In an article from 1962, ‘Ladies’ Halves’, after detailing recent occasions on which a wine waiter has produced a half-bottle of the requested wine (since he’s serving two women dining together), Elizabeth David recalls ‘the steward on the Edinburgh-London express a few years ago who yelled at me across the rattling crockery and two other bemused passengers, “A bottle, madam? A whole bottle? Do you know how large a whole bottle is?”’
Reading this over breakfast, two thoughts occurred to me: firstly, the several occasions on which the Librarian and I have remarked to one another how small wine bottles are these days; secondly: Prague.
It was, alarmingly, sixteen years ago. We had one or two practical problems at the time – the fridge had died and the drain was blocked – from which we made our escape. Nerudova, Mala Strana. A long room which looked out over the Romanian embassy. A well-equipped kitchen, I noted at the time, except for a kettle, toaster, corkscrew, plug for the sink, colander and other peripheral items.
There were crowds, especially on and around the Charles Bridge, of course, but almost everywhere: crowds of friends, tourists, students, and, above all, the tour parties, ten, twenty, thirty, even forty strong: Germans particularly, and Japanese, but French and Italian, English and American.
Long walks in the Jewish quarter; the old cemetery with the leaning stones roped in, a moment of excitement at the sight of Rabbi Löw’s grave – the inventor of the Golem – and pebbles placed on the headstone. Golden Lane, to look at Kafka’s house at Number 22, the lane, the whole area, awash with people. Then lunch at the café on the square. A good mozzarella and roasted vegetable sandwich. We decide to try the white wine. ‘Is it Czech? White wine?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Could we try a bottle?’ Polite pause. ‘A bottle?’ It would make a good pub sign: The Incredulous Waiter. We have a bottle, in its ice bucket. When I pour again, I pass the crucial point at which it’s worth saving, and pour the whole lot in. The waiter, whose task this probably is, disapproves. ‘Now it will get warm.’ But it didn’t really have much chance to do that.
Ah, Prague. Or Paris. Or, indeed, Sherborne. When shall we three meet again?