Despite turbulences and steward interruptions, I am usually fairly good at catching a nap mid-air. Not this time though. On my flight to Prague, I was wide awake and restless. It was my first time in the city and I was keen to explore its baroque architecture, Gothic churches, and looming castles. And yet, it was the younger, trendier neighbourhoods, lined with edgy cafes and art galleries that I gravitated towards during my trip. One such neighbourhood, called Dělnickái, is home to Paralelni Polis or the “Institute of Cryptoanarchy”: a charcoal black building, with a cafe that accepts payments exclusively in bitcoin. I’d read about the cafe on the in-flight magazine to Prague, and was intrigued enough to note of the name and address.
Bitcoin are a digital currency that allows movement of money between persons without an intermediary, such as a bank. (Here’s a handy video that breaks it down.) Some believe it’s the future, while others that are convinced that it will lead to financial anarchy. My knowledge on the subject was limited. I remember reading about how it was the currency of choice for drug purchases on Silk Road, an online black market, but I knew little more.
Established by a group of hackers and artists, Paralelni Polis is a library and a co-working space, intended as a meeting place for techies and thinkers interested in modern technology. The aim of the institute is “to make available tools for unlimited dissemination of information on the Internet and encouraging a parallel decentralised economy, crypto currencies and other conditions for the development of a free society in the 21st century.”
The philosophy of Paralelni Polis is embodied in its café, Bitcoin Coffee.
A couple stood outside, reclining against the wall, chatting softly while smoking and sipping espressos. They seemed like regulars at the café. Inside, I found the place was minimally furnished. There was a sense of openness to the decor, and the seating was arbitrarily laid out, adding a touch of disjointedness.
But something was amiss. There was no cash register, no queue to order coffee, just a long wooden table with a coffee dispenser, pastries, bread and cookies, and jugs of cucumber-lemon water. Sensing my disorientation, the girl standing outside the cafe came to my aid. She was the barista.
“You want coffee?” she asked with a certainty of someone who had seen this confusion many times before.
“Do you have bitcoins?” she asked.
I didn’t. I didn’t even know how to buy them.
“No problem. I will help you. Do you have a smartphone?” She asked before helping me download Bitcoin wallet app. “So, there are two ways,” she explains. “You can buy online from this app, or from an ATM here.”
I picked the ATM simply, which landed up looking pretty conventional. Above us, a blue screen flashed the latest Bitcoin exchange rate. “So that you can check how much you are paying in the old currency,” explained
Old currency, that’s what I carried in my pocket.
I ended up buying 8.99 mBTC (1,000 mBTC = 1 bitcoin), tantamount to 100 CZK (₹300). The coffee cost me 8.81 mBTC and I was left with 0.18 mBTC in my digital wallet. And just like that, I now had a stake in the parallel world of virtual currency.
“What do I do with the leftover bitcoins?” I ask.
“Well, you can top it up and use it at other places in Prague. There are more than 80 places that accept Bitcoin,” the friendly barista says. I later learned that she receives her salary in digital currency.
The popularity of Bitcoin is rising in the Czech Republic. In Prague, brick-and-mortar businesses too have begun to accept the currency, including a number of restaurants and cafes (see box below). Crypto-currency, I learned, was being used by regular folk too, not just libertarians, and it was gaining momentum around the world. Research revealed that I could go pub-hopping in London paid for solely through Bitcoin. Even Expedia, the online travel site, allowed payments for hotel bookings in this digital currency.
I sipped my strong, frothy cup of coffee, thanked the girl for her help, and sat on a canister of a stool with “paracetamol” stamped over it. Before me, was a table made of recycled honeycombed cardboard. A 3D printer sat in the middle of the room, and guests were encouraged to examine it. A few feet away, the boy from outside sat in a corner, absorbed with his laptop, bulky headphones covering his ears. A few others were having an animated discussion in another corner.
This could be any café in any city, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was amidst a silent revolution. Unknown to me, a culture was shaping around the world, and I was glad to have been introduced to it. Perhaps one day, the driving forces behind crypto-currency will come out of the shadows, and maybe one day they will alter the way in which our society works. And it will all start with a cup of coffee.
Bitcoin Coffee Dělnická 43, 170 00 Praha 7; +420 725 538 249; www.paralelnipolis.cz/o-nas/kontakt/.
There are over 80 establishments in Prague that accept bitcoins, and the number is only increasing. Use the map tool at coinmap.org to keep track for a complete list. Places that accept bitcoins usually bear this symbol pictured on the right:
Here are some restaurants in Prague that accept Bitcoin:
In addition to Bitcoin Coffee, some other cafes that accept bitcoin:
The staff at Bitcoin Coffee is extremely friendly, so do speak to them about Bitcoin. If you are lucky, you may even get a tour of the Institute of Cryptoanarchy.
is an adrenaline rush-seeking travel writer who lives in Malmo, Sweden. He hopes to travel the world in a boat.
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