The Hospoda

Mr. Englund takes a look at Czech pubs

Expats.cz Staff

Written by Expats.cz Staff
Published on 24.01.2006 02:20 (updated on 24.01.2006)

Written by Terje B. Englund
Re-published with permission

“Today, all parts of the Czech lands are as a big inn or shelter, where one can, not just for a few days, but for the entirety of one´s life, heartily enjoy all delights and riches.“ These enthusiastic words were written by the Jesuit priest and historian Josef Balbín in the 1680s and seem as apt today as they were three and a half centuries ago. The beer house – hospoda – is still the cornerstone of Czech popular culture (see: Švejk, The Good Soldier), and their sheer number is downright amazing. At one time, Prague´s Žižkov area alone had more pubs and beer houses than the entire Norwegian capital of Oslo.

To a foreigner not familiar with the Czech language, the word hospoda might seem reminiscent of the English hospital. Linguistically speaking, there actually is a distant connection. Hospoda derives from old-Slavonic gospoda, composed of gost (guest) and potis (master), and the latter of the two elements is the same word that occurs in Latin hospes. But also semantically the comparison with hospital makes perfect sense, since the hospoda from time immemorial has been the place where the Czech man (see: Feminism) has healed his soul.

To undergo the classic hospoda therapy, there are only three things you need: beer (the larger quantity, the better result), a problem that really bothers you, and the company of a friend or acquaintance (if you don´t have any, you´ll find some in the hospoda). Now, all you have to do is to pour down hectolitres of the foaming potion while intensely complaining about your hysterical wife, greedy mistress, imbecilic boss, incompetent government, unlucky national football team or whatever.
After three or four hours of thorough therapy, your soul will be filled with total relief. A foreigner may perhaps doubt the mental effects of hospoda therapy, but it´s hardly a coincidence that the Czech Republic has fewer psychiatric patients than all its neighbouring countries (however, they also have more alcoholics).

Theoretically, you don´t even need a hospoda to carry out this therapy, as an incident in the city of Mladá Boleslav some years ago illustrates. Fed up with the drunkards who constantly gathered for beer parties in the main city park, the mayor decided to prohibit consumption of alcoholic beverages in all public places, thus confining the beer-drinkers to local hospodas. The drunkards, however, reacted stoically. Pointing to the Listina základních práv a svobod – The Charter of Basic Rights and Liberties – adopted by the then Czechoslovak Parliament in 1991, they argued that drinking beer in the city park was one of their human rights. And guess what? The mayor admitted that the drunkards were right, and backed down!

Yet the fuss was rather wasted energy, because any Czech town with some self-respect boasts at least one hospoda where a pint of beer costs less than a bottle of soft drink. But even in the humblest establishment you have to respect a set of hospoda rules.

Firstly, every hospoda has its štamgasts – regular guests. This is a group of local drunkards, who enjoy certain privileges, such as keeping their personal tankards on the shelf over the bar, a reserved chair at a table far from the door to the toilet, and – most importantly – the right to be served prior to other guests. This is one of the few areas where Czech society still respect nobility, and there is no way you can escape this “beer-apartheid”. If your ego is too provoked by this discrimination, you have two options: either switch to wine and start frequenting vinárnas, or visit your local hospoda so often that you acquire the štamgast status yourself.

Secondly, the hospoda is a profoundly democratic institution, where (at least theoretically) people of all layers of society meet to drink and discuss. Consequently, you can sit down by any table where there are unoccupied seats as long as you formally ask the people that already are sitting there if it´s okay! Similarly, if you are sitting in a hospoda and there are unoccupied seats next to you, be prepared for a group of strangers to suddenly clump down next to you and start a heated discussion about academic subjects such as football referees, female anatomy or the latest trends in modern Mongolian poetry. This is the charm and the intention of the hospoda. If you want quiet contemplation, try a walk in the forest!

Thirdly, the hospodas have always been a man´s world. True, the number of women frequenting hospodas, especially the new and trendy establishments where beer is served in 33 centilitres glasses with stems, has been growing after the Velvet Revolution. But the real hospodas, dives where drinking beer from glasses with stems would be considered something between heresy and a perversion, are still a male dominion and a sanctuary where men can seek refuge and understanding. Logically, many hospodas have introduced at least one day in the week when the waitresses are serving beer topless.

The atmosphere of male solidarity has even been ritualised: after pouring down four-five half litres, all the men sitting round the same table may suddenly march off to the toilet to perform a collective urination. To the diehard beer drinkers, this is the ultimate expression of brotherhood. To most other people, it´s an unambiguous sign that the hospodas make fertile soil for hidden homosexuality.

Needless to say, not all Czechs are fans of the hospoda culture. To a disgusted minority of the population, the hospodas represent everything that´s vulgar, smelly, loud and lazy. This view is hard to reject completely. The army of Czech alcoholics (according to some estimates, 10 percent of the male population!) would no doubt have had a more troubled life without a watering hole on every other corner. And yes, the common hospoda humour tends to smell of armpits. Yet nobody can deny that some of Czech literature´s greatest names, be it Karel Hynek Mácha, Jaroslav Hašek, Bohumil Hrabal or Jaroslav Seifert, all were closely linked to the hospoda, and some of them even worked there.

In essence, the hospoda reflects both the best and the worst sides of Czech society. On the one hand, they offer an abundance of joviality, friendliness, creativity, communicativeness, playfulness and a flair for grotesque humour and egalitarianism. On the other, they richly nourish the habit of complaining about everything and everybody without making the slightest practical effort to change things for the better.

However, nobody can dispute that the hospoda is a uniquely Czech institution. In what other country can you pop in at a pub with a large mug, have it filled with foaming beer and then carry it happily home to dinner?

Terje B. Englund is a Norwegian journalist, writer and translator. Educated at the University in Oslo and the Institute of Slavonic Studies at Charles University, he has been based in Prague since 1993, covering Central and Eastern Europe for Scandinavian media. Englund is an affectionate cyclist, mountaineer and diver, and he also enjoys the company of his French bulldog, Gaston.

“Czechs in a Nutshell” can be bought via Internet at www.baset.cz and in bookstores throughout Prague.

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