Serving Coffee and Breaking Down Walls

Jonah Weiss visits a special new cafe

Vesmirna Café

Ve Smeckach 5, P1

8 a.m. to 10 p.m. all week

Turn at American Express on Vaclavske namesti

Another café has just opened in the center of Prague. It has a sunny front room and a small cushioned čajovna platform in the back. The coffee is good, the milkshakes delicious, the juice freshly squeezed and the menu full of cheap salads and vegetarian sandwiches.

If this sounds routine, it isn’t. The Vesmirna café, which opened last month, is staffed completely by the mentally disabled. The waiters and waitresses are retarded. When one of them slowly but meticulously takes your order, or wheels out your drink on a long, flat platform, they are learning to interact with the world beyond their families for the first time.

Vesmirna is a project of Mame Otevřeno? (“Are We Open?”), a Prague nonprofit that works with the local handicapped. Jana Moutelíková, who manages the café, says Vesmirna has three functions. The first is to act as a training ground where the mentally handicapped can learn skills needed to enter the normal job market. The second is to act as a social center for volunteers and others involved in the special needs community. But these two functions ultimately depend on the success of the third: simply to be a nice, profitable café where people can relax in a mellow, smoke-free environment.

“We want to be a good café for people,” says Moutelíková, “one that can make money and provide a normal service.”

But Vesmirna is not normal. The service is friendlier and more attentive than any other café in the center of Prague. It’s also the only experiment of it’s kind in the Czech Republic (not including a Prague 4 café run by schizophrenics). Groups of three disabled employees work together for shifts lasting four hours, during which they take and prepare orders for customers, including tourists who wander in from the street.

“At first I was afraid our special employees wouldn’t be able to deal with the foreign tourists who came in,” says Moutelíková. “But they handle it. Even after a couple of months I can see a big improvement in their social skills and confidence. I think most of them will be able to move on within a year and get a job in a normal environment without any special support.”

The Vesmirna café is part of a continuing effort in the Czech Republic’s to integrate the mentally and physically handicapped into society. Before 1989, the disabled were kept out of public view and the state did little to support groups or activities promoting understanding of people with special needs.

“Under the old regime the mentally disabled were kept in special centers, often in isolated communities, and it was impossible to know what happened there,” says Moutelíková. “Now there is transparency, and our organization gets some state support. The country is getting more progressive in this area, especially in Prague. Interest is growing.”

If you go to Vesmirna – and you should – don’t plan on ordering in English, don’t plan on smoking and, whatever else you do, don’t forget to smile.

- Jonah Weiss can reached at [email protected]

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