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Are you what you drink?

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If you visit a neighborhood café one afternoon, watch a group of Czechs enjoying their beverages. You’ll be able to spot the natives with their beers, espressos and Mattoni (a popular brand of mineral water from the spa town Karlovy Vary) and their children sitting quietly sucking down Cappy brand, room-temperature strawberry or black currant juice. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone drinking tap water. In fact, if you tried to order it, the wait staff in the restaurant might give you a funny look. Although you can purchase non-bubbly bottled water, it would likely still be a mineral water, rather than plain water.

Even a tourist can often discern who’s a local by sitting in a restaurant and watching what people drink. Over the years, I’ve noticed certain tendencies in the types of beverages Czechs drink, or don’t drink, and the temperatures at which they drink them. While some of the cultural norms have become second nature to me, I’m always surprised to discover another norm I hadn’t noticed before, particularly those related to drinks for children.

When I first arrived in Prague, I quickly fell into the routine of ordering bubbly water when eating out. The simple term “Mattoni” was easier than saying “water without bubbles,” plus it made me feel more local. When I met Radek and he convinced me to start working out at his gym, one of the things I remember most about our first workout was the bubbly water he gave me afterward to quench my thirst. Feeling the burn of the bubbles and then the pain from a bloated stomach, I decided that my fascination with bubbly water was over. Now neither Radek nor I would dream of drinking bubbly water while we exercise, and we rarely order it in a restaurant, but our children are delighted at the prospect of drinking bubbly water in any situation.

Giving a child plain, unflavored tap water to drink is as foreign to most Czechs as it would be for an American to serve a baby tea in his bottle. Baby tea, by the way, is typically offered to Czech infants once they’ve reached four months of age. Fruit and herbal teas are even available for infants in instant forms, with fruit-sugar already added. Plain water on the other hand, is a rarity for both infants and children. For small babies, many Czechs even cook with mineral water as opposed to using water from the tap, believing that the minerals make it easier on the babies’ immature digestive systems.

When the neighborhood kids play at our house and need a drink break, I’ve learned that if I offer juice they’ll take it gratefully, but when I bring out tap water, suddenly no one (except my kids) is thirsty. To be fair, most Czech children are never given plain water as a regular option. My children’s preschool offers čaj, (fruit or black tea), kakao (milk flavored with mild chocolate) and dětská káva (a fiber-rich mixture of roasted grains added to hot water or milk) on a regular basis. I know that some preschools have water coolers, but that seems to be a more recent trend, often started by parents’ organizations. Anna complains that she would rather drink water than the tea she’s typically served, but unfortunately, at this point that doesn’t seem to be an option during school hours. I don’t believe her teachers are trying to deprive the children of the most basic of all drinks, but I think that the Czech culture has long-considered the only really drinkable water is the mineral variety.

In addition to juice, Czech children are also offered a drink that seems like a cross between juice and water. Commonly called šťáva (which is another name for juice), the drink is made by adding a concentrated fruit-flavored syrup to tap or mineral water. Many of our Czech friends with young children serve this middle version in lieu of straight water or juice. The syrup is cheaper than juice since it only requires a bit to flavor tap water and it’s easier to transport, but I believe that the cultural associations also drive parents to prepare a beverage for their children that’s a throwback from their own youth. There are versions of the flavored syrup in supermarkets today, but the original syrup was homemade, usually from whatever fruit was in season, during times before juices lined supermarket shelves.

When we visit babička, she offers a range of beverages to Anna Lee and Oliver including a variety of juices, warm tea with lemon and honey and hot cocoa. When I ask for plain water, she makes a face and usually tries to persuade me to have mineral water or water mixed with juice instead. I don’t really believe that Radek’s mother cares what I drink, but like the children’s teachers, she doesn’t think water straight from the tap is a very tasty option.

I delivered both my sons in Prague hospitals when the only drinking choice I had was sweet or unsweetened black tea. If I wanted water or juice, I would have to have a visitor bring it as the hospital only provided (caffeinated) tea. While drinking a lot of watered down tea during my hospital stays, I realized another cultural tidbit regarding attitude toward caffeine in the Czech culture. Namely, unless you’re drinking an espresso, the Czechs seem to be ambivalent about caffeine in other beverages such as sodas, teas or even lattes. While the nurse raised her eyebrows when I brought a tiny cup of coffee from the vending machine back to my room to have with my breakfast, I later discovered she believed coffee would be too hard on the baby’s stomach when I nursed him. She wasn’t concerned about the effects of the caffeine, or else she might have given thought to the gallons of hospital-provided caffeinated tea I’d consumed since delivery that had my heart palpitating. In the end, I took to filling my water cup from the bathroom faucet when I ran out of the bottled water Radek brought. The babies didn’t seem to notice what I drank, but I could think a lot clearer once I got the tea out of my system.

In another instance at a family party, I discovered late in the day that Anna Lee had been going to Radek’s cousin for drinks all afternoon. Our kids are typically allowed juice with water, milk, water and fruit or herbal tea. However, on this occasion, Anna had decided she’d be like her cousins and drink Kofola, a Czech/Slovak branded carbonated beverage similar to Coke or Pepsi. When I casually mentioned to Radek’s cousin that I’d rather cut Anna off from the soda before she got too wired, she seemed surprised. “It’s only Kofola,” she declared. “There’s no caffeine.” It turns out she was wrong, but I’ve seen many Czech kids guzzle Kofola without their parents seeming to bat on eye. Kofola has slightly more caffeine than Coke or Pepsi, but it is made from more natural ingredients and contains a lot less sugar. However, I needn’t have worried. After running with her cousins all afternoon Anna fell fast asleep, despite her sugary soda. Apart from their mineral water, Kofola is probably the most well-known non-alcoholic Czech/Slovak beverage. It was created in the 1960s to find a use for surplus caffeine from roasting coffee beans. During Communism it was also more affordable than the Western versions. When we go for outdoor activities, it seems almost a matter of national pride to indulge in a draught Kofola after a hard biking, hiking or cross-country skiing workout.

In a kids-friendly restaurant in the US, a typical children’s menu would offer the following beverages: milk, chocolate milk, apple juice or orange juice. The beverages would be served ice-box cold, and the juices would likely come with ice cubes. To date, I’ve never seen milk offered on a Czech menu, although milk-based beverages such as cocoa and fruit cocktails are common seasonal choices. Yet even a milk cocktail would most likely arrive at room temperature, as Czechs don’t believe in drinking milk cold. Radek always warms milk for the children before he gives it to them and he often warms his own.

In the US, children are given cow’s milk from the age of 12 months; however, in the Czech Republic babies are typically switched from nursing to a baby formula for several months before their stomachs are considered strong enough to handle regular fresh milk. When I tried to figure out why Czech children don’t drink milk plain, another Czech suggested that it was a tradition dating from the time when fresh milk wasn’t available, and it was considered tastier to offer kids UHT (ultra-high temperature processing) milk with chocolate or fruit added.

I think it’s important that my children recognize that just because a certain drink is common in one country doesn’t mean that it’s drunk everywhere. By no means do I serve the kids bubbly water or Kofola every day, but I do think that it’s okay that they realize these beverages exist. On the flip side, I’m equally willing to let them have a taste of sweetened iced-tea, Southern-style when we visit my parents’ house in the summer. We’ll see which country’s taste buds win out.

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