(Note: this article was written for my Travel Writing class at NYU in Prague. It appears here for the first time online.) The hunt is on.
It has been almost eight weeks since I left the United States for the Czech Republic. This is the longest I have ever gone without root beer in my life.
Memories rush back. Walking down country roads on sunny April days with my friends. Streaking into the local soda fountain after school for a snack. Bucolic summer afternoons spent by the swimming hole. Every one of them accompanied by the sweet tang of a cold root beer. And every sip since then floods my mind with those blissful memories.
But two months without my favorite soda has left me homesick and depressed, with a powerful craving nothing else can appease. I’ve even tried the local soda, called Kofola, originally created under the Soviet Union in the 1960s. I’d heard it described as a combination of Coke and root beer. Personally, I thought it tasted more like Dr. Pepper – with real pepper added for flavor.
So I began searching for somewhere – anywhere – I could find my preferred beverage in Prague. Over time, a small list of probable locations began to bubble up, like carbon dioxide released from a bottle of…well, you know. This is the story of that search.
My first target is a small store named Video Gourmet, located somewhere in the neighborhood of Old Town. As I set out, sunlight lances through the clouds for the first time of the day and sears straight into my eyes. This is what I get for not bringing my sunglasses for the first time in weeks.
Following the map northeast, disconcertedness settles over me for a moment. It’s not that I’m lost – quite the opposite. I’ve walked this path many times before, en route to school from the tram stop, but I’ve never noticed any place that sells American food.
My stomach flops as I veer onto Jakubska Street and pass a derelict building being gutted by destruction workers. The smell of cordite and pulverized rock in the air does nothing to allay my worries. Could the most likely source of my blessed American ambrosia be out of business?
Wait – Red Hot and Blues, the restaurant said to reside across from Video Gourmet, just a few yards ahead!
And across from it…lies a café.
I scower the building across Jakubska for any hint of videos or gourmets, to no avail. It can’t be true. I dart across to Red Hot and Blues to see if anyone there knows where I can find what I’m looking for –
– when inside, I spot Video Gourmet.
It’s across from Red Hot and Blues, all right – across the hall from it in the same building. Sucking in a deep breath, I step inside.
One tiny room, ten feet square. Dim light mostly comes from outside through barred windows. Almost every square inch within is occupied: videos, paperback books…and American food. Kraft Mac & Cheese. Oreos. My eyes scan down the shelves of a refrigerator loaded with Schweppes ginger ale and American bacon, to – ohmigod – a shelf marked “root beer” –
– and find several cans of A&W cream soda.
“Excuse me,” I say to the pregnant, blonde woman cuddling her small, sweater-clad dog behind the desk. “Do you have any root beer?”
“Sorry,” she says. “We’re already sold out. There should be more coming in November.”
“Root beer always goes fast,” she says, introducing herself as Heather Sequins. “That, and the Reese’s peanut butter cups. We only got half the amount we usually do this shipment – the other half was cream soda.”
Cream soda – the red-headed stepchild of root beer. Thanking Sequins, I depart. Back through Old Town Square again. There seem to be an unusually high number of tourists in the square, even for one of Prague’s oh my God there’s a man wearing a foam suit shaped like a mug of beer.
The human stein accosts people strolling along the cobblestones, walking up to them with arms extended, zombie-like. A little girl frolics with the mug, chasing after it then skipping out of reach – a living symbol of the Czech Republic’s constant battle with its favorite beverage. But it only serves to taunt my search.
Culinaria, my next stop, is the complete opposite of Video Gourmet in terms of ambiance. Where the latter was drab inside, the former glows with warm light and autumnal colors. A wide variety of expat foods are neatly organized on the shelves and tables. A display of Ben & Jerry’s temporarily distracts me, until I see the price – 219 crowns ($11) for a pint. Yikes.
“Excuse me,” I ask a young saleswoman, “do you have root beer?”
She gestures to follow her, and my hopes soar as she leads me to the front – then points to one of her male coworkers. “English,” she says, gesturing to him.
I repeat the question for the young man who tells me his name is Mirek, and puzzlement hits his face. “Root beer?” he asks. “Is that…beer?”
“It’s a soda, like Coca-Cola,” I say.
He gestures to the cooler beside him. All drinks are in there, he says. I glance over the contents: coffee-flavored-Coke, Indian beer, and something from Japan called “thermal artesian water,” but no root beer.
Next on the list is the giant U.K.-based hypermarket Tesco, steps away from Culinaria. I’m heading there not because it’s rumored to have root beer, but simply because the scale of the place makes it seem more likely to have such an obscure drink.
Inside, throngs of Czechs hustle and bustle through the food-laden aisles like Macy’s at Christmastime. I sneak through the masses to the soda section, where – yes! – a Tesco employee is restocking soda bottles from a giant cart.
But there’s no root beer on the cart, and no place for it on the shelves either. Still, I ask him if they have any of the drink.
“No, sir. No English,” he says, then jabs his finger into the air above my shoulder. Whether he’s suggesting I speak to someone else or just telling me to leave, I’m unsure. Either way, I know I’m wasting my time here.
Northwest now, this time to Wenceslaus Square and the Marks and Spencer located there, rumored to stock root beer among its British delicacies. Entering, I walk through the women’s clothing on the ground floor over to the escalators and up to the second floor…
…where half an acre of English food lies under crisp white lighting. No time to dawdle. Aha! The drinks. All kinds of lemonade, juices, and…
What the hell is that?
Last stop now – the most American dining establishment in Prague. In an age when there seems to be more McDonald’s in Prague than Manhattan, the award for the restaurant with the most distilled U.S. of A. must go to T.G.I. Friday’s, located a few minutes north of Marks & Spencer’s. If any restaurant here has root beer, it’s them.
Which means apparently, no restaurants in Prague have root beer.
Friday’s offers no less than a separate menu filled with ten pages of esoteric booze-filled drinks so American they might as well wear cowboy hats, yet not a single line combines the words “root” and “beer.” You’d think anyplace you can buy a half-gallon blue drink called “Electric Lemonade,” (vodka, sweet & sour mix, and blue Curaco!) you could find a simple glass of an American class, but alas.
So while I may be returning to Friday’s for a night of embarrassedly jingoistic partying, it appears my search for root beer in Prague has been fruitless – for the time being. After all, November is only a couple weeks away.
But for the moment, it’s back to Video Gourmet, where I snap up an ice cold cream soda to get a little taste of home. Growing up, cream soda was always second best to root beer, but I wasn’t above it if there wasn’t any of my favorite fluid available. Some things never change.
Which is how I end up leaning my tape recorder against a chipped, medieval church wall as I crack into the second-best. What follows is an exact transcript:
“Oooooh, man, that’s good.”