The Czechs always had their priorities right. There was never any problem getting the necessary provisions for a train journey in Czechoslovakia. You could even buy draught beer, served in wax paper cups, on the platform to carry on with you. Where else do they do that?
I have many happy memories of boozing on Czech trains. Buying tickets, now that was tricky. Not the actual ticket itself. That was easy enough to purchase at one of the many windows. It was getting hold of a mistenka that was the problem. For all the long distance trains you needed one of these, too*. In Hlavni Nadrazi in Prague there was just a single counter selling them, hidden away somewhere in the bowels of the building. With no-one speaking English, finding it was quite an initiative test.
As just one person sold mistenky, there was always a long queue. Which is how come I had so little time on the platform. When I was travelling to Brno in 1985. For the summer school to learn Czech. I'd flown into Prague and was taking the train the rest of the way. I should have had plenty of time. For some reason, the service between Prague and the country's second largest city wasn't great. There was a big gap in the middle of the day. If I missed the train, I'd have several hours to wait for the next.
By the time I had my mistenka in my hand, there were only ten minutes before the train was due to leave. Luckily, there was a kiosk right on the platform. It sold beer. Unfortunately, there was a queue. I dumped my bags on the train and joined it.
Eight minutes to go. Five people in front of me. I hoped no-one had nicked my unattended bags. The customer at the head of the queue finished. Six minutes left. Hurry up will you. There's a man with a thirst and a train to catch back here. The next two were pretty quick. Five minutes. Naturally, it was now turn for the chatty but indecisive old dear. Get a move on will you. She finally made up her mind. Two minutes. The bloke in front of me just wanted a packet of fags. Brilliant. I still had 90 seconds. "Sest piv, prosim." Six beers should be about enough for a four-hour train ride. I threw a note in the assistant's direction and didn't bother waiting for my change.
Still 20 seconds to go according to the station clock. I jumped through the nearest door. Where was my seat? The train started moving before I found it. My heart was still thumping a dark jungle rhythm as I bustled through the train. Bang! Why's my shirt so wet. Have I been shot? Not to worry. One of the beer bottles had exploded. Compartment found, I sat thankfully down in my beer-perfumed shirt, clutching the five intact bottles. "What happened to your shirt?" That's what I think a fellow passenger meant, pointing at my shirt quizzically. I mimed an explosion. That seemed to satisfy him.
Just one slight problem. I had no bottle-opener with me. "Mate otvirac?" I asked my new friend. I knew all the important Czech vocabulary. He didn't have an opener. But that wasn't a problem. No Czech needed one. They were incredibly ingenious when it came to getting at beer. We were in a compartment carriage with pull-down windows. My mate demonstrated how to hook the crown cork on the lip of the window and push it back up into the closed position. The crown cork magically flew free. Another useful skill learned.
"Chces pivo?" "Ne." He didn't even want a beer as reward. What wonderful people the Czechs are.
Which beer was it? I think it was Mestan. But I could be wrong. Rarely has a beer tasted so good. I know that.
*There's a passage in "Three Men on the Bummel" taking the piss out of the need for several tickets to travel on central European trains. Almost a century later, the Czech system was still the same.
Artyfacts from the Nyneties #5: Sainsbury’s Bière de Garde, 1991 - The image above comes from the Sainsbury’s supermarket in-house magazine for November 1991 and is a great reminder that interesting beer didn’t arrive in...
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