The Window Nook

Adventures in living abroad

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Reflections on a Lunch Hour

As I enter the bistro, the squeak and rumble of the passing trams is replaced by the muted clink of glasses and the hum of conversation. A bartender stands at the long counter, expertly pouring multiple glasses of beer and wine. Waitresses step quickly between tables, bringing steaming bowls of soup or plates heaped with beef bourgignon to each table. After a full morning of teaching two individual and two group classes, I am famished. I grab the last seat at the bar, motion to the bartender, and request the creamed pea soup with mint and one of the lunch options. Since discovering this small restaurant across the street from ¬†my last class of the morning, I have become a regular patron here, and come at least three times a week. Many restaurants throughout Prague, including this one, serve lunch menus, often with two to four lunch options and a soup of the day, priced within the range of the stravenky (lunch coupons) that many businesses offer their employees. I’ve found that I can easily get a delicious lunch in the hour or so between classes, and the warm soups are an excellent antidote to the freezing winds that have recently become a part of the daily weather.
The pea cream soup is thick and rich, and I eagerly tear up a few chunks of bread to dip into the broth as well. As I savor the flavor of mint melded into this creamy bisque, I realize how much of my adaption to Prague has come through the medium of food. Wandering through farmers markets, tasting knedlik (dumplings) for the first time, learning how to cook roasted pumpkin soup: all these have been stepping stones in the cultural adjustment of living in a European city. When it is bitter and cold outside, I brew a strong cup of rooibos tea, inhaling the strong and vibrant aroma. Last week, when the sky turned wintry and gray, I promptly bought a sturdy pumpkin to chop and roast with spices. Weekend mornings are often marked with breakfasts of Czech bacon and Dutch pancakes, a recipe that I brought from home. When I need comfort food, I roast a chicken and relish the way the scent follows me into the study, reminding me just how hungry I am. For me, food is more than a daily chore or delight, it is a way to make sense of a new culture and rhythm. It quantifies, defines, measures and calculates the pattern of the days and weeks. In learning the specialties or comfort foods of a new city, I understand the culture that much more.
In the eleven months that I have lived in Prague, so many new things have gradually become a normal part of my day. Catching a tram in the morning to get to work. Learning to order coffee in Czech, or how to ask the grocery store clerk on which aisle I can find the flour. Learning to turn on a gas heater, to lock a door with European locks, or cross a street with both car and tram lanes. Waking up each morning to a view five stories up, riding an elevator that speaks to me in Czech, and walking on cobblestones when I step outside my apartment building.¬†Finding my way in a medieval city with few straight roads and even less street signs. Learning that ‘no’ is actually Czech for ‘yes’. Walking to church every week through the perfectly manicured Senate gardens, with the towers of Prague Castle lit by the morning sun. Developing a sense for arriving at a tram stop just in time for the next tram, knowing which small streets will lead to hole-in-the-wall restaurants with fabulous food, and knowing how to navigate back to the nearest metro stop. Learning how to pick a good potraviny to frequent (the ones where they give they tell you a great recipe to cook the vegetables you just bought). Learning that if you didn’t really want the straight, unvarnished truth, you shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place. Knowing when to reveal that you are an American and when to stay silent and see what happens.
I know the streets of this city much more than when I first arrived here. There is the flower stand that always has the best hyacinths. The bakery where I first discovered babovka. The coffee shop where I meet with friends and talk. I still miss the foods of home- old-fashioned doughnuts, Theo’s chocolate, and my mom’s raspberry mousse. But I have acquired new comfort foods, such as chocolate croissants or creamy pumpkin soup. And this weekend? I’m going to brave the cold winds, search out the best vegetables at my favorite potraviny, and cook a hearty pot of soup. I’ve learned how to navigate, shop, communicate, and live in this city. I’ve learned to make friends, to make a home here. God brought me here, and I see that it is good.