Enjoying the brew, beer a staple of Prague

Czeching In

In the birth canal of the beer mother, I tasted the baby. Golden, radiant, foamy, like liquid bread. For a brief moment, with an infant sample of Pilsner Urquell in my mouth, in the belly of the world's first brewery, I wholly understood why Czechs are passionate about their "pivo."

Pivo, Czech for "beer," is the foundation and structure of Bohemian culture. Sure, the Czech Republic is a good model for post-Communist reconstruction and burgeoning capitalism. And the architectural value of its cities is breathtaking. But beer is and always will be the blood that pumps through the streets of Prague. After two weeks in the country, and a day trip to the brewery in Pilsen, not only can I see that this is true, but I can understand why.

Since I arrived in the AU Abroad program in Prague, I have tried to articulate what unites the Czechs as a culture. The United States is easy to pin down; we are a culture of regions, each with its specific traits, united by our belief in personal freedoms and defined by our considerable wealth, power and consumption. Strange then, that a much smaller and less diverse nation is more difficult to culturally assess.

Then it hit me like a sack of barley. There are two million people in Prague, a city whose face is defined by the Baroque and Renaissance ages and whose personality was formed by constant transition. It is a city consumed by churches and smeared with cobblestone, spread across the banks of the Vltava River and connected on either side by ancient bridges. Yet everywhere I go, what is most noticeable are the signs for beer poking out from the architecture over the alleys and streets like neon gargoyles: Pilsner, Gambrinus, Staropramen. And all two million people drink one of these brews multiple times a day, like Americans do with snazzily-bottled spring water. If I saw a Czech put beer on his cereal in the morning, I would not think twice. You laugh, but I tell you this without any sense of humor.

But why is beer paramount here? It's a bitter beverage made of ingredients that, when mixed together, would mathematically seem disagreeable. But it's tasty, refreshing, just bitter enough and makes any occasion more enjoyable and convivial. But it's not just social lubrication. The beer here is respected and savored, a relationship best compared to the French and wine or the Italians and sauce or America and Regis Philbin. The more you respect and savor it, the more it's sewn into the stitching of the culture, even if it's too dry, too spicy or on television too often.

So that's it. After only two weeks in the country, I've found what makes Czechs Czech. Moving on.

Classes finally start today at the Prague Film and Television Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU). Until now, the AU Abroad program has been conducting a lengthy and scarcely useful orientation session which has consisted more of marathon history lessons than practical information about living in the city. But the classes and professors that are available to cinema studies students are supposed to be superior. We'll see.

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