The Church of the Green Bench … Our Lady of Urquell … Here we follow the Gospel according to Gambrinus.
Moving to a new city can be difficult. It’s a blank slate and with that comes a lack of familiarly with the new environment, new people, and all without a support network to help in times of trouble. In North America, many people see their local church as a catalyst towards a better sense of community spirit. But in the Czech Republic, a land of limited religion, where do the lost souls turn?
When I moved to this fair city two years ago, I would wander the streets in an attempt to better make sense of this strange new place that I had decided to call home. It was devilishly daunting; incredibly intimidating. I found myself on a lonely walk one evening, circling the blocks of my new neighbourhood and trying to find a sense of the community. Mere metres from my front door I saw a glowing green specter that compelled me to come forward. It was a sign. Literally – a display for Pilsner beer.
I leaned in close to read the bulletin hung by the door. It was full of meals and prices and all sorts of options. As I leaned back an old woman appeared out of nowhere and prophesized in my direction: “It’s the best in the city!” The doors were locked, but I knew I would have to return as soon as possible. The next Sunday, nervous as I was, I crossed the threshold and entered into the Green Bench Pub for the first time.
Until then I hadn’t been to church in years, but here in Prague – a city of nearly no religion – the pub is a place of solemn worship. It is not to be taken lightly, nor is your participation to be passive. Our local, the Green Bench, was as close an experience to the neighbourhood parish as one could imagine, only without the whole Christ-on-a-cross thing to get you down.
Before I go any further, it should be mentioned that the pub itself is not actually called the Green Bench Pub, as we so frequently and fondly refer to it. Rather, the name is Na Rychtě, which doesn’t really translate into anything that memorable or important (the term is sometimes used to indicate that a former Magistrate’s estate was in and around the area … I told you it was nothing memorable). The name isn’t all that easy to pronounce either; a perfect Czech letter combination that makes it awful for me to even attempt to say correctly. In an effort to maximize understanding, we have simply been calling it the Green Bench Pub for the better part of two years, choosing to name it after the large wooden pews which sit outside the front door during the summertime, green and inviting and the perfect place to find salvation in the sun with a cooling pint your palm.
It has been around since 1895, a long time to establish character, and there is no shortage of that within the walls of the Green Bench. Like a church, the older worshipers sit towards the front, near the alter – the taps – and these are the štamgast, or habitual regulars. They are the ones who have been paying service to the parish for decades and are therefore entitled to the best seats in the building, closer to the action. They make the institution what it is and have carried on the tradition for more than a hundred years.
The interior is old, with large drawings of the city of Prague from the 15th century. The walls, the chairs, and the floors are all wooden, which makes the inner-heart of the pub look a lot more Lutheran than Catholic. The bar is smoky, not of incense but of tobacco, wrought iron chandeliers hang overhead and the windows are covered in cotton Czech curtains rather than stained glass.
We don’t get to sit near the alter. As new arrivals, our seats are off to the side a little, but I do not mind this. We attend Mass regularly enough that we’re recognized as parishioners when we enter and we can order a drink – and even a refill – without so much as a word; a mere nod will suffice. It’s a very hospitable environment.
The chaplains are welcoming, often offering us safe haven even after regular hours. They have given sanctuary to all forms of sinners, but do so without any judgment. True men of the bar cloth.
A small TV has recently been installed, which is perfect to take in the nightly sermons – usually World Championship hockey or Steven Seagal movie marathons. St. Steven is often a popular choice in the Green Bench.
In the land of no religion, the pub is your chapel. I don’t know if there’s a heaven, but I know that accidentally wandering upon a place like Green Bench is pretty damned close.