"Bufety" and the importance of being earnest

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In the plebeian confines of the bufet, I started to feel not so foreign at all.

Almost two years ago, motivated by a desire to learn the Czech language, I took time off work to live as a student in Brno, the Czech Republic's second largest city. As the academic term came to a close, I struck up a kind of late, end-of-semester friendship with a classmate, Mikolaj from Poland. You know, one of those situations where you find someone likeable but you don't really get to know them until it's nearly too late.

It might even have been the last day of class when Mikolaj suggested we get lunch.

I know a great place near the train station, he said. Reminds me of Poland. I think you'll like it.

The sign above the door said "smoked meats", and you had to walk through a butcher shop to get there. It wasn't really a restaurant at all, but a kind of cafeteria, known in Czech as a bufet. Except instead of serving yourself, as you do at an American buffet, a lady in a white smock and a hairnet did the dishing up from behind a counter. At the next window, a pretty younger woman dispensed litres of beer and electric green lemonade. When we reached the front of the line, I followed Mikolaj's example and ordered a plate full of steaming knedliky - dumplings - and golden roasted chicken.

It's like in Poland, Mikolaj said. Czechs are so different from us, but this place is the one thing that I really love here. It really takes me home.

-Wait, Czechs and Poles are different how?

Well, for example, their word for fresh cerstvy, is the word for "stale" in our language.

-Really?

Yes, and we eat a lot more vegetables in Poland.

In this place, it was all meat and potatoes - not a green vegetable in sight.

I looked around me and saw that we were surrounded by earthy, proletarian types - the same men I saw on the trams and buses all around town. Whether they wore overalls or carried a briefcase, I felt I'd seen them all many times before. Usually they frowned or looked depressed. In here, drinking their tall beers, they seemed jovial and brotherly.

I now realized I'd passed by this bufet place dozens of times before, but like old wallpaper, it had never really caught my eye. And certainly I'd never have thought of going inside. Later I learned that the bufet is something of a Czech institution.

Aren't you glad I took you, Mikolaj said.

Definitely. Of course it was sad that it was all happening so late in the game. I could have used a friend like Mikolaj earlier on in the semester. Like me, he had worked in broadcasting - in his case television - before undertaking the study of Moravian music. I was surprised to learn that although he was a brother Slav to the Czechs, like me he felt like a stranger in Brno.

Except that here in the plebeian confines of the bufet, and I still don't really know why, I started to feel not so foreign at all.

Mikolaj suggested another beer, and I said yes, and more beers followed that. Today I can remember little more of our conversation but that we bonded, as they say in American English. What's the Czech word for that? Here in Prague, I like to visit a bufet near my house. The food and the clientele are very nearly the same as in Brno. I go there not only because it's cheap and good, but because I feel like a Praguer when I order my meal. No ordinary tourist would possibly brave the wrath of the kitchen ladies, and anyway the menu is in Czech only.

And if I order a beer, I silently toast my friend, whom I've long since lost contact with. Mikolaj - here's to you for showing me how to order a meal at a bufet, and for reminding me to make your friends before the end of the semester.