The three year course

13-11-2005

Now that it's autumn in Prague and gradually, inevitably the winter will come, I remembered a curious incident that had happened to me the last time the Czech lands were covered in deep snow, in March of this year.

Lomnice CastleLomnice Castle Down in Moravia, not far from Brno, I had just finished digging out a friend's four-by-four from an impossible drift (he's American and thought his huge vehicle couldn't possibly suffer from a little snow)... and we were eventually back on a cleared - but wrong - road when I spotted an ice-bedecked sign pointing to Lomnice. Now in Lomnice, I thought, there's a castle with one of the best gothic chapels in the country. I told my not too enthusiastic friends we could find some coffee in Lomnice. And so we would, in the end, so it was only a little white lie.

Lomnice Castle stood proudly on a hill and indeed did have one of the finest castle chapels - once. Now totally neglected, its religious artifacts are shoved anyhow and the floor all covered in unfootprinted dust. To get to it we'd had to pass through the rest of the building which had been turned into some terrifying institution - linoleum floors, prison cell-type doors, glass-bricks subdividing communal bathrooms, the pungent smell of institutional disinfectant. No inmates were to be seen. Our interpreter was conversing with the fellow showing us round: the director, I was told, would like us to have coffee in her office. I was all for pressing on, but by this time, my friends (those poor Americans) were about to die from Acute Refreshment Deficiency, plus the fact that I had promised them refreshment, so I accepted. "So what is this place?" I asked casually. "It's the cook and waiter school," came the reply.

Here!? In the middle of the back of beyond? "Yes, it's a three-year course." It had been going on here for thirty or so years.

Now ask any ex-pat what the people of Prague are like and he will answer: "Long-legged girls and blind waiters". Shame we hadn't washed up at the academy where they stretch the girls' legs, but on the other hand this was an unparalleled opportunity to ask the director of this establishment a burning question. Seated comfortably in her office my interpreter made very heavy weather of "Tell me, how do you teach your waiters not to see anyone? It's a great skill, isn't it, to be in a room with a 100 people and not to notice any of them, especially those waving their hands energetically like race-course Tick-Tack men?"

The joke, irony and even the question were tactfully lost in humorless Czech - so I never got my answer.

Instead I was left to imagine how they did it here. First year they've weekly sessions on a shooting range, to vent their primal feelings on targets got up as typically annoying restaurant customers. The second year the waiters-to-be have to wear blindfolds. Year three they are allowed out to attend rallies or pop concerts to count just how many people they can't see in one go...

No, there's only one way to teach waiters, and it takes no more than a mere 24 hours - including flights. Simply take a plane to Paris and spend an evening at the Brasseries Flo or Julien or at La Coupole. There you see real waiters with more arms than a Hindu goddess and eyes like giant flies with 360 degree vision. And charm too. They go to sleep at night reflecting on how satisfied their customers were, and they sleep soundly.

This is different to the experience of a friend of mine who, not having satisfaction from a waiter in a Prague restaurant, bravely asked to speak to the manager. A gruff man soon came striding over and said "I am the owner and I saw everything. I have a gun behind the counter. Pay and get out."

As we left Lomnice I wondered if they also had a department specialising in Menu English. It's a language unto itself. The idea of appetising hasn't yet caught on. The Café Louvre, for example, has a great chef (and seeing waiters) but its 'Specialties for Small Hunger' offered: 'Bag of cotage cheese dough with poppy seed' or 'Hot pork chunk with piquant meat mix'. Another restaurant I know has on offer this week: 'Roast leg of old Czech', 'chicken spit with fresh pineapple', 'Double mould cheese plate' and 'Goaty cheese dessert'.

I think I'll stick with ham and eggs - which is, in delightful Czech, 'hemenex'!

13-11-2005