Conversations with a Croat Cevapčići Vendor

Prague, being in the center of Europe, is an intersection of many cultures. Since its post-Soviet liberalization, Prague has become a melting pot of people, languages, customs, and food.

One day on the way home, I walked through the underpass near the train station and discovered to my great delight a new food stall selling cevapčići.

(Cevapčići — one of humanity’s greatest inventions)

It is a marvelous meal from the Balkans, with multiple cultures in the region claiming to have invented it and perfected it. It is made of small sausages of beef and lamb, raw onions, and lepinje, an amazing pita-like bread. It is all delightfully greasy and rustic goodness.

With my poor Czech, I eagerly ordered the largest serving of cevapčići. The man behind the counter, detecting my accent, which I will probably never overcome, switched to English and asked me where I was from. “America,” I said.

The man sighed rapturously as he opened a large container of cevapčići meat and put the sausages on the grill, “America … America is the best country.”

As we spoke while the meat and bread were cooking, I learned that he was from Croatia, near Bosnia. He was now in Prague because his wife was Czech. I also quickly learned that he had strong opinions about many things.

He was only so-so about living in Prague. He wanted to live in America, not Europe. Why, I asked.

“Because America is the best of everything,” he insisted. “Look at Hollywood. Hollywood is the best. Millions of people watch Scorsese films, not because they are Hollywood but because they are the best.”

He was not at all enthusiastic about Europe. “Fascism started in Europe. Every war starts in Europe. Now Russia starts a war with the rest of Europe. This is how it has always been.”

I asked him about the historical strife in the Balkans, and he offered some interesting perspective.

He said that the idea that the Balkan cultures are hostile toward each other is a story told by people from outside. “They don’t understand that we live in peace, side by side,” he said. He admitted, though, there are fascists who try to stir up trouble, though he suggested that they were from outside the Balkans. Then he said something rather interesting.

“The US is like the Balkans.” he explained while turning the cevapčići on the grill. “The Balkans are a mix of many people, and from that mix you get better food, better music, life is better. America is the same; all those immigrants from all over. That is why America has such great music and movies!”

Perhaps explaining his dislike for the rest of Europe, he said, “Other countries, they are all the same, they want everyone to be the same — same language, same ethnicity. This is why there is war.”

I had said something about acceptance of diversity and freedom. I forget exactly what because his response was also very interesting to me.

“In the Balkans, you can do anything but cannot say everything.” In the US, you can say anything, but cannot do everything.” He explained that he means that in the Balkans you have to be constantly wary not to say the wrong thing. You can be angry about the government but you can’t say it out loud. You can say whatever you want in the US, but you are locked up for years for taking drugs or damaging someone else’s property. I was surprised by that last bit, unsure how much freedom to damage other people’s property he thought was acceptable, but he returned to praising American movies.

The cevapčići now being fully and expertly cooked, he asked me how I knew of it, since I obviously did. I said I discovered it when I had spent two months in Zagreb. “Ehh,” he said with amused condescension, “they don’t know how to make it up there. Here, you will be able to taste real cevapčići.”

As he handed me the bag of food he asked the question I get so often of how long I would be visiting Prague. I live here, I said. He looked at me in amazement. For four years, I said. He was gob smacked.

“You are insane to want to live here over the US,” he declared.

I am sure his feelings are genuine. I am also sure, with all due respect to him, that his passionate opinion comes more from inexperience than anything else. How would he feel after experiencing the real America? I nevertheless admire his passion and appreciated learning from his perspective, which I will not soon forget.


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