Czech Adventures in Coffee

La Bodega

I felt like a bit of a pioneer to be honest. Well, I mean, it wasn't exactly swimming the Channel alone, but at least I wasn't just another expatriate working in an Irish or American sports bar. I am talking about my second job here in Prague, that of a waiter and barista in a well-known coffeehouse just off Old Town Square. Up until now, no foreigner has worked there apparently.

Yes, the clientele, as in many bars or cafes round the city, is predominantly foreign, but the staff are, or were, exclusively Czech, thus the reason for me feeling a little adventurous. We give and take orders amongst ourselves in Czech, my interview was in Czech; even my "Přednáška o kavy" was in Czech - a lecture and coffee tasting test in a foreign language seemed interesting, but a real linguistic challenge. But that was my motivation for working at the coffeehouse; to improve my Czech language, particularly speaking.

Working there, I have often been asked, "You don't sound very Czech. Where are you from?" When I tell people I am from the UK, many of them, especially the British, are amazed. They are familiar with seeing many thousands of young Czechs and other people from the newer EU countries working in scores of bars and cafes throughout the UK. They realise it's a great opportunity for young people and students to come over both for the money and to improve their English.

Last time I went home, one bar in London revealed itself to be entirely staffed by graduates from Poland or the Czech Republic. I, on the other hand, as one customer pointed out in bewilderment, am doing this the "wrong way round." They look up in shock when I take their orders; I mean, my colleagues there speak good English, but there is obviously a difference!

Part of their amazement probably comes firstly from the fact they expect I must be getting paid far less than I could be at home. And they are right. In comparison to a similar job in the UK - where I might earn around £6 or 7 an hour, here I'm getting a third of that - 60 Kc or about £1.95. They think I am crazy. But, as I always tell them, it was the language factor that motivated me to work there while also here at Radio Prague. I tell myself it's a sort of language school where I actually get paid (a little) rather than paying to attend. And I have made some great friends, all of them Czech, who help me all the time. Everyone I work makes a huge effort to help me, insisting I always speak Czech with them - I guess they get enough practise in English with the customers! I feel I'm getting there.

If I'd wanted better pay, better tips and English-speaking workmates, I could have chosen from a host of other bars, really touristy affairs, but that wasn't the goal. The goal was to learn the language better and do more with my time here. I hope that's happened. I've learnt a fair bit about coffee, too. And in Czech!

The highlight of the job though? Well, sometimes I can't help myself answering questions as to where I'm from or where I live with the reply "Well I live here in Prague, of course." Then comes "But your English is so great!" To which I sometimes reply, suppressing a smile; "Thanks, well I did once spend a bit of time in Hampshire." A bit of time? Just twenty years. But they don't have to know that.