Thursday, July 13, 2017

30 years ago today on THE BEER BEAT: The finest restorative Pilsner Urquell ever, upon arrival in Prague.

Our Warsaw hotel room.

Previously: 30 years ago today: Both Auschwitz and Lanzmann's Shoah.

Sunday, July 12 and Monday, July 13

At some point in the evening on Saturday, a sweaty quartet of exhausted Krakow sidetrippers returned to the Hotel Nowa Praga in Warsaw, just in time for the official end-of-tour departure party. Only one indelible memory remains of this event.

Among us was a college-aged San Franciscan of Polish extraction, who'd devoted time during our absence in Krakow to exploring family connections. During the course of his wanderings, whether by design or happenstance, natives had undertaken to tell him the story of Jerzy Popiełuszko, whose grave he visited.

Jerzy Popiełuszko (Polish pronunciation: [ˈjɛʐɨ popʲɛˈwuʂkɔ]; 14 September 1947 – 19 October 1984) was a Polish Roman Catholic priest who became associated with the opposition Solidarity trade union in communist Poland. He was murdered in 1984 by three agents of Służba Bezpieczeństwa (Security Service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs), who were shortly thereafter tried and convicted of the murder.

I recall the two of us talking at length during the party about the deep and sudden impact of Popiełuszko's legacy on my fellow traveler, and what it meant in the context of Polish freedom. Combined with my own morose reaction to Auschwitz earlier in the day, it may have been the most sober drunken evening of them all.

On Sunday afternoon, most of the group departed by bus for the airport to return to Copenhagen. I hadn't arrived in Moscow with the group, and I wouldn't be leaving with it. Barrie and I had tickets for the overnight train to Prague, and a there were a few hours left to kill.

A few of our tour mates also remained on hand; like us, they had planned differing exits. Our Polish tour guide Bozena was around, too, and so the stage was set for a carefree late afternoon and early evening. One by one, goodbyes, farewells and amens were said, until only two Hoosiers remained.

Dazed by meal of spaghetti and inexpensive Bulgarian cabernet, amazed at having uncovered a few bottles of Austrian-brewed Kaiser Bier at the Hotel Forum’s foreign currency bar, and largely unfazed at the prospect of the long trip ahead, Barrie and I stood alone in the shadow of the monstrous Stalinist Gothic Palace of Culture in downtown Warsaw.

We bowed to the edifice, and walked to the central train station to hop the sole overnight non-express to Czechoslovakia.

These being the days of waning Communism, our jovial mood couldn’t have lasted very long. Although our essential documents – passports, Czechoslovak visas, train tickets and couchette reservations – were in order, we had neglected to pack food and drink for the journey.

It was Sunday night. All the stores were closed, and mini-marts were in short supply in Communist Poland in 1987. Oddly, convenience had yet to be written into the five-year plan.

My backpack and Barrie's duffel bag bulged with Soviet black market booty, and we strained to lug them along while desperately foraging for victuals in the vicinity of the rail station’s platforms. Even with handfuls of colorful złoty, there was nothing to purchase except grainy licensed Swiss chocolate and returnable bottles of imitation cola.

The final whistle blew. We boarded hungry, and did the best we could to sleep in the stifling summer heat.

Twelve hours later the marathon rail crawl finally ground to a halt, and we stumbled into Praha hlavní nádraží station looking like bedraggled refugees from a war zone. Stomachs audibly growling, poorly rested, filthy and quite thirsty, the sodas having long since been drained, we dragged our belongings to the baggage storage check and lightened the load.

Departing the station, we were treated to our first glimpses of Prague’s timeless majesty and the city’s then-current reality: Standing in front of the museum at the top of the long, gentle rise of Wenceslas Square, against a backdrop of the old city sparkling in a bright morning sun, a taxi driver sidled over and asked us if we’d like to change money.

Several minutes later, one of the three official room finding agencies placed us for three nights in an athletic club dormitory on the far outskirts of the city. It would be several hours before we could check into the room, and probably another hour to get there.

Starving and parched, we were cast into the mysterious, gorgeous, crumbling city to fend for ourselves.

Exhilaration temporarily overcame fatigue as we ventured into the winding streets, over cobbled roadways and through strange arches. Soon, to our growing excitement, we found that the city boasted more than spires, spies, stucco and scaffolding – beer was all around us, and at last, pubs were in abundance.

After two weeks in the Polish and Soviet lands, where vodka reigned supreme, we were in Bohemia, the Euphrates of European lager brewing tradition, and the home of the original Pilsner beer.

We resolved to walk a just bit more before finding a good place to enjoy a draft beer – preferably Pilsner Urquell or Staropramen, or another Prague brand if necessary.

Armed only with an inadequate tourist map, Barrie and I crossed the Vltava River on the famed Charles Bridge, ascended Castle Hill, wandered down the other side, crossed the river again at a second bridge, and finally were devoured by the twisting alleyways that we knew eventually led back to Wenceslas Square.

A garden variety sight during our walk.

At length, having paused briefly two hours earlier for sausages dispensed from a tiny streetside window, we glimpsed the familiar green script of Pilsner Urquell adorning the façade of a faded, orange-and-pink-painted building.

Fate at Two Cats.

The final steps were the hardest. We passed through the stout wooden doors of U Dvou koček (At Two Cats), where Pilsner Urquell indeed was the house beer, the daily beer, and in fact the only beer available.

Blissfully unaware of protocol, we slumped heavily into wooden benches in an interior hallway. Unconsciously drooling, our beleaguered senses slowly were revived by the cozy, smoky, conspiratorial warmth of the main room, where clusters of Czech workers, students, soldiers and officials sat conversing.

Huge platters of pork and dumplings sat before many of the customers, but to man, each and every patron cradled an indescribably lovely mug of beer – and make no mistake: They were glass mugs, not the more stylish half-liter glasses that supplanted them not long afterward. It seemed too good to be true … and almost was.

Alarmingly, the waiters completely ignored us.

I limped to the long, imposing counter where a brawny, mustachioed man stood next to a pair of matching taps, both pouring the exact same nectar, and with a wheeled cart filled with clean mugs. Mustering my courage, I flashed four fingers and muttered, “Pivo, prosim,” having miraculously recalled the proper words without stealing a glance at the guidebook buried somewhere in my day pack.

He looked at me quite seriously, then smiled and complied, relieving me of roughly $2.00 while pushing four half-liter drafts across the slick countertop.

The brilliant golden liquid was cool, not ice-cold; frozen beer only numbs the palate, and though appropriate for Pabst, it certainly isn’t necessary for anything as grand as Urquell.

The noble hop aroma was evident and enticing, fighting through the billowing white head to reach my nose even at arm’s length.

Everything about the beer itself and the venue in which it was about to be consumed spoke of quality, respect, tradition, and the sheer, unbridled joy that one feels to be an adult and to think, feel and understand what is good about life.

When Barrie saw me approach, he bolted from the wooden bench and fell to his knees in a spontaneous demonstration of faith and appreciation that I’ve seldom witnessed in any church – such was the genuine, heartfelt intensity prefacing his gesture of supplication.

Seconds later I spotted his eyes, wet with unrestrained tears, his cheeks flecked with beer foam, all visible through the thick base of an empty upturned mug.

Needless to say, my reaction was comparable. I’ll never forget this moment of triumph and revelation, of this sense of beer ecstasy that will never be understood or truly appreciated by anyone who defines beer by the number of calories it contains or the volume of advertising revenue it commands.

Ominously, the alcohol went straight to my head ... and we still had to find our lodgings.

Next: We do Prague and Plzen.

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