Credit: HANDOUT

James Dean

In Prague, James Dean is not a person but a place: a 50s-style American restaurant (“or should we say, ‘diner,’” the website quips knowingly), on the first floor of a building that wraps around a bustling intersection near Old Town Square.

When we arrive late one night, it’s awash in the red neon glow, black-and-white checkered floors and linoleum shine of America in a blissfully American post-war age. Marilyn Monroe lives as a mosaic on the wall, still broken up into hundreds of pieces pasted together whole again by the invisible glue of our collective gaze. There’s an American jukebox, playing American songs; American red leather booths sparkling with what can only be termed American grease; and an American Coca-Cola cash register, which makes that most American of sounds: cha-ching.

We head downstairs, a group of four or five of us — Americans; drunk; tired; slaphappy. The cocktail waitresses don’t serve cocktails but they look like Hooters girls, configurations of doll-like plastic parts assembled to resemble sentient beings. One is impossibly blonde; the other is barely awake. The America they wear is purely cosmetic. We order Becherovka and tonics, which tastes like a gin and tonic whose alcoholic nip has been subsumed by a Christmas-y sweetness.

From the bar, the space descends further into a cavernous dance floor, a semi-cylindrical channel clawed out of the earth, then outfitted with a few tables and chairs, a long bar and flatscreens and misshapen bricks. They’ve used a skeleton of an old American convertible to form a narrow VIP section, its vinyl backseat splayed out as a booth upon which an attractive couple sits lazily intertwined, groping. The playlist adheres to a steady mix of oldies tunes and hits from the 80s and 90s, songs whose titles you never seem to know but whose every beat has insinuated itself in those far, automated reaches of your subconscious. Their overwhelming wholesomeness only serves to accentuate the discordance of the Czech cage dancers — somehow both jingoistic in the American sense and deadened in a stereotypical Eastern European sense — who gyrate in skimpy, patriotic club garb behind steel bars.

We continue to dance as the club becomes increasingly full of men — a mix of friendly Czechs and Americans, all of whom rove the space with dark, prowling eyes. The few girls stranded on the dance floor just seem sad and a little out of place, almost apologetic, as if registering the disappointment on the men’s faces. Fresh air is both scant and thick with a smoke that forces a palpable lethargy into our every gesture and limb. We seem not to move but to wade, trance-like, to each song.

How strange this diner is, that’s not even a diner, that’s actually a club but is really a try-hard reliquary of American iconography in the middle of the Czech Republic, through which the home country’s culture inevitably slips like dawn’s early light through a tattered American flag, its flimsy facsimile of Americana engaged in an almost immigrant-like struggle, its close approximation (choosing James Dean — an American’s American) and yet clear difference edging on satire but settling on the absurd, its utter Czech-ness a testament to the power of place.

And how strange, how normal to find ourselves here, too, now: Americans, on one of their first nights away from home, in a place where home is already here.