Travel Essay: I leaned back into deep, silky cushions, still savoring the tang of mint and cilantro on my tongue. The soup was beginning to warm me from the inside out, taking away the chill of a drizzly afternoon. The sign over the archway that led into this nearly deserted courtyard in an otherwise-bustling quarter of the city read Casablanca. In our quest for a memorable meal on the last day of our journey, we’d opted for one of the outdoor, bead-curtained canopies with low, plush sofas, even though we would have been much warmer at an inside table—and it would have been far easier to reach the table and the soup, too. Each time a fez-topped waiter entered our little tent, the beads swayed and clacked and a fresh wave of pungent aromas wafted toward us. It never seemed to be the same waiter twice; we wondered if they were taking turns because they had no other customers.
The food—which, except for the soup, we’d eaten with our fingers—and the trance-inducing music being broadcast throughout the neighborhood made the illusion almost complete. We had, in fact, followed the music through a tangle of cobbled streets to find our Casablanca. Never mind that my three new friends and I were washing down our Moroccan feast (if “cattle salad”—strips of grilled steak over couscous and greens—is in fact a Moroccan dish, and not just a bad translation) with American beer, in honor of the date, July 4th. It’s not like we were in Morocco. No, we were in the heart of Prague, in the Czech Republic, where we could just as easily have celebrated Independence Day in TGI Friday’s or Pizza Hut, then popped into a Dunkin’ Donuts for dessert.
But for our penultimate meal, just a few hours ahead of a more traditional Czech dinner with a set menu featuring venison, we’d decided to add one last layer of cross-cultural experimentation to our collective memories of Prague. What was a Moroccan restaurant doing in the middle of Prague anyway? Was it an homage to the fictional Czech hero Victor Laszlo? Or had the Moroccans invaded Prague along with America and most of Europe once the free-market economy had begun to take root? And was this culinary discovery any stranger than the disco party on an after-dinner cruise down the Vltava River that we’d experienced the night before or the surreal black-light marionette interpretation of Yellow Submarine—dialogue in Czech, soundtrack in English—we’d stumbled upon earlier in the week?
As part of a group of mid-career American graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania who for a week had been exploring this beautiful, sometimes eccentric, maze of a city and its surrounding countryside, my friends and I had been embarrassed by the ubiquitousness of American “culture” in Bohemia. It seemed to clash horribly with the elegant profile of the castle that towered above the city, reminding us of Prague’s rich and noble history. It was beyond ironic that every tourist map was dotted with golden arches while the words “site of former statue of Stalin” still haunted one high hill nearly 40 years after the statue itself had been toppled.
Yet the dozens of businesspeople, academics and government workers who had met with our seminar class all week could hardly contain their enthusiasm over the transformations that were taking place across Eastern Europe as foreign businesses moved in, opened shop and infused much-needed funds and jobs into a newly capitalistic society. Prague was the pulsing heart of a country very much in the midst of self-discovery, mostly driven by the passions of people still in their 20s and 30s. People older than that had generally taken a step or two back; they were happy to participate but not at all certain of how to lead the charge in a world they no longer recognized.
While we waited for coffee, Maureen, Joe, Dan and I compared the treasures we’d purchased that morning as we’d poked through a Saturday street market, made one last sweep through the shops around Old Town Square and strolled among the makeshift stalls on the Charles Bridge: garnet jewelry, marionettes, colorful glass goblets, a pastel drawing and—the largest purchase of all, a small crystal chandelier for Maureen’s foyer. We congratulated ourselves on having collected authentic Czech souvenirs, avoiding the high-priced designer shops that had sprung up just off the square—the same shops we could find at home (tomorrow), in Philadelphia, if we were so inclined.
It seemed funny that the four of us—all second-generation Americans who’d grown up within miles of the Liberty Bell and had lived through the summer-long extravaganza that was the U.S. Bicentennial celebration in 1976—had had to travel so far from home to truly experience the Fourth of July, the sense of being there at the beginning of history in a country that was inventing itself while the world watched with interest, lending seemingly boundless moral and financial support.
I’m not sure I ever fully tasted freedom until that rainy Saturday when I toasted my own nation’s birthday in a Moroccan restaurant with a glass of pivo (the only Czech word I can recall all these years later) in a newborn-ancient land that only recently had escaped from the clutches of communism. It tasted sweet—and a bit exotic, too.
Our coffee cups were drained, our fingers were growing cold and we had a lot of packing to do before dinner. We flagged the first fez we spotted, and for one last time amused ourselves by saying, “Czech, please.”
BIO: Eileen Cunniffe writes nonfiction, often through the lens of travel experiences. Her work has appeared in journals such as Bluestem Magazine, Magazine, Ascent, Superstition Review and The RavensPerch. Three of her essays (including “Independence Day”) have been recognized with Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards and another received the Emrys Journal 2013 Linda Julian Creative Nonfiction Award. Read more at: www.eileencunniffe.com.
PHOTOGRAPH: Martin Harry.