. Since 1949, years before Jitka began working, lists of banned titles have been circulated by the Czechoslovakian government. Throughout the 1950’s libraries owned by monks were demolished. Public libraries were left standing, but only after they were emptied of anti-Soviet literature and authors such as Trotsky, T.G. Masaryk and Edvard Benes. About 27.5 million books were destroyed. In the ’60’s and ’70’s, a new wave of censorship took over the country. This time, bookshelves were cleared of anti-socialist literature, works that praised capitalism or pre-war Czechoslovakia and even “unproblematic works with problematic prefaces or epilogues,” according to the former Office of the Press and Information.

Three years after the fall of Communism in Prague, Jitka stopped selling state magazines and opened her own bookstore with her colleague, Antonin Herudek.

“We did it because we love books and loved to earn money without being in factory or under a boss,” said Jitka. “Under Communist period there were no good šefs.” Now that she is free from Communist rule, she opens her store on Nerudova in Malá Strana every day, only closing for an hour-long lunch break. The store offers books in Czech, German, English and French, as well as antique photos and maps. Both co-owners speak every language of the books they carry. Jitka leaves the counter to greet every customer in their own language and offer help navigating the crowded shelves. Her front desk is covered in postcards, bookmarks and felt sheets of antique pins, topped off with a bouquet of bright purple paper flowers.

In the beginning, keeping the business alive was not easy. Jitka and Antonin knew that books were a luxury for most people, something that there was not always money for. And even without strict censorship, there was still tension.

“After Communism, the quality of books was good, but we had to be careful what we said and what the books said,” explained Jitka.

But U Zlaté Číše has stayed open for 24 years and neither co-owner plans to retire. Even in old age, they enjoy doing their own buying for the store. But my questions about the buying process were politely declined.

“Every shop must have some secrets,” Jitka said with twinkling blue eyes. But there is one buying criteria she sticks to for books, maps, and photos: “They must be interesting.”

I have no idea how much time I spent shuffling in slow circles around U Zlaté Číše, but I ended up with a copy of Kafka’s Castle, a sleeve of Czechoslovakian postage stamps, a Czech-English paperback on the body and photography, and a small flipbook on women’s fashion in the 1960’s. Jitka thanked me for speaking slowly throughout our conversation, making a rocket gesture to demonstrate how American visitors usually spoke to her. Although she firmly reminded me she could not answer more questions about selling forbidden books, she did draw me a map of her favorite libraries in Prague. Then she carefully held each of my purchases and told me something about their history before adding up the total on an old calculator.

“I will give you discount and a nice bag,” Jitka said as she wrapped my books in a plastic bag with a kitten sitting on a pile of autumn leaves. “And come back to take some photographs,” she said with a smile. “We don’t have to be afraid.”