I just learned that the official name of the country of Macedonia is “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.
No doubt about it, the young in the Czech Republic have not adopted all their parents’ ways of life.
After extensive research and a year of off-and-on procrastination, I decided which Internet service to get in my house. (I’ve been spending way too much time in the bowling alley lately, and the media empire has been suffering.) So after comparing numbers and features and gotchas it came time to figure out how to go about ordering the service. With some help from Soup Boy I looked over the Web site for a contact number. Nada. I mean, why would a telecommunications company ever want to do business over the phone.
What was listed was a bunch of addresses for retail outlet stores. One was listed on Starostrašnicka (translates to “Old Horrible Place”). Since I live in neighborhood of Horrible Place I figured that street couldn’t be far away.
I was right. It turns out I was on that very street and didn’t even know it. I left the bowling alley and half a block down was the store. What could be simpler? Of course, that was on Saturday, so it was closed.
I went back today and this is where things got decidedly un-czech. I walked into the Eurotel outlet, and after determining that his English was better than my Czech (no surprise there), He proceeded to provide friendly, efficient, and courteous service. He answered all my questions, and went through the paperwork and found all the information I would need to provide, so when I came back with a final decision we could take care of everything.
Kafka would be disoriented in that place, to say the least. That last bit, the proactive bit where he anticipated trouble and forestalled it, that is something you’re not often going to find coming from someone who sits behind a counter in this country, a land of bureaucratic line-standing and catch-22’s.
I have noticed, on the whole, that the younger generation here is much more service-oriented than those who lived under the communists, where service was almost a dirty word, and making extra work was considered patriotic. In this case, I’m glad to see the old ways dying.
I’m sitting at the Cheap Beer Place, my first time in this august establishment for a few months. As I write this I’m listening to a woman sing “When the saints come marching in”, slowly, in Czech, to the accompaniment of a single synthesizer. That in itself, is enough to warp one’s sense of reality.
At the table in front of me, her back to me, is a woman with a she-mullet. Curly hair towers over her head, and is pulled back behind her ears. I’m pretty sure this was a big style in the ’80’s. I can’t think of any specific actresses or pop stars, but I know I’ve seen the she-mullet before. It’s still not flattering.
There’s a guy punching numbers into the juke box now. He seems ordinary enough. In his non-number-punching hand is a plastic bag with a single roll and a tub of potted meat. This man came prepared.
So now, presumably, the songs he requested are beginning to play. Wow. It’s some sort of children’s choir, accompanied by electric bass and countless people whistling. Oh, and now an electric piano. Thank god, it’s fading out, giving way to We Are The Champions. Sing it, Freddie.
Time passes, the music changes. Now I think I’m listening to Blink-sto osmdesat dva (182, in czech). There’s no mistaking the rhythm, and the accordion is subtle.
Never did finish explaining what was so dang surreal about that day – the following day I had a fever and I now have recollections of conversations that could not have actually happened. I’m better now, but I won’t be able to finish the above episode today, either.
I was talking to Soup Boy this evening, comparing notes about our holiday visits to the states. We are following wandering stars, Soup and I, and our intersection in this town is more about coincidence than fate. The Boy is younger than I am, and has not settled down on his own the way I did in San Diego. Until this Christmas, however, “home” for him had always meant his parents’ place, the building he had grown up in with the rest of his family.
On his last visit, he realized that something had changed. It was not “home” anymore, it was the place he had grown up. It was his parents’ home. He was there, and he was a visitor. Not to take away from people who cannot afford a roof over their heads, but there’s a difference between homeless and houseless. I sold my house, and I left my home. Now I live here.
Soup Boy and I talked for quite a while about what home is. Actually, he did most of the talking, because he had been doing most of the thinking. He was visiting friends in Los Angeles, and he talked about what he would do when he got home. “You mean, back to my place,” the friend would clarify. Soup Boy came to the realization that for him, home was wherever he was. Soup Boy is a snail, a Jet-Set snail who can traverse continents in an afternoon, but home is with him wherever he goes.
For me, the definition of Home is different. Home to me is any place I can feel I belong, any place that when I walk in people look up and know my face, and I can sit and do my thing and it’s part of the rhythm of the place. Home is where I’m part of the background, contributing my own hum to the room tone. Home is not a perfect place; here at the Little Cafe right now the window is closed and the smoke is making my eyes burn, my lungs ache, and I’m not going to be able to wear these clothes into my apartment. Still, for the hardships, I feel a connection to the people here. Although bartender turnover seems to have been 100 percent in the time I was gone, all the regular dogs are here.
Dog is not a euphemism in this case. There’s a cocker spaniel curled at my feet as I write this, happy that I am home.
I spent the afternoon at the bowling alley, trying to get the upper hand on my squirrely media empire. Just as I was running out of electricity, I got a message from Soup Boy: “Little John is here, heading for bez in 45 minutes.”
Thursday already? Sure enough. Bez night. My computer put itself gently to sleep and I packed up, bundled up, and headed out into the cold. I beat Soup Boy and Little John to the bar and made myself as comfortable as I could.
Is now the time to explain bez? No, it is not. Bez is an interesting cultural phenomenon, but not the subject of conversation tonight. This night, it’s all about me.
I ordered myself a Budvar, known in czech as “the real Budweiser”. I sat back and waited. Soup Boy and Little John showed up not long after, and parked around the table. Hello, how are ya, and so on, then Soup Boy handed me a letter.
Before I even opened it I was excited. It was not one of the envelopes I had included with each submission to make it more cost-effective for them to reject me. This was a company envelope, with my address printed on it in full czech spelling, and a hodge-podge of stamps. I opened it and out came a letter and a check.
Now, I expected the letter to be a little friendlier, to share my joy and excitement, but in retrospect I don’t know why. It was all business, a contract and nothing more, and that is how it should be, because they are running a business. I’m supposed to be a businessman as well, but there in the Budvar Bar Near Home I stood and did a small victory dance, compact but intense. Then I did another. Soup Boy bought me a whiskey. For the rest of the night I have been saying, “Oh, did I mention? I sold a story.” (Did I mention? I sold a story.)
Now, selling a story and publishing a story are two different things, it seems. What I have is a check that gives the publisher the right to use the story in the next three years. If they don’t, the rights all come back to me. If they do publish it, I will be in one of the leading science fiction magazines in the world (just ask ’em). So let it be known always that The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction was the first to pay me for my work, the short story “Memory of a Thing That Never Was”. Dang, I hope they print it someday.
This is a huge moment for me, the biggest since I got my first piece published over at Piker Press. I have conquered the foothills (by my own declaration); the mountain looms ahead. A most heartfelt thanks to all of you who have boosted me on your shoulders to help me get even this far. You know who you are.
Since I mentioned before that I had not tasted rejection (for my writing, at least) since seventh grade, it’s only fair to tell you that the streak has been broken. I found upon my return to the Old Country a letter sitting atop the refrigerator. It was a self-addressed stamped envelope with a very polite pre-printed rejection card inside. Let it be known, far and wide, that the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency was the first (thought assuredly not the last) to say no to Jerry Seeger.
Now, I have been saying all along that I expect to be rejected. I’m sending letters to agents who rarely take on unpublished writers. What is more, after I sent in my query I found a more complete list of the titles this particular agent has sold, and they seem to specialize in authors who produce a title every month or two. They are mass market, and while I hope my market is also massive, mine is not the kind of stuff they do every day (only occasionally). They do, however, have relationships with the publishers I want to target.
So the rejection was no surprise. It proves I’m not selling myself short. That’s a good thing.
At the same time, I can’t help but be disappointed. Didn’t they see the obvious quality of the story? The prose as clear and resonant as a church bell sounding out over the peaceful hamlet on a Sunday morning, calling the faithful to prayer? The incisive wit, the lofty intelligence, the visceral descriptions, the heart-rending pathos? What agents would not jump at the chance to fundamentally change their business model when presented with prose of such promise?
Time to start researching the next submission.
I was glad I had a window seat as the plane glided smoothly over the prairie. I looked down on the small towns that dotted the land, surrounded by fields now dormant and covered with a light blanket of snow. As we approached Minneapolis the lakes became more numerous, frozen over, cross-crossed by whiter stripes resulting from a glacial version of plate tectonics. As we got lower I saw that the surface of the ice was scored with tire tracks from countless vehicles, and dotted with fishermen’s shacks, some in clusters, others off on their own. On islands I could see houses, isolated in the summer, in the middle of a parking lot during the months of ice.
I have three hours to kill here in the Twin Cities, and how better than to take out a loan so I can afford a single airport beer. Leinenkugel’s Red – a local better-than-awful brew. Sitting near me is a gray-haired man returning to Saudi Arabia after a cruise with his family. He is an engineer working as a contractor for Haliburton, where he specializes in drilling sideways. “Oh, like when you want to set up a well on the border and send it under your neighbor,” I said. “Exactly,” he replied.
Although he has dual Canadian-Saudi citizenship, he is not flying directly into Saudi Arabia, but into Bahrain instead. “When you fly into Saudi, they search you carefully, and confiscate all your porn and everything,” he explained. “Bahrain is just a whorehouse. Then you can drive down the causeway.” He is also planning to spend some time with the whores in bahrain, as lond as he is in the neighborhood.
His family, I take it, lives on this side of the Atlantic, as does he when he is not working. His daughter left a note in his suitcase asking him to stay home more.
He had enjoyed the cruise, but didn’t like how structured the trip was. “The boat won’t wait for you,” he said. “I wanted to golf, but there was no time.” Apparently there was also no time for prostitutes. On a cruise. With his family. We are certainly not of the same world, he and I. I made myself busy on my phone, burining off the last minutes on my account, in part so he would stop telling me things. Man, it’s going to be a long nine hours if we’re in the same row on the plane.