Monday, September 22, 2003

Dance of the Discount

The plan was simple: we would spend Shabbat in Prague and eat at the Jewish Community Center on Friday night, then pack a picnic for lunch. The JCC was described by friends as “haimish” with lots of Prague natives. The food, on the other hand, was supposed to be barely edible: things like fried schnitzel and potato buds in heavy oil.

But it was cheap. And we were on a tight budget.

We actually had started with an even more cost-conscious option: shnorring Friday night dinner off the Chabad Rabbi in Prague. But his wife had just had a baby (their fifth) and they were a bit overwhelmed.

The JCC doesn’t take reservations by phone. You have to come in person and plunk your money down. We figured no problem. We were arriving on a Thursday morning; plenty of time. After checking in to our hotel, we headed over to the Center to sign up.

Finding it wasn’t too hard - we made a stop in the midst of our tour of the five classic synagogues nearby.

Communicating was another matter entirely.

The guard at the desk only knew one gesture and three words in English. The gesture was a rapid criss-crossing of his hands over his chest. The three words were: “Fool. No plates.”

I wanted to sputter “Who you callin’ a fool, man,” but I got the drift.

“What do you mean 'no plates,'” Jody asked. “There's no place? But it’s only Thursday!”

“No plates,” the guard repeated.

“But we come all the way from Jerusalem,” I tried, putting on a faux-Czech accent. “Where are we going to eat for Shabbat?”

“No plates. Fool.”

This was starting to sound like a Czech rap number. I was half inclined to respond to him with a hearty “Yo Yo Yo.”

Finally, someone else from the Center came down and explained to us what we already had figured out by now but weren't willing to accept. They had a large group in that weekend, they really were full, and that we could try the King Solomon Restaurant two blocks away which took reservations before Shabbat and prepared the food ahead of time, Israeli-hotel style.

Our tour of Prague’s synagogues was rapidly turning into an education into Central European Shabbat customs.

We walked over to the King Solomon - an elegant establishment with one half designed as an ancient synagogue and the other an indoor arboretum. Not particularly Jewish, but maybe King Solomon was a botanist.

The place was deserted and the waiters seemed to be hiding. One eventually peeked out from the kitchen.

“We’d like to make a reservation for Shabbat,” Jody ventured.

The waiter disappeared back into the kitchen without saying a word. A few minutes later, a different garcon rushed off with a plate of salmon for the sole diner in the arboretum section.

"We’d like to...”

Finally a short and portly man in a t-shirt and a baseball cap exited the kitchen. He pointed at a menu with a price list. Our jaws presently dropped.

Nearly $40 per adult, with children at half price. Way over a budget planned for bread and cheese.

Always ready to haggle, Jody asked “Can we get a discount?”

“Children half price,” he replied.

“Yes, but can we get any more of a discount?”

And here began the Dance of the Discount. In Israel, we know the choreography:

Anything can be negotiated.

Always ask for 50% more than you want to end up with.

Meet in the middle and be sure to have fun along the way.

But this was Prague. And we knew nothing of the local customs. Our behavior could represent a colossal faux pas. A diplomatic incident.

The man in the t-shirt and the baseball cap offered what he thought must have been a great him. He’d give us a full 40% off, if we also booked lunch.

He promptly disappeared like the others. Reappeared briefly. Disappeared again. Maybe this was part of Czech negotiation tactics?

Jody and I quickly agreed that this generous offer was still too rich for our palette and pocketbook. We finally agreed to pay the regular price with the kids discount for just Friday night dinner. What else could we do? The man rang up our credit card.

When we looked at the credit card receipt, though, we discovered he’d given us an additional 18% discount. On dinner only, no lunch required. He never offered this directly. Not a word was said. We signed and went on with our day.

Dinner was delicious. Soup and salmon and wienerschnitzel which, to my surprise, did not consist of a plate of gourmet hotdogs (that's what you get being raised in a place where the only German you ever hear is the name of a fast food restaurant).

I may never know whether the man in the t-shirt and the baseball cap felt sory for us or whether he planned on giving us a break for the get-go and this was all a way of saving face.

In Prague, it appears, the Dance of the Discount is more akin to a Masquerade Ball.

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