Lying to the Girls at Tsunami

There is a new bar in my neighborhood. I watched with interest as the place was installed, with a big fancy sign proclaimiing “Non-Stop”. From the outside it looked pretty slick and glitzy, and I wondered how it would do in my blue-collar neighborhood. Last night I noticed that it was open, and when I glanced through the glass door it looked pretty full.

Tonight I walked in, and found myself in a small room with six slot machines, a snazzy glass bar with three stools, and nothing else. At the back was a metallic door. There was no one in the place save a bored, young, top-heavy girl behind the bar. I proceeded to prove myself a moron. In my head, I was in the foyer to the real bar, and the girl was a gatekeeper. This is one of the few times I’m glad my czech is not very good, because if she had actually understood my questions (which seem stupid now in any context – “How can I go back there?”) she would have thrown things at me. I was so completely convinced that there was more to the bar that it took her a while to figure out what was going on. Finally she said (in Czech), “This is everything. The door is to the toilet.” I looked and there on the metallic door were the letters WC.

As some have noted in the past, I’m an idiot.

So I sat at the bar, ordered a beer (no beer on tap), and contemplated the place. Mirrors everywhere except behind the bar. Six gambling machines, all that would fit in that space. Directly behind me a television. Directly in front of me, the bartender, watching the television over my shoulder. It was… awkward. “I am Jerry,” I said, holding out my hand. She told me her name and and awkward conversation ensued, in Czech.

“How long have you been here?” she asked. “A year,” I said. That was a lie. My proficiency with the local tongue is at about the one-year-here level, but I’ve been here quite a bit longer. That’s a discussion for another day. I don’t feel good about it, but there was no point digging all that stuff up with my bartender. “How long are you going to be here?” was her next question. “A long time,” I said. Another lie. I already have a foot out the door. “What is your job?” she asked. “Writer,” was my answer, and sometimes I don’t feel like that’s a lie.

“Why are you here?” she asked. I was struggling through my explanation that it was in fact easy for me to come here, that my brother lived here and there were people he knew that became my friends as well. I didn’t get far when the new bartender arrived. Her English was pretty good, but that had to wait as the two discussed business. She was older than the previous bartender, and profane enough even I understood. (At one point she apologized for a particularly coarse word, I said it was no problem.) Once business discussions were concluded, the new woman came over to my side of the bar to smoke and (I assume) wait for her shift to officially start.

I sat, mirrors to the left of me, mirrors to the right of me, a full display of me in all my oopma-loompa physique. I wondered as I sat there if the people who will be pumping their money into the slot machines really want to see that much of themselves.

After a while the new bartender (the manager, I believe) struck up conversation with me. We talked about the neighborhood for a bit, but that didn’t interest her. (To be honest, I not sure any of the conversation interested her.) “What do you write?” she asked. “Mostly science fiction,” I said. “That’s all I’ve sold.” While that was technically true, it gave the exact wrong impression I was trying to give, that I write science fiction to pay the bills but really I write literature. These days I save this deception for people I just want to deal with easily for a few minutes until I will never see them again.

“Do you have books here I can read?” “No books, but magazines. English or Russian. Nothing in Czech.” “I can read the English.” “Okay,” I said, “I’ll bring a magazine next time I come in.” Another lie. She smiled, and seemed pleased, but I wonder if she believed me even just a little bit. Because, by then, it was pretty obvious that Tsunami and I were incompatible. She must have known.

Things got difficult when she asked, “Are you going to stay here forever?” Forever? C’mon, even if I believed I was going to stay forever, she wouldn’t. “Not forever,” I said. “What do you like about here?” she asked. I tried to give her an honest answer, about how the dominant art form here is the written word, how that challenges me every day. I talked about the czech tendency to outlast obstacles rather than overcome. Somewhere in my speech she lost interest. Just another outsider spewing shit without really understanding.

“Another?” the new bartender asked as my beer neared empty. “No,” I said. “I have to go home.” My penultimate lie; I already planned to visit Little Café Near Home. She nodded, expecting my response, and looked up the cost of beer. I paid, wrapped up for the cold weather outside, and said, “See you later.”

The Feast of Stephen

I’ve been even more reclusive that usual lately, and I’ve decided to give myself a challrnge that may prove substantially more diffucult than writing a novel in thirty days — instead the challenge is to get out and see friends twelve consecutive days. Just being in Little Café Near Home working while people are around doesn’t count; I actually have to interact. In fact, I should probably make a rule that LCNH doesn’t count, or I can only count it once, or something like that. I’m making this up as I go along. The goal is to break my bad habit of finding reasons not to go out when friends invite me, and maybe even come up with my own plan from time to time.

Today’s kickoff was easy; I was invited to a family dinner. Historical trivia: “Good King Winceslas” is not a Christmas carol, but a boxing day song. The 26th of December is St. Stephen’s day. While there were no Vaclav’s (rhymes with Winceslas, who was Bohemian) at the dinner, it was still a festive (and belly-busting) affair. Mmmm… duck and knedliky (potato dumplings). Homemade cookies. No carp. One bit of bad planning: I wore my “nice” blue jeans. They’re nice because I don’t wear them much. I don’t wear them much because they’re a bit on the snug side. Not the right outfit for gluttony. Whatever the reason, I was a little concerned when I declined more duck that I might hurt my host’s feelings. I was stuffed.

It was a relaxed and pleasant dinner, some conversation in English and some in Czech, and then it was home to take a nap. (One topic of discussion as dinner wound down: the amount of time different animal species spend sleeping. It’s good to be a lion.)

So day one of Twelve Days of Social is a success! I really don’t know how I’m going to pull all of them off. New Year’s Eve I’ll be going down to the center of town, which I’m told is completely crazy. You know all those warnings on fireworks? They will be disregarded. “Wear eye protection” is a common piece of advice. Not really my kind of thing, but worth seeing once. (At this point it’s such pyrotechnic madness in my imagination that I’m probably heading for disappointment.) Anyway, anyone who reads this is welcome to join me. We can meet at the statue of Winceslas. (Did you see how I brought that back around to where I started? Not bad, huh?)

Killing Time, Christmas Eve

I dawdled just a little too long this morning, then was barely behind the curve all afternoon in search of a meal. It culminated at 4:01 pm at a McDonalds that closed at 4:00 (my phone still said 3:59, but I was in no position to argue), followed closely by my arrival at the big “always open” store that also closed at 4.

I headed back to my neighborhood, and was happy to see the run-down večerka (večer means evening, a večerka is a store that keeps long hours) that supplies the drunks in my neighborhood was still open even as their competition closed. I entered and thought I had come to the wrong place. Fruit? A variety of food? Efficient use of space? No bums? The store is under new management. All that, reasonable prices, and my favorite cookies. I am feasting tonight!

But before I go home I decided to have a little christmas cheer at one of the only places open in my neighborhood, the non-stop sports bar that almost never puts sports on the TV. I think there’s a big fotbal (rhymes with soccer) match on right now, but instead we’re watching a czech-budget film that features clever demons dragging greedy people down to hell.

Speaking of movies as I ramble on, last night I watched Límonadove Joe, (rhymes with “He-man Otto-vey Yo-way”), a Czech western filmed in 1964. Until I typed that date I had not put the film in the context of the politics of the time. The hero, Lemonade Joe, is shamelessly capatalist. So shamelessly that it circles back around and becomes irony, but then loops back around again. It is a silly movie; perhaps a precursor to Rustler’s Rhapsody (which is funny as hell). It takes place in a rough-and-tumble Arizona town, and opens with an extended brawl in the Trigger Whiskey Saloon. The bar is owned by Mr. Badman. Then Mr. Goodman and his beautiful daughter come to town, reformers with a message of abstinence.

Conflict ensues, and Lemonade Joe arrives. He drinks only KoloKola. (“Lemonade” is a generic term for soda here.) He kicks some ass with ease, makes everyone want to drink KoloKola, awards the distribution rights for the drink to the Goodmans, and moves on. Lemonade Joe is a crusader for justice and a shill for KoloKola. One of my favorite bits was when two drunks stagger out of the Trigger Whiskey Saloon to have a gunfight. They are plastered beyond competence and after fumbling around they laugh, embrace, and head back into the bar, their pistols still lying in the road. Not long after, once they are converted to KoloKola, they head out for a duel and shoot each other. “No need to call the doctor when they’re drinking KoloKola!” someone proclaims.

The ending is apparent from a long way off, but you have to respect the way they went for a staggering pile of clichés heaped up with reckless gusto, with a coating of hyperbole served sideways with irony. And when it’s all over, neither good nor evil triumphs, in true czech fashion. There is a winner, but I won’t tell you who.

On another note, there really should be a Trigger Whiskey Saloon here in Prague. Everyone knows the movie. Maybe there is one. If there isn’t, the Czechs aren’t as opportunistic as I thought.

Kamarády

The TV show “Friends” is only slightly less annoying in Czech. At least it doesn’t have David Schwimmer’s voice.

A Tough Old Bird

This morning I heard the rap-tap-tapping, but I did not realize it was at my door. It was a little more tentative than the average door-knock. Then my phone rang. The gang was gathered on my landing, collecting me for our big meeting with the landlord. The purpose of this meeting: getting some paperwork signed that is a step toward solidifying my legal status on the continent.

There is a lot of fear running around the ex-pat community right now, as Europe tightens its immigration rules and steps up enforcement. Neither Soup Boy nor I are particularly worried about that, but we each have our reasons for wanting to be more compliant. I want to cross borders without worry, and he wants to be able to work for bigger clients who are more of a stickler for paperwork. Soup Boy found a guy who helps people in our situation for a very reasonable fee, but he had one sticking point. He needed a business address. Strangely, this was difficult for him to come by, but when he realized that I would soon be in the same boat, we worked out that we could both use my address. The only catch: the building owner has to sign a document. I didn’t anticipate that my landlord, Otakar Ptáček (rhymes with little bird), would have a problem with that.

MaK made the calls and we set up a meeting. It turns out that Otakar has transferred ownership to his daughter, so it is lucky indeed that she is visiting from the Unites States right now. Papers in hand we trooped into the landlord’s home, directly below mine.

Otakar did not get up to greet us. He sat in his favorite chair, a tissue pressed up against his nose. He had a nosebleed. Not just a little thing, but a big ol’ nosebleed that had been going on for two hours. His medication had changed recently, which may or may not have been a contributor. Still, we forged ahead with the meeting, making our way through documents that, while simple, carried just enough ambiguity to cause errors. As with every czech transaction, there must first come a lengthy discussion of the task and it’s reflection on the world as a whole.

Then Otakar started hacking and spitting blood. There was talk of an ambulance and hospital, but Otakar insisted that if he was going to see the doctor he would drive. His coughing subsided and some semblance of normalcy prevailed. We continued to wrestle with the documents.

Finally we were as done as we were going to get (there was a search for an ID number that had Otakar up and moving furniture), and it was time to go. Otakar was back in his chair, looking small, a new tissue over his nose.

I later met with the Visa consultant, and because Soup Boy managed to put together a group, we got a pretty deep discount. Not only that, but much of the haze of confusion about the whole process has been lifted. It almost seems possible, now.

Hospoda Feng Shui

You all have heard of Feng Shui (note to self: look up spelling before posting this). It’s about making a place harmonious for human habitation, about the way energy moves through a place (not to me confused in any way with the definition of energy employed in Physics. Those two energies are completely unrelated). I don’t really know a whole lot about the Feng and/or Shui, except that there are some parts that sound an awful lot like common sense.

In any case, a Czech pub has it’s own rules of Feng Shui, not based so much on wind and water but on tradition and history. There are people who have settled in at the same table in the same pub every day for the last fifty years. The Czechs have a sense of nationalism, but it pales next to their tableism. Had the communists started moving people to different tables within each pub, the revolution would have come much sooner.

Of course, occasionally you get the tourist who just doesn’t know better, who, having no appreciation of tradition, comes in and sits at a table that everyone else knows is already reserved. Such an act throws the entire bar out of balance, as many of the regulars simply cannot imagine sitting somewhere else in the bar. This is magnified when there is a group of tables and the visiting savage breaks the connectivity. Still, those things happen, and while the tourist won’t be welcomed with open arms, the Czechs are a roll-with-the-punches sort of folk, and generally interlopers don’t stay long.

But then you have the guy who maybe should know better — the guy you’ve seen a couple of times before, who doesn’t just grab a beer and a snack before leaving again, but opens up a frickin’ laptop of all things, and settles in to stay a while. That’s what they had to deal with at the Pink Gambrinus Pub tonight. I knew the table next to mine was a regular’s table, but I thought I was all right. It was when I ordered a snack and a minute later heard my order repeated at the table behind me, along with a reference to oxen, that I realized I was cramping the regulars’ style.

The service there is about as friendly and attentive as any you’ll find in these parts, so there was never any pressure on me to leave — far from it, in fact, as my first attempt to say I was finished resulted in another beer. (I have a bad habit of starting with “Ahh…” as I compose my Czech, which is the start of ‘Ano’, which means ‘yes’. That my “Ne” (no) sounds more like “Nay” doesn’t help.) Anyway, I stayed longer than I intended to. By the time I packed up and left, the regulars had dispersed into the rain.

It’s a nice place, and I’m sure I can be forgiven for that one mistake, but next time I go back, I’ll find another place to sit.

Dia de los Muertos

I didn’t notice the crowds outside the entrance to Olšanský Hřbitovy, the sprawling, ivy-covered cemetery complex that I pass when walking home. I was feeling lazy about then, and thought I’d take the tram the rest of the way. As I passed the next tram stop I looked back and — what luck! — tram 11 was pulling in just then.

Oddly for a Sunday, it was packed to the gills. I kept walking. It was when I passed the next, smaller but more neatly-kept cemetery, that I noticed the crowds. There were more people than I had ever seen there before, and the road was lined with illegally-parked škodas. The people were in general dressed nicely, but not in a funerary fashion.

I peeked in the gates and one of the central monuments was surrounded by hundreds of candles, while people wandered the pathways bearing pine boughs and wreaths. Even the run-down little graveyard close to my house was jumping. Tram 11, tram of the dead, was filled with folks coming and going from the graveyards and the crematorium.

If this is the day to pay respect to those that have gone before, I’m surprised that here in Strašnice, Haunted City, my neighborhood, there is not a city-wide celebration of this day. There should be a wiener-dog parade and children’s pageants. Some of the supermodel wannabes from the center of town would come out for the look-like-a-skeleton contest. Tourists would mistake it for a Haloween celebration, but the locals would know that this is just Strašnice’s one chance each year to celebrate it’s own unique character.

It’s a silly thought, probably. While other parts of town are doing their best to establish a reputation and a marketable local vibe, sleepy Strašnice has no such ambition. It is here, just getting along, minding its own business, and just being Czech.