Martin holds court. His English is excellent and he shows off for us. It’s our second night in Prague and we find ourselves in the wine bar he owns a few steps from the U.S. Embassy. He has cleverly named it The Wine Bar, ensuring Americans will find it online.
Half an hour ago when we found the place, the first thing I noticed was the cozy bar to my left – a structure created with stacked books, artifacts and suitcase edges, harmonized by a coat of dusky turquoise paint. Above the bar arched brick walls form shelves where bottles rest on their sides like they should. Lights are dim, low-slung booths line the wall to the right.
Fourteen people wouldn’t fit in here, even if they were as skinny as runway models. If they were runway models, they would bump their heads, the ceiling’s so low. Chris says Martin should have named it The Wine Cave. I think it’s cozy and quaint. So far, we’re the only patrons this September evening.
“How are the Czech wines?” Chris asks him. “Should we try one?”
“No. I would stick with French wines. Describe for me what you like and I can bring you a taste,” Martin says.
“She likes earthy, mineral wines, European style. I like cabernet sauvignon. Neither of us like the fruit bombs,” Chris said.
Martin disappears behind the bar and comes back with two petite wine glasses, delicate, they look like antiques. Each glass holds about three ounces. A generous pour for a ‘taste.’
“How’d you get started? Have you been here long?” I ask.
“A couple of my friends share my passion for wine. It was a big hobby for me. We came together and opened up a few years ago. But I am not sure how much longer I will run this. Last Saturday, we stayed here till 3 in the morning, tasting,” he said with a grin. “And I forgot to lock the door. Got up at 6 a.m. to drive back to lock it. My wife, she is not crazy about these hours.”
We ask about something to eat and he offers small tastes of local cheese and bread. Instead of slices or cubes of cheese, he uses a ‘tete-de-moine’ girolle to create delicate, thin slices, so thin they curl, giving the morsels the appearance of ruffled lace edging. The thin-ness brings out the flavor and the cheese melts on the taste buds. My inner gourmet sings a quiet cabaret.
Chris and I take pride in our own ‘blending skills.’ It’s more fun to blend with the scenery and observe the locals. We speak with lower voices, modulate our gestures. We adopt a European style of dress, including dark shoes (no white tennis shoes). Occasionally I will remember to avoid saying ‘y’all.’ I try to enunciate and pronounce the ‘g’ parts of ‘ing’ parts of words. Not that I have a Southern accent or anything.
The sidewalks in Prague are made of cobblestones, as well as the streets where the trams rule. My high heels will stay in the suitcase the entire time we’re here. Tonight, I wear a pair of dark leather Mary Jane flats, which, for some reason, remind Chris of nun’s shoes. Other than my practical shoes, I am dressed up – garnet earrings, a dark burgundy ruffled sweater and linen pants.
This is our first big vacation together since we met nine months ago on a ski trip from Nashville to Utah. We will enjoy perfect weather the whole week. We don’t speak a word of Czech and Martin does not expect us to try.
“Next you should try this one,” Martin says, pointing to a wine on the list sitting on the table. “I’ll bring you a taste.” We like him already. He returns with two more generous ‘tastes.’
“I started collecting wine several years ago. My collection got so big, I had to start sharing,” he laughs. He explains where he studied English and how he practiced. While he’s talking, I stare past him to the street.
Car after car stops just outside Martin’s door. Each time, the driver and passenger disembark, step to the cobblestone sidewalk and wait. Police officers search trunks and look under seats. A trained dog sniffs the entire perimeter of each car. Owners climb back in and officers wave them on. The cars lurch up the steep slope and disappear.
“What’s going on? Has there been a threat?” I ask Martin, concerned, since we don’t speak Czech, we don’t understand TV news here. Most of the radio stations play American and British music. Maybe there’s been an important news story we missed.
“No, this is every night like this. It’s because of the Embassy,” he says. He shrugs. No big deal.
So far, we have the place to ourselves. None of the people getting their car searched stop in for wine. It’s been great, but we haven’t been able to people watch, either. Martin has returned to the bar to find another sample for us to taste.
“I’m not sure how long Martin can keep this place open, either, if we’re his only customers,” I say to Chris.
“Doesn’t everybody in Europe take holidays in August? Maybe they’re still on vacation.”
A few minutes later, as if they heard us talking, a couple walks in and sits in a booth close to the front steps. We’re two booths away. She sits with her back to us and he faces us. He’s California-handsome and by that I mean that his dirty blond hair looks tousled with precision, curls gel-lacquered and sprayed in place. His jeans were pressed with an iron. She has rich, long black hair that waves down her back, a long aquiline nose and silver hoops in her ear lobes. Not to play to stereotype, but I assume they aren’t Czech.
It’s the blue jeans that tip us off. They instantly break the spell and thrall of sitting in a quaint, locally owned non-chain wine bar once they open their mouths. Loud. American. Californian American – they talk about LA and they call it LA, not Los Angeles. Opinionated. Knowledgeable about everything. Boring. We might as well be sitting in Carabba’s Italian chain bar back home. We ignore them and lower our voices. Maybe they will leave soon. Maybe they will not want to bond with fellow American travelers. We share Martin with them for a while, but we start missing the free tastes he’d been bringing to us.
The couple in the bar starts talking music and my ears perk up, but then I hear: “I can’t stand country music and that Garth Brooks, he’s the worst.” California Princess proclaims this, louder than Bette Midler on a Broadway stage. Dirty Blond Curls agrees.
I’m two glasses of wine in and Chris and I both wish they would leave. I wasn’t crazy about Nashville when I moved there, but when I did, I started listening to country music for work reasons, found out I liked understanding the lyrics and being able to sing along alone in my car. I’ve been shamelessly hooked ever since. I don’t share her opinion – and neither does Chris.
Martin comes out from behind the suitcase bar and in a divine moment of ‘host with the most,’ decides these four Americans should meet. The lovely couple walks to our booth.
Chris stands up like the gentleman he his, proffers his hand to the young man from California. We make small talk and after a little while Chris shows me his hand.
“We’re from Nashville,” says, pauses for several beats to let that settle in a bit.
“I manage Garth Brooks.”
I manage not to smile, but inside my face is breaking in two with laughter. I like this guy even more now. His face never even twitches. If I were them, I would have believed him. He looked sincere, sounded genuine.
Beautiful looks like she’s been slapped.
“I’m so sorry. We didn’t know,” she says. “Really, I’m sorry. All country music’s not bad. I mean even some of Garth’s songs are alright. There’s that one. Oh, what do they call that one?” She looks at her boyfriend like he will save her, looks at him hoping he will start talking to help her out so she can stop talking. No doing. Maybe he’s enjoying this too.
“You know, that one about the, um, the, thing in the desert… the oasis,” she mumbles. Chris looks at her. Waits. She keeps talking, falls from the ivory tower of her own making, it seems. Her tongue trips her a few more times on the way down.
Chris says nothing. His lips don’t edge toward the slightest of smiles. He maintains eye contact with her. She fills the silence with more apologies. Martin looks confused.
I hope Chris will remain stern, leave it just so – that will be a perfect story to tell – almost as good as a Garth Brooks’ song.
“Just kidding. Gotcha. I’m in landscaping and my wife works in marketing,” he says, busting out a big Mid-west grin.
If I’d known what he had in mind, I might have had the swiftness of wit to pipe in with, “Hi. Nice to meetchall. I’m Billy Joe Jim Bob’s sister, Betty Lou. Chris and I are first cousins.”
But I didn’t. ‘Cause, bless her heart, I reckon she looked mighty uncomfortable already. She looked like she didn’t have any friends in low places.