Thursday, June 02, 2016
ON THE AVENUES: A few beers at Vladimir’s local in Ostrava in June, 1989.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
In the summer of 1989, the city of Ostrava was the old-school, coal-fueled Pittsburgh of Communist Czechoslovakia, and an extremely unlikely tourist destination.
However, my Czech émigré friend George’s parents lived there, and they graciously hosted me for two weeks.
Their house was situated quite literally in the shadows of smokestacks rising from the Nové hutě Klementa Gottwalda, a sprawling postwar steel mill named for Czechoslovakia’s founding Communist luminary. The late Vladimir Motycka, George's stepfather, worked there as an engineer. Nearby, George's mother was employed as a secretary.
Vladimir was a hearty, hard-working man. In addition to his responsibilities at Czechoslovakia’s largest steel mill, he maintained two cows, a copse of plum trees and a tidy vegetable garden on a minuscule plot of land behind his home.
A typical day for Vladimir’s was a study in meticulously planned perpetual motion, punctuated by phrases in his native Czech, Slovak, Russian, Polish, German and the English he’d only started learning George went to the United States in 1986.
My first full day in Ostrava dawned rainy, sooty and bleak, fully in keeping with the prevailing industrial landscape. Vladimir had a few hours off work, and so he took me aboard the tram for a ride into the city center.
The tram route took us past block after block of gritty factory grounds, culminating with the barracks-like campus of a technical school. Then came what might have been middle class suburbs during the interwar period of the 1930s, when Czechoslovakia was a prosperous country, prior to the ravages of WWII and the subsequent backsliding of the Communist era.
We disembarked at the shabby but proud central square. Vladimir was quite well aware of my fondness for beer, and consequently we drank lunch at a nearby pub, where he was hailed by a table of friends as we entered.
Was everyone playing hooky from work that particular day?
Even before I’d finished mumbling garbled Czech pleasantries, a half-liter mug of local Ostravar beer already was waiting on the table in front of me.
The men were rough-hewn, wearing simple work clothes and smoking acrid, unfiltered cigarettes, which I politely refused. Vladimir’s friends worked physical jobs and appeared exhausted, but their eyes were bright and their curiosity jovial and genuine, for it was sheer novelty for an American to visit Ostrava. As we cradled big, fluted half-liter mugs of Ostravar, I searched for something meaningful to say.
Recalling the phrase that George’s uncle had taught me in Prague, I downed my beer and let it fly: “Chesko pivo je lepshi nez Americanitsky pivo.”
Frighteningly bad pronunciation notwithstanding, Vladimir’s friends roared with delight, because I’d just informed them in their own tongue that Czech beer was better than American beer. Not only was it a fine way of breaking the ice, but the words were by no means insincere at the time.
In 1989, the American-made "craft" beer revolution was still ahead for a lad from Louisville, and the typically well-made classic Czech lagers never got old. In the days to follow, roaming and adventure kept me exploring. I bought a map of Ostrava, rode cheap public transportation and walked all across the city. Every now and then, I’d get a sausage and a bottle or two of beer, sit on a bench and watch the world pass by.
On Sunday morning, during a light breakfast of coffee, cold cuts, tomatoes and cucumbers, George’s mother informed me that later in the afternoon the Motyckas were slated for a social visit or three. I was more than welcome to join them as they made the rounds. Of course I would.
As his wife left the kitchen, Vladimir leaned over conspiratorially, informing me that first, we had another important appointment to keep: “You must come to MY pub,” he said, taking pains to stress a regular customer’s sense of ownership.
Several minutes later, we began a vigorous 15-minute walk to his neighborhood watering hole. Several streets into the stroll, there came a shortcut across a vacant lot, following a well-worn footpath until it intersected with a rough concrete sidewalk. This led down a ramp into a urine-stained pedestrian passage underneath the railroad tracks facing a deserted suburban rail station, where we exited the tunnel. Unkempt weeds peeped through the crack in the platform by Track 1.
The day was fast becoming hot and muggy as we reached a hilly street proceeding dustily into the hazy distance. Vladimir abruptly halted and gestured at a small, nondescript building. I cannot recall signage or any indication of it being a pub (or “pivnice” in Czech), although there must have been. The door was open, and from our sidewalk vantage point, beers and their renters could be seen inside.
Square wooden tables were topped with clean, faded tablecloths. The room was small and spartan, and there was no bar as such, just a service counter in the Czech fashion of the day, extending outward on both sides of the draft beer dispensing station with a lone, solitary handle. There was no kitchen, although crunchy snack items were available. A dozen or so males were smoking and drinking beer, and many of them also had small tumblers of indeterminate liquid arranged in line with their mugs and ashtrays.
As I was about to discover, the liquid was none other than rum, albeit not to be confused with Caribbean rum as we Americans know it, but rather the raucously rotgut Central European variant, a concoction tasting of alcohol, brown sugar and artificial tropical flavorings -- perhaps flavored somewhat like planter’s punch, without any of the positive qualities one might expect from a freshly mixed cocktail.
Consequently, the rum was extremely popular, and I enjoyed it.
The brand of beer is lost to my memory, although it would have been one of three dominant regional brands: Ostravar, Zlatovar or Radegast, all familiarly styled lagers in the pilsner mode, and each with a devoted, clannish following among the workers and soccer fans of Ostrava. Probably it was Ostravar, and as such, perfectly acceptable as well as preferable to Pabst, Milwaukee’s Beast or the ghost of Iron City.
A work buddy of Vladimir’s was waiting for us. He had already gone through most of a pack of smokes, and the butts were threatening to spill over onto the tablecloth. They began to gossip about work, with an occasional pause to attempt an explanation of the topic in limited English. It was plenty enough to keep me entertained as the customers came, drank, and went, preparing for their own Sunday social engagements, errands and drunken naps.
Soon a bearded man in a blue tank top began glancing at us from an adjacent table. After eavesdropping for several minutes, he caught Vladimir’s attention and said a few words – maybe a joke, since the Czechs at my table were unable to contain their mirth at the stranger’s remark.
As it turned out, he had politely observed that Vladimir was speaking very good Czech for an American, to which Vladimir replied that while 50-odd years of clean Czech living surely had broadened his language skills, the only American in the room was this guy from Indiana.
In fact, the bearded man was a Cuban guest worker in Ostrava, and this juxtaposition of imported North American “enemies” was too much for the locals to pass up. He was invited to join us.
The Cuban knew some English, and he had learned passable Czech. As it transpired, he had a wife and children to support back home on the island and had married a Czech woman, as he could find no compelling reason not to maintain a second family during what was expected to be a lengthy stay abroad. The Cuban already had been to Angola, Ethiopia and other locales in the East Bloc.
Vladimir’s friends and the Cuban got on well, but foreign guest workers often were the subject of disapproval in Ostrava. For one, they were a visible and irksome symbol of Czechoslovakia’s subservient status as Soviet pawn, but it also owed to what I interpreted as a thinly-veiled racism. Many of the guest workers were from Vietnam and Africa; they were “different,” and quite naturally kept to themselves, which was construed as threatening by natives already unwilling to accept their presence.
It’s another story for another time, and a phenomenon by no means confined to Vladimir’s part of the world.
As one might imagine, the afternoon dissolved quickly into liquidity. Shots of rum and fresh beers came and went like the skewered, rapid fire images in a music video. Between gulps, we attempted to construct lists of words comprising all the languages present at a table that continued to attract newcomers as we drank. We’d count to twenty in Czech, English, Spanish, Russian, German and even French, then recite phrases (“I like to drink beer”) in each, ending inevitably by a collective and precipitous lapse into the slurred second language spoken by drinkers across the planet.
At some point, we trudged back home far later than originally anticipated. George’s mother awaited her husband and American guest at the door with frying pan in hand, which at first suggested a remarkably quick way of sobering up, but she was only washing the pan, nothing more. No injuries were suffered, at least until the following morning. Our social visits on Sunday evening were duly conducted in an atmosphere of dignified silence, with just a few beers for equilibrium.
When I think back these many years later, my Sunday afternoon at Vladimir’s neighborhood pub perfectly encapsulated a month in Czechoslovakia. The uncut weeds at the commuter train station, the dusty street, the threadbare yet functional pivnice and the Cuban guest worker combined to paint a picture of a nation caught in a time warp imposed on it from outside.
More importantly, the chatter and shop talk of Vladimir and his friends, my host’s exemplary work ethic and his well-organized days of achievement at home and at work, along with the multi-lingual conversations – simple yet comprehensible – revealed something about fundamental humanity, decency, and the similarities between the lives of people everywhere.
Six months after the sodden Sunday recounted here, the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia crumbled. Appropriately, the man who best symbolized the Velvet Revolution became the liberated nation’s president: Vaclav Havel, a beer drinker and former brewery worker (he wrote a bit, too). I persist in thinking that if Havel would have wandered into Vladimir’s pivnice on the day of my visit, he would have fit in quite nicely at our table.
Verily, to have the chance to learn so much in a single afternoon is a phenomenon to be cherished. To do so over mugs of fine local beer, shared with friendly people is much, much better.
May 26: ON THE AVENUES: On the crass exploitation and politicization of tragedy.
May 19: ON THE AVENUES: Requiem for the bored.
May 12: ON THE AVENUES: A design for life.
May 5: ON THE AVENUES: Getting back, moving forward, drinking coffee.
April 28: ON THE AVENUES: You know, the two-way streets column I wrote -- 7 years ago, in 2009.