Let's start with the Heathrow airport experience, then - yes, I know you've all flown before, but it works as a contrast to later in the piece, so bear with me - and, specifically, the 'pub' at Terminal 5.
It calls itself a pub, it has a bar, it has beer, but is as far removed from a British boozer as it's possible to be, even Wetherspoons would appear almost old colonial after this place. I travelled with a painter/decorator friend of mine who is also partner in a new business venture, I'll call him 'Spike', and we were both ready for lunch once we'd passed through security (where my watch didn't set off the metal detector to great hilarity from Spike).
A burger would have done the job nicely, but all around were eateries which sold sandwiches designed more to look pretty than to taste good, using bread mixed with seedy shrapnel and 'healthy', sugar, fat and taste-free ingredients presumably sourced from a deli in Islington. Even the 'breakfast sandwich' spoiled the Lincolnshire sausage with some unpronouncable eye-tie cured meat and a spearmint coloured mayonnaise. And it was nearly four fucking quid!
So we plumped for the 'pub', as it termed itself. Aaaand what does one do when one enters a pub? Well, go to the bar, of course. Spike collared a barman and ordered a pint of Beck's Vier and a Strongbow while I sat at a table.
Not for long though, as a waiter (in a pub?) told me I couldn't sit there because it was messing up his seating plan. He pointed me to another and I sat down, only to see Spike getting rather agitated at another waiter (in a pub!) who was gesticulating and didn't look too happy. When he got to the table with the beers he had paid for, Spike told me that the guy was berating him for not sitting down and waiting for table service. You see, it was a 'pub' where you're not supposed to go near the bar.
I dunno, perhaps they should have called it a 'restaurant which happens to have a pub-like bar' rather than a pub. It could have saved the confusion.
The menu was attractive and at good prices but we didn't feel we had time for a roast dinner and 'death by chocolate' to finish, so plumped for the £2.95 chips each. It worked out at (I know as I counted them) 12p per paprika-coated chip. I'll say that again ... paprika-coated chip ... in a pub ... where you're not allowed to APPROACH THE FUCKING BAR!
The post meal ciggy, naturally, would have invited sirens, spinning orange lights and a code red lockdown of the terminal enforced by Uzi-wielding coppers in bio-hazard suits, so I just drew on the e-cig which had passed through the x-ray machine without a murmur.
So off to Prague we flew, arriving at our extremely comfortable 4 star hotel just in advance of dinner time thanks to the one hour time difference. Bags dumped - Spike in his non-smoking room, mine in a smoking room with an ashtray the size of an Essex boy-racer's alloy wheel (both €41 per night including breakfast) - we ventured down to the hotel restaurant which was apparently well-regarded in the city.
That's when we passed a sight so awesome that I was tempted to drop to my knees and offer homage. A bar of beauty and finesse (left), offering the finest of chilled Czech beers and (as we later found out) some gorgeous wines, staffed by smiling waistcoated women, every seat occupied by a happy-looking person, and an ashtray - yes, an ashtray - on every table.
Some people were smoking, others weren't, all were enjoying themselves but there were no dead bodies piling up, no bar staff clutching their hearts and calling for an ambulance, no animosity, no division. Just people enjoying their evening unharassed.
It minded me of Captain Ranty's evocative description of his times in Africa.
As much as I look forward to seeing my clan again, there are some things I will miss about both Nigeria and Ghana. Cheap beer, cheap fags, cheap food, and cheerful people. Being able to smoke in a bar. If you are a non-smoker you have no idea just how wonderful, and how liberating such a simple thing actually is. I felt normal. No-one was doing that wanky hand-waving and false-coughing so prevalent amongst the UK Righteous.Indeed, and all the cheapness is equally true of Prague, except that it's in Europe. A member of the EU, in fact. And now one of the few countries still clinging on by its fingernails to liberty in the face of advancing authoritarianism from Brussels.
It was the only place one could smoke, thereby leaving every other part of the 354 roomed hotel - and two non-smoking lounges - for non-smokers, including the restaurant where we were heading. More than fair unless you're an anti-smoker who demands everything to be to your personal liking ... not like those 'selfish' smokers, eh?
Oh yes, the restaurant. Nothing too fancy on the prices front, we ate two starters, an exquisite wild boar (seriously) main meal on big plates with that balsamic decoration beloved of SW1 establishments, and a rather nice Sauvignon, for £30. That's right, in a four star hotel in Prague, you can eat top chef-prepared food for less than the price of a Harvester meal in Sunderland.
We were there for a specific event (no Bill Bryson-esque sightseeing critique here, I'm afraid), so after eating decided to decamp to the bar to socialise. It was at this point that the deeply-ingrained no-can-do facet of UK living was brought home to me in one small request. Could I take the delicate Czech crystal wine glass out of the restaurant (Spike had finished his) to the less calm surroundings of the hotel bar? Now, I've encountered many a 'no' when asking the same in the UK. Glasses have to stay where they're supposed to stay, you see. There is a system; a place for everything and everything in its place; computer says no; customer is right only if it doesn't interfere with our way of doing things; no ordering at the bar as we do waiter service here, for example (see? I told you it was relevant).
"Of course", answered the waiter (in a restaurant, fine) with a puzzled look on his face as if to wonder why I was asking. I was the customer after all, and in Prague, they are still always right. An ethos which held firm for our entire trip, leading to the sense of a burden being lifted, as I mentioned on my return.
Prague was such a blast you could clear quarries with it, the UK state-imposed shackles fell away with every minute spent there.The rest of the extended break (we left on the Monday) was spent with incomers from Belgium, France, Sweden, Germany, Greece, Holland, Norway, Hungary, Slovakia and Czech Republic, of course, amongst others. I spoke to as many as possible, occasionally blowing the cobwebs off my A level linguistics when the consequences of Babel frustrated, and was rather surprised at the overwhelming opinion voiced by a mostly working class clientele.
They hate the EU. Well, actually, they don't all hate the EU, the Germans quite like it but hate the Euro and stated that a clear majority wished for the return of the mark as their currency. But the overwhelming antipathy towards our empire-building overlords in Brussels was distinctly tangible. OK, it's not scientific, but these are real people, with real experiences, and almost as one they bemoaned the fact that they haven't been given a choice in the matter. They are European, and love fellow Europeans as our very friendly discussions proved, but would prefer to keep their identity and certainly want nothing to do with a federalised supra-national state.
Which kinda explains why referenda on the EU Constitution and Lisbon have been so few and far between. Letting people have their say doesn't really suit the EU or europhile politicians, does it?
Sorry I can't tell you more about the much-vaunted beauty of the city itself (though the post cards looked nice), but I was there for one purpose only and it wasn't being a tourist. That will come when I undoubtedly visit again with Mrs P.
I did leave the hotel event on the Saturday to have a look round the immediate vicinity and to do some gift-buying, so can attest that 20 B&H Gold is just over £3 a pack (but very little rolling baccy on offer, probably because there isn't much demand at those prices), that although there is a smoking ban in effect, you'd be hard-pressed to notice, and that despite the lack of overt government control, people seem to be living very well, ta, complete with posh shops and quality bars, cafes and restaurants. Along with a transport system that is affordable and clean, used by a populace which is friendly and relaxed with itself.
So it's a thumbs up for me. A definite recommend.
Finally, to tie things up nicely, let me quickly tell you about the Prague airport experience. Having checked in and headed early for the gate as Spike likes to do, we had an hour to spare so looked for somewhere other than a brushed metal seat to wait. Handy, then, that there was a bar within 30 seconds walk and, again, ashtrays were available. You were allowed to order from the bar, with no irritable waiter anywhere in the vicinity. Czechs seem to understand pubs more than we do.
The only downer was that, again, my watch didn't set off the metal detector. As Spike fell on the floor laughing, I was so hoping someone would appear from behind a screen wearing a pair of marigold gloves to wipe the smile off his face.
But then, Prague isn't that kind of suspiciously vindictive place, and long may it remain so.