The Old Town Square in Prague is the most beautiful urban space I have ever seen.
I have fallen in love several times over the last few years. My first infatuation was Paris, where the flowers punctuate the awnings of the cafes on the Champs Elysee and every passing lady leaves a whiff of perfume. Then Lisbon with her laid-back attitude, a beauty in morning deshabille, stole my heart. Later, Istanbul’s joie de vivre marched into my affections like the earthy heroine of an H.E. Bates novel. But when I stood below the astronomical clock at the corner of the Old Town Square and watched the sunset fade on the spiky steeples of the Tyn Church (or, by its bhalo naam, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn), I knew without doubt that it is beyond compare.
Now aesthetic exhilaration is all very well, but we had spent the day driving round a fair part of the Czech Republic on very mundane work. The roads had been clogged and the weather beastly; the schedule of meetings had not left time for lunch. So even as the lights came on and created a quite unrealistically beautiful golden glow over the 12th century buildings, our corporeal selves intruded very forcibly upon our common conscious. My stomach thought my throat had been cut and protested in no uncertain terms. My companions and I looked at each other “with a wild surmise” and proceeded to seek sustenance.
I was firm in my resolve that we would have a fitting meal and not waste our appetite on fast food. I had seen, in the cobbled pedestrian passageway that lies between the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, a sign advertising “traditional Czech cuisine’, so despite the protests from my companions I marched them all the way to the Café Mustek (so named because it lies at the head of Ulice Mustek). We were accosted at the gate by a young man the size of a refrigerator, dressed like a medieval executioner. He turned out to be charmingly helpful and found us a table in a corner, gave us menus and directed a bright young lady to take our order.
Overwhelmed by the bounty on offer, we proceeded to order several different kinds of savoury meat – rabbit, duck, chicken, pork knee – and the waitress did not see fit to warn us that even our large appetites would not be able to do justice. When our food arrived, we were already rather full of Pilsner Urquell and so gazed with some alarm on the size of the helpings. Never mind, said I, and we set to. Now, pork knee as served in the Café Mustel is a ritual as much as a meal. It is served on a miniature spit balanced on a nice wooden tray, surrounded by little dishes of mustard, savoury dip and horseradish relish (the last being a close relative of the Japanese wasabi). For a quarter of an hour, conversation flagged as we carved and shared and sated ourselves. We finally paused in our labours, emitted long sighs of satisfaction, took deep draughts of our Pilsners and wiped our mouths with large napkins in the manner of Obelix.
At that point I noticed four pairs of hungry eyes at the next table looking longingly at our lavish spread. Young college students, they had ordered only a beer apiece (at that age, beer is always more important than food). As we watched, they started counting out loose change and ordered just one plate of French fries. My friends and I looked at each other, then at the untouched dish of roast rabbit. We conferred on whether it would be seemly to offer it to the young people. The consensus was that their pride would not permit them to accept. Despite our growing feeling of guilt, we decided not to commit the social gaffe. I had the remaining food packed despite my friends’ objection – they said they had seen no poor people we could offer it to. Never fear, said I, and we proceeded to amble back towards the hotel, myself swinging the packet of food as if it were a clouded cane.
A hundred yards from our hotel door there lay a nightclub of a certain sort. A sallow young man, stubbled and shabby, approached us with the offer of a free trial of the pleasures within. As he tried to hand me a little pamphlet, I had an epiphany. “I can’t give you any business, but would you accept this food instead?” It took a little explanation (his English was none too good, our Czech non-existent) but once he got the drift he smiled a large, large smile. Then he drew himself erect and, pointing to an even thinner and shabbier young man nearby, asked “May I give it to him instead?” I shrugged. Why object, as long as somebody’s hunger is appeased? The packet was handed over and we walked on.
As we turned into our hotel, there was a commotion behind us. We turned and saw the second man capering after us. I was alarmed. Was this a protest, maybe even an assault? No such thing. It was gratitude, expressed in a manner that filled the heart. The young fellow grabbed my hand and poured out an effusion of thanks. “I have not eaten so well in months! This is Christmas come early!” Then “Wait, I will thank you in the Indian manner!” and he actually prostrated himself on the sidewalk in front of us. Severely embarrassed, we escaped into the hotel. But talking it over later, we agreed that more than the fleeting sense of virtue, our day had been made by the youngster’s spontaneous expression of gratitude. Perhaps, for a moment, it even made the inchoate sprawl of Wenceslas Square more beautiful than the picture-book perfection of the Old Town Square.