Regardless of their attitude towards literature, every Czech knows who Bohumil Hrabal was. Few writers have achieved such universally acclaimed status during the past few centuries. Hrabal’s influence even extends to our language, because without him, we wouldn’t have the word ‘pábitel’ – a person that goes repeatedly into the same pub, over and over again, to have a beer and share stories with others. Those stories are often exaggerated, or even completely made up, but nobody cares because he’s a natural storyteller, transcribing his drunken babbling into true poetry. Hrabal loved those guys – hell, he was their king, the original ‘pábitel,’ a romantic symbol of an era now long gone. Today, those old pubs have become tourist attractions and their true spirit has vanished, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of a ‘pábitel’ simply ceased to exist. No – they just moved elsewhere.
They’re probably sitting in a ‘herna’ now.
Basically, a ‘herna’ is a place where you can play something; be it video games, lottery, or roulette. That is the etymology behind the word. In common discourse, however, ‘herna’ means a cheap pub with slot machines (or VLTs). They have been growing in number over the past few years, to the point where nearly every small town has at least one. Now, this could lead people to assume that all Czechs are hardcore gamblers, but that is not the case – they just like to drink, and drinking home ain’t no fun. To go out and have a beer is the cornerstone of socialization in CZ. Whereas in lots of western countries, public drinking can be kind of frowned upon, Prague is the exact opposite. And because regular pubs usually close around midnight, ‘hernas’ can freely flourish into the twilight hours. In a society where people don’t associate partying ‘til 4 am with clubbing, but rather with sitting around the table with a bunch of friends, it just makes perfect sense. A proper ‘herna’ is a place that never closes, maybe except maintenance hours during lunchtime.
Of course, the slot machines can (and definitely do) attract gamblers, but that only adds to the unique atmosphere inside. This is the only place where a ‘pábitel’, maybe a 60-year old former mason who never finished high school but has tons of life advice, can discuss Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of love over a cheap vodka with an art studies’ freshman while some local sex-bomb awaits sunrise while sleeping on a table next to a passed-out hobo. When it comes to drinking, Czechs are generally extremely friendly people; an average Joe won’t down a bottle of rum in his bedroom, because that’s missing out on all the fun. No, he’ll gather a group of friends and head out for a binge. That will end in a ‘herna.’ Sometimes inevitably. And because few people go there before midnight unless they’re addicted to gambling, you can expect everybody to be really, really open.
Now, it would be foolish to say that a place like this is completely problem-free; it isn’t. When you put a bunch of drunken people in one room, sometimes they’ll fight. But that is a thing that closely associates not with the ‘herna’ itself, but with people having access to booze: should a fancy cocktail bar be open this late, the risk would be equal. Plus, Czechs don’t like those who pick fights. Having a drink with a stranger is considered normal, bashing their skull over different musical tastes is not.
Gambling is a serious addiction that can really cripple some people. This is an extremely hot topic in CZ, thanks to an activist named Matěj Hollan – this guy single-handedly declared war on public gambling and currently has a vast majority of Czechs on his side. For example, you can no longer find a ‘herna’ in Královské Vinohrady (a part of historical Prague) thanks to him. Hollan has a valid point that Czech legislation on gambling is too loose, but it’s not the social role of the ‘herna’ that angers him – well, he certainly does love beer, and is not ashamed to admit he’s a social drinker like everyone else his age. People will go anywhere as long as it’s still open – plus, in (central) Prague, you rarely see someone actually sitting in front of a slot machine. They usually just stand there glancing into the dark.
Overall, you could say that a proper ‘herna’ is a place where you can meet almost anybody, do almost anything (as long as you’re not violent), and drink ‘til the morning hours without going bankrupt. It’s a logical cycle – the beer is cheap, which in turn attracts more clientele, so if you want to really just have a chat with someone and loosen up a bit, this would be a place for you. Also, lots of those pubs have jukeboxes, so you can play whatever music you like. It would be wrong to underestimate the dangers that accompany gambling addiction (or any addiction, for that matter), and to have pubs like those without the slot machines would certainly make everything better, but that’s still a question for the future. Today, these are just the places where people hang out after the others close.
Try ‘Kotva‘ – a two-story ‘herna’ at the Lazarská stop, which is a major transfer hub for night tram lines. This way, if you’ll feel like having another drink, you can always wait for the next ride home.